In this Issue - Fiction

 

The nail-marks on Manmatha’s neck matched his shirt – Ferrari Red. The girl could’ve been thirteen or fourteen. Her dark cheek had shone in the half-light. Hair silky, blouse torn, teeth sharp, white as jasmine buds.

He lit the gas ring.

Blue and orange flames consumed the pan in long tongues. The pleasure of the memory filled him up...

 

 

The first thing I learned at piano school was how to find Do. It’s the first note, so you use the first finger to play Do. I pressed the key, and Do barely cried, ‘Do. . . .’ To remember the Do I’d just played, I pressed the key once more. Do, taken by surprise, made its ‘Do. . . .’ sound again and I watched the line its name drew as it travelled across the air. I sat frozen where a note had come and gone without a trace, stiff pinky raised. A dim afternoon light trickled in through the window covered over with sticky paper. Silence ran between the piano and me, a girl who had touched a piano for the first time....

 

She said I’d just be staying in her empty house, so it would be no trouble for her at all. I didn’t have to give her an answer right away because July was still two months away. She and Dan would be in Thailand; all I would have to do is get the door code from her. She asked after our relatives and how things were in Korea, and then finally got to the point moments before she hung up: ‘How are you? I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral.’...

 

The ceiling fans whirred a slow rhythm. Mould crept into the corners of the whitewashed walls; the wide windows looked out onto the barren prison yard. Nyo Maung was marched up to a low, wooden dock flanked by two long tables. His feet scraping across the broken floor tiles echoed angrily through the colonial hall. Before the Burma Socialist Programme Party emblem sat three court martial judges – two majors and a colonel – neat and robotic in their crisp green uniforms, with pomaded hair, wire-rimmed glasses and gold stars on their shoulders. Nyo Maung knew obedience had raised them in the ranks to where they could sentence any soldier to death.

 

 

The horizon grows dark in all directions. Thick rain clouds, drifting in southerly winds, cover the sky as evening falls and the farmers head home. To the north of town is a small hill, green with giant banyans, tamarinds and parrot trees that boast clusters of red-beaked flowers in April. Under the trees hide dirt graves and whitewashed tombs overgrown with weeds. Through the surrounding bush a young man shoulders something rolled in a frayed palm-leaf mat. Ahead of him walk three other men carrying a mattock, a hoe and bottles of water and homebrew. Together the four men scout for a bare patch of ground amidst the dirty rags, charred bamboo and plastic rubbish....

 

 

I had been at the monastery for little more than a year when the foreign representatives from the United Nations Development Programme arrived with a project to improve water distribution in the village. They offered to donate for a new pond, but where to put it? The wide green fields out in front of the monastery belonged to you-the-donor, as did the banana groves to the west. The banana trees were up a rise overlooking the monastery, so it would make sense to put a pond there for drainage, but I needed to talk with the donor first....

 

 

No one knows what to call the flowers. There seems to be no word for them in Mon. Small leaves, perennial green and tough, fearing neither rain nor sun, the red clusters bloom like little fists. Every house in town grows them, trimmed nice and pretty. At my aunt and uncle’s house they run along the border with their neighbour’s property, so striking that passers-by often ask, ‘What’s that flower?’

And what do they say? ‘No idea. It’s a hedge-flower.’

Ninety-nine out of a hundred people would answer the same. A hedge-flower! Of course, everybody knows the Burmese name – a century hence, people will still call it ponneyeik. Or in English, wild geranium or even jungle flame. But if you told them the real name, the Mon name, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Just another word from our language that has disappeared....

 

 

When, in my early years at primary school, I had just started learning to write, the teacher taught us to put our index fingers between sentences to ensure neat, even spaces throughout the composition.

Years later, after I’d mastered writing (or at least scrawling), the index-finger system was ignored and eventually abandoned. The spaces between sentences were liberated from their regulator and put in charge of their own arrangement. An up-to-me anarchy prevailed. Without checks and bounds, the letters became brash – they got loose, lax and liquidy, lumped together or leaning forwards and backwards in a carefree and shameless manner....

 

 

The newly painted frown on Zaman’s face is especially suited to his disposition. He’s none too pleased that he, who previously had an act to himself as a snake charmer, has been co-opted to play the secondary role of the wily smuggler sneaking goods and people across the Indo-Pak border. It doesn’t help his mood that the inconsequential camel rider, the ‘half-man’ fused at the waist to his camel, has somehow become the star of the show....

 

 

While trying to check the bill before settling – an old habit, inculcated by his father, of giving any bill the once-over to see that he had not been overcharged – he realised that he had lost the ability to perform the simple function of adding up the individual items and the tax that together made up the grand total. Standing at the reception desk, he tried again and again. Then he took out his wallet and tried to count the rupee and US dollar notes nestled inside; he failed. Something as fundamental to intelligence as counting was eluding him. In the peripheries of his vision he could see a small crowd gathering to look at him; discreetly, nonchalantly, they thought. The news had spread. It was then that he broke down and wept for his son....

 

 

'He sat there as if it were some sort of offering. Was I meant to accept it? I guessed it was a starling. It was black and glossy and, something I’d never noticed before, faintly speckled up close. The red eyes were kind of eerie. It was dead. No saving it. Geoff meowed and walked past me, headed for his bowl. I picked up the starling with a piece of kitchen towel and buried it beneath the pomegranate.'

 

 

You were steadily climbing father’s ladder of hopes. What you were on your way of achieving through books, I sought to achieve through house-work. I cleared the cobwebs, washed the dishes, ironed the clothes, scratched at the rings left behind on the table after tea, and once made egg curry to surprise Ma. What a fool I made of myself! I'd made the curry without removing the egg shells. How it became a tale Ma narrated to everyone who visited us! But that didn’t stop me until one evening when Deepti Mahi, who often visited us in the evenings, made fun of me: ‘Now that you are an expert at keeping a house in order,’ she said, ‘we can marry you off. Shall I look for a groom for you?’ Furious, I ran inside, thinking if nobody would dare say such a thing to Nobi, then why me?