Formations – The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 1st prize

Rukmini wills herself to stay lying on the sofa.  Om, Om Shanti, she chants. The ghosts dance, screaming in a frenzy, wild shapes tearing at her eyelids, at her mind. Voices calling out as if to say, ‘Come with us. We have come from far, we will take you away. Come….’ As if a great breeze has whipped into the living room and is tugging at her hair, her clothes, as if the cushions will start to float soon.  She keeps her eyes shut. Calmness, Om, Om, Om.  Slowly they disappear, the anger in the room passes. Outside it is still dark.

It is November. Rukmini wakes at four in the morning in England, in her daughter’s house, just like she did at home in India, except here the darkness lies deep and heavy. By the time the sun breaks through the greyness, and shines in its typical muted manner, Rukmini has done her pujas, showered, cooked the breakfast, and read a few pages of the Gita. Then Prasad wakes, and she makes some more tea; they like to drink endless cups of Earl Grey sitting on the flowered sofas in the conservatory, warmed by the electric heaters.

Today, she hesitantly tells Prasad about her experience.

‘Once again? But how can you believe, even imagine, there are ghosts here?’

He points towards the houses on either side, the one on the left attached to theirs, the one on the right, a foot away, a dark brown fence between. Suburbia outside London, a place dotted with flowers and greenery. It’s like holidaying in an Indian hill station.

‘They are out there,’ she points at the conifers at the bottom of the garden. The trees stand very tall making the house as private as a semi-detached can be.  She has taken some time to understand the nuances; flats, terraced, town-houses, bungalows, semi-detached, detached houses.

‘Don’t mention this to Chaya. She won’t be pleased,’ he says.

‘I have to. I want them out of here. They are creating havoc in our Chaya’s life.’

Prasad is looking at Rukmini askance, his expression asks are you joking, but she looks serious.  Since the last few days, she has been talking about the presence of evil spirits; ludicrous to think of ghosts in this calm oasis. He tries to stop his smile but it is too late.

‘You don’t believe me, do you? I will tell Chaya to get those trees cut.’ She is convinced there is a vibration, a negative formation in the house.  That is the reason Chaya’s life isn’t blossoming the way it should.

They hear footsteps upstairs. The acoustics in this house surprised them at first, every footstep, every whisper amplified. It is Chaya. They are confident they can differentiate between their daughter’s footsteps and their son-in-law’s.

Chaya comes in and slumps on the sofa. Her hair is a mess, curly locks wound over each other, just like it used to be when she was a teenager.

Rukmini starts without any preamble, ‘Why don’t you get those trees cut down?’

‘What? Trees?’ she stares outside as if she has just registered the trees. ‘Why do you want them cut?’

Rukmini knows Chaya doesn’t want to discuss this immediately after waking.  She has been very busy at work for the last month, often leaving early and returning late.  Yet she continues, ‘It would look so nice and tidy.’

‘Oh. But they give us some privacy,’ Chaya says, her eyes narrowing, the way they do when she was feeling cross.

‘But you would get more light in. You could grow vegetables, have a kitchen garden. It seems so eerie now.’

‘Eerie?’  Chaya gets up. ‘I’ve left my phone upstairs, will be back.’

‘What will you have for breakfast?’ Rukmini calls out.

‘Don’t really mind. Doesn’t matter.’ They hear her run up the wooden stairs.

Prasad sighs, ‘Did you have to tell her now?’

‘It’s a Saturday. They are both hardly around the rest of the week. When am I supposed to have a proper chat with her?’

#

It’s almost ten am when Chaya and Satyan emerge.  Satyan says in the over jovial way which Rukmini doesn’t really appreciate, ‘What are we having for breakfast? Puris?’ He looks delighted at the stack of plump puris on the kitchen counter. She has made a light potato curry; the way he likes it. Her son-in-law declares himself a foodie, and loves her cooking, unlike Chaya; she will just have cereal – not even cornflakes with warm milk and sugar like she did as a child ­­­– but unsweetened muesli, sometimes a croissant and coffee. For lunch, even on weekends, she insists on a salad, cuts an avocado in half, chucks its round ball of a seed into the bin. The cold food her daughter has surely can’t be helping her.

Later, much after breakfast, when Rukmini is surveying the fridge to decide the menu for lunch – and thinks of making some fish cutlets, Chaya comes around and says, ‘It’s happened again.’

‘Don’t worry, it will happen soon.’ Rukmini wants to reach out and stroke her daughter’s face, so delicate, fine-featured, to hug her slim body, which she takes to the gym every other day, but her daughter stands a foot away, her shoulders slumped.

Chaya laughs cynically. Rukmini knows that laughter. The one Chaya launches into whenever she feels lost and it is so often that her youngest child feels like this. Quick to despair, quick to lose hope, as if the grief was only hers to bear, as if no one else could understand.

‘How soon is soon for you? It has been a year and half already.’

‘What does Satyan say?’

‘He is fed up, Ma. He says if it has to happen it will, but he can’t take this stress any more. He thinks I am being obsessive, and all this is adversely affecting his work.’

‘Why don’t you go to another doctor?’

‘He just said we should give it up.’

‘Another doctor could help, maybe an IVF…’

‘But my gynaecologist is the best, don’t you get it?’ she stomps away again.

Prasad is blissfully watching something on the telly and smiling to himself. Rukmini comes up to him.

‘She is upset. No luck this month also and Satyan isn’t being supportive.’

‘But the doctor says the tests are normal for both…and what is Satyan’s issue now?’

‘I told her to change the doctor.’

‘You did not! You know she is upset. First the trees, now the doctor. How could you?!’

‘Well, if you know what should be said, why aren’t you there to say it? I was only trying to help. Eighteen months and nothing. Surely the doctors should do something? Why, remember my friend Minati? Her daughter in America did an IVF, within months had twin girls. She was thirty-eight! Chaya is still a bit younger.’

‘It will happen. Surely my daughter will not be so disappointed in life. God can’t be so cruel.’

‘I have already promised I will light a thousand diyas in the Jagannath temple, if she conceives soon.’

‘How soon?’

‘I don’t know. You can’t demand that way.’

She looks out of the kitchen window. In the daylight, now that the sun is higher in the sky, everything looks innocuous. Some autumn flowers, she doesn’t know the names of, have bloomed, very colourful but with no fragrance. But she cannot forget the despair of the night, it had felt so solid. Something in the house which prevents anything good from happening. Something that isn’t right.

She thinks for a while and decides she will do a puja to drive away the ghosts.  She will cook Chaya meals with warming Ayurvedic ingredients, then her daughter will surely conceive. She needs to eat some food cooked with love, food from her childhood. She writes her list for the time they will go to the Indian area to stock on groceries.

#

On Monday, Chaya walks out of the house briskly and walks ten minutes to the station. They moved here two years ago from the heart of London, like people do, when they want to start families. The landscaped gardens, the parks, the many young parents pushing prams; the ambience can do nothing when nature isn’t willing. After a while, sex becomes just that, mere contortions in bed with no purpose, every month her period comes right on time like a trusted friend. Five days after the onset, the ovulation thermometer indicates she is at her most fertile; she has to force Satyan at times.

‘I have a headache tonight,’ he said once. It struck her as ironic, a man using the age-old excuse of a woman. He went to bed, two Nurofens later. But in the morning, she reminded him, ‘Still at the most fertile.’ He turned over and dutifully pushed the liquid out of him.

‘Something is wrong with the angle perhaps,’ she had said, propping her bottom on pillows.  She feels sticky drops on her thighs. ‘I am not sure if anything is staying in.’ ‘That’s the way it is I think,’ he said, getting up swiftly for a shower. No more of the soft kissing after they were done, no more lying across his chest, talking pasts and futures.  The act had to be dutifully done twice a day to maximise chances. Except that nothing worked.

Now she gets on her train, doing her make-up with swift strokes. She gets out at London bridge, walks up Southwark street, and through Borough market, past skinned rabbits and plump cupcakes, past purple kale and gutted seabass, up to the flat with its blue door. She knocks and he is there in a second.

‘Right on time as usual,’ Ronan says.

The minute he shuts the door, she is in his arms.

‘Hmm, you smell of toast,’ she says. ‘Warm toast.’

‘And you smell delicious as always.’

‘New perfume though!’

‘Perfume takes the smell of skin; did you know?’

On the couch, warm orange, they divest each other of everything they are wearing, a stone jumper, dark red trousers, blue jeans, grey t-shirt; all in a heap. She feels fierce, she feels needy, and Ronan knows her well, knows how to calm her body, her frantic mind and set her back into the day.

They leave together, but in separate directions and he hands her a paper bag, her favourite almond croissant, he gets them from the little café Mabel’s, down the road.

‘I am so hungry, thank you.’

#

The fridge is filled with tiny boxes with lids. Rukmini looks into one and finds some dried pasta shells stuck to each other, as if put into boiling water, but removed hastily.

‘Why do you have all these little boxes of food?’ she asks Chaya. ‘Can I throw this?’ She rattles the box.

‘I thought I might use it when I make penne again.’

‘But will you? Why not just throw it as you will possibly forget it’s there, isn’t it?’

‘Don’t like wasting food,’ she says, walking away. It makes Rukmini smile. Why does Chaya worry about a minor wastage when they indulge extravagantly otherwise? The number of shoes Chaya owns is mind-boggling. The other day, they were in Oxford Street, and she walked into a large store, and within minutes was out, with a Topshop bag. A pair of shoes, some skinny jeans, a sort of lace top, she said.

Rukmini wishes her daughter could shop for baby clothes instead.

#

Now, for Chaya, Rukmini makes rich curries, she stirs cream into chicken, she steams fish, marinates in mustard sauce then bakes in tender leaves, fries eggs in butter – ‘Will she eat any of that?’ Prasad comments watching her labour in the kitchen.

‘She has to. This will make her fertile, warm her insides. None of that cold angrez stuff she keeps having. Would she agree to pack some for lunch, do you think?’

Prasad laughs so loudly that she turns back to the simmering pot. In a restaurant, at lunch one day, Chaya had ordered some moule-mariniere ? mussels she explained to them ?  as if it was part of their daily diet. She scooped the tiny bit of flesh expertly, one mussel after the other, and Rukmini commented, ‘How can a daughter of mine eat a bowl of seashells and like it?’ they had all laughed. The next morning at breakfast, Chaya’s eyes were clouded again, her words angry red. Rukmini told Prasad, ‘Another month of failed trying. Poor things.’

For the spirits, she makes the special black laddoo. She rolls flour, sugar, purple food colouring, and folds the secret powder mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, into small perfect balls. She will offer them every day in the puja, and later give it to Chaya and Satyan to eat.

#

Chaya has a message from Ronan, can she come for a while in the evening? She leaves work a bit early, and meets him at the Rake, one of his favourite pubs.  He wants to cook tonight and stops for some fresh egg pasta on the way to the flat. He likes cooking for her; he arranges salami, prosciutto, cheeses on a platter, cooks anchovies in olive oil, and grates courgettes into ribbons for her prawn linguine. He serves it on the round marble table by the bay window, and she lights candles.  Once he bought oysters from the fishmonger, and showed her to how to slurp all the saltiness, aren’t oysters the best aphrodisiac? she joked. He works as a creative director in a production house and she feels his creativity touches everything he does.

‘I can’t stay for dinner tonight though. My parents will be waiting,’ she says. She has been staying overnight when Satyan is away. Some of her spare clothes nestle in a drawer in the bedroom.

‘Can I meet them?’ He is smiling, his hands clasping hers.

‘Wouldn’t that be good?’ she sighs, wondering what they would say if she introduced him. Her mother, scandalised, her father, more patient. But their eyes would fill with shame. How could you, our son-in law is a gem, they would say.

‘But why can’t it be Chaya? Why can’t I meet them? Why can’t you tell them?’

‘Don’t start that again.’

‘But we have to talk! Where is this heading?’

‘And I thought that was meant to be the woman’s dialogue.’

‘It’s not funny Chaya. You need to decide.’ He has stopped. He is looking at her, into her. His hands are on her waist.

‘It wasn’t meant to be serious when we started. You had a girlfriend, remember. Sarah, I think.’

‘It was never serious with Sarah, I used to meet her on and off, and you know that.  I was only trying to get over Dawn. After five years with her…’

‘So you used Sarah to get over Dawn and now it’s me…who are you getting over?’

‘Don’t you even think of going that way. You know I am not using you. You know…’

And she does.  She knows how he feels for her. Some months earlier, they met at a mutual friend’s birthday in a crowded wine bar. Later they would try to deduce how they had ended up in the same cab going back to the friend’s flat. Satyan had been away on one of his long work trips and she had stayed like many of them, drinking into the next morning.  Ronan and she exchanged numbers, though they hadn’t met, until months later at the same friend’s again. ‘Nothing serious, just once,’ she had said, when that night, very drunk, they had kissed out on the terrace. But they hadn’t been able to stop. For a month now, Ronan has been saying, ‘Leave him.  We have to give ourselves time. We have to see where we can go.’

‘It’s hard,’ she says now. She has said this before.

‘But why? You don’t love him, do you?’

‘It’s not about love.’

‘What is it about then?’

‘I want to have a baby.’

‘Well, someday. But now…we need to have some time together.’

‘I am trying to have a baby, I mean.’

He is silent for a minute, then she sees comprehension in his eyes. Light-brown eyes darkening like the skies did when clouds rose in them, like the time they did when he was in bed, his arms around her, his lips on her.

‘A baby…with him?’ He stares.

‘Well, yes. I am not getting any younger. It needs to happen soon…you know, I have been trying so long, it’s so frustrating.’

His hands drop off her, and he walks away.

‘I don’t have the time to wait darling,’ she moves closer to him. He is thirty-one, and it is odd for her to be with someone younger than her. He said age made no difference, she had to think beyond.

She follows him, and reaches up to kiss him. ‘Make love to me,’ she whispers.  In the flat, they cling together legs, arms, faces, mouths, tongues, thighs, as if one, on the couch, the pile rug, the bed.  But afterwards, he raises himself on his elbows and looks at her, ‘Do you tell him that as well, to make love to you? How can you?’

‘Don’t start. This is about us.’

‘You need to decide Chaya! Now or never! You can’t go on like this. It’s not fair to anyone – him, me or even you.’

She scoops her dress from the floor, pulls it over her quickly, and leaves.

She is hungry, she walks past the Roast where they have dinner at times. The first time, when she ordered a steak, he said, ‘I didn’t know Indians eat meat. The Indian guys at work, and even at uni, are vegetarian.’

‘Let’s say I am not your typical Indian!’

‘But you grew up there?’

‘Of course, but we come in different shapes and sizes! Jokes aside, the ‘vegetarian’ or ‘non-vegetarian’ depends on which region you are from. However, I am not meant to eat beef. My mother would be horrified.’  She had laughed as the blood broke when she cut her rare steak.

‘There’s so much to know about you. Will I ever?’

That is the first time she had sensed he may want more.  The first time she had sensed she may want him to want more.

#

She hurries home now, looking at her phone every couple of minutes. Nothing from Ronan.

The smell of cooking is strong as she walks into the house.  They are just getting ready to eat.

‘You must be hungry.’

‘Yes, I am – starving.’

Her mother looks surprised, but so happy, that Chaya feels guilty she hasn’t been enthusiastic about the extraordinary spread she has been  making for the last few days. Now she ladles king prawns cooked in a rich masala of onions and ginger, aubergines fried in circles, white rice, yellow dal, minced lamb with peas, on a plate.

‘Too much, Ma,’ Chaya protests.

‘Eat while you can, you won’t get all this when they go back in a few days! My mother-in-law is such a good cook,’ Satyan laughs.

‘What have you eaten for lunch today?’ her mother asks.

‘Crayfish and avocado salad. Pret.’

‘All this cold food isn’t good for you. Nice warm Indian food is what you need.’

‘Eat up, eat up,’ her father says.

After dinner, he says, ‘have a laddoo also.’

‘Ma has made laddoos?’

‘Yes, for a puja,’ Satyan says. ‘I had one as well.’

‘Why are they…well so black?’ A few black balls are placed in her best china bowl.

‘Just a special type. Do you like it?’

‘Yes Ma, it’s all great. I loved the prawns. Just like when we were younger.’

‘It was always your favourite, beti.  We all need our childhood food, it completes us. It’s our manna.’

She thinks of Ronan alone in his flat having dinner. She texts him goodnight from the bedroom.

#

She wakes up to the smell of something frying, she hears the oil sputter, Satyan’s voice, ‘Upma today! Lucky us.’

‘A warm breakfast is what you both need.  I am making some nice coffee as well, Indian style. None of this cappuccino stuff for Chaya,’ she hears her mother say.

She has never liked upma, though her mother makes it well. Black mustard seeds, thin sliced chillies and fragrant coriander leaves in white grains of semolina. She spoons some into her mouth, wanting to knock on the blue door instead, share a flaky croissant from Mable’s and remove the crumb gently from the corner of Ronan’s lips.  With him she feels she has enough. The baby which doesn’t come, pulling at her, haunting her all the time here in the house, disappears.  Once she has baby hands in hers, maybe she will be able to forget Ronan. But what if she never has a baby? Then, will her life with Satyan ever be enough? She checks her phone, still nothing. Isn’t he missing her? She heads to work.

#

‘See, she is eating so much better now. She has to come back to her roots, eat the food she is meant to, and soon she will conceive. Wait and see. They are both looking happier, don’t you think?’  Rukmini tells Prasad. ‘Now let me go outside, do the puja and offer laddoos to the spirits.’

‘You think everything is about food and prayers,’ sighs Prasad.

‘But it is!’ she starts to gather ingredients for the puja. On a bronze tray, she arranges a pot of incense sticks, a diya, the bowl of black balls, the little puja bell, and some of the orange flowers from the borders outside.

#

Halfway to the station, Chaya realises she has forgotten her phone. She can’t spend all day without it. She rushes back, she’s left it on the dining table perhaps.  The house feels strangely quiet. Where is everyone? Then she notices the conservatory door is open, her father is outside watching her mother who is right at the back of the garden. She is sitting cross-legged on the grass, smoke curls from some incense sticks, a diya burns with a bright flame. Her mother tries to shield it from the light breeze that flaps at her saree. Her face is rapt, her red bindi so prominent in the greyness. Everything is still; a single autumn leaf flutters down.

Suddenly her father turns and sees her, and says, ‘Sssh…sssh,’ he gestures and comes inside.

‘What on earth does Ma think she is doing?’

‘Just a puja, don’t worry, she means no harm, it’s all for you.’

‘But why is she sitting there… on the grass?’ she can’t help but laugh. ‘This is really crazy!’ A gentle tinkling sounds as her mother shakes the puja bell.

‘You know her…she always means well..,’ she sees his eyes grow with affection, his smile grow until he also starts laughing.

‘I know,’ she stands close to him watching her mother.

He says, ‘Your phone…it’s been ringing, quite a few times.’

‘Is it? she picks up the phone, looks at it and smiles.

 

Mona Dash  writes fiction and poetry and her work has been anthologised widely and published in international journals. She has a Masters in Creative Writing (with distinction) from the London Metropolitan University.  Her work includes  ‘Untamed Heart’ (Tara India Research Press, 2016), her first novel and  two collections of poetry ‘Dawn- Drops’ (Writer’s Workshop, 2001) ‘A certain way’ (Skylark Publications, UK 2016) Mona was awarded  a ‘Poet of excellence’award in the House of Lords in 2016. Mona has also participated in readings in venues such as Lauderdale House, Nehru Centre, the House of Lords, The Library, Yurt Café all in London and in literary festivals such as Leicester Writes, Durham, Rochdale and Wolverhampton Literature festival.  Her short stories have been shortlisted and longlisted in various competitions such as The Asian Writer, Fish Short story, Strand International, Words and Women, UK, to name some. Mona leads a double life;  she is a Telecoms Engineer and a MBA and  works  full time in a global technology organisation.  Originally from India, she lives in London.