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December 12, 2019

Find Your Language

Photographed by Joshua Navalkar

The number of mother tongues spoken in India runs into the thousands, yet in the arena of mainstream literature, where English continues to dominate, only a fraction of the significant writing being produced finds a platform. Verve highlights flash fiction in Urdu, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, exclusively authored for us by four bilingual wordsmiths…

URDU

Untitled

I was young, very young. I don’t even remember how young I was.
We used to go to our village during our summer holidays.
It was mango season and our ancestors had left behind many mango orchards.
There was an old crumbling haveli too, in which Chachi Jan lived alone.
Anyway, we didn’t mind that coal engine, those particles in the eyes, as we dreamt of the mangoes that lay just ahead.
But this year the mangoes weren’t ready and had been kept in the Shaheedon ki Kothri (Martyr’s storeroom) to ripen.
We children were eager…but Chachi Jan had strict instructions that Jinn Mamu stayed in that storeroom.
“Jinn Mamu! Who are they?” we asked in confusion.
“They are also Allah’s creation like us. Angels are made from light, Jinns from fire and we are made from mud. They anger very easily, and even I never enter this storeroom without asking their permission.”
“Please tell us some more,” we kids had found the topic of the holidays.
“Once Jinn Mamu got angry and upturned my cot. I would straighten it and they would turn it upside down again. I had to plead and beg for forgiveness that I will never enter without permission before I could sleep that night.
Once they were in a playful mood and as I your Chacha and I sat down for dinner, what do we see! The spoons and forks are dancing in the air, the meat pieces from the curry are floating above our head. How do I describe the interesting times we had here but they always protected us. As long as they are here, the haveli will be there.”
Many years passed and this year I have come here with my children in the mango season. The walls are looking yearningly for someone to live here. I made my way carefully through the ruins towards the now broken down storeroom.
“Do I have permission to enter?”
Neither the stones nor the bricks replied.
Silence gave me my answer

– Rana Safvi

MALAYALAM

Pishaachinivimukthi — Or, Liberation from/of the She-Ghouls

After he returned home from the great yagna in which a thousand and eight virtuous brahmins chanted the mantras a thousand and eight times to draw the she-ghoul into the clay figurine, trap her there, drive nails into her tongue, heart, and forehead, spit on her face, drag her on the ground, and drown her in the river, Ramachandran took a refreshing bath and stepped into his bedroom. Closing the window, he threw a scornful look at the sky’s expansive public spaces that lay high above.

Where? Indeed, where? Where were the murky rain clouds, those pisaachinis who spoke thunder’s words and wielded thunder-bolts in their agitations and struggles?
He drew himself up to spit long and hard out of the window.

The banshees had rushed out all screaming and wailing when scholars well-versed in the smrithis sat cross-legged around the sacrificial fire and chanted the holy mantras in the presence of Swami Raghuramachandra — that Valiant Destroyer of Mosques — and the Cardinals and Usthads who had supported the ritual so generously, as a massive gathering beyond caste, creed, class, and colour bore witness.

But to what avail?

The activism of the clouds dissipated into mere vapour when the sacrificial flames blazed and leapt.

As he lay on the bed strewn with fragrant jasmine waiting for Seethalakshmi, the scenes from the site of the sacrifice played in his mind again and again. The holy sacrificial pyre, which cloaked Earth and Sky in blinding whiteness. Crowds of men with overflowing eyes, hands joined in fervent prayer, their hearts melting. The mantras that they chanted from the bottom of their hearts.

Om purushaaya namah…
Hail, the Hallowed Masculine…!
Om purushaarthaaya namah…
Hail, the Goals of Man’s Life …!
Om purushartha kaamaaya namah…
Hail, the Prosperity and Pleasure of Men …!

They resounded the whole day long upon the lips of mere boys barely twelve or ten, and ripe old men of a hundred years, alike… mantras which he, Ramachandran, had passionately chanted to himself a thousand times and more, over the past years.

Om purusha dukhaharaaya namah…
Hail thee, Destroyer of Men’s Sorrows…!
Om purusha saukhyadaayine namah…
Hail thee, He Who Bestows Well-being on Men …!
Om purusha prajaasamrakshanaaya namah…
Hail thee, Protector of Male progeny !
Om purusha bharanasthaapanaaya namah…
Hail thee, Maker of Male Rule …!

Ramachandran chanted those mantras to himself again, almost unmindfully. A new energy raced through his body. Outside, Night had emerged freshly bathed from her monthly seclusion. She was now draping the pristine creamy-white mundu-neryathu of the moonlight around her body. The beauty spot on her swelling Moon-ly orb peeked out through the diaphanous clouds thrown carelessly on it; it aroused him. Ramachandran felt that his Manhood had returned from the years of exile in the wild. He closed his eyes and chanted the rest of the mantras:

Om bhaaryadharmasamsthapakaaya namah
Hail thee, Restorer of Wifely Duty …!
Om mathrtvaaya namah
Hail Motherhood …!
Om mathrtvasamsthapakaaya namah
Hail thee, Reviver of Motherhood …!

His chanting was broken by the sweet tinkle of anklets — Seethalakshmi was making her way there like a coy virgin-bride with the glass of sweetened cow-milk. Her pisaachini-free body was scrubbed clean, perfumed with turmeric and sandal, and dressed in a spotless mundu-neryathu, the unmistakable sartorial evidence of womanliness; the glowing sindoor, that auspicious mark of eternally-dutiful wifehood, graced her forehead; the reassuring marriage-locket shone on her necklace; her long flowing hair was adorned with fresh and fragrant jasmine garlands.

He took the glass of milk from her hand and pinched her cheek mildly and lovingly. She drew away coyly, face flushed rosy, toes drawing eager little patterns on the ground in sweet nervousness. Seeing her thus, Ramachandran offered many thanks to the mosque-slayer Swami, the Cardinal, and the Usthad. He chanted the rest of the mantras silently:

Om feminist pisaachinivinaashaayaka namah
Hail thee, Destroyer of feminist she-ghouls …!
Om kutumbadevataaprasthishapaye namah
Hail thee, Preserver of family deities…!

As he drank the milk, Ramachandran did try to complete the chanting in his mind, finishing with

Om uttamakutumbinisamvardhakaaya namah
Hail thee, Sustainer of Ideal Housewives …!

But it was not to be. He collapsed suddenly. On his back, foaming and frothing at the mouth. The Blessed Soul soon fell silent.

Seethalakshmi proceeded at haste to wash the glass thoroughly with soap and keep it aside.

She returned and paying obeisance to the Ideal Family by chanting Om matrakaakutumbaaya namah , engrossed herself in rummaging the room for the man’s property documents and fixed deposit receipts.

– K R Meera (translated by J. Devika)

HINDI

The First Last Meeting

I’d always imagined that meeting him again would be as perfectly outlined as the last chapter of a well written novel. The story would’ve almost reached the end but it’d still make the impatient reader ponder over what the perfect ending could be, complete with bated breath, restless fingers and a constant scratching of the head.

But none of that happened. Why can’t life be like literature? Even after 11 years, my excitement to see him again was as less as the sorrow of our separation had been. Neither I cried, nor he screamed. We had seen our relationship die right in front of our eyes and hadn’t even cared enough to give it a proper burial.

Today after all these years, I still didn’t feel a thing. So I reached the cafe a tad earlier and began to inspect the surroundings. The air smelled of coffee beans, young love dreams with a whiff of hopelessness of that college graduate whose dreams had refused to take shape. On the left corner table sat a middle aged man meditating on his coffee so deeply as if it contained the elixir of his lost youth in it.

I sighed as I saw him hurriedly entering the cafe as soon as the clock struck five.

Without even a hint of a smile or hesitation or nervousness I found him seated right in front of me. “Well, you haven’t changed at all,” I said as I slowly swirled some sugar in my coffee. To my surprise, I found myself smiling, hesitating and showing every sign of nervousness there is. I could feel my ears puckering up as the warm flush of an evening sky made its way to my cheeks. Horrified at my own lack of composure, I asked to be excused to go the restroom promising to be back in two minutes.

After five minutes I came back to realise that he was gone and once again, I didn’t feel a thing. Neither did I cry nor did he scream. I scoured over the table to see if maybe he’s left behind a note or a letter just like they do in a well written novel but he had left nothing behind.

What he had left behind instead was the realisation that to not feel anything is perhaps the strongest emotion there is.

– Priya Malik

TAMIL

Hero Stone

The bark wine, cooked rice and meat is ready. The flowers, just picked. The oppari singers are beginning. The priestess who is to invoke the hero in the stone, is here too, behind the mango tree. A glass of toddy already down, preparing for the ritual to begin in exactly one nazhigai. All that’s left is for the hero stone to be brought here from the stone worker’s workshop.

***

No one saw the poosal happen. They heard it. It was the night, just before the darkest. The first indication was the silence of the distant wolves. No one had bothered — after all it could be the leopard — but Maari was awake. Maari had heard the silence and knew what it meant. Maari knew the woods well, knew when night’s agents rise up for the prey. Maari also knew that here, up near the hills where the jackfruit trees begin and the pepper scents the night, leopards know well to leave alone. That meant something else had spooked the wolves.

Maari came out to the cross road and the platform in the village. 8 houses do not a village make, but the distant king knew that the people here lived well off the land, and the cows were fat and thus the meat tender. A royal decree turned this pettai into an ooru. In return a king feasted well.

A few nodis, moments after the wolves went silent the marauders came. Silent and lethal, but Maari knew they were there. The sickle and knife clanged against their daggers, like alarm bells ringing. Then there was just an uneasy quiet. Not fully peaceful, but just an absence of sound.

At daybreak the villagers gathered and the one dead marauder was dispatched over the other side.

***

Maari’s stone is finally here. The thachan and his helpers unpack the leaves and brush away the last of the granite dust. The priestess totters over to supervise the planting. Everything is ready for the ceremony to begin, but the oppari singer asks

“Wait, why does Maari have a veshti?”

– Nadika Nadja

All the literary texts have been printed unedited, in their original versions.

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