Category Archives: Fiction

Shahrukh Khan = Michael Jackson

Bunty and Babbloo, childhood friends and proud members of the South Bombay Michael Jackson Fan Club, were thrilled this past Friday when they stopped by their favorite Mumbai pub, The Epileptic Fit Pit. There, on the dance floor was their idol, surrounded by Russian back up dancers.

“We were so excited, yaar,” said Bunty. “I mean, this is Michael Jackson, dude. With suspenders and all, you know?”

“But at first, no, I thought it was a bomb,” Babbloo confessed. “These morcha people, you know. Very anti-Michael Jackson types and all.”

“Yeah, my Mummy also says he is too Western but I told her I won’t give him up for Prabhu Deva the way she wants me to, you know?” Bunty chipped in. “Or Hrithik Roshan. I mean, he’s very cool and muscles and all but Michael Jackson is Michael Jackson, dude. He rocks!”

“Seriously, man,” Babbloo agreed.

To their further delight, Jackson executed some of his signature moves and sang a special song, keeping the weekend in mind: “Break free gotta get some chhutti, tod do deewaron ko!”

“It’s like someone told him about the extra bedroom my father is adding to the house,” said a thrilled Bunty. “I immediately called my father and told him to break that wall he’s been trying to save because all our electricity wires pass through it. We can always rewire our house.”

“It was so cool that he sang it for us in Hindi. It’s like how the Williams sisters wore sarees for their Indian fans. I am a tennis fan, too,” Babbloo informed us. “My favorite player is Anna Kournikova but she doesn’t play now. My second favorite is Maria Sharapova. I would like to see them in sarees also. I don’t understand why Bollywood doesn’t make good-good movies with people like that.”

For Bunty and Babbloo, life was clearly complete. But there was the inevitable fly in the ointment.

“You know, there was this stupid girl, Anjali or something her name is, and she kept saying this is Shahrukh Khan,” Bunty said, clearly annoyed. “And I told her, don’t be stupid yaar. It was very clearly Michael ji. I have seen Thriller so many times, am I mad? But this Anjail, no, she thinks she knows everything.”

“Actually, this Anjali is very hot,” Babbloo interposed. “But she’s like those stupid hot girls, you know? Ground floor is full and happening but upper story is for rent. I am going to propose to her very soon.”

Haan, and you tell her that was Michael Jackson, okay?” Bunty said. “I can’t have my bhabhi going around calling Michael Jackson, Shahrukh Khan. I mean, come on, yaar! Shahrukh Khan!”

But what was Michael Jackson doing in Mumbai, singing a song in Hindi?

“Well, you know how it is for him in America, no?” Bunty asked. “They won’t leave him alone because of all that black and white stuff although he said he refuses to be a color and because of those silly court cases even if they set him free -”

“And that boy from Home Alone also said he wasn’t guilty,” Babbloo reminded his friend.

Haan, so all that. And he’s been living outside for all this time, so now maybe he is in India to live because India is a very spiritual country.”

“Also, his brother was on that show with Shilpa Shetty in England, no, so maybe she told him to come here,” Babbloo guessed. “I like Shilpa Shetty too. She should dance more.”

“I am just very happy to see my idol here,” Bunty said. “Michael ji, I welcome you to India.”

Jai Hind!” Babbloo said. “Michael ji, it is my fondest wish to see you and Shilpa Shetty or Anna Kournikova dance together.”


Posted by on March 8, 2008 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Fiction, Music, Video


A Marriage Has Been Arranged

Anjolie Ela Menon

Bubbles was born into the remains of a colonial world, the daughter of a prominent nouveau riche family whose fortune, legend has it, rested upon three coconuts stolen by her illustrious father TN Gopalan, in whose honor was named a narrow street intersecting Mahatma Gandhi Road, an erstwhile canal transformed into the main artery of their little town. Gopalan’s short-lived career as a petty thief was interesting of course, but hardly a conversation point given the universal fact that all wealth is founded upon deceit, trickery and misfortune. Plus, immense wealth had a habit of dusting dry fact with fairy gold and so it came to pass that every so often, at some dinner party, somebody would point out with a beam that three coconuts amounted to a lot indeed for a poor man, while Gopalan gazed inscrutably, but it was imagined humbly, into the near distance.

The man Gopalan chose as husband for his fourth daughter Bubbles, or Bhagwati as she was originally called, was as different from him as could be and yet completely the same. Ram was a college-educated man, a rising diplomat in India’s foreign service, an aristocrat who’d never found an occasion to doubt himself or his worth. He married late at the age of 35, already well on the way to a distinguished career spent in the service of country and ideology. He was a few inches shorter than Gopalan’s own impressive six feet three inches and lacked the fine bone structure that seemed to etch his father-in-law’s every feature in marble. But for such a little man, Gopalan once remarked, Ram was 20 feet tall. Both men possessed an indefinable aura of command, which tricked every eye in every room they entered into believing it beheld the center of the universe. They both spoke in a deep baritone and were possessed of a violent temper that they faithfully bequeathed to their offspring. They were workaholics and absent fathers, blithely condemning their wives to single parenthood with an occasional word of husbandly support thrown in.

Bubbles, too, married late. She was 27 to Ram’s 35 and had begun to dread those inevitable gatherings where people whispered their wonder at her single status. Such a pretty girl, they said, and fast becoming a spinster. With three sisters already married and four more to go, she was on the verge of desperation. To her had come Ram, like some kind of divine benediction early in 1971, and she could hardly believe her luck. She soon came to hate him.

It wasn’t that he was a devastatingly bad husband. Had he beaten her, been a drunk, cheated on her, abused her in public, left her black and blue on the marital bed, her feelings for him would have collapsed into uncomplicated loathing. She could have run home to her parents and screamed out her disgust at this mate they had found for her, much like her eldest sister only three years ago. But to her he was much worse than any of these, for he was what she feared the most and could help the least – an occasional husband.

For that was the greatest similarity between Gopalan and Ram – their increasingly infrequent presence in their marriages. Kalyani, Bubbles’ mother who ruled her children’s lives with a hand of naked steel, had come to detest the half-stranger who’d sired them. She had borne him nine children without complaint but the moment their ninth (and male) child was born, she had considered a distasteful chapter of their marital life closed. From then on it was always clear that on the rare occasion of his visit the master of the house was welcome to every part of the house but the half of the marital bed that the mistress occupied.

Bubbles, as a child, had recognized his desertion and its psychological impact upon her mother. And yet, father to her was a demi-god, tall and handsome and everything wonderful as he strode through their house with his deep voice awakening every slumbering echo, carelessly throwing open doors and windows to let in the world outside. He brought his girls silks from Kanchipuram and China and Benares, sweets from England and Calcutta, fine chikan work from Hyderabad, and everything in the latest fashion with a twinkle in his eye and an irresistible smile on his lips. Years later, she could still remember the excitement that had raged through the house when her elder sisters had received their first English made brassieres. Or when she herself had been handed the most darling pair of shoes with a golden buckle, complete with the most beautiful pair of stockings. She had been the envy of the convent.

Mother had always been a soft voiced tyrant, face filling up with lines year after year, forever pregnant, and always finding fault. Bubbles couldn’t ever remember a kind word from her, not ever, once in her life a word of praise or love, but she didn’t dwell on things like that. She understood early on that in a crowd of nine children, a girl among eight girls, her chance of being the special child was slim. No matter what she did, what honors she won, what heights she attained, all were lost in the constant clamor of her family. The best kind of attention at the house was no attention at all, as the only things picked up for comment were errors for which appropriate punishment was meted out, usually at the end of an ultra flexible, thin cane specially kept for such events on top of her mother’s cupboard.

She was brought up to be respectful, obedient, well behaved and the perfect wife. It didn’t matter that she was headstrong, rebellious, artistic and just enough aware of the world in her time to be dissatisfied with the scope of life offered to her. What was important was that she feared her mother and loved her father, and it leached all courage and left a well-concealed pit in her soul that brimmed with inky, oily frustration for which there was no cure.

Fantasizing of the life that lay ahead, Bubbles had decided early on in her childhood that she would be another kind of parent. She would be the mother that she had wanted for 27 years. And in those glorious dreamscapes, her husband was at once everything her father represented but subtly changed to reflect the unsatisfied needs of her mother, the incompletion of which had left her mother as… less, somehow.

But in married life, in that gracious house in Lutyens’ Delhi, as she settled into the slot prepared for her as Ram’s other half, she began to struggle with an existence that had lost all certainties and held no place for the whimsical dreams of extreme youth. All her life she had lived within the safety of a familial fence that had shielded her zealously from the world outside. But now in the rush of people, of thoughts, travel, the all-consuming lifestyle that was her husband, Bubbles was lost. It wasn’t merely that nothing in her past had ever prepared her for Ram’s life; it was a combination of loneliness engendered by a largely invisible husband, a geography thoroughly alien to her southern eyes, a life abruptly full of silences after an uproarious childhood home, and the disillusionment in adjustment that comes to every married woman.

Meanwhile, Ram was struggling with his marriage as well. Life with Bubbles was proving to be unexpectedly hard. He had built up an image of married life of the kind that he had seen his parents share and he’d asked no more of fate than to allow his own life to follow those lines.

His father had worked a minimum of 14 hours a day at his printing press, not because he needed to but because it challenged him, gave him a reason for living, kept him from becoming old. On the evenings when he finished his work early, or deemed it feasible to leave earlier than usual, he would head for the club and a game of bridge conducted alongside sociable glasses of sherry and heated political debate. Ram’s mother in the meantime managed the estate with aplomb: running a large household, a staff of over a hundred and three small rowdy boys without ever raising her voice or letting it interfere with her husband’s work. To the world at large, the only time his parents’ lives ever intersected was in the privacy of their bedroom and on weekend parties at the club or at someone’s house or function. And of course, once every year when the boys lined up to show their father their report cards from school and both parents would discuss their performance.

Their life had had an even tenor to it, an unstoppable rhythm that had seemed eternal and confident, complete in itself. They had been two separate individuals who had come together to form a unit without losing any part of themselves. They had not been indifferent to each other, far from it – even as children, he and his brothers had seen the absolute sanctity, the completeness of the bond that tied their parents together. They had simply refused to interfere with each other. It had been this that Ram had sought when he married Bubbles; charming, beautiful Bubbles from a suitable background and a fervent desire to see the world. But almost immediately after their marriage he had been aware that he had got it all wrong. They had got it all wrong.

He couldn’t remember when the realization had crept up on him that they each desired something of the other that they found impossible to deliver. He had searched their life together for that feeling of calm inevitability that had infused his parents’ marriage and had failed to find it. He had then tried to consciously achieve it, pushing her as tactfully as he knew towards the prefect model of existence that he knew was possible. For a while it seemed as if he might even have succeeded in his objective, but slowly the cracks had begun to appear and once they showed on the surface he could only helplessly watch them spread.

It began with his insight that he had no idea what she desired of him, he only knew what his own wishes were. His attempts at discussing the problem ended with more confusion as Bubbles floundered to give coherence to her wildly fluctuating thoughts and only succeeding in exasperating her husband with his shallow well of patience and linear thought processes. Their frustration with each other and the sheer impenetrability of each other’s psyche led to a deep unhappiness that slowly built up to a rage that struggled to burst out their bodies every chance it got.

The first time they fought, it was over something significant. Something significant to Bubbles – he forgot what it was. Then (he could only suppose in spite) she was unforgivably rude at a dinner party they had thrown in honor of a young politician, a very important man, a formidable acquaintance with whom Ram was striking up a friendship. He’d completely lost his temper afterwards, had indulged her in a shouting match and turned a blind eye to her hysterics instead of dealing firmly with it as, in hindsight, he knew he should have. He’d stormed out and spent the night at the club, losing at cards and knocking off a few drinks like some melodramatic fool on the stage. They had patched up the next day or perhaps it had been the day after, but it had been a grudging compromise reached by two people who had not known how to set aside their grievances.

Bubbles never forgot that first fight, what he had termed a disagreement to be forgotten at his peremptory command – he’d made her so angry she’d found her hands drawing into claws as she stared at his reasonable face. She’d been upset at his neglecting to inform her until the last minute that he was leaving for Europe for a month with some delegation. She’d tried to explain that she would have appreciated some advance warning, that she hadn’t liked hearing about it from one of the ladies at the club, that it hurt her when he behaved so. But somehow, that explanation had gotten tangled up with her feeling of loneliness and a thousand little things he did around the house that irritated her no end and soon she had found herself screaming like a fishwife as he stood there like a rock, as if it didn’t matter to him at all. She had humiliated herself, losing control like that, she’d even tried to hit him, just to see him move. And he had laughed. Laughed at her.

She’d come down with a migraine the next day and her periods chose that very day to start and when the maid shook her awake from her siesta to dress that evening, she felt she had seldom looked worse. Her ankle-length hair looked a heavy, oily, limp mess, dragging down her back and she could almost feel her neck on the verge of breaking, snap like that. Her eyes were too big for her face and she looked old, older than she had ever been. She dressed her hair high, a la bouffant, and hoped that heavy make up and big hair would detract attention from her horribly wan face, forgetting in her distress that the last time she’d tried that, Ram had called her a clown and threatened to report her to the very next circus he encountered.

Memory returned in time for her to walk into the living room with dread in her heart and smiling her prettiest smile, hoping no one would notice that she looked on the verge of death by explosion, she was so bloated. Then some man said something to her and Bubbles, floating through the evening on painkillers and nerves, had responded wittily or so she thought. The man hadn’t thought so and neither had her husband, standing sphinx-like next to her. She had known she had committed a grave offense the moment the words were out of her mouth and she had waited dumbly for the axe to fall, mouth drying up, throat seizing, stomach clenching, cutting through the numb haze she had drifted upon. In that assumption she did her husband a grave disservice. Well-bred Ram waited till the end of the evening, till the last stubborn guest’s taillights disappeared out their gate before tearing into her.

Exhausted, in pain, struggling with the acid pooling in her stomach from the time she had seen the razor flick of his eyes in front of his Very Important Man, Bubbles was unable to maintain any degree of rationality. A few minutes into their fight she lost all ability to hear, to see, to do anything other than feel. She found herself screaming, crying, dragging deep wrenching breaths of air, all alone. She didn’t even know when he had left, leaving her to her shattered self.

He returned the next day, smelling of expensive smoke and even more expensive alcohol, and she felt nothing as she looked at his face, raspy with stubble. Then he walked past her without saying a word, not one word, and she told herself that she hated him. She chanted that one silent phrase over and over again through the twenty minutes that he spent getting ready for work, through his everyday rituals of the morning: shirt ironed just so, newspaper, breakfast, coffee, tie, briefcase, goodbye. She sat through the entire three-quarter hour of his presence at the breakfast table as quiet as she could be, waiting for him to say something, anything, to her so that she could tell him what she felt, fling it at his face, show him how much she hated him. But the only thing he addressed to her was a careless, hurried farewell as he went out the door.

So she sat there with the words stuck in her throat till the servants finished clearing the table and then walked back to the bedroom where she turned on the radio and just looked out the window at the great trees that lined the beautiful street outside. She didn’t think, she didn’t cry, she didn’t try to write letters of great tragedy to her sisters, she just sat and looked out the window where an organ grinder was slowly making his way up towards her house, his wretched monkey pulled roughly along in his wake.

Later that night Ram came home to pack for his trip and she helped him with that. They didn’t mention the disastrous events of the night before, carefully moving past it to easier ground where they were once again just husband and wife. He didn’t know of the hate that had consumed her only twelve hours ago and she didn’t know of the disgust that had raged through him eighteen hours ago. She told him instead to bring her a bottle of Chanel No. 5 and he asked her to be careful with the blue shirts.

With the late October breeze billowing through the open windows of their room, Bubbles at last let her husband’s warmth soothe her to sleep, his unconscious arm clasping her waist, his deep breaths on her nape, her inert body securely curled against his under the blanket.

[Originally published 2005 at Chowk]


Posted by on August 13, 2007 in Fiction


Writer’s Tag: The War Between Billy & Bonnie – III

[Kishore tagged me on a story: The War Between Billy & Bonnie. Read Part I and Part II You’re now reading Part III]

She moved across the bed, shuffling the pillows to the other side, bent lower over him and kissed him on his shoulder. “Do I love you?” she whispered near his ear. “Or do I hate you?”

Billy snuffled in his sleep and shifted on to his stomach, snoring gently, too far gone in drink to be merely asleep.

Bonnie moved slowly, with infinite care for the million and one aches and bruises, some half-healed, others as fresh as the bloodstains she could see on the bed. She winced, distaste for the sight of the smeared blood mixing with the pain.

She dragged on her old robe, deriving what comfort she could from the feel of it: cotton wool-soft from repeated washing. A bit like herself, she thought wryly, catching sight of herself in the mirror. She looked… not old, but perilously near to it. She was conscious of the invisible clock inside of her ticking, ticking, ticking as she studied her face. Lately, the sound of it sometimes became too much to bear.

With one last look towards the bed, she shuffled painfully to the hallway, her muscles easing a bit once she no longer had to worry about accidentally waking Billy up. It would probably take an earthquake and a half in his present condition but she remembered one time… She pushed the thought away.

The kids were fast asleep. She tucked them in a little tighter and smoothed her hand over them. They were so warm, had gotten so big. Sometimes she couldn’t believe these miraculous beings had once lived inside her. She pressed a kiss on their brow – fleeting – and then carefully closed the door behind her.

The kitchen lay to the right of the stairs. She found it flooded with moonlight. She stared pensively out the window over the sink as she ran ice cold water over her wrists. Bonnie had been telling Billy for years that they really ought to pipe in some hot water for the sink, given that they couldn’t afford a dishwasher. He’d refused pointblank. She’d stopped asking the second time he’d hit her for nagging him “to death” over it.

Suddenly she leaned forward. The neighbor’s little terrier was out on one of his nocturnal jaunts again. The pesky little thing had a fatal attraction for her petunias. No matter what she did, it somehow found its way back to her garden. She’d complained thousands of times but its owners simply promised to keep a better eye on it in the future and left it at that.

“Shoo!” she said, voice lowered so as not to wake the rest of the house. “Shoo!”

She burst out laughing as she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the closed window in front of her. Shooing a dog that couldn’t hear her in the kitchen of her home in the middle of the night. She sobered. Something would have to be done with the dog. Something.

She came to herself with a start; it might have been a minute later or might have been more. The clock at the bottom of the stairs had just struck half past, but she didn’t know which hour. The tap was still on. The water cascading over her freezing hands.

She turned it off and dried her hands. Something would have to be done about the dog, she thought once again. Something.

Then, walking as though in a dream, she went to the big table in the middle of the kitchen and carefully selected the big stainless steel carving knife her mother in law had gifted her one Christmas.

“Well, isn’t that a beautiful gift?” Billy had mocked his mother that day, already drunk even though it was only five in the evening. “It’s exactly what Jesus would have wanted isn’t it mother?”

Absently, she got out the whetting stone and ran the blade a few times along its length. The soft schtick-schtick sound of steel meeting stone was oddly comforting. Well, the knife was exactly what she wanted, thought Bonnie. Trust a woman to know what a woman wants.

She shook with silent laughter at the image conjured up by that fleeting thought: her mother in law’s rotund face, rosy from drink, blissfully unaware of her surroundings. She didn’t think this was the use her mother in law had intended for this knife.

Bonnie held the knife close to her heart all the way up to her bedroom. Billy still lay on his stomach near the center of their bed. One of his hands covered the bloody spot where she’d lain. Bonnie looked at him tenderly as she inched closer.

That one unruly lock of hair, the feel of those beautifully cut lips against her heart, the touch of those big, calloused hands that knew what it was to love just as much as they knew how to hurt… she stood still by his bedside, a thousand waves of memory crashing over her.

“Do I love you, Billy?” she whispered to his unconscious form. “Or do I hate you?”

Her hand hovered his head for a moment. And then she brought up the butcher’s knife in one smooth, practiced motion – and cut off a small lock of hair.

She smiled at him gently, fingering the soft curl of hair. “I guess I love you Billy. Tonight. I love you tonight, Billy.”

Bonnie heaved herself to her feet and hobbled over to the tiny walk-in closet that held a dresser jammed inside, groping for the small, flat box she kept hidden in the tiny space underneath. Carefully she tied a bit of string around the lock of hair and deposited it inside. Billy wouldn’t miss this any more than he had the others. She always took care to snip tiny bits off the back of his head where he’d never notice.

She smiled as she got to her feet. She liked playing Delilah to Billy’s Samson like this.

“You might be Billy to the world but you’re my Sam, aren’t you?” she said conversationally to the man lying on the bed. “My very own Samson. I wonder what will give out first? Your hair or my love?”

Update: I tag Aditi!


Posted by on July 30, 2007 in Fiction


Party People

That Paolo was a pothead I already knew. But the news that Antonio was a cokehead was a nasty surprise. Paolo’s girlfriend told me that Antonio was so desperate for a hit that he couldn’t wait for the powder to travel from his nose to his bloodstream. So he was in the kitchen mixing up some heated whiskey with cocaine so that he could shoot it up his arm with a borrowed syringe. I didn’t want to even think about needles.

Usually I wouldn’t have given a f–k, except that the scene was being played out in my kitchen. And as everyone knew, rule number one for anyone crossing the threshold was Don’t F–king Die In My House. Period. No exceptions. Paolo was a friend, one of those cafe house friends who gather after school and talk philosophy and shit when they don’t want to face the crowded subway home. He was here because my roommate had a crush on him. Antonio wasn’t even that – he got invited because he was Paolo’s best friend and shadow. In some circles he was known as The Lamb (like Mary’s, get it?) but not to his face because under that very Latino face was a very Latino temper and Halloween was better when the violence was fake.

Oh yeah. Today’s Halloween. That’s why all these people are in my home, flicking ash on the carpet that I spent hours cleaning because my mother taught me that no lady invites friends over without cleaning the house first. I gave up on being a lady a long time ago, right around the time when I figured out that the list of qualifications was only getting going to get longer, not shorter, the older I got. But somewhere in the back of my head is my mother’s voice, striking when most unexpected.

Kate, my roomie, says it’s her shade come back to haunt the one who got away – I’m the Unmarried Daughter at the ripe old age of twenty nine – but Kate is Irish and in her I finally found someone more superstitious than Indian me.

“Hey, bitch!” says Mandy, staggering in. She’s wasted and hanging onto some guy I never laid eyes on before. “’S up?”

I hug her hard and hardly notice the cloud of alcohol and tobacco that envelopes her black-clad figure. A sneeze builds up but clings stubbornly to the cartilage, refusing to leave my body. She’s Edward Scissorhands and I just know a disaster is waiting around the corner. Hopefully the bloodstains will come out easy. Yeah, right.

“F–king cokeheads in my kitchen,” I say into her ear.

“Cool,” says stranger dude, eyes lighting up.

“No,” I enunciate very clearly. For all I know he’s just as f–ked up as Mandy and the last thing I want is another potential suicide in my kitchen. “Not cool. Of all the things I hate, you know what I hate the most? People dying in my house. So you wanna snort, you wanna pop, whatever you wanna do other than smoke the plain old cancer leaf – do it outside. Get it?”

Stranger dude gives me an unfriendly look. “Get a lot of visitors?” he asks snidely.

“Shit, they ODing in there?” asks Mandy, grinning at me.

“I don’t know,” I sigh. “I sent Kate in there.”

Mandy whistles. Or tries to. Actually she spits into my ear, narrowly missing my face. I wipe my ear off with one finger as ostentatiously as I can. Gross. She giggles again. Now, I hate gigglers. Too annoyingly cutesy and girlie for me. But not Mandy. Mandy giggles like they say Casanova made love. It’s an art form to which she has devoted years of study. I didn’t need her to tell me it pulled the boys in high school like iron to magnet.

“I love this woman,” she tells stranger dude, who is looking around for the kitchen. “One day she’s gonna rule the world – she’s so evil!”

“Who’s he?” I mouth.

“What?” she yells above the music. Show tunes. That’s what happens when you know an inordinate number of musical theater folks.

I give up on discretion. “Hey! I’m Alisha – who’re you?”

“Hey,” he nods. Right, international man of mystery. F–king James Bond, ruining men around the world, giving them ideas only .01% of them could carry off.

“Listen,” I tell him. “Here’s another rule we have in this house – no one comes in without telling us their name. Especially when they’re so f—-ing interested in what some dumbass doper is up to. So what’s your name?”

He looks me up and down the way a lot of people without imagination think is very intimidating. Then points to Ali, schmoozing up to a couple of over endowed girls brought along by someone who knew someone who knows Kate – or something like that. “He knows me.”

“You’re kidding me!” Ali knows everybody, most of them people I’d rather cross the street than meet. “And your name is?”

Mandy giggles. “His name’s Mohammad. He’s a terrorist.”

I look him over critically. He doesn’t look like a Mohammad or a terrorist. I said so.

“He’s undercover,” she giggles some more. Stranger dude allegedly called Mohammad smiles tightly at me. I hate people who grin without opening their mouths. I mean, what are they hiding anyway? “Come on, Lish, let him in.”

“Is he a run of the mill terrorist or is he a suicide bomber?” I want to know.

“What’s it to you?” he cuts in, finally baring his teeth at me. It takes a moment to understand that he’s trying some more intimidation stuff. The condition of his teeth is either genetic or his dentist is worth his weight in gold.

I shrug. “If you’re going to blow me up I’d like to first know why. If all you’re gonna do is sit around and pout at us, I don’t really care. You might like the anarchists – they’re over there I think, by the communists. Communist, actually. Only Tina showed up.”

In case you’re marveling at my courage or sneering at my foolhardiness, perhaps I should tell you that I don’t really think this guy’s name is Mohammad (with copper hair and dark blue eyes? Well, I guess anything’s possible) and I highly doubt he’s a terrorist. Either that or the terrorists of the world are getting really desperate. This kid couldn’t terrorize his way out of a lunch queue.

He didn’t say anything, just gave me his best impression of a shark grin. Which wasn’t very good. I nodded. “Hey Ali, you know this guy?”

It took some doing but finally Ali looked up from his study of some hippie’s droopy breasts to peer at the terrorist in the dim light we’d arranged for the party.

“Hey!” Ali said. “It’s the terrorist!”

Shit, I thought. Maybe he was for real. I wouldn’t have believed it of Mandy but perhaps she had been on the level instead of trying one of her famous “Statements”. A Statement, according to Mandy, was a verbal showstopper. Once a week she tried to liven things up by introducing a Statement where it did the most good. Like a yell in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or whispering at a crowded Wendy’s. Anything that drew more attention than necessary and had the fringe benefit of embarrassing anybody she was accompanying qualified as a Statement. Half the fun, she said, lay in no one quite knowing where and when a Statement would strike.

“Guess what, man?” Ali continues. “My dad’s a drug baron!”

Okay, let me explain. His dad is not a drug baron. Ali’s dad is in fact a very nice Afghan man, who’d left his country and crossed the border to Pakistan when things got too hot with the local Taliban and now lives on a farm somewhere on the border surrounded by more Americans than his son in New York.

Right after the war drove the Taliban underground and reduced much of the surrounding neighborhood to rubble, poppies were once again merrily painting the fields of Afghanistan red. In case you didn’t know, that is some seriously bad news for people fighting the War on Drugs (how come everything is now a ‘War’? It’s like ‘war’ is too passe to mention). Anyhow, it might have been years since poppy had been the main crop in those parts but enough people remembered it as a great way to get some fast cash to get it growing again and as Ali’s dad saw more and more of his neighbors growing the stuff, a thought to his stomach made him too take to cultivation.

In the years past, the opium would have traveled from Pakistan to India through the porous desert borders, there to take ship to the rest of the world. Now there were new middlemen and a hell of a lot closer than the Indians. GI Joe with his plane that flew unchecked to the West was fantastic at the drug trade. More than a few were personal customers and only too willing to risk shipping it along with their personal effects for a suitable recompense.

Ali said this to Mohammad. That was his name, I found. He really was a Mohammad. But he wasn’t a terrorist. He’d merely looked like one to the FBI when they drove by his flight school and discovered he was a half-Palestinian guy called Mohammad learning to fly who worked part time for a successful Arab who was an illegal alien because he’d denied he was a terrorist when he’d first sought asylum in the United States seventeen years ago. No one was interested when Mohammad’s employer had explained that the terrorist organization was a Kurdish resistance front funded by the CIA in the heady days of the Cold War. But they’d finally listened to Mohammad when he said that he wasn’t a terrorist and was only the guy who sat behind the cash counter at the Arab’s restaurant. Of course, Mohammad was a citizen, courtesy his American father. The Arab may have been married to a citizen and the father of another but he was still an Arab.

Today the Arab is in back in Turkey where he’d been imprisoned and tortured for ten years before escaping to the United States and God knows if he is alive or dead or, even worse, back in prison. Mohammad is in New York where he is giving his dreams of flying as dignified a burial as he could arrange in marvelous little pills and powder. Just pills and powder – he doesn’t like weed and won’t drink alcohol. Had he been called something else, said Mohammad, he would have. But he didn’t think anyone called Mohammad should drink. That much he could do for his mum and the God she’d brought him up to believe in. So he didn’t drink.

Paolo and Antonio had come out of the kitchen while Ali and Mohammad were trading stories in front of a fascinated audience. Antonio was blown, you could tell by the glitter in his eyes and the energy of his hands if not the smile on his face. In Paolo the weed and the coke were at war and the whiskey was playing cheerleader for both. So he was hungry and he was buzzed and he thought he was Superman. The one on TV that all the girls find sexy, he says, not the old guy in the wheelchair, ha ha. Then he says shit, I’m so going to hell.

He starts jumping up and down and grabs Antonio by the hand so they are jumping up and down in tandem. The random people filling my house either laugh at the two crazy Colombians or else give them a wide berth. Every time Paolo jumps up, his jeans slide down to reveal his butt crack and the Chinese tattoo looking down into it. Every time Antonio jumps down, he looks like he’s going to puke. Paolo’s girlfriend thinks they’re adorable, I’m hoping they won’t throw up on my carpet.

I’m really paranoid about the carpet. It’s a thing of beauty and unimaginable comfort and, most importantly, brand-new. In a couple of weeks you could use it to wipe your muddy boots and all I’d do is chase after you with a cleaning bill – nick it right now and I’ll come after you with a carving knife.

“Hey, you think your country’s f–ked?” Paolo yells at Ali as he bobs up and down the length of the living room with Antonio faithfully clutching his hand. “You should see my f—-ing country.”

Ali grins peacefully from amidst his collection of living dolls. “No thanks, bro! One f–ked up country per one shitty life.”

Paolo and Antonio hoot, turning to face each other in mid-jump and bumping chests. A couple of idiots lying nearby join in, faces blank and eyes dazed as if they were a new breed of hooting zombies created by Bacardi. Put them in front of a speeding train and they’ll hoot all the way to the morgue.

“Tell them about the cocaine,” encourages Coco, Paolo’s girlfriend who’s about to become a supermodel. That’s her real name, too. I swear. Antonio says it’s because her mother was a bimbo who was hooked on couture and when the labor pains hit her during a Chanel show, she promptly named her child after Coco Chanel.

“Oh yeah!” said Paolo, flinging himself at the couch where he landed with a thud. “Antonio, you tell.”

Every conscious eye swivels to Antonio, now collapsing on the TV bereft of Paolo’s iffy support. I wince and glance at Kate. She’s glaring at Paolo and Coco, now stuffing their tongues down each other’s throat. Of course.

“Yeah, Antonio. Tell us,” I chip in.

“Okay,” he says in his accent, more pronounced than that of Paolo’s because he comes from a part of Colombia that breeds sexy, macho, extra Latin types. No, that’s not my theory. That’s what Coco tells me. Apparently there are a lot of women panting after him in Colombia. Or rather a lot of girls – Antonio likes them young, usually just out of school. More sanely, Paolo told me the difference in accent arose because of where each went to school – Paolo went to the American school in Bogota and Antonio went to the Swiss school. So Paolo talks American, Antonio speaks English. So Paolo merges better and will find it easier to get a job; Antonio stands out in every crowd and hasn’t spent a night alone since his face cleared up.

“No way you can top my dad,” yells out Ali. Sexy brunette has beaten out hippie in her see through clothes and is now draped over one broad shoulder casting smoldering looks up at Ali’s hawk-like countenance. I wish her the best of luck. With Ali in his present condition, she’ll need tons of it if any of what she’s promising is to be accepted upon delivery.

“Oh yeah?” Paolo breaks in before Antonio can begin his story. “In Colombia there are places where people have no money. So you know what they do when they want food? They grow cocaine and take it in a bag and f—-ing barter with the guy who sells them food! Coke for f—-ing Ramen, can you imagine it?”

“Shopkeepers are dealers in Bogota? I thought there were cartels selling the stuff,” says Ali. Just what I was thinking.

“Nah,” Coco shakes her half-a-million dollar head. I mean, I’m just saying. “The shopkeeper sells it to the cartels and the cartels sell it over the border or whatever.”

“You think it’s the cartels and the dealers who’re running this shit?” asks Antonio, as usual not in the least upset at being upstaged. “No way, man! You take away the f—-ing crop, those poor people, they’re all gonna f—-ing starve!”

“Hmm,” I muse. “I never thought of it that way – drug dealing as social service. You should tell that to the feds.”

“I wouldn’t tell those pigs the time of day!” spat Mohammad. I’d forgotten about him.

“Hey man, I wanted to ask – was prison as bad as the movies?” asks Ali.

“No, I’m sure it was a trip!” I nip in.

Coco ignores my sarcasm. “Martha Stewart’s prison looks like a hotel.”

This is an unarguable fact. Everyone looks disgruntled. Things were just getting to the point where everyone had something to say when Coco had to go spoil it with things like facts.

A sixth sense tickles and I turn around as Billie hunches to the front of the crowd. She is met by howls of welcome, including some by people I’d never met before that night. It would be entirely like Billie to direct people to my home on the off chance that she might make it. It’s been a couple of months since I saw her last. I don’t know how she knew we were throwing a party. Anyway, if I know my Billie then she’s here to score, not for the company.

An exchange of high-fives and cursory hugs later, she grins at Paolo. One of the benefits of knowing a junkie who can more than afford his junk is that he is always willing to share. Of course, it cuts both ways – he’ll expect you to share when he’s looking for a fix and doesn’t have his stash on him but Billie takes care of that little problem by never showing her face unless she’s the one in need. Right now, she puts two fingers to her mouth, curled as if around a cigarette and sucks air noisily before grinning some more.

Paolo gives his wasted-but-who-cares smile and fishes a baggie out of his pocket. Coco watches him go through the motions with a beady eye. I’ve never seen her on anything but alcohol but every time anyone tries anything narcotic she watches them like a hawk. I once asked her why and she said she wanted to be prepared. I didn’t get it until Paolo explained that he’d once taken her to a rave where some kid too young to know what he was doing had convulsed to death just two feet away from her thanks to too much E and not enough water. Understandably that had left an impression. Paolo on the other hand had been less than impressed by the little idiot. But then, by the time Paolo had reached the advanced age of eighteen, he’d already spent a lifetime in the modern party jungle. Coco said that wild past would make him a very steady and reliable husband once he was ready to settle down. Of course, he’d need to be alive to do it but…

Getting back to Billie – she is here alone, which is uncomfortable news for a number of people. No one is more uncomfortable than Rita Patel, Billie’s quasi-American Born Half-Confused Desi ex, here today with her boyfriend, Jayesh the king of all a–holes. Jay as he invited me to call him, as if I would ever call him anything other then ‘you’ and ‘a–hole’, is now giving Billie the evil eye. From the looks of it I’d guess he knows that he comes a poor second to Billie in the bedroom. In fact, he comes a poor second to Billie in everything but personal hygiene (Billie’s have been stuck at pothead levels for years) but it’s going to take him some time to figure that out. Or for Rita to tell him so.

Who’re they? Jayesh – he’s the IIT kid who’s gonna start a website about making aloo gobi mommy style and sell it for a gazillion dollars. He’s the Indian who will drive for hours just so he can eat some chicken tikka masala made by a Bangladeshi who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing with the recipe except making money. According to him, everything is frickin’ but never f—-in’ – I don’t know why he’s in love with one ‘f’ word and not another but there it is. They call him Monkey Boy at the office where he looks down on everyone from his vantage point of five foot five-elevated-to-seven, thank you dearly Payless Shoes.

Rita I’ve known for years. Her family moved to Bombay from Seattle back in the mid 80s when her parents decided that Rita and her two brothers were growing up too un-Indian. Rita and I were the same age and when our mothers hit it off we had to be friends too. Their sojourn in Bombay didn’t last very long: her parents found that they could teach their kids to be more Indian in Seattle than in Bombay and Rita’s younger brother had massive adjustment problems that just wouldn’t go away. So they packed up and left three years after they’d moved in next door to us but our families maintained the contact and when I’d first landed in America, the Patels were my hosts.

Right now Rita is a bit fragile: the break up with Billie had been painful and she’d jumped at Jayesh’s offer to pick her up and dust her off, even though she couldn’t stand him. The other night she’d stunned me into speechlessness when she let on that she was thinking about marrying the smarmy bastard. The only reason he wanted to do anything of the kind was so that he could get his f—-ing green card. And Rita knew it too.

Ali, her best friend from the days when she was a snotty little kid with a darling lisp getting the shit beaten out of her on every playground, and I were waiting for her to find her feet and kick the asshole out of her life. She hadn’t done it yet, but maybe meeting Billie again would do the trick. On the other hand, it could very well send her scurrying into marriage. If so Ali and I were staring a life of crime in the face – we’d kidnap Rita before we let her say ‘I do’ to that waste of sperm.

Billie and Rita meet, exchange nods and look away hastily. Jayesh frowns on and only increases the scowl quotient of his face when Ali leans over with a carelessly familiar arm to snag Rita into the group on the floor with him at its center. Somewhere in his weasel brain, Jayesh is convinced that Ali and Rita had a thing for each other. Come to think of it, from the day he realized Rita was bi he can’t stop hooking her up mentally with every other person he comes across. Including me.

“So, what’s going on?” asks Billie.

“We’re regaling the company with dope accounts,” says Ali.

“Eh?” Billie’s just crawled off her couch. I can tell. I feel I should be honored she felt the need to do so for my shindig but who am I kidding? She didn’t come here for anything human.

“Stories about dope from around the world. My dad is a drug baron – did I tell you?”

“Your dad is a drug baron?” sputters Billie. “Mad cool, man! Can he get me some?”

“You do opium?” asks Paolo, impressed. I can see the dumbass wants some.

“You get me the shit and I’ll try it!”

I’m surrounded by idiots. Including Kate, eyes still plastered to Paolo like she wants to find new patterns in his skin. Maybe she’ll be the first to discover skin printing. Kinda like fingerprinting but you could use any part of the skin. Silly ass.

“You wanna be careful,” admonishes Paolo, suddenly serious. “There’re some things you just wanna stay away from!”

This from the man who minutes ago was injecting cocaine and whisky up his arm with a borrowed needle just a few feet away in my kitchen. Bastard.

“Yeah, things with needles and things,” says Mandy lying almost forgotten in the crook of Mohammad’s arm.

Antonio jumps a foot and gives me a guilty look. Too right. He knows how I feel about that kind of stuff in my house. I glare at him.

“Hey man, I’m just a pothead – I smoke, eat and sleep,” says Billie. “I’m a f—-ing national treasure.”

I don’t whether you’ve ever noticed this, but the moment the pothead population crosses two in any room there is a sudden dramatic decrease in energy. This event was held at bay in my house until Billie, the original pothead reincarnated, crawled into the crowd. Conversation has almost dropped to nil and no one is really interested in talking any more. Jayesh gets up and holds out a hand to a bemused Rita.

“We’ve got to go,” he says tersely.

“What for?” asks Ali, refusing to let go of Rita.

“I’ve got to get to work early tomorrow.”

“So? Rita doesn’t.”

Have I ever mentioned how much I love Ali? He’s the man! Of course, Rita had to go spoil it, acting all mealy mouthed and traditional wife. And everything directed at Billie, bent almost double on the floor and wafting smoke like a chimney. Suddenly she looks up and I swear to God, the two of them just freeze. Billie and Rita, that is. The a–hole keeps on blah-blahing about some system he’s gonna install for some American company too dumb to read the instructions. His words, not mine. Ali keeps nodding at him hoping, I know, that it would give the girls some time.

As if to reconfirm, Ali grins at me at one point and the brunette snarls at me in instant reaction, the way pretty girls snarl at other women they fancy to be competition. Yeah, she isn’t going to last very long with an attitude like that. Ali’s the bee type that flits from flower to flower and hates it when the flower does some flitting of its own. Primary reason we weren’t together. I like to cut the wings off any bees that come sniffing around.

“Hey,” says Billie to Rita.

Her voice cut Jayesh off in mid-sentence. Uh-oh, I thought.

“Hey,” says Rita to Billie.

Jayesh is stiff enough to make me want to check for the poker up his bum. “We have to go,” he says again.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” says Ali lazily, checking Rita’s instinctive move. Honestly, I think she’s on doormat autopilot. “You’re not gonna desert me are you, baby? Not when I need to talk to you in the worst way.”

“Yeah, about what?” asks Jayesh with more than a hint of rudeness. His eyes are beginning to ignite and fascinatingly enough resemble those of Sylvester (you know – the cartoon cat that wants to eat Tweety Bird?) with their manic gleam. I don’t know what he’s thinking but any moment now his pupils are going to go round and round.

“It’s private.” Ali is laconic. He is laconic because he knows it’s going to drive Jayesh up the wall. Rita shifts restlessly

The rest of the crowd is busy doing their own thing but Rita is surrounded by those of us who know and care – Billie, Kate, Mandy and, oddly enough, Mohammad as well me.

“Are you coming?” Jayesh addresses Rita directly, his ears going purple as the red seeps into his face. We are all enthralled by the hues of his face. We can’t help but stare at it. We’ve never seen a human rainbow before.

“Um,” says Rita.

She looks at Ali who looks back very steadfastly. Rita looks at all of us. Then she looks back at Jayesh who is now audibly grinding his teeth. Very impressive. I’ve never actually heard that before. Does he do parties?

“Actually, Jay, I did tell Ali that I would talk to him,” she says very softly. It’s been so long since I heard her stick to her guns, I can hardly believe my ears.

“Fine,” he replies. His voice sounds like someone is strangling him slowly. “Don’t come then!”

Suddenly, Mohammad: “It’s a free country, dude! You can hardly see it any more but it’s still a free country.”

Jayesh mutters something too low for anyone to hear but it sounds faintly like “Paki motherf–ker”. He looks up and sees that I caught it. He smiles stiffly and walks out.

These are the moments when I don’t know what to do and then feel like shit because all too frequently when I don’t know what to do, I don’t do anything. Like right now, I should have caught his collar and stopped him and made him apologize and a million other things. But I didn’t. I don’t know if it’s cowardice or if it’s because I’m still blindly answerable to that voice in my head that says a lady doesn’t embarrass the guests in her home. Another thing I’ve noticed – I’m full of shit.

Rita breaks into my reverie when she rushes out the door to catch Jayesh by the elevator.

“What?” I ask Ali.

He winks at me. “She just wanted to kiss him goodbye.”

“What did that son of a bitch call me?” asks Mohammad, not angry just inscrutable.

I shift my feet and look uncomfortable.

“’S alright. I got worse in prison.”

Like that makes me feel better. I look at Ali imploringly – wasted effort ‘cos he’s once again immersed in sultry brunette’s boobies. “Pakistani who likes his mother?” I venture.

“Paki motherf–ker!” yells Rita.

I spin around and there’s Rita, looking stormy and beautiful. “Wh-at?” I yell back, scandalized.

“That’s what he called you Mohammad. He called you a Paki motherf–ker! You know somebody who can break his kneecaps?”

“I know somebody who can break his kneecaps,” drawls Ali. Good old Ali.

“You’re Pakistani, huh?” asks Mohammad, sympathetically.

“Nah,” Ali shakes his head. “She just figured out who she was dating.”

“Jay, right?” Mohammad is confused.

“An asshole,” Ali and I chorus.

“Too right,” says Rita, still breathing fire. “And you two! You set me up!”

“Yup,” says Ali happily.

“He broke up with me! The slime bucket just dumped me!”

“Hallelujah!” and Ali and I are dancing around the room with Kate clapping her hands. Coco looks up from the rapid-fire Spanish exchange the three Colombians are conducting with an Argentinean who was somebody’s date.

“I knew a Paki once,” muses Mohammad dreamily. “Owned this gas station in my town.”

“Is it a good story?” asks Kate, who cares for that sort of thing, immediately diverted.

Mohammad shrugs. “This black girl, real hot, walked in once and asked for a pack of cigarettes. This guy, real old, he was behind the counter. She picks it up, grins at him and says, ‘Thanks, dog.’ Next thing we know, that old guy’s yelling – ‘Bitch! How dare you? Get out of my store!’”

Ali rolls about laughing. The story isn’t that funny but hey! Rita isn’t getting married to Monkey Boy.

Paolo breaks in: “Hey, who wants to do shots?”

“Shots?” asks Mandy, perking up. “Of what?”

As Paolo explains what he has in mind, as Mohammad drags out more stories of the one and only Pakistani he ever met, as Rita hugs Ali and me and begins to cry, as Billie snuggles into a corner without taking her eyes off the three of us, as the sultry brunette turns to Antonio in a huff, as strangers litter my floor and hippies fall down drunk, as dawn steals into New York City – I suddenly get the feeling that God’s in his heaven.

[Originally published at Chowk, January 2005]


Posted by on July 18, 2007 in Fiction


Tags: , , , ,

The Reunion

I am afraid I will say things like I hate you and you killed my father to my mother if I see her again…

I really didn’t want to go home this Christmas. It wasn’t even as though we ever celebrated it as a family even though my sister and I were dazzled as kids by this fantastically mercenary festival that seemed to have been created with children in mind. It even came with its moral of sorts as we pointed out unsuccessfully to our unimpressed parents, citing dozens of Archie comics where the power of Christmas undid great harm in the faraway town of Riverdale, USA. Our parents turned out to be cannier than we suspected, indisputably arguing that comic book events were not convincing arguments in the real world in which we lived. Besides, they said as an afterthought, there isn’t any Santa Claus.

So we never got a Christmas tree – come to think of it, where would we have found one in Delhi? – but we did get to pay the Gymkhana Club’s emaciated Santa Claus a visit and receive presents we’d chosen ourselves the week before. As for holiday cheer, it was brought on by the prospect of a short trip to a destination of our choosing. My sister Mini and I invariably chose the sea so every year we ended up in Goa (and once in Kerala) for the aggravatingly short Christmas break.

Those trips South were truly special. At the time Mini and I didn’t dwell on it much, too overcome by the excitement of meeting up with our vacation friends in Panjim, where our parents eventually bought a house, and basking in the glory of sunny days on the beach gawking at the drug-hazed antics of all the hippies we were strictly warned to keep away from. In retrospect though, those short breaks were the golden moments of our youth because in those two weeks we were a real family. Ma, Pa, Mini and I with no one but old Ayah for company. Ayah, of course, was and remains indispensable.

Life in Delhi was largely spent in the company of strangers – servants, deputies, security guards and visitors. Ma tried to make it all seem fun by starting up a Book of Weird, in which we recorded all the strangers we met in a day. And when I say we, I mean the entire family, up to and including old Ayah who’d learnt to write alongside Nani, our mother’s mother, in whose house she’d worked since the age of six.

Everyone came under the purview of The Book – the daughter of the woman who swept our floors, come as replacement for her sick mother, “sick” being an euphemism for “beaten up black and blue” by her drunken lover; the pretentious Mrs. Batra, the bane of Ma’s life and the acknowledged leader of the Kitty that governed the social circle in our neighborhood; the foreign diplomats who came accompanied by discreet bottles of liquor to “talk things over” with Pa and ended up by staying half the night, drunk on fine conversation and better whiskey; the journalists who actively tried to develop either Ma (the power behind the throne) or Pa as “confidential sources” for a dozen slanderous articles and wouldn’t leave until they’d inveigled an invite to the party being thrown next week; the old uncles who cluttered Parliament, badly in need of deodorant and addicted to pinching one’s cheek in smarmy affection and so on.

As time went on, Ma or Pa would naughtily add a friend or two of ours to the list, drawing howls of protest when the entries were discovered. We’d get our own back by slipping in a visiting cousin or even our grandmothers and watch their faces turn all colors of the rainbow as they tried to hide The Book. But those were the days before every politician was hated enough to rate a dozen armed guards and the ‘assistants’ who hovered over Pa were only too happy to help the two babas find The Book and once again leave it open in plain sight. Until Ma got wind of what was happening at least and chased us around the garden with its overpowering roses and tenacious bougainvillea equipped with a walking stick she’d unearthed from Pa’s study.

Our life in Goa was the complete opposite. Here, we had access to our parents at all times – there was no watchful chowkidar guarding our father from us with the words “Sahib busy hain” and no telephone to shrilly command our mother’s fractured attention. The Book of Weird was never opened in Goa: it was a creature of Delhi and it remained there, carefully placed in the center of the exquisite marble table our great-grandfather had bought a century ago, until the day our father retired and brought it to Goa for the first time. In some more years, when our children are old enough, Mini and I will drag it out and tell them the stories of our childhood as explained by a bound leather book that once lived in a room that saw Mughal opulence wedded to English austerity.

In a way The Book symbolizes everything that went wrong for us as a family. It is a testament to the quality of our life together and the amount of time we spent in each other’s company. In the viciously funny passages penned under meticulously maintained dates of The Book, you will find the names of people who knew each of us more intimately than any of us knew the other. Mrs. Batra, despised and mocked endlessly by all of us, was positively a confidante of Ma’s compared to the rest of us except, perhaps, Ayah who never strayed too far from her side. Roshan Gulati, of the mohawk and undying punk fixation, who kept our parents up nights worrying about the kind of company their twin daughters were falling into, has information on our late teens that would’ve curled our parents’ hair.

Our friends used to marvel at the relationship Mini and I shared. Unlike other sisters we knew, we hardly ever fought and when we did, were quick to make up and forgive each other. People generally attributed this to the supernatural bond twins are supposed to share in all the best traditions of malarkey. The truth was much simpler and harder to fathom, especially for us. When it finally dawned on me, I picked up the phone and dialed her in the god-forsaken part of England she had made her home.

“Guess what?”

“Good morning to you too,” she yawned.

I winced. “Oh, is it just morning there?”

She sighed. “What, Uma?”

“Sorry – listen, I just figured out something.”


“We have an unhealthy dependency on each other.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“What do you mean, ‘hmm’?” I asked, disappointed by her reaction.

“Hmm, interesting.”

“All right, all right, go back to bed and call me later – I’m at home by the way.”

“Surprise!” she said super sarcastically to writer and housewife me.

She rang off without another word, a habit I’m inured to but can’t help wondering again how that must affect her patients. Mini is Dr. Rukmini Stewart, GP of Tiny Perpetually Snow Laden Village where her husband milks cows. Well, he does a lot more things with them (ha!) but that description always gets Mini going. And that is a beautiful thing.

She called me back just when I was sure she’d forgotten. I’m sure she did that deliberately.

A good bit of sisterly chat and laughter later, we agreed that the dysfunctionality, for want of a better word, of our childhood was long behind us. We’d somehow been able to create lives away from each other. Neither of us liked to remember how hard it had been for us to make that decision to separate or the pangs of debilitating anxiety that had rendered the ensuing few years hideous, but we had emerged victorious if not unscathed from those years and in retrospect it seemed a remarkable achievement.

“And to think it might never have happened if not for Dev,” mused Mini.

“Yeah, Dev – whatever happened to him?”

Dev Sarkar had been Mini’s boyfriend, the one who’d convinced us that our destinies lay on different continents. He’d lectured, cajoled, negotiated and held our hands through that period when we’d applied to universities on either side of the Atlantic and found out that Mini’s first choice lay in England with Dev, while mine lay in America. Unfortunately, he hadn’t survived the emotional holocaust of our separation from each other and in a few short months had completely slipped under the radar, unnoticed by either of us. And in his story you could find the echo of a long list of love interests, both Mini’s and mine. In fact, for the longest time, neither of our husbands had been able to believe that they weren’t shortly about to enter the ranks of our discarded lovers. The edgy jokes flirting with the sad fates of our ex-lovers had taken a long time to die, especially after Colin and Paul (then her fiancé and my husband, respectively) had met for the first time and apparently compared notes behind our backs.

“God knows,” said Mini now, dismissing Dev summarily. “Another thing, did Ma call you?”

I was immediately, instantly, idiotically on the defensive. “No.”

“Relax. Have you checked your messages?”

“No.” I hated checking my messages because I invariably picked one up from someone I particularly did not wish to hear from. Like Ma.

“I thought so. Well, she wants us to go back to Goa for Christmas.”

“What! Why?”

I could almost hear her shrug. “Maybe it’s the season for nostalgia. Or maybe she’s dying and she wants us to gather by her bedside in the dusk of her life.”

I blanched. “She’s dying?”

“No, no,” came the quick reply. “Idiot! I was playing ‘Maybe’.”

‘Maybe’ was a game we had invented as children to save us from trouble as children. You know: I didn’t eat those chocolates you told me specifically not to eat – maybe the Shoemaker’s elves relocated to our kitchen and now steal our food. That sort of thing. As the years drew on, the scenarios had turned a bit more macabre and violent than before. It completely put my husband off sometimes. I told him I didn’t understand why, as the only person I played it with was my sister. He didn’t have anything to do with it.

“Stupid,” I commented.

“So are you coming?” she asked, ignoring my interjection. “I won’t go if you won’t.”

“Great, thanks for dumping this on me.”

“You’re welcome. You talk it over with Paul and let me know.”

And as usual, she hung up before I could say anything more. I really didn’t want to go but I felt I had to. Oh, Mini was evil and she knew exactly which buttons to push. Far back as I can remember, I never felt that amazing connection with my mother, so idolized in pop culture. No cookies, no milk and as for kissing it all better, she would have thrown up first just thinking about touching her lips to all the blood and grime. No, she was never what we considered a “proper mom”.

A proper mom was one who first and foremost looked the part. She wore faintly dowdy sarees and was an excellent cook. She didn’t intimidate every single friend one had but she was allowed to intimidate as many teachers at school as she wished to. She was willing to spoil us but wouldn’t insist on coming along to parties to first check things out or in dressing us according to her outmoded ideas of how little children were supposed to dress.

Unlike our rosy imaginings, the mother God had seen fit to bestow upon us was short-tempered, stylish, very concerned with all the trappings of life that philosophers and self-help gurus assure us are completely useless (“What crock!” Ma remarked scornfully. “If it was all so useless then why are they out there writing books and appearing on chat shows so they can make money and get everything they despise so much?”) and drove Mini and me insane with her constant clarion calls for perfection in everything. Adding to our insecurity as teenagers was the fact that our mother was a very beautiful woman and didn’t hesitate in letting us know when we fell below her visual expectations.

Of course there were moments when she came up to scratch. She always knew just the right thing to say when something went horribly wrong, like a boyfriend who turned out to be a weak, spineless noodle when you’d been dreaming of He-Man. She taught us how to apply make-up and did it better than most of the women we saw on the big screen. At the end of the day, she was still the only person within whom we’d resided for nine months, at thing that Ayah would not let us forget even had we wanted to.

The biggest strain on that bond was not our adolescence spent in Delhi’s wild farmhouses or our determination to get as far away from our parents as possible once we reached adulthood. No, the problem between our mother and us twins was our father.

Pa was a tall man, in stature as well as height. He seldom spoke and never raised his voice within our hearing but when he spoke, the world stopped to listen. You think this is the daughter in me speaking but it certainly seemed that way when we were growing up in Delhi and our house was constantly filled with a stream of Very Important People all deferring to Pa in the most flattering way. As a Member of Parliament and that too one who’d never seen the need or the desire to compromise his personal integrity by stooping to the levels he constantly witnessed around him, Pa was that increasingly rare specimen – a statesman. His father had died fighting the British, leaving behind a young widow and three infant children in the care of his own proud but grief-stricken father who’d never let Pa forget a simple lesson: a country worth dying for was a country worth loving. Pa loved his country and his constituency with a fierce passion that had sometimes pushed even us, his children, to the side.

We had not minded. It was impossible to grow up in a home like ours and not be convinced that Pa was in the right when he never turned up for parent teacher conferences, annual day functions, dance recitals and birthday parties. He had work to do. Idolizing our father, however, left us with only one parent to handle angst meant for two. For better or for worse, our mother got the job and we never let her forget it.

I can’t say my twin or I were much concerned with how she felt – in fact it never even impinged upon our consciousness. The fights only got worse as we got older and wilder and by our sixteenth birthday she was convinced that the only solution to our never-ending mischief was to send us to boarding school. Unfortunately for her, the posh all-girls school she chose had a great reputation for academics and a greater but better concealed one for the wild antics of its students. We left it two years later better versed in some of the more dangerous forms of life and an excellent academic record, having struck up several friendships guaranteed to see us well on the way to financial and moral ruin if nothing else.

By the time the results of our final school examinations were published, everyone had decided that the best option would be for Mini and me to go away somewhere. Ma tried to push for a finishing school she’d attended in the dark ages (a French convent for the mercy of heaven!) but Pa, with an eye on the last time he’d taken Ma’s desires into account in mind – politely but firmly declined her suggestion. And in no time at all, Mini and I were headed for London, there to study under the benign aegis of one of Pa’s old friends, now a don at Cambridge.

We graduated three years later with Firsts in hand and still no clue whatsoever of what to do with the rest of our lives. Ma believed that the answer lay either in marriage or in further education and urged us to go back to school for our Masters or back to India for some suitable boys but we caviled at the thought of more years spent in study or tranquil (read boring) domesticity. After eighteen years of continuous and intensive schooling, we felt we’d earned a break much like our English friends and prevailed upon Pa to spring for a year off, to be spent traveling the world.

That year was possibly the best of our lives and in the course of long letters written to update friends and family of our slow but fascinating progress around the globe I found myself writing a book about our experience. Today, it lies ignored on a shelf, accusingly opposite my editing table, but I tell myself that one day I will go back and rework it to publish my recount of that magical year in which Mini and I discovered the earth at first hand and uncovered our individual passions – hers to save the world and mine to write.

We were in America, in the fag end of our journey when we heard about Pa’s heart attack.

Mini and I were impossibly cool and collected as we made the arrangements to return to India. The time to cry and be terror-stricken would come later, but at that moment there were too many things we needed to do. First on the list was to get to New York, our previously determined point of departure. Since driving up there from the part of Maine we were in would have taken too much time, we hopped a series of puddle jumpers which flew us to La Guardia in a “mere” three hours. Once in New York, we began calling every airline we could think of to find seats on one that was leaving that very day – our original flight only flew once a week and that meant a wait of three precious days. By dint of pressing upon everyone we called that this was a medical emergency we finally found seats on a plane that would take us to Delhi in roughly thirty-eight hours. Faced with no other choice, we bought our ridiculously expensive tickets and rushed to JFK where we caught the Concorde to Paris and then kicked our heels for ten hours at de Gaulle before boarding our Middle Eastern connection to Bombay via Dubai.

In Bombay, we faced a wait of another four hours before our flight to Delhi could take off. Lost in my brown study, I surfaced a little while later to find a pair of blue eyes fixed unblinkingly on me. At the time I felt faintly indignant that anyone would have the bad taste to make a pass, no less evident for not being verbalized, at a time like this even if the man had no idea of it. Later, Paul told me he had stared so hard because he’d never seen anyone look more like hell. Our first meeting will never make it to the annals of famous romances but he secured my undying gratitude by helping me a little later, miles above the earth, when Mini finally broke and began to hyperventilate.

The airhostess, a silly cow if ever there was one, was of absolutely no use and seemed to regard it as something Mini was doing on purpose. Paul was wonderful as he dealt with Mini and held my hand comfortingly, and even though he was a stranger in my country and my city, managed to get us to our house safe and sound, us having forgotten to inform anyone of our time of arrival and being in no condition to deal with anything any more much less the jostling taxi drivers lined up outside the terminal.

Miraculously we found Pa in good cheer and sitting up bright as sunshine. The attack was a mild one according to the doctors, a whole team of them from the best hospital in the city. My pent up feelings found relief as I yelled at him for not taking better care of himself. Mini cried and Paul drank cups of strong tea by himself, out in the drawing room. Ma was shaken but serene and typically fired the first salvo when she asked, Is that hippie going to stay here long? referring to Paul who was anything but.

Any sympathy Mini or I might have experienced for her quickly evaporated in the battle that immediately erupted between Ma and me and without Pa to shake some good sense into us, everything soon reached epic proportions and a lot was said that day that might have been best left unsaid. Pa had only retreated from our lives for a short while and already the cracks had begun to appear. We didn’t know it then, but it foreshadowed what lay in store for us.

Against strict medical advice, Pa was determined to last out the current session of Parliament because, he told us, he disliked the look of the Opposition, especially in his constituency, and he was damned if he was going to hand his people over to a bunch of thugs. No, he was going to wait until the next general elections rolled around in two years before he stepped down and maybe in that time he could persuade one of several young men he had his eye on to run for his seat. I think he would have liked either Mini or myself to evince some interest in his seat but neither one of us was politically inclined and being the man he was, he saw no reason to burden us with a legacy we did not want.

Mini and I were stuck in limbo in those days, unsure of what the world was coming to. Somewhere deep within us we had been convinced that Pa would die in harness and the thought of him as a retired public servant, for that is how he would view himself, seemed very alien to us. In retrospect Ma was undergoing much the same emotions on a larger scale but we were too taken up with Pa and ourselves in those days to spare her any attention. Whenever we did run across each other the three of us would always end up skirmishing. Increasingly her rancor was directed at Paul, who by now was firmly established as my boyfriend. To complicate Ma’s life further, Pa had taken an instant liking to Paul and was further impressed when he found out that Paul was in India as part of the Doctors Beyond Borders program and had bumped into me as he traveled the country in the wake of the completion of his assignment.

Now when I remember those days, I hug the knowledge of Pa’s approval close to my heart. Mini has always said that part of the reason I married Paul and love him so much is because I know Pa had liked him and however faulty my own judgment may be, Pa’s could never be faulted. I think there are times when she feels a tiny bit envious, knowing that Pa had met and liked my husband while he never even heard the name of hers. It is not something I can ask her, however, so I have never discussed it with anyone.

Once Pa had recovered, not fully but enough to stare down the doctors and Ma when they clucked about his increased activity, he insisted that Mini and I make a decision as regards our life. All of this took some three months from the date of our arrival in Bombay and by then I knew that Paul had to get back to the States and at the time it seemed unbearable that I never see him again. Therefore I proposed to Mini that we move to his native Boston where she could go to medical school and I could attend writing courses. To my shock Mini had other plans and at the end of that year, for the first time in our lives, we went our separate ways.

When we informed our parents, Ma glared at me and said, I hope you’re satisfied. The implicit idea being that I was condemning Mini to a lonely existence for my hippie boyfriend. I might have backed off then if Pa and Mini hadn’t got together and rubbished that idea thoroughly and instantly. Ironically, Dev Sarkar, the man who’d first convinced Mini that she ought to go back to England and then bullied me into compliance, had Ma’s complete approval. Sometimes I think that’s why he didn’t last eight months.

None of these events in any way improved my relationship with Ma. Mini – the younger, less rebellious twin had an easier time of it, especially since Ma was convinced for a long time that she was going to marry Dev and live a respectable (and rich) life as a doctor. My proposed bohemian career choice coupled with my defiant relationship with a foreigner had set the cap on my supposed iniquities as far as she was concerned.

There are times when I wonder if our relationship isn’t some kind of giant self-fulfilling prophesy – I keep thinking she is going to be disappointed by or vitriolic over something I do and then she usually is. Mini and Paul tell me I should try cutting her some slack. Perhaps, but whenever I meet her the child in me comes to the fore and cries, her first. It looks to be an eternal wait.

Finally we all left our parents alone to wind up their lives even as we prepared to begin ours. In those first months, Mini and I burned up the transatlantic telephone wires more than we called anyone else. Gradually the panicky feelings of abandonment and separation faded and we settled in enough to throw in a few dashes back to India.

The first time back, we arrived just as Pa had finished introducing his constituency to the man who would eventually take over his job. The second time was Pa’s last session in Parliament, marked by an endless round of parties signaling the end of that part of his life. The third visit was to Goa where my parents had moved into their new home and were both thick in the midst of their teething troubles. It was the first time they had been alone together and spent so much time in each other’s company in… well, forever and neither was adjusting very well. These things seem so apparent in hindsight but back then all we saw was our beloved, ill father being imposed upon by our bossy, unbearable mother. Tempers were short and peace in short supply that holiday.

The fourth time we went back, Pa had another heart attack. We didn’t understand how or why he should have one, not when so much care had been expended in keeping him fit and stress-free. Mini and I, immediately and without any further thought, decided that it could be somehow traced back to our mother. I think Mini wasn’t too comfortable in making up her mind so quickly, in fact I am almost certain of it, but I had no such scruples and where I led, Mini would eventually (if reluctantly) follow. Not because I was the boss twin but because she couldn’t bear to see me stand alone.

For the first time in our lives, we gave Ma the silent treatment. We simply had nothing to say to her. We were ashamed at times at our behavior even though Ma never addressed our actions but we never let up. Once Pa was better, i.e. out of the hospital, Mini and I left after extracting a promise from him that he would take things easy and call if there was the slightest problem.

We never saw him again.

The end when it came was peaceful and sudden – he simply went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up in the morning. It was scant comfort to three women who still relied upon him to make the sun come up in the morning.

Mini and I went back for the funeral, a simple affair attended by a number of his old friends and distinguished colleagues but what touched us most was the presence of several people from his old constituency who’d made the trip in their hundreds via dusty trains and cheap buses to pay their last respects to an old man who’d spent the majority of his life in their care. One young man came up to us and told us he’d arrived by airplane. We didn’t understand the significance until he explained that the only reason he could afford it was thanks to Pa’s efforts in sending him, the son of a subsistence farmer, to one of India’s foremost educational institutions. We’d had no idea that tears could flow without stop even when eyes were swollen shut.

Empty of Pa and the presence of his mourners, the house outside Panjim was a building devoid of life and energy. The three of us would sit facing the sea, either alone or in a huddled group for hours on end. Had Ayah not been there still, we would all have died of starvation like the Hindu widows of yore.

Between Ma and us yawned a gap that seemed unsurpassable. Mini and I had barely gotten over our tumultuous feelings of eight months ago when Pa had died and left us shattered once more. We desperately wanted our mother in those days, longed to fling our arms around her and hug her close, to never let her go. Instead we held on to each other and watched her from wary eyes as she ghosted about the house. We didn’t know if she still remembered our behavior of all those months ago and even had she forgotten it, its memory still clung tenaciously to our psyche, coloring everything we said or did around her.

The problem with words and thoughts is that they never leave you, unlike a physical blow that the brain and your body gradually erase from sight and mind. Mini and I could never forget that we had once blamed our mother for our father’s ill health and the longer we failed to solve that issue the more it festered in our minds until it had finally assumed the proportions of an emotional Mount Everest.

Mini was somehow able to move beyond it – perhaps her medical training stood her in good stead when dealing with the greater human tragedies. Even though Ma and Mini were soon, in a year or so, able to once again pick up the bonds of a mother-daughter relationship, I remained estranged, aloof to my mother’s presence. Ma detected this vast gulf between us and somehow realized that I must be the one to bridge it.

I never asked, either Mini or myself, if Ma also understood the reasons for that emptiness. I was afraid of the thoughts that raced through my brain whenever I remembered her and was afraid that they would all come tumbling out if I ever let my guard down. Even though I knew logically that Ma had nothing to do with Pa’s death, the memory of my jumbled thoughts in that period following our return from the world trip still haunted me and pressed at the back of my throat every time I saw her. I was afraid that I would meet Ma again and in the luxury of resuming our normal relationship would let the words out my mouth the first battle we fought. And it was a given that we would fight if we met. We were simply too entwined in each other to live in bland peace.

So it was with a hammering heart that I got off the plane in sunny Goa that December morning, with Paul at my side hardly able to get a grip on the luggage trolley because I’d refused to let go of his hand since boarding the connecting flight in Bombay. Paul had finished arguing with me – the children were beginning to get disturbed and his throat was so sore it wasn’t funny. Now, he was quiet as he let me lean against him all the way to where Ma was waiting for us.

It had been three years since I had met her face to face. Last year she’d paid Mini and Colin a visit and had planned to come on to us in Boston. But with a cowardice amazing in a child of my parents, I’d begged off citing a fictitious conference which Paul had to absolutely attend… in New Zealand. Mini had later sent me dozens of photographs that Paul had insisted on sorting through, both of them diabolical in their desire to see me once again the Uma of old and not this craven creature who refused to look her mother in the face because of inconvenient memory. The woman in those photos had been an older version of the mother I remembered – stylish, beautiful, with flawless makeup and erect spine, the kind of woman who brings conversations to a standstill even twenty years past her prime.

My two babies, blissfully asleep in their pram, had never met her and I wondered how she would react to them – if her attitude towards Mini’s little girl was any indication, she was going to be a far better grandparent than mother. Mini stood in direct view, holding little Ana next to a severely handsome woman of indeterminate age dressed in a handloom saree. I noticed this much before that woman spoke in my mother’s voice,

“Uma darling.”

With a rush I remembered all the things that I had pushed to the back of my mind for so long. The feel of Ma’s hands as they smoothed my brow when I was burning up with fever; the smell of Dior that permeated our house even when she was not present; the little faces with which she used to sign off letters sent to us in our gilded cage of a school even though we protested that we were far too old for that kind of silliness; the impromptu dancing lessons held on nights the three of us were home and Pa was still out; the card games she’d taught us to cheat at when we were five; the blasting she’d given our second grade teacher for raising a hand to Mini for some piece of mischief – the good things that had formed the basis for our unquestioning acceptance of her as nothing more and nothing less than Mother.

“Hi, Ma,” I said and the tears came up unbidden as I leaned in for a hug and smelled her perfume once again.

“My baby,” said Ma, blinking away tears. “Come here.”

The words that arose in me in were so natural, so right, there was no way to keep them in. “I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too, darling.”

Straightening up, I grinned like the happy fool I was at the two other people in the world I loved as much as I loved this tall woman I held in my arms. Mini grinned as she and Paul stood arm in arm, watching us. Little Ana ignored us as she studied her little cousins.

“If you’re done creating a scene, the car’s out front and probably getting towed away,” Mini said.

“Don’t be silly,” said the Ma I know and love, looking up from her inspection of the two grandchildren she’d yet to be introduced to. “They wouldn’t dare. Come on, come on, I don’t like the smell of this place.”

I let myself be towed away by her, discussing the children as Mini helped Paul with the luggage behind us. It was a beautiful day in Goa, sunny and clear with a tiny breeze to cool everything down as the tourists swarmed in for the season that would culminate shortly in drunken New Year’s Eve bashes.

Ma leaned confidentially towards me. “By the way, darling, have you put on some weight?” she asked, poking my tummy.

[Originally published at Chowk, 2005]


Posted by on June 6, 2007 in Fiction, Life



“Are you all right?” Anita asked.

He was sitting at the kitchen table, on a stool he’d pulled up from the counter. Anita leaned against the doorframe and studied his profile, remembering all the other times he’d done the very same thing in all those other houses.

The years had been kind to him, the nose was still the most prominent feature on his face, the brow a bit craggier, the cheekbones a little less defined – the face was lived in but reflected his indomitable inner strength a lot more now than it had when she’d first met him… 26 years ago now? 26 years and five months.

He didn’t look up. She thought he hadn’t heard her speak. Her mouth twisted. So what else was new? Clearing her throat, she tried again, louder:

“Dev?” He blinked, as if waking up from a dream before turning to face her. “Are you all right?”

“What? Yeah, I – um, everybody left?”

“All but you,” she said, gesturing with one hand to the pots and pans as they scattered around the big kitchen table, the sink full of dirty dishes.

“I’ll help you,” he said, his voice a little husky.

“Don’t bother,” she said politely. “I’ll manage.”

“Anita,” he said quietly. “I’ll help you.”

She nodded. “I’ll get some Tupperware, why don’t you fill them?”

“I can do that,” he agreed.

She moved around the kitchen, getting things ready, planning the sequence that would get her out of the kitchen in the least possible time, everything ready for the cleaners she’d arranged to come in tomorrow. He sat, arms crossed, and watched her through hooded eyes. This was the Anita he knew. Calm, methodical, even in the face of chaos.

“What?” she smiled, bringing over the promised Tupperware, twisting her soft shoulder-length hair up and out of the way as she tackled the overflowing sink.

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just book a hotel?” he asked.

“It’s my son’s wedding, what’s the use of such a big house if I don’t open it up even for his wedding? Besides it wasn’t such a big deal.”

“Hmm, plus it very neatly cut me out of the process,” he commented, pressing the lid down on a stubborn bit of plastic.

She looked at him sharply. “You think this was revenge?”

“Wasn’t it?” he looked at her evenly.

“No,” she said in exactly the same tone. “If I wanted revenge, Dev, I’d have found more… permanent ways of doing it.”

The tension that could spring up between them, even after 15 years of divorce, hummed for an instant before he dropped his eyes.

“Touché,” he said.

“Is that why you paid for the honeymoon?” She snorted when he refused to meet her eyes. “Maybe you should have tried paying for a trip to Bali when we were married. Perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.”

“Are you saying a trip to Bali would have fixed all our problems?”

“No, but considering how much you couldn’t afford it back then, you’d have been so busy paying it off, you wouldn’t have found the time to cheat on me.”

“You never let it rest, do you?” he asked, resignedly.

“Just because you married the slut doesn’t mean I have to get over it.”

He took a deep breath. “How about the news that we’re getting divorced? Does that make it easier?”

She stilled. “What?”

“Lali and I are getting a divorce.”

She didn’t say anything for a few moments. Dev stared at her impassive face, wondering what she was thinking.

“Say something,” he said when the silence had stretched too long.

“I had no idea,” she said in a cool little voice that gave nothing away.

He gave a bitter little laugh. “That’s all? Aren’t you going to crow a little? You’ve been waiting for this day for long enough.”

She looked at him, leaning back against the sink, her hands still in their bright pink plastic gloves. “That’s true,” she said at last.

“You admit it?” he asked, surprised.

She shrugged. “Did she find out?”

“About you and me?”

She nodded.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least, she hasn’t said anything.”

“Then she doesn’t know,” she said. “Lali’s not the type that would keep it to herself.”

“Well, that’s all beside the point now, isn’t it?”

“I guess.”

“You don’t have to look so disappointed.”

“Do I? Look disappointed?”

“Come on, Anita,” he said impatiently. “You’ve only been sleeping with me these past few years as payback!”


“So aren’t you cut up that she’ll never know…”

“She’ll never know you cheated on her with me? I suppose so.”

He didn’t say anything.

“What do you want me to say, Dev?”

“What do people usually say at times like this?”

“I’m sorry? I’m shocked? Hardly. Almost everybody who knows you expected this to happen. We were just off by a decade or so.”

He rubbed a hand wearily over his face. “Not really.”

Anita stared at him, that action of his bringing to mind another day in another kitchen – Dev asking her for a divorce…

“It’s pretty clear,” he’d said to her. “We’re not going to survive this, Anita. You can’t forget it and I don’t want to forget it.”

“I could forget it if you wanted to,” she’d told him, voice shaking. “But you don’t! Why don’t you just say that?”

“Fine.” His eyes had been so cold, the aloofness she’d sensed in him for the best part of a year coming forward and lying unmasked as an absence of emotion so severe she’d wanted to scratch his eyes out, just to make that expression leave his face.

“You won’t be happy,” she’d spat, desperate for anything from him, any bone at all that he might choose to throw her. “She’s going to leave you and then you’ll come crawling back and I won’t take you! Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” he’d clipped out. “Don’t worry, if she does leave me then I won’t come looking for anything from you. I gave up looking for anything resembling warmth from you a long time ago!”

Anita came back to the present with a sigh. She stripped the gloves from her hands and took a seat at the table, pushing aside a couple of plates to rest her arms on the top. “I am sorry,” she said.

He looked at her, surprised.

“You were married to her for about twice as long and I know it wasn’t easy for you the first time around.”

“What’s this, compassion?” he mocked. “I thought you’d be laughing your head off.”

“I’m grinning on the inside,” she told him.

Neither said anything for a while. “What am I going to do?” he asked finally.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Is that why she didn’t come for the wedding?”

“No – I mean, she wouldn’t have come anyway. She’s always been clear she’s not his stepmother in anything other than name.”

Anita nodded. “It was the only thing that made her bearable.”

He grinned briefly. “I’m surprised you allowed him to get married.”

She shrugged. “It was either that or get into bed with him and I don’t think either of us is inclined that way.”

“My God, Anita!” he said, laughing in shocked surprise. “You can’t say things like that!”

“Why not?” she asked. “It’s only you.”

“Why are we so much more civil to each other now?” he asked after a pause, studying her face.

“Right now?”

“Generally speaking.”

She was silent for so long he thought she wasn’t going to answer. Finally, she said: “You don’t hate me now.”

“What? I didn’t hate you.”

“Yes, you did,” she insisted quietly. “I could see it in your face. You’d come home, walk in the door and see me and you couldn’t stand it.”

Dev thought back to their marriage – he had it filed in his memory under one giant block but when he looked at it now, he could see the individual bits fitting in to resemble a jigsaw puzzle more than anything else.

There was the time when he’d been completely in… lust with her. Not love, he thought. There was the pregnancy, which was when he’d fallen in love. But was it with her or the baby and thus by extension the woman who carried the baby? Did love work like that? And then, just life. For a very long time, there was nothing special about their marriage – nothing that stuck out in his memory, no highs, no lows, only a plateau. And somehow, from that plateau, a sudden drop off a cliff into… hatred?

“I’m right,” Anita said, beside him, watching his face fill with realization. “Aren’t I?”

He shook his head dumbly.

She smiled wryly. “I always admired Lali for that. It took me, what? Less than a decade to make you hate me. And she… well, she lasted quite a long time didn’t she?”

Dev caught her hand. “I’m sorry.”

She pressed his hand before disengaging herself. “You didn’t even realize until now. It’s not like you planned it.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t marry anyone,” he said.

“You have another candidate?” she asked, surprised.

“I was just speaking generally,” he explained.

“You hate her too?”

“Not…” he trailed off.

“Not as much as me?” she asked dryly.

He ducked his head. “I don’t know…”

She patted his hand. “Well, at least I come first in something.”

“I’m glad you can laugh at it,” he muttered.

“I’ve had 15 years to develop a sense of humor,” she reminded him.

“Did you ever figure out why I felt like that?” he asked before immediately shaking his head. “Never mind, I can’t believe I asked you that.”

“Don’t you know?”

“I just –”

“Found out,” she finished and shrugged. “Who knows? I thought it was me – I wasn’t pretty enough, nice enough, sexy enough. Enough. Then I entered the phase where I thought it was you – you were just a cheater, a louse, a liar… you remember that phase?”

“Vividly,” he said. “Then came the bitchy phase.”

“Whose story is this anyway?”

“Sorry,” he said, throwing up one hand. “Continue.”

“Then came the bitchy phase,” she said, making him laugh. “That’s when we had the power struggles –”

“Yeah, I’m glad that didn’t last long.”

“Especially for the sake of our son.”

“Amen,” he agreed.

“And that’s when I met Anand.”

“Right, the boyfriend. That bit I knew.”

“Careful, you sounded like an ex-husband there.”

“I am an ex-husband,” he said.

She smiled. “Then you ought to be a very grateful ex-husband because he’s the one who brought me back to my senses.”

He bit his lip. “Where is he?”

“He went home. I wanted to be the mother of the groom by myself for a while. No pity, nobody to ask me ‘What are you going to do now?’ as if I haven’t done anything other than mother him all my life.”

“Anand didn’t mind?”

“What we do works for us.”

He inhaled deeply. “I guess so. Are you two thinking of getting married?”

She didn’t say anything until he looked up to meet her gaze.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” she said. “You’re getting divorced and we’re having a heart to heart. But that hasn’t changed anything else. The universe is still on the same axis, get it?”

“I was just asking because it’s been ten years since you two –”


“Got it.” He brooded in silence for a few minutes as she stacked dishes.

“I can feel you staring,” she said at last.

“Sorry. It’s just – you know, you know everything and I don’t know anything!”

“You’re the one who keeps telling me things, I never –”

“Ask. I know.”

She shrugged. “What do you want to know?”

“General things.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Are you planning on getting married?”

“That’s very general,” she mocked. “He’s asked.”


“And the answer was specific.”

“You said no,” he guessed.

“What makes you think that?”

“You said yes?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You’re trying to make me crazy,” he groaned.

“If that’ll make you shut up.”

He looked her over. “You ever feel guilty about us?”

“I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty,” she said at last. “What about you?”

“I don’t know. That’s a good way of putting it – guilty for not feeling guilt. I should be guilty. When she said she – when she told me this morning, I –”

“She told you this morning?” she interrupted.

He nodded. “Remember how we’d go days without speaking to each other?”


“We’ve been having those. For a while now. Lali sure broke the pattern.”

“Serve you right,” she said with ill-concealed satisfaction.

“Did you always have that mean streak?” he asked, watching her get back to the sink.

“Don’t you know? I thought I was the bitch from hell.”

“That was when we broke up,” he dismissed. “No, I mean, as a person. I kind of remember you as – sort of vanilla, you know?”

“Ouch,” she said. “At least, I think ‘ouch’.”

“Ouch is right. That was not a compliment.”

“Vanilla is a very exotic and expensive spice you know.”

“Yeah, and we use it in custard pudding,” he remarked.

She made a face at him. “Maybe you were the custard pudding. Once I got you out of the mix, I could shine again.”

“Ouch.” It was his turn to wince. “Anand isn’t custard pudding?”

“Anand is,” she paused to think, hands immersed in the sudsy sink. “Anand is ice cream. Very expensive, very high quality ice cream.”

“Well, custard puddings have their own charm,” he said, a bit annoyed.

“Hey, Lali was your jelly.”

The silence was awful.

“I didn’t mean –”

“How did we start this dumb comparison anyway?” he asked at the same time.

They smiled at each other. He continued clearing the table as she briskly loaded the dishwasher.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked.

“Well, the apartment is mine. She’s moving out today. I guess I’ll have to find a lawyer and stuff.”

“Do you think she’s been cheating on you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”

“Hmm, you never do.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

She paused for a few moments before turning to face him. “Have you ever asked yourself why you hit on me that day?”

“We’d had a bad day.” She watched him search for an acceptably evasive answer. “We were two parents who thought their son was going to die and we were tired and in shock and we just – ended up in bed.”

“It didn’t mean anything,” she said. “That’s what you’re saying. It was just human reaction to a near-tragedy.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” he hedged. “Not precisely.”

“A coping mechanism,” she mused. “And then? All those other times?”

He rubbed his face, thinking. “I don’t know. I don’t – know. You were there and you didn’t say no. And somehow, that was enough.”

“Was it because of Lali?” she asked, leaning back against the sink, her face impassive. “Did she make you angry in some way?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“Because you only slept with her to get back at me. Pattern.”

“That’s not true,” he shot back. “She wasn’t just revenge.”

“You were in love with her?”

“Yes!” He faced her eyes squarely. “Yes.”

“And then you cheated on her with me. The woman you hated even if she was the mother of your son. The woman she hated. Thinking – knowing that I was sleeping with you for revenge. You did that to the woman you loved.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s complicated. I don’t know, dammit! I have no idea why I did any of those things. With you. I don’t know why it was you.”

“You know,” she said steadily.

He shook his head. She gazed at him in silence before she visibly reached a decision of some kind.

“I didn’t figure it out for a long time,” she continued in that calm little voice that never failed to drive him crazy when she sprung it on him. “I wouldn’t have figured it out at all if I hadn’t come across something of yours when I was cleaning out the house before the sale. Remember how I called you and told you to come pick up that box of things you’d left?”

Dev remembered it quite well. It had been around the time Anand had entered her life. Their lives. He’d somehow convinced Anita to sell the house that Dev had bought for her and get a place of her own. A fresh start. It was something Dev himself had suggested during the divorce but she’d accused him of trying to throw her out of the house and so he hadn’t said anything further on the subject.

He recalled a faint feeling of resentment – something about bloody Anand just ticked him off. Maybe it was that Zen-like calm that he carried around with him like some sort of comfort blanket when he wasn’t infecting others with it. And it didn’t help that one word from him could make Anita do things he had never been able to convince her to do, try as he might. Not even in the early days of their marriage when she’d been a lot more malleable than she was now at the age of 47.

There was something else about that whole house changing event that tugged at his memory but he couldn’t put a finger on it exactly.

“I remember,” he said aloud.

She nodded. “It was just little things. Mementos and tapes and things that you never got a chance to pack or forgot to pack or whatever. And a diary. A planner actually, not a diary. Do you remember that?”

And just like that, he remembered. Such an insignificant thing, really.

“Yes, I see you remember that too,” Anita said softly. “It didn’t have anything written in it. But there was a letter. From your old friend. The one who’d just gotten engaged to that model.”

“What about it?” he asked shortly.

She looked at him, head tilted to one side. “Did he make you feel old, Dev? Did I make you feel old?”

“Pop psychology,” he scoffed. “All these years I thought you’d understood – we just didn’t work out. And here you are.”

“Yes, here I am. And there you were – the father of a child, husband to a wife who was struggling to manage home and family with a demanding career of her own. I didn’t have any time for you, did I?”

“Ancient history,” he said impatiently.

“Yes.” She was quiet for a few moments. “But that’s not the whole story is it? You looked at me and all you could see was an adult. And you didn’t want it. You didn’t want to be that person in the mirror and I defined that man.”

“I was also a father,” he shot back. “And a damned good one. If I was trying to get away from my responsibilities then why just dump you? I’d have left him too.”

“You did,” she told him. “You left him with me. It took you a good year to come back to him.”

“That’s not true!”

“Isn’t it? That first year, you moved to another town, got a different job, married Lali, went on an extended honeymoon – how much time did you spend with him?”

“I came back,” he said after a while, his voice thick.

She nodded. “You came back.”

The emphasis on the middle word was subtle but he heard with the clarity of a thousand bells rung together. There was a buzzing sound in his ear. He shook his head.

“Are you saying – are you trying to tell me this whole thing – that it was all a midlife crisis?”

“Does it sound that simple?”

“Answer me dammit!” he shouted.

“I don’t know!”

“You sure seem to know a lot for someone who doesn’t know,” he said, his face ugly.

“I know you,” she whispered.

“Why did you sleep with me?” he asked suddenly.

“I thought you knew.”

“Why did you sleep with me?” he repeated.

“Because I wanted you.” She swallowed. “Because I loved you.”

He stared at her for one long second and then laughed, the sound of it harsh and loud. She flinched.

“Almost,” he said savagely. “You had me there – almost. Nearly pulled it off. But there’s a limit to how much even we puppets like to be managed.”

“You think I’m trying to manipulate you?”

“You love me?” he shot back. “You – love – me? You can’t stand me. I don’t what sick game these past few years have been about but I know one thing for sure and that’s how much you hate me.”

“I don’t hate you,” she whispered.

“If I was about to get run over, you’d pay the driver to back up and run me over a couple of extra times.”

“Is that what you think?”

“It’s what I know!”

“And you? What would you do if you saw me about to get run over?”

He stared at her, his eyes gleaming unnaturally bright in the late afternoon light streaming through the window. “I have to go,” he said at last.

“What would you do,” she asked softly, walking across the few feet that separated them, “if you saw me about to get run over, Dev?”

Suddenly his hands shot out, fingers digging into the soft flesh inside her upper arms. She bit her lip on a gasp of pain as his grip tightened mercilessly, his eyes drilling into hers. He shook her lightly, her face mere inches away from his. She could smell his cologne, the light lemony scent of him cut with the smoky undertones of the Scotch he’d been steadily consuming all day. His teeth were clenched tight as he brought her closer and closer, inch by slow, painful inch. Her lips parted as she struggled to breathe, forced to stand on her tiptoes as he pulled her up against him.

And then he was gone. Just like that. Just like always. Anita heard his footsteps, loud on the parquet floors, right before the front door slammed shut. She listened to its finality echoing through her house.


Posted by on May 23, 2007 in Fiction



The first time he hit me, I refused to believe it. My body felt it: my cheek stung, the sound reverberated around the room, for one slight second I could swear I saw double. My eyes took in his contorted face leaning into mine as he breathed heavily. But my brain said it was all a lie; it had to be a lie. The seconds filed calmly past as we simply stared at each other. And ever so slowly, into that shocked silence, my rage was born.

This was an unfamiliar anger. Fury in my soul usually arrives with a kind of blissful void created of adrenaline in its wake, wiping away all thought and memory and driving me deep into the most elemental part of my being as I lash out with every bit of strength I possess. This one though, brought with it a numbing sadness too deep for tears along with fear – and shock – and sheer disbelief – and an iron band around my chest that drew tighter and tighter as I tried to hurt him as he’d hurt me, yet knowing somehow that I could never make him experience a fraction of the ferocity of the pain and terror of that instant after his palm had connected with my face.

Even as I felt my nails sink into his flesh, darkly satisfying in the sheer viciousness of its grip on tissue and membrane and bringing with it fleeting images of broken veins gushing blood and torn flesh gaping in crescent shapes; even as the pressure built on my teeth as they clamped down, one jaw on another and drowned out the dulling throb of my cheek – I could feel him win this physical battle.

It only served to increase the intensity of the rage bubbling within me, and thankfully I felt myself sink into the familiar quicksand of my usual blind anger replete with tears and gritted invective. He threw me to the floor at some point and I kicked him and kicked and kicked and punched and bit and raked and clawed until all I could hear was the raspy breath in my lungs struggling alongside the sobs of hatred dribbling out of my mouth. I could no longer feel – his blows or mine. Dimly, through the blessed morphine of adrenaline, I was aware of pain washing my body in waves, relentlessly ebbing and flowing, now here – then there, but I couldn’t recognize its source: was it him and the memories of those nights spent in his strong arms or was it me and the shock of having my love ripped from me and replaced with this monster I wished to slay more than anything I had ever wanted in my life?

Was it him or was it me?

Curled up on the floor with tears (of rage or sadness, I did not know) flooding my face, my hands still instinctively sought his flesh to rend and tear. I could taste the salty sweetness of blood in my mouth and in my mind it was his blood I tasted. Muffled, as through cotton wool, I could hear the reedy wails still rising in my throat. He too was sobbing – I could hear that too but faintly. Perhaps he was simply dragging in some air. There seemed to be an impenetrable bubble of air wrapped around us that thrust away the world with its lights and sounds and other people.

I knew, or rather one distant part of me knew, I should be doing a great many things; all the things I’d thought other women should do when placed in the situation I now found myself in: scream loudly to attract attention, run to safety, so many things that seemed so simple and logical when I thought about it.

But lost in this unreal world of pain, all I could do was battle – for composure, for emotional survival and against him, against the overwhelming urge to kill.

That was what I wanted to do most – kill him. It overlay the other emotions seething within me, struggling for precedence. My brain wanted him dead for the unimaginable betrayal of his act. My heart wanted him stretched lifeless on the floor the way all my feelings for him now lay. My body simply wanted to bathe in his blood, every cell straining to experience the image painted for it by a fevered mind.

How dramatic that sounds in black and white. How melodramatic and silly and faintly disgusting. But at that moment (and sometimes even now in the dark of the night when the memory of that day is sprung upon me by a subconscious that refuses to forget) my hands tightened into claws because they wanted to shred his flesh until the blood ran over them, and my teeth tensed to bite into him and let the tongue at last experience the hot rush of blood it had already imagined.


That was not the beginning, of course. For the longest time, I dated the beginning of the end with that first day of outright violence but I was wrong. It began with the Speaking Look – a raised eyebrow, a sardonic half-smile, a tiny sneer, an expression of disbelief, a tightening of the lips, turning his head away.

Then came the actual words: don’t you think that will give other people the wrong impression – is that what you’re wearing – don’t you have something else – you can’t be serious – what makes you think that – let me tell you…

Soon, the words were deeper, sharper: you always have an answer don’t you – you may think so but – why can’t you do as I ask you – I want you to do this…

Then, came the other words: moron – idiot – bitch – slut – whore…

After that: everybody is sick and tired of you – nobody wants to be around you – if you didn’t have me…

And in a little while, the war between his world and my world: maybe that’s what your parents taught you but – you can’t think like that – behave like that – talk like that – walk like that – dress like that…


I wish I’d decided then never to see him again. I wish I hadn’t believed that it was something that could only happen this once.

But I didn’t decide that and it did happen again. Again and again and every time I cried, he cried with me – not at that moment, but later. At that moment, he only stared at me with eyes burning with hate and screamed things that were not true but were instead things that he hoped, fervently and obviously, would hurt me. But later, when he wept and clutched me close to him, hid his face in my lap and curled up on his knees to beg me to forgive him in a voice choked with sobs, he cried, I love you baby, don’t leave me.

I love you baby, he said as if that made it all right that he’d been trying to beat the parts he didn’t love out of me only a short while ago. Don’t leave me, he told me as if he had every right to tell.

And the thing that makes me ashamed to my bones, much more than what he did to me, is that I didn’t leave him. I went along with his presumption that love conquered all and that the rights bestowed upon lovers in the spring of romance can last forever. Every time I hugged him close and thought, he knows better now and every time I did that I knew I lied and that with every passing day my heart was learning the degrees separating love and indifference – and hate.

The shame was magnified a million times because the only thing that kept me with him was a kind of lethargic fear of the unknown. I had been a part of this couple for so long, I no longer knew who I would be once I left him. And rather than find out, rather than face the unpleasant task of separation and the ugliness involved in the dismemberment of a paralyzed relationship, I chose to continue life with a man whom I no longer liked, respected, admired… or loved.

To be honest in the cold light of the morning-after as well as hindsight, was to admit that the love had begun to die a long time before he raised his hand to me. It had withered under the relentless assault of his expectations that apparently could only exist upon the graveyard of my own, coupled with a chasm between our personalities that could only temporarily be bridged by sex. All that was left in the end was a rapidly diminishing comfort of the familiar and a vague feeling of irritation mixed with impatience every time I was confronted by his constant desire for reassurance. The rage, of course, was intermittent and carefully hidden at most times.

In a way, had I not been ashamed of my reasons for not leaving him, had I not been ashamed of the words of love that I gave to him week after week without meaning a word of it, I think I would never have crossed the line between disdain and hate no matter what he did to me. One didn’t hate a slug, after all, for being a slug. One hates a slug only when it touches upon something hidden deep within ourselves. My recognition of my own frailties when coupled with his attacks upon me, fed on each other to the magnification of both. And I began to hate him. As passionately as he wished me to love him.

Perhaps I would still have remained on this side of hatred had I been able to talk it over with someone. But I didn’t say a word. Instead, I chose to hold those bruises and that shallowly buried rage, which threatened sometimes to cut off my air supply when my eyes landed on his face, close within me where no one else could see them.

Why? Because I was afraid. Not of him. But, for the first time in my life (and this was his true ‘gift’ to me), I was afraid of what other people would say. I was afraid that they would either scorn me for my weakness or refuse to believe that he’d raised a hand to me. Of the two, I feared disbelief more than I feared anything else. I think I would rather have died than tell someone and then have them look at me with eyes that asked is that so? while their mouths said oh poor you!


We weren’t bad people, he and I. At least, I don’t think so.

He used to blush when I teased him about his ex-girlfriends and speculated about his wild past. I would blush when he paid me extravagant compliments, still unused to them after the teen years of braces and glasses. We loved buying each other little things – he would buy me the tiny pieces of silver work that I so loved; I would buy him the bottles of after-shave he was addicted to. He would play with my hair; I would pinch his cheeks. We made faces at each other in restaurants, embarrassing the waiters as they glided around our table. When the rains came, we bunked classes and went for long rides on smooth roads; I would hold him close for warmth as the bike hugged the wet road and the wind and rain whipped around us. We liked to eat out. We liked to dress up and go out to posh parties with all the fervor of the newly adult but we refused to color-coordinate, looking down disdainfully at the couples that did so. He was never happier than when he was in the midst of a crowd; I liked my space. He liked trance; I preferred Hip Hop. We both had a thing for classical music – Western and Indian. He liked Shakespeare; I was born on Shakespeare’s birthday.

No. We weren’t bad people, he and I. At least, I don’t think so. But something within us brought out the worst in each other.

When we first started dating, we told each other that we were meant to be. And perhaps it was true. Perhaps we were meant to be – not forever and ever amen… but to introduce ourselves to all that we didn’t want to be. Maybe we were each other’s guide to our darker selves, the ones we both hated but couldn’t break free of because they were us.

If the power of monsters lies in their name, I failed to recognize mine. I thought it was him, but in fact it was me. In retrospect, he was nothing – his presence in my life was limited to the ground I allowed him to occupy. Myself, I carried everywhere. An incubus whom there was no repelling for she was born of my own body.

The coward who refused to look life in the face; the doubter who introduced the word need into my brain; the woman who laid courage aside to live with a lie – the enemy within.


A month and a half later, it was summer break and we were both vacationing separately. He called me long distance from his parents’ house, a call remarkably free of all static, and asked me why my emails were getting shorter and shorter and came less and less often.

Don’t you love me? he asked.

Sure, I replied.

Then why don’t you say so?

I do.

I love you.

Me too.

Say it.

Sigh. I love you.

Like you mean it.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

You’re making fun of me.

I have to go. Absently, with my free hand, I twisted the bracelet I never took off: the one he’d clasped on my wrist the very day after he’d asked me to go steady. Hearts and flowers all around a delicate silver chain, it had broken once but he’d gotten it repaired before I’d had a chance to miss it.

What? What is it? Is there someone else?

No. I have to go. My mom wants me.

Walking into my room, I locked the door behind me. It took a couple of tries but finally the clasp came free. My wrist looked a little bare without that thin line of silver, a little tarnished now from constant use. It was astonishing how little it was, how tiny and insignificant lying pooled in the palm of my hand instead of stretched across my wrist.

Carefully, kneeling on the cold floor, I placed it in the wastebasket.

[Originally published at, 2005]


Posted by on April 24, 2007 in Fiction