Dancefish on the Banks of the Yamuna

Ashwarya Samkaria

1.

This is a tale of a young Odissi dancer, a fish, a literary ecologist, and water bodies. On the surface level, all of them are separate entities. But by the end of the story, you will realise how tangled-up everything is. As earthlings, the dancer and the literary critic were steeped in the world of arts. Their apparently divergent practices (one pertaining to bodily movement and the other to linguistic diversity) were quite interlocked. The elder sister Ayesha, training as an ecocritic, was a person of letters studying nature from a literary perspective. Her world was enmeshed in studying the interconnectedness between nature and culture. The younger sister Shirin was participating in the world as an ‘Indian classical Odissi dancer’, a label that was constructed by the cultural revivalists under the aegis of cultural institutions established in independent India post 1947. She derived inspiration for movement in an aesthetic and corporeal language from the natural world that was home to humans, nonhumans, and more-than-human elements. Her dance teemed with images of the earth and earthlings who were re-presented through the dancing body’s movements- as living creatures that moved and participated in the oneness that unites all living and nonliving beings. In their different ways, the siblings were weaving their lives around nature and the environment. The difference was the threads with which their narratives were being woven. 

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Mother

Tathagata Som

Every morning, after tea, I water my mother. I water her even in the monsoon when it rains incessantly and the trees do not need more water. It has become a sort of ritual at this point. She stands still in the garden outside, uncomplaining, as lonely as she was when she lived inside the house and spent days looking forward to when I would return from college and while away time with her. The very thought now fills me with guilt and shame. Perhaps I steadfastly water her as a form of penance, hoping that the water will cleanse me of my sins. Now, she stands outside my study window and waves her branches in the breeze. Even when there is no wind, the chirping of birds that live on her branches informs me that my mother is alive and well. On winter nights, I hear her shivering, but I can hardly do anything about it. Once, I tried to light a fire under her, near where her roots dug deep into the earth, but it started to burn the low-hanging leaves, so I had to put it out. She is happiest on spring mornings. I can almost hear her laugh when the first sun shines through her bright leaves and bees dance around her. My mother is as beautiful as when she lived inside the house, in human form. I sometimes look at her pictures—old photographs from her college years when she went to the University of Calcutta—and wonder at her beauty. I can almost understand how my father fell head-over-heels in love with her. There is a photo where she is standing in front of a bookstall at College Street, dressed in a churidar, her long dark hair flowing like a mountain stream. She is not looking at the camera, but sideways at another person who is left out of the frame. Behind her stands my father, his hair wavy, his face placid with a large moustache. He is wearing large-framed sunglasses so I cannot see his eyes. It was taken two years before I was born, one year before their marriage, and nine years before father’s death. 

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The Daughter of the Doctor who Sterilized Women

Vihanga Perera

A racist newspaper that happened also to be the country’s bestseller accused Mohammad Hafeez – a doctor of the national health service – of singlehandedly carrying out sterilization surgeries on 4500 Sinhalese women. A Muslim man, Hafeez was the father of three girls, whose second daughter and I were in the same class in primary school. When this charge that shocked a country came out, we were 9-year-olds in the 4th Grade in the town’s most popular school. Ours was a Sinhalese-Buddhist majority school in which non-Sinhalese like the Hafeez family were given a ten percent quota of classroom space. Along with Shafinur Hafeez, there were two other girls who were Muslims. More often than not, they sat together (or maybe they were made to sit like that – I cannot be sure) in the corner of the oblong room.

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The Gift

Kinjal Sethia

Pandu is jittery on the broken seat of the bus stop outside his basti. Hugging himself, he is trying to hide the stiff, newspaper-wrapped package cradled inside his shirt. It is a gift for Shevanta. But he cannot yet take it home, a blue dot in a blue maze. If he brings home a gift in broad daylight, people will speak about it, and for long. 

So, he waits for the evening light to fade further when the basti falls under shadow and a lull breaks the hustle between men returning from work and the unemployed heading out for the night. Then, Pandu will navigate the narrow lanes leading inside the sprawling slum to the corrugated iron he calls home. 

He built his home with materials borrowed from his boss, Contractor saheb, who takes up house renovation projects for middle class families in the suburbs. After Shevanta came into his life, Pandu added small things here and there to make home resemble something more domestic. A piece of saree curtained the entrance; cups, plates, utensils, a mug and a bucket next to the stove occupied one corner, huddled together like refugees on a raft. He is glad of the things he has acquired. But he is proudest of the package hiding inside his shirt. Finally, something for Shevanta, something that is only meant for her, and not for the home. 

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From The Editor’s Desk

I am delighted to present Samyukta Fiction’s first issue! It is being released on what is New Year’s Day according to the Indian solar calendar, a day that is celebrated as Baisakhi in North and Central India, Rongali Bihu in Assam, Puthandu in Tamil Nadu, Vishu in Kerala, Pana Sankranti in Odisha, and Poila Boishakh in Bengal. But along with India, the day is celebrated in Cambodia as the Khmer New Year, in Laos as the Lao New Year, and in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. It is also Ambedkar Jayanti, a day to mark the birthday of B R Ambedkar, India’s most eminent civil rights activist, constitution-maker, and visionary. It is important to recall the many-splendoured beauty and optimism of this day even as we struggle globally against a deadly pandemic and its socioeconomic aftershocks.

I hope you will find each of the five stories featured in this first issue a treat. The theme of the issue is “reversal of expectation” and each story plays with your mind, its anticipations and assumptions. The stories are embedded in their own time and place, and one is struck by their immediacy as well as their timelessness, a feature that, in my opinion, the best writing often embodies.

Let me introduce to you, briefly, our five featured writers!

Alex Barr’s short fiction collection My Life With Eva was published in 2017 by Parthian Books. Take a Look At Me-e-e! a book of stories for children about farm animals, appeared in 2014 from Gomer Press. His recent stories can be read at MIROnline and Litro Story Sunday.

Alex’s short story “Sybil” is a tale of dawning realization, powerfully mediated through his sharp eye for detail and nuance. A young man and woman, newly in love, discover that love’s connections are never easy and can quickly come undone. A tale set in the 1950s that is as alive today as it is in the mind’s eye on the past.

Until a year ago, he hadn’t heard of Pericles. A bourgeois shoot grafted on peasant stock, father a self-made graduate engineer, no doubt all aspiration and no culture. — “Sybil” by Alex Barr

Florian Beauvallet teaches at the University of Rouen (Normandy, France) and is a member of the ERIAC research group. His research focuses on the notion of flippancy in literature and he is also interested in the role played by translation in the development of the art of the novel. Recently, he translated into French Imitation, the first novel by South African writer Leonhard Praeg.

Florian’s short story “Graduation Day” centres around its protagonist’s feelings of hope, self-doubt, and uncertainty. As the reader gets wrapped up in this story about a story, she wonders what is life – a tale well-lived or a life well-told?

For a few brief moments that morning, the world was set afire by a sense of wonder. — “Graduation Day” by Florian Beauvallet

Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith, he has published poetry, plays and essays (mostly on the short story form or on adaptation). His writing has been published and performed and has won prizes.

“The Interview” is a story about a writer, who goes in search of a story about a man whose road has taken him somewhere unexpected. As the story loops about writing and being written about, the reader is afforded a chance to think about her own voice and its articulations.

The old farmhouse too, will go that way, but over a longer period of time, I guess, and run to ruin and green decay. — “The Interview” by Brindley H. Dennis

Takbeer Salati was born in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. She is currently completing a PhD on the writings of Sadat Hasan Manto. She is also working on a translation of her grandfather’s book Hijaz. Her research and short stories can be read on Akademos and Mountain Ink.

Takbeer’s luminous story “Red Snow” explores the twinned destinies of Elif, a young Kashmiri girl, and Rantas, a mythical witch in the Kashmir valley.

Even the winds of the city blew with curiosity. Elif and a neighbor boy were missing. — “Red Snow” by Takbeer Salati

Janet H. Swinney is an acclaimed writer from the North East of England. She has family ties with India and her experience of life there has deeply influenced her writing, published across the UK, India, and the US. She is the author of The Map of Bihar and Other Stories (2019, Circaidy Gregory Press) and the upcoming collection, The House with Two Letter-Boxes (2021, Fly on the Wall Press). Her work has been shortlisted for and has won many prizes including the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012, and she was a runner-up for the London Short Story Prize 2014.

Her story “Hot Cakes” is set in a small village in Punjab, where a young girl’s fate lies in thrall of forces greater than her family’s or even her nation’s. A young doctor from the UK enters Pooja’s life and changes it forever.

Pooja entered the barren space that was the schoolyard clumsy, downcast, self-conscious, chastened and a martyr to the cause of the female gender. — “Hot Cakes” by Janet H. Swinney

We received a number of entries for Issue # 1 and I thank all the writers who shared their work with us. Please stay tuned to our next Call for Stories! In the meantime, here’s wishing you all happy reading!

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Issue 1 Writer’s Roundatble

Samyukta Fiction asked our featured writers to reflect on the state of the short story, their creative journeys, and the world. Anupama Mohan brings them to the Samyukta RoundTable.

AM: As a writer, how do you understand the possibilities and limitations of the short story as a genre?

Florian Beauvallet: By now, the idea according to which the short story offers writers a space to experiment with has become cliché, but it does retain some truth still. Whether one envisions the short story as a laboratory or a workshop, I can’t deny the fact that writing short stories is one of the best ways to come to grips with technique. But the genre is much more than that. There is an immediacy to it, in the sense that short stories can be pure storytelling–a honest attempt at fiction-making. . . the genre provides a way to capture existence and experience in a dynamic way, much like an artist’s sketch; what it lacks in terms of scale and extensiveness is offset by the evocative concision and rough creativity it successfully seizes, hopefully.

Janet H Swinney: Writing short stories reminds me of Japanese Sumi-e painting, a technique of monochromatic drawing making use of India ink, where the artist supplies the essence of the subject, and the observer fills out the rest. A short story writer cuts away the superfluous detail to arrive at the heart of the matter. And it’s this sparseness of form that means a good short story can deliver a knife between the ribs, in a way that a longer form doesn’t. The best short stories leave you shocked and ruminating for the rest of your life.

Alex Barr: I think the main limitation of the short story is from the reader’s viewpoint. Whereas with a novel he or she can become immersed in the story and intimate with the characters at leisure, short fiction demands the effort of constantly starting afresh. For the writer, however, each story offers the possibility of experimentation—flirtation with an unfamiliar style, or an opportunity to make repeated attempts to nail an elusive idea or feeling.

Takbeer Salati: As stated by George Saunders, when you need a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. I see in the short story a space to talk about a lot of different things happening in the microcosm of your daily life. I find the same after I weave a narration straight out from Kashmir which is my native place. It gives Kashmir its due representation, a voice, and a list of characters in the literary sphere who are otherwise lost in the abyss of unlimited  desire and talent. The only limitation which I notice is the way they end too fast!

Brindley Hallam Dennis: I’ve given a lot of thought to the short story over the last decade and a half. It intrigues me far more than does the novel, with which I feel it has very little in common. I think of short stories as being tales that might be told by one person to another or to a group, and that they carry an implied context for that telling. I’m influenced by individual stories rather than by authors in a general sense, and often only two or three stories by a particular writer, but a few with as many a half dozen or even more! My favourite short stories bring us to a moment of realisation about what comes next, what has brought us to this point, or what the place we have come to really is.

AM: What drives your writing? That is, what is your fuel to continue to write?

Janet H Swinney: I took an objective look at myself in my early years and realised that writing was my strongest suit, but it wasn’t until later life that I had the means to pursue something that requires considerable personal subsidy. Now that I can afford to do it, I owe it to myself and my Maker to keep going, and I’m interested in developing my craft further.Plus, I’m very interested in the factors that shape the lives of marginalised individuals and communities, and until I feel I’ve done that subject justice, I’ll keep writing.

Brindley Hallam Dennis: That’s a hard question. It’s an irrational compulsion I sometimes think. V.S.Pritchett said short stories ‘spring from a poetic rather than a prosaic impulse’. Life prompts such impulses over and again, and drives me to write, and provides the fuel.

Alex Barr: I think of Socrates’ maxim: the unexamined life is not worth living. I use short fiction to put my messy existence into some kind of order, make sense of my decisions and actions, encapsulate reality as art, and put to rest my demons.

Florian Beauvallet: Figuring out why one writes may be the convoluted reason why anyone writes at all. I do think writing is an effort to explore one’s existence and to try to get a grasp, along the way, on what it means to be. Deep down, writing may be a way to probe one’s inability to come to terms with just being–we have to articulate what it’s like to be.

Takbeer Salati: The situation on ground for Kashmir has always been on edge. It has been imposed on several lockdowns, curfews, and other political restrictions which prompt one to ask for human rights. The only fuel for me is the desire to bring forth a canon or atleast works from a place like Kashmir so that the coming generations at least know what their elders have faced. As a literature student studying since B.A at places like Delhi and now in Hyderabad, I find a lack of literature coming from Kashmir contributing to the ‘Indian writings in English’ university syllabus. I am hopeful at least for now that many writers  from Kashmir like me are coming up with their imaginative styles that will bring a change in the literary marketplace.  Hope for such Kashmiri literature is my only fuel right now.

AM: What theme/s, in your opinion, are this century’s writings going to be all about?

Alex Barr: I see a divergence: on one hand, the threat of climate change might increase the desire—already apparent—for fantasy and escapism, but I also foresee an increasing examination of gender equality, the legacy of colonialism, and political freedom.

Florian Beauvallet: I’m not sure our century will distinguish itself from the previous ones. Of course, I’m in no position to predict what’s in store for us (as people, readers, and writers) but I would wager that life will keep on imitating art in ever surprising and sinister ways. Obviously, it is gradually becoming easier for technology to challenge our shared sense of reality – this siege may go on for decades to come – but I believe that fiction will, paradoxically, be the only buoy to help us keep afloat…

Janet H Swinney: COVID means, inevitably, that a lot of us will be writing about loss and dystopia for some time to come. But that can’t be all. In the Arts, in the interests of ‘diversity and inclusion’, there’s a lot of effort going into categorising artists according to a single criterion – race, gender, class, sexuality, or whatever – and showcasing their work. But many people are being sold short by this approach. In the modern world, many of us have complex identities and spend our lives navigating the the fault lines between these absolutes. Increasingly, people in this situation are demanding to heard.

Takbeer Salati: I think the global pandemic that hit us last March and which is still continuing to take a toll on human lives will remain a major part of literature throughout this year as well. The yearning for the dead, the mental imbalance found in every generation, the idea of ‘Home’ and displacement will find a space in the forthcoming literature.

Brindley Hallam Dennis: This is an even harder question! I suppose implicit in my view of the short story is the idea of realisation taking us by surprise in various contexts. That’s what interests me, and I’ll continue to explore it (even if no-one else wants to read about it!). I suspect we’re not as articulate in answering questions as we are in formulating our stories – which is perhaps as it should be?

Graduation Day

Florian Beauvallet

Surprisingly, on that very morning, fresh sunlight was indeed pouring through the main avenue. A pattern of lights and shadows stretched the silhouette of the street and that of its varied occupants. From the passers-by to the light poles and the moody parked cars and proud fire hydrants, everything and everyone was basking in the brisk air. The minutiae of city life showed up in vividness: pigeons went so far as to delay their next flap to admire the view, trash cans were left aghast while peeking from their dark corners, and tree branches went limp with a sigh of painful covetousness. It was one of those days.

For a few brief moments that morning, the world was set afire by a sense of wonder. Not a soul dared break the spell. It is said that even the trove of delivery men busying themselves to and fro were tiptoeing from one elusive door to the next, scratching their head in perfect unison each time they wove across the road. Light bounced, taunting the shop windows whose glare cross-fired in random directions. Sunshine highlighted the texture of the sidewalk in all its glorious granularity. The unevenness of the concrete laid down just the previous spring was now apparent. It was a moving sight to suddenly realize that all year long you were trampling and shuffling over a piece of man-made ground. Curiously, a few feet from the first step leading to the square’s gate, you could decipher in the very pavement the imprint of a boot and the congealed movement of the wooden float used by the worker in-charge of smoothing out this particular section of the sidewalk.

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Hot Cakes

Janet H Swinney

The whole business was just like making tandoori roti. 

Pooja tipped the soft folds of velvet out of her shallow bowl on to a flat surface that she’d prepared earlier. Then, squatting down to get up close to her task, she briskly shaped them into a mound. Once that was done, she inhaled purposefully, plunged her fingers deep into the still-warm mulch and began to knead. She’d been at this since she was eight, relieving her mother of one small daily duty, and allowing her to concentrate on other work in the kitchen. Her practised fingers were deft and she had flexibility in the wrists as she worked her ingredients to and fro. The dough was a little slack this morning so she fed in a little more fibre. She worked the mixture steadily until it developed some plasticity and she could roll it into balls between her palms. 

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The Interview

Brindley Hallam Dennis

I ended up speaking to the landlady of the local pub, whose boundary touched that of Gosling Place.

That’s not his name, she told me. 

I couldn’t see why she was bothering to open the place, it was so quiet. She said, I don’t know why I bother to open up. It was a mid-week lunchtime and there was nobody else in, so she had plenty of time to tell me everything. 

It used to be Gosling’s farm, she said. That’s where the name comes from. Stanford bought it when the old man died. He got it for a song, at an auction. Nobody else wanted to have anything to do with the place.

Gosling had pulled off some deal to sell all his beef to the Chinese, and when that went sour after Brexit, it didn’t go well for him. People started hanging stuff on his gate.

Stuff, I said?

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Sybil

Alex Barr

‘Why do you want to sell her?’ he asks.

They walk hand-in-hand from the station, under the glass-and-iron canopy of the shops. This is Buxton, England. The century is fifty-seven years old. Not till they turn into a steep narrow lane does she reply.

‘She reminds me of when I was happy.’

‘You aren’t happy now?’

The crowding buildings of finely chiselled stone echo their steps. His anxious tone disturbs her. Does he think it’s him?

‘It’s not you, Alan.’

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