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Runaway History - Bobby Kunhu
(Poetry)

Interlude - Shruthi Rao
(Fiction)

Hangwoman - KR Meera
(Novel extract)

When the Personal Becomes Political - Gita Aravamudan
(Non-fiction)

Poetry by Sheri Vandermolen -
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Doli Democracy - Madhulika Liddle
(Fiction)

Smile; There's Only This Life - Janaki Murali
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Beepathu Teacher - Bobby Kunhu
(Non-fiction)

Being a Family - Daya Bhat
(Fiction)

Renu Mashi - Shruti Sareen
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City of Palaces - Sujata Massey
(Novel Extract)

Resolving Ukraine - William Doreski
(Poetry)

Robert's Rules - Melodie Corrigall
(Fiction)

Poetry by Richard King Perkins -
(Poetry)

Evening Out the Odds - Damyanti Ghosh
(Fiction)

Damyanti - Mariam Karim
(Fiction)



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Fiction

Evening Out the Odds
- Damyanti Ghosh

Dwidha and Sudha are my daughters, born of different fathers, neither conceived out of intention. In my profession, babies were unhappy accidents.

I named my first Dwidha, because the word meant indecision, doubt, according to my Sanskrit-spouting father who made his living as a temple priest in Lucknow. I was seventeen, in two minds before her birth whether to keep her. Afterwards, when my madam wanted to give her up for adoption, the idea tempted me.

But I held on. Maybe Dwidha knew her fate depended on giving me as little trouble as possible. She smiled and cooed, charming everyone who saw her. When I conceived five years later, I knew I wanted to keep the baby.

I began to change my mind when my second daughter wailed and screamed after the first few weeks, quite unlike the unfussy Dwidha. After a sleepless night pleasing several customers, I paced the backstreets and parks of Delhi, Dwidha in tow, letting the baby wail her heart out in the darkness of my room. She quietened down by the time I got back, and I handed her over to one of the women. I named the colicky brat Sudha, or Nectar, so her voice would grow sweeter and irritate me less often.

But nineteen years later, the name hasn’t helped.

‘Ma!’ Sudha still sounds like a cranky toddler.

‘What? Sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.’ I smile as she clangs the garden gate shut.

‘I called you ... like ... a million times. I didn’t have the right change for the taxi.’

I stand surrounded by plants as she walks past me. When Dwidha left after her marriage, and Sudha started taking tuition classes in the afternoon, I found myself buying plants, watering them, cheering the ones that flourished, mourning others that wilted. Soon the Queen of the Night (Jasmine) bushes would bloom, and weigh down the warm evening air.

 I love the Queen. Both my daughters were born at a ramshackle hospital, but outside its maternity ward the Queen bloomed, its perfume intoxicating me as I lazed in bed after the births. Those were my first peaceful times after I came to Delhi, when a tiny mouth suckled at my breast, and I could sleep through the night, woken up only by the infant.

I water the two bushes I’ve planted beside the gate, but one insists on growing apace, throwing out leaves and branches and blooms, while the other stands runty and flowerless, despite all the fertilizers and water I smother it with. What are the odds it would ever catch up with its pair, make up for its height, and burst out in blooms?

I can’t linger when Sudha is upset though. I drop the garden shears on the bench outside and walk in.

‘Taxi? What happened to the bus?’

‘I can take a cab once in a while, Ma. I do earn my pocket money these days.’

I don’t want to get dragged into one of our arguments. I walk into the kitchen.

‘Are you hungry? The rice in the casserole is warm; I just made some fresh for you.’

She’s probably stepped into the washroom and can’t hear me, or simply pretends she can’t. Sudha does things like that. She emerges from her room half an hour later, showered and changed into a pair of run-down shorts and a faded polo-neck t-shirt. Combined with her short-cropped hair, stick-thin figure and big bones, she looks like an undernourished teenaged boy. I want to ask her to change into something more presentable, but what’s the point? Instead, I let her serve herself from the covered bowls on the dining table, while I pick up the remote and settle on the long black sofa. Two years ago, such luxury would have been unthinkable. Dwidha has changed our lives.

‘Make sure you save some for Dwidha. She’ll be here soon.’

Sudha needs such reminders at the dining table. Left to herself, she can polish off enough food for an entire family. Where she puts it I don’t know.

‘My sister’s husband provides her with finer cuisine.’

‘Stop it, Sudha.’ I struggle to keep my voice calm.

‘Oh, sure. Dwidha has done so much for us. I wish you’d stop shoving it in my face.’  Sudha pushes away her plate.

‘Sudha, you should be grateful.’

‘Why? Exactly what has she done for me? She worked at a normal office job, goofed up a project and the old man was about to fire her, right? But it’s all okay now because she has her dream marriage, all the money she could want, and her handsome prince who owns half the jewellery shops in the country.’

I let her rage. Better for her to let it out. If it had been Sudha instead of Dwidha, dropping off important design files at her elderly boss’s place at the end of the day, she wouldn’t have waited around to chat with his lonesome wife. She wouldn’t have stayed back when the woman felt uneasy, nor been there to take her to the hospital when the stroke came.

One thing led to another. The lady’s son returned from the States that week, saw Dwidha as she took it upon herself to visit his now nearly immobile mother at the hospital, and then their home, to keep her company. Arnav, for that was his name, sent his father to me with a proposal for marriage.  Sudha would never hang around an invalid old woman, not for more than a few minutes. Dwidha still nursed her mother-in-law when the help did not show up, changed adult diapers, cooked meals. Yes, Arnav and his family doted on her, but Dwidha didn’t have it easy. I’m sure she faced barbs about her background, if not from Arnav’s immediate family, then his extended one. But saying this aloud would only provoke my younger.

‘When you finish your degree, you can find a job and get your own Prince Charming. In any case, Dwidha is trying to find ways for you to be alone with Dhruv.’

‘I don’t want her husband’s ugly brother!’

‘Fine. But please calm down before Dwidha comes in.’

‘Why must I act nice? Because she pays all the bills?’ Sudha’s face has gone red. She would lose it soon; start tossing things around the house.

‘If nothing else, I have my body, right? I can use it to land a handsome prince, just like Dwidha. Someone better than Dhruv!’  Sudha’s hands grip the dining table.

Your bones and angles are no match for Dwidha’s curves, I want to say, but swallow it. Did blood tell? Did some part of her guess I never worked in an office, that I earned the money for their boarding school bills on my back? That I learnt fluent English at classes meant for women like me, and taught myself to love reading in my spare time? I shiver inside, but my face remains calm.  I  learnt to detach my face from my heart long ago. I smile.

‘Family is not about anger. It is about looking after each other, helping each other grow.’ I walk up to the table and cover the bowls.

‘What family?’ she stands up.

‘You’re not being fair, Sudha.’

‘Now that we’re talking about family, let’s hear it.’

Behind me, the garden gate creaks open.

‘There, your favourite daughter is here. Now you can go and whisper with her as much as you want!’ She stomps off to her room, and I breathe easier.

Dwidha walks in, my transformed older daughter, covered in silks, red vermillion in the parting of her long braided hair, wide gold bangles. I’ve lost my carefree denim-clad girl, all messy t-shirts and ponytails. She hugs me, and I stand there, trying to smile.

‘Ma, I’m hungry,’ Dwidha puts down her bag. ‘I got your medicines, and that bag you asked for. And Arnav’s mother sent these,’ she finishes, handing me a bunch of ripe plantains in a sling bag.

‘Okay. Put them on the chair. Why don’t you wash your hands? I’ll lay the table.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll serve myself. Is Sudha back?’ Dwidha smiles, but I can see the effort. The plantains drop on the chair with more force than necessary.

‘I’ll get you some iced water. It hasn’t been this hot in Delhi in years. Thank God you got us the AC, or we wouldn’t have survived April.’

 I try to make conversation, give her time to gather herself. Maybe Dwidha’s mother-in-law has had a bad day. She does not like to talk about it -- in fact, she never talks about anything much, good or bad. Over the years, I’ve had to develop extra-sensitive antennae for her moods, to figure out when she is upset or stressed. I’ve only ever had glimpses of the real Dwidha out of the corner of my eye while pretending to leave her alone.

But this is more than a bad day with the in-laws. Her face looks calm but clouded, like years ago, when I gave her a thwack or two to settle the quarrels between the two sisters. To wipe away that look, I used to draw her out of bed and feed her gulab jamun and milk, after Sudha fell asleep. What would it take today?

‘This is very nice, Ma, no one makes aloo sabzi the way you do,’ Dwidha talks with food in her mouth, as I roll out a few chapattis for her. Sudha hates chapattis, preferring rice, while they are Dwidha’s favourite comfort food. The tiny flat I rented during their summer vacations shook with Dwidha’s tears and Sudha’s rages over rice and chapattis.

‘Here,’ I plop the hot chapattis in a casserole in front of Dwidha. ‘Try these with the chole.’

‘I wish I could make chapattis soft and round like yours. Mine never turn out so well.’

Once I exhaust all the excuses to hover around Dwidha, who pauses to chew between bites as she watches TV, I go outside and flop down on the garden bench, cross my legs and settle down to wait for her to finish eating. I hope Sudha wouldn’t burst out of her room any time soon.

I hear faint traffic noises from the road, the clinking of spoon-and-plate as Dwidha begins clearing up, the dialogues and dramatic background music from the TV, and, underneath it all, the muted beats of rock music from Sudha’s room that thrum through the house. I sit in the dark, unable to haul myself up, my limbs heavy, like my heart. I do not look forward to our chat.

‘It is so nice on this bench, Ma, sheltered from the outside world.’

I can see Dwidha’s smile even in the gloom.

‘I washed the pavement and the bench with water a while ago, so it feels cooler.’

I move aside the garden shears and pat the space beside me.

‘I want to stay longer,’ Dwidha smiles again. Sometimes her smile irritates me. Why does she do it when she clearly doesn’t feel like it?

‘I know. But the nurses change shift at nine, right?’

‘Yes, I have to be home before then. Arnav sent an SMS. He’ll pick me up on the way back from his office.’

She pauses, and nods towards the bedroom door, ‘She’s inside?’

‘Of course.’

‘I tried, Ma. I sent her back home with Dhruv last time, but you know how she can get.’

Dwidha’s voice is neutral, but I know her too well not to hear the undertone.

‘I know. We can only try.’

A part of me wishes she wouldn’t listen to me.

Parents are like quicksand. You think you’ve escaped, only to be sucked back. I thought my father’s death had set me free, but I couldn’t deny my mother when she asked me to take up the housekeeping job her brother had found. To run the family, she said, to move forward, they needed the money. Sometimes I wonder if she knew what job Uncle really had in mind. Did she ask Uncle how I ended up? I’ve never looked her up, not even in recent years, when I had the money to do it. Dwidha and Sudha have become my world. I need no other.

‘You’re sure, Ma? Do you want both of us to live in the same house? Arnav’s is a joint family, and my mother-in-law is bedridden.’

I wait for her to continue.

‘Of all the things, she told Dhruv he isn’t as good-looking as Arnav. I don’t think this would work out with Arnav and his family. They don’t need this.’

‘So they are your family now? What about us?’

No office these days needs the typing I took years to learn, or the bookish English I taught myself. They want smart young things who can use computers.  I worked in an office for a few years, using that small salary and my savings to tide me over when I could no longer get any customers. When the office fired me, I tried stitching dresses, begging for orders, selling odds and ends. That was my life before Dwidha met Arnav. I do not want to go back.

‘Arnav has already bought this place, furnished it; he’s paying for everything.’ Dwidha’s words are measured, pitched low.

I lean on the cement bench, straightening my back against its hard surface.

‘I know. I’m sorry. We shouldn’t expect more. Sudha will start looking for a job soon, and who knows, she might meet someone else. I could take up stitching again.’

I’m a monster, with a pair of large pliers in my hand, twisting away at Dwidha. I have to think of our family, of Sudha and me. I inhale to steady myself, and breathe in a heady, ripe gust -- the Queen has begun to perfume the air. Its cloying, oily smell chokes me. Maybe it suffocates Dwidha too, because she wavers.

‘Why can’t you let it be?’

‘How about we forget about Dhruv for Sudha?’ I cut in, ‘Maybe, instead, we help her find someone eligible, someone who would give her what she wants, and then we help her settle down?’

I can’t give up, despite Dwidha’s crumpled face. We parents do the best we can, for all our children. Everyone must be equally happy.

‘Sure,’ she gives in. ‘Of course. That is our duty. We’ll help her.’ She isn’t thrilled, I can tell.

We’ve done this a few times before -- when she agreed to get Arnav to buy us a place to stay;  when Sudha got into trouble at a party and had to be bailed out of an overnight stay at the jail. We know the rhythm, the unspoken rules. We’ve come to expect it. I would go on doing this, till death in its mercy comes down to claim me.

I smile and nod, partly to save myself from gagging -- the Queen is thick in the air.

As if on cue, my son-in-law calls, and Dwidha goes in to gather her purse. When Arnav drives up to the gate, I ask him to step in for a cup of tea. He refuses with his usual dazzling smile, his caramel eyes shining in the garden light Dwidha has now switched on.

I hold my breath as I stand just outside the gate, flanked by the Queen bushes. I watch Arnav as we exchange quick greetings and wave goodbyes. He is indeed better looking than his younger brother.

Sudha might not find another like him, but she would have other things in her life. Dwidha is happy now Sudha won’t be her sister-in-law. I walk back in. Is this how my mother felt when she waved me goodbye that last time? Perhaps she knew where Uncle took me, after all.

I walk back to the bench, switch off the light. The traffic noises are fainter now, and a breeze has picked up, rustling the leaves of my neighbour’s mango tree. About to close the main door, I spot something shining on the bench in the light of the not-quite-full moon. The gardening shears. I pick them up, hold the handles, hard and indifferent.

The fragrance is now like a shroud around my body. I walk back to the gate, the shears in my hand. My legs feel as if they’re walking through water. Without preamble, I begin to slash at the taller of the two Queen bushes, the one causing this riot of fragrance.

I grit my teeth as I feel the branches prickle in protest, then give way to steel. The sap smears my hands while I hack, the blooms and leaves whispering to the ground all around me.

‘Ma, has she left? What are you doing? Have you gone mad? Ma!’

Sudha has come out of her room.

I keep butchering the plant, glancing every once in a while at the other bush, checking how much I still have to hack in order to reduce the one under my shears to that size. I go on, feeling each cut in my bones as I make it, sensing the bleeding branches and the crushed blossoms, not stopping as I hear Sudha walk up to me and beg me to stop, her bony hands on my shoulders. Once I feel satisfied that the two bushes are the same size, I fling the shears to the ground, where they rest with a thump on the moist soil. My palms burn. They’ll blister tomorrow.

‘What the hell was that, Ma? What were you doing?’

‘I was doing what had to be done.’

I do not turn to look at her as I walk back to the house. I keep walking till I hit my bed, my arms searing from the exertion. I have evened out the odds.

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Damyanti Ghosh is a freelance writer for non-fiction magazines and journals. Her short fiction has been published in Birkbeck Writer's Hub, UK, Cigale Literary Magazine,USA, the Quarterly Literary Review, Singapore; Bangalore Review, Muse India and in print anthologies by Twelve Winters Press, USA; Marshall Cavendish, Singapore; Monsoon Books, Singapore, and MPH publications, Malaysia.