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The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
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Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
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For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
(fiction)

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I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
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Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
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Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
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fiction

For the Longest Time
- Mridula Koshy

A Day

My mother married a very interesting man. They eloped, in fact. Makes the whole thing that much more – well, tragic's the wrong word. Interesting, then. Their parents put them out. My parents were briefly poor. Maybe even for a few weeks. Very interesting – their story. Hard to know where to grab a hold, where to begin this story, which has to be told if I am to tell mine.

What's the opposite of oedipal? Whatever it is, let me just say, that's not what we are talking about here. I'm not a girl in love with her father. And it's not because I'm a feminist and think all men are jerks. They are, of course. Except my father. Would a feminist think all men are jerks except her father? No, she'd think all men are jerks. Period. Especially if this feminist ever ran into my father. He was a jerk to women. The specific way men reserve for being jerks to women. Ordering them around. He ordered my mother around. But not me.

And so no, I'm not jealous of my parents' marriage, which began with the two of them united against the whole world, and ended with his dying, leaving behind a briefcase full of condoms and blueprints for a house he was building for someone else. Not mom. Not me. Someone else and her kids, who are possibly also his. In some housing scheme outside the city, somewhere impossible – somewhere with a name like Sunny Cherry Meadow Lane. Someone else.

No, I didn't decide because of briefcase and condoms – to give up on my mother's kind of love. No, it's been coming to me. For the longest time. Ever. And not because of love being a sham. And not because of trust destroyed. And not because I used to be daddy's girl, and used to hold his shoes out for him, used to kneel on the ground to help him get them on.

Here's a story from when I was little:

We are flying to LA. It is the first time in my life my parents are taking me to Abroad. The flight out is from Bombay and it isn't taking off till the next day. My father doesn't figure this out till we arrive in Bombay. A day early. From Delhi. My mother is hysterical. This is back in the olden days. People travelled with so much crap back then.

My father smooths everything over. We land up at the Taj. My mother disappears into the spa or whatever it was they had back then. Dad's offered to watch me. Because he's being a gentleman. And because he loves me. He tells me this all the time. 'I love you, Minnie Mouse.' My mother tapes my ears to my head every night. It works. Look at me now.

I'm getting distracted here. Back to the story.

Dad calls for room service. He leaves me with whatever goody I've agreed will compensate me for being left alone.

I must have dived, doved, whatever, a few hundred times off the rim, into the largest bathtub you've ever seen. At one point in between dives I leave the game to go pee. There's this intense pee, insanely good, that only happens to you when you're little and wet. I'd probably needed to pee for a while. Probably been diving with my legs crossed. Anyway, it's when I step out of the tub that I notice the floor is swimming in tub excess. Between needing to pee and the condition of the floor I don't know which way to turn. I throw some towels on the floor where they do a nice job of mopping up. I give the toilet another flush as if that will take care of the flood.

I go back to diving and a long time goes by and then there is this huge deal. Some freaked out staff's been knocking, but I've got MTV cranked up on high, probably to help me get over being afraid, and then I'm diving real hard so I haven't heard him knocking. In he comes. I can imagine him wading through all three rooms of our suite. When he yanks open the bathroom door I don't see him, but he sees me: a scared-and-bored-from-being-alone-eight-year-old girl. By now I see him too: oh no, there's a freaky guy in the bathroom. He leaves and returns with all these other people and now I am super composed and pulling on my underwear and talking to them like I think my father would. All the while the gold-plated faucet keeps pouring. The water's long since flooded out the bathroom, the suite, the sixth floor of the Taj.

My dad comes. He takes care of the mess. And he picks me up, tells me how smart I am and how much he loves me. That's the kind of dad he was. Pooja, that's my mother, she's been weeping all day. And me, I'd like to, it'll be a relief to be able to, but there's just an empty space behind my eyes, like a fever's blown through and left me scoured. It's a day now he's been gone.

A Month

There's a lot of pressure. I don't feel it. At least, not so I succumb to it. But it's been building for the last month. It's been something like thirty, thirty-two days, no? Even the ceremonies are over.

I sympathize because the people putting pressure on me have all this pressure on them in turn. If Dad were here I'd have all the time in the world. It's like he took all my time with him.

Pooja applies the pressure. The clan – hers, I try not to think of them as mine – they jump on her. And she in turn? She's not the jumping kind. It's more along the lines of, 'Minnie, you'll never guess who's been asking about you.' I make the mistake of shrugging my shoulder, of meeting her eye. She takes it as permission to land her blow. She fakes the voice of someone trying to recover from a misstep.

'Oh no, I didn't mean Avinash. Sweetie, you know he's seeing someone or the other. Oh no, don't tell me, you're not still bummed about that chootiya? Not Avinash, it was that prof. of yours, you know the one you admired so much. So hilarious when you started wearing all those south handlooms so you could look like her. Very cute. Even I had crushes on my professors. Luckily only on the ones that dressed well.'

You've figured out by now there is little love lost between me and Pooja. As for Avinash, he's not even in the country, for god's sake. Why would I have thought it was him she ran into, him who asked after me. No, she knows I wasn't thinking of Avinash and she knows I know the whole pantomime of her dismay at hurting me is just that – a pantomime. No, the point for her is to let me know that she wants to hurt me.

What she really wants me to know is she doesn't want me around. Yes, indeed there is pressure on Pooja to get me locked down in some arrangement with some guy. And this pressure from the clan is nothing compared to the pressure she's putting on herself – to see me locked down. I suppose locking me down will have to serve now that there is no option of locking Daddy down.

She might get her way. After all, I'm never going to write that thesis. For god's sake, it's for a master's from some fake university in Saudi Arabia. And I'm certainly not planning on working in some grubby office with cracks on the walls, writing advertising copy on some mouldy desk that used to be someone else's, cigarette ashes in the drawers. So what else is there to get excited about other than getting married?

I think a couple of kids might be in order at some point. Actually, no one these days has more than one, and there are some with none. Right now I'm not interested. But I keep an open mind. No, not marriage. Children. It's not unheard of you know for a single woman to have children. Look at Sushmita Sen. Or Madonna. Isn't it Madonna who? Anyway, the pressure I'm talking about is not just the obvious pressure to find someone, to attach myself somewhere. Well, it is, but I'm more interested in the one no one talks about, but is always there as part of the marriage pressure. I'm talking about the pressure of loneliness.

Here's what I mean; here's a conversation from earlier today. My friend and I are at this coffee shop, which is styled to look fake American; they have little Elvis figures everywhere. So my friend asks me,

'Are you seeing anyone?'

'Nah. You?'

And my friend says: 'Me neither.'

So I commiserate. I make my face sympathetic. I say, 'The guys are all so predictable, aren't they?'

She doesn't know how to commiserate: 'The guys you've been seeing?'

Can't say I blame her for not wanting to line up with me. We proceed to have this long silence. Nothing else to do. I'm picking at my cuticles and discarding little peelings on the floor. I'm disgusted with myself but I can't stop. No, they're not red and bleedy. But I am nervous. And I keep twisting the chunk of hair at the back of my neck. It's my hidden spot. I think my friend says something philosophical, maybe because she too wants to salvage some sense that we are two human beings having this conversation.

She says, 'That's the way life is, isn't it?'

I think, shit she's going to tell me she's remembering Uncle. My dad, that is. So I try to distract her.

'Yeah. Cute purse, by the way.'

'Mmm. Picked it up on the Alaska cruise. Nothing to do stuck on a boat. But back to the guys, okay?'

'There are no guys. There's only Pooja. On her instruction I'm on both Shaadi dot com and Bharat Matrimonial.'

'Aunty's so old school. It's sweet. Really.'

'Well, it was either I do it or she does it. Can you imagine what she'd do with my profile? The guys, I've met a few and all. Their qualifications are not the problem. But their personalities are like -- nothing. Just horrible. One guy, he says he's not husband material. But if I want to see him as a boyfriend...'

'No! Bastard type, no?'

'I didn't mind. I mean I wouldn't mind. I'm not seeing anyone, right now, right? It's just I wonder if Pooja can be convinced to hold off on wanting to meet his parents etcetera.'

'No! You shouldn't mess with Aunty like that. But why's she trying to get you with someone. That's kind of creepy.'

'She's thinking about my age too much these day. And, anyway, wasn't it your dad who gave you the red dress and told you it'd get you laid?'

'I'm going to tell Aunty you don't look like more than seventeen. And that red dress? My dad says it's fair to treat his sons and daughters the same. Nothing creepy about that. '

'Mmm.'

'That's a compliment about you looking seventeen.'

'Thank you.'

'You're my age, aren't you?'

'I just turned twenty-seven.'

'That's not too much. And anyway, you don't look it.'

'Thank you.'

So that's how that conversation went. Even the spaces between our words, of course the words too, empty. So we can commiserate, and philosophize and still be alone. Why would anyone choose that? But that's a useless question. What's the point of thinking about other people and what they choose? It's hard enough to work out that I don't know how to choose anything else.

A Year

I'm sitting here in the clinic's waiting room. Did I scare you? The word clinic must have made you start. A little jump. Like 'uh oh, what now?'

Don't worry. No, I haven't done anything. It's been a long time since I felt like that. The worst is over. Besides, I'm not drastic. The clinic's just a place I go to talk. My therapist is into social work. So there's me paying an arm and a leg so maids and so on can also be seen. Yes, indeed maids have their psychological shit to sort out same as everyone else. So here we all are waiting in the waiting room. In case you're thinking I chose this therapist to avoid seeing anyone I know, I didn't. There's no way that anyone I know would even think of therapy for themselves. No chance of finding Simi or Prerna hiding behind a magazine in here. Not because of any stigma. They'd sooner get themselves a Hermes scarf. Tell me something: how is that different from our mothers and their Lladro Krishnas? No, I come to this therapist because she charges the most. Yes, yes, Pooja wouldn't have it any other way after I gave her that fright.

Here's what I've learnt in therapy.

1. I have to get over the guilt about Dad. It's called survival guilt. With a character like me, it can even last a whole year.

2. I have to forgive Pooja. Not because she deserves to be forgiven, but because forgiveness is the only way forward.

3. I have to figure out which side I am on. No, it's not about choosing between Dad and Pooja. It's about choosing which side of alone I want to be on. Yes, this is the impossibly hard part.

So here's a last story. Made you jump. That word last. But it doesn't mean anything. Same story I was telling you before, just the last part of it.

Back to the Taj. And my father.

The freaky guy who found me dive-bombing the tub and the managers he called into the action they search the restaurants, the lobby, the bar. They find Dad in the bar with this other guy. The two of them come up to the room. I whisper, real loud, 'Chinky.' My father whacks me hard. Turns out Dad's friend isn't Chinese, and after Dad clears everyone out of our room, and after all our stuff is hauled to a new room, and it's a nicer one, and after he sends a message to Pooja, who's anyway not going to emerge from spa heaven till late evening at least, my dad makes me shake the man's hand. Dad says, 'Mr Don is a diamond merchant. From Korea. Mr Don holds his hand out to me, and he doesn't speak any real English, but his eyes are smiling. He says, 'No merchant. Smuggler.' This cracks Dad up.

And Dad and Mr Don and I get in the lift and go down to the lobby where there's a Saudi Prince in the long white thing and now I am introduced to the prince, and Dad's about ready to pop the buttons on his suit, 'Meenakshi, my super-smart daughter. You should have seen what she did to the sixth floor.' He's not being sarcastic. He's really impressed with me.

I hope they'll take me along. They don't. They leave me in the lobby for hours. I start to want to go to the bathroom again. Luckily, a whole line of girls my age in shiny clothes and make-up go by and I can hear them talking about going to the bathroom. I follow them and it turns out they're from some village, here to dance. A cultural thing for foreigners. I'm jealous of them. But there's nothing I can do about it. I certainly can't join them. I take the little towel the lady gives me after I wash my hands and then I just keep the towel because I don't know what else to do with it. I return to the lobby till it becomes night and a waiter is sent to take me to eat a sundae in the coffee shop. He tells me that my father is in the bar and I can't go in there. I know about bars. The waiter says, no, it's because of the dancing in the bar that I can't go in. I think of the little girls and I think if they can, then I should be able to go in too.

Then the Saudi prince's wife comes to the lobby and talks to me. She tells me it's her honeymoon. Anyone can tell she's sad. Her husband who should be with her, singing songs and all, maybe buying her something she wants, is in the bar with my father and the diamond smuggler and the dancing girls. She says we can have dinner together. Dinner is in a room with a golden peacock painting. It's ugly and there's a cockroach crawling on the floor the waiter kills with his foot and smiles real friendly at me so I won't scream or anything. But before the whole cockroach thing happens I actually like it when we enter the restaurant, when the man with the big turban at the door hands me a single rose in a plastic tube with a little water inside it. That's my first time getting flowers. Yes, even one flower counts.

I tell the Saudi princess that I am going to Disneyland. She teaches me to sing American commercials. The dancing girls from the bathroom come in and dance. Their faces sparkle. I think to myself, if they're dancing here, then who's dancing in the bar?

The princess goes back to her room and I fall asleep in the lobby and my father picks me up and when he tries to carry me, the prince starts shouting, 'I will pay for her to go to Harvard. A smart girl like her. She goes straight to Harvard. I say so.'

My father says, 'I'm her father. I'll pay for the first round. If she wants to go twice, you pay for the second round.' Then my father carries me upstairs. From over his shoulder I can see the waiters standing with their backs against the wall, and Mr Don laughing with a hand over his mouth.

***

That day, just before I closed my eyes, I added a little bit to my understanding; there, just before I lay my head on my father's shoulder. The word for adding like that is -- accrete.

While the prince waved and my father shifted me from one shoulder to the other, I shifted as well. I stopped feeling sorry for the princess on her honeymoon. I stopped feeling sorry for all the women in the world who have sad honeymoons. I stopped feeling sorry for my mother. Well, maybe her, I never felt sorry for. Mostly I stopped feeling sorry for me. I shifted to this side, my father's side. The side where you are free to do what you want. I've been on this side since. The side my father with his briefcase and blueprints stayed on, all the way to the end.

But, I'd like just once more to be back there again, to once more feel the end of waiting for my father, to once more lay my head down and close my eyes.

Mridula Koshy's debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, has recently been published by HarperCollins India. Her short story collection, If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar Press and Brass Monkey Australia) won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Award. Koshy divides her time between New Delhi and Portland, Oregon, with her poet-schoolteacher partner and three wonderful children.