The Budding 90s

Literary Orphans has published my fiction piece, “The Budding 90s.”

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Mahesh Nair – The Budding 90s

 

 

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The Budding 90s by Mahesh Nair

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July 25, 1994.  Amit was studying in a high school in Delhi, but skipped school that day, lying to his parents that the school had declared a holiday due to extreme heat. He wanted to walk, and it was hot.

“Heading to a barista,” he said hoping, his mother heard him in the kitchen.

“Be back soon.” Her fuzzy voice was either due to the heat or the lack of confidence about her son’s early return.

He stepped out of his house at noon, in a maroon v-neck, khaki shorts, and sneakers; a crimson waist bag slung over his shoulder. The vindictive rays of the sun walloped him like a lightning strike would a building, but he hardly broke a sweat for he didn’t think about heat as though he had a metal rod crowning his head to conduct the strike to the ground through the wire of his will. His walking partner, Samir, was absent that day.

“Why extreme heat?” Samir had asked Amit three years ago after they’d become friends in school.

“I can handle it. You too can. Walk with me.”

Since then, they’d traveled many a mile together; walking in summers had shaded their complexion from wheat-colored in May to beige in June, to dark brown in July.

“Sweating like crazy.” Samir had whimpered before emptying a bottle of Coca-Cola. It was 45-degrees Celsius the early days of the previous July.


“Don’t drink if you want to break heat barrier.”


Their bond gushed like the two rivulets of rainwater that joined together, before falling into a conduit to never flow separately. In school: they’d sat together in the classroom, exchanged notes if either had been absent, stood up for each other if there was nettling from another student. Outside: they’d scared off a snake charmer who’d threatened to lob a cobra at them, fought a bullying group of profanity-hurling eunuchs.

Their bonhomie had brought their respective parents together, but Samir’s parents moved back to their village in the western state of Rajasthan in late 1993.

***

Amit meandered a street, treading an uneven terrain of gravel and crushed stones before he reached a t-point, turning left, and from where it was an uncurved stretch: a mile long road he’d sauntered over and again. He sighted in the path ahead a daily-wage laborer, who rode his bicycle on a puddle of water, leaving Amit ambivalent if, the sight resulted from the slanting rays blurring his eyes or the mirage of the noon. Whips of wind with guttural roar swept the dust off the tarred surface that had several gashes spanning its length. His eyes followed the evanescing laborer, who was the only other person then unless he too was floating for someone behind him.


***

He had joined Samir in the latter’s house on the Independence Day mid-August, two years prior. They flew kites with hundreds of others, within feet of each other, from their matchbox building terraces in a lower-class residential area. The lines escaping their spool winders had crossed one another cutting some kites, leaving the rest to eliminate each other. A tense battle, except for a few that fluttered freely. “We are the free kites in the air,” Samir said, letting go of the line that emptied the winder…soon disappearing — the dusk casting a shade of pale gray.

“Why did you do that?”


“I told you. We are free.”

***

Amit covered one-third of the stretch, saw people who, on the either side of the road had lain relaxed in the plastic chairs of their makeshift shops; which, until a few months ago were concrete structures before being razed, since they’d sat on a government land. The shopkeepers threw sluggish glances at him, easing in the shades of their tin ceilings.

From Ahmed’s store where bangles green and red hung on a wire, danced in the breeze, jingling, and clanking — to Shyam’s tea stall where the stained kettle was not on the stove and cups waited to be cleaned — to Robert’s grocery where the owner’s snore was louder than the freezer’s whir. Amit knew these people but didn’t want to stop. The shops and their products as he advanced, wore a line of sophistication since they were owned by a non-resident Indian: the shops with concrete ceilings, a bribed affair with the municipality so they remained on the government property but, with a caveat, that they’d be bulldozed if municipality lost the next election. His shops sold Onida and BPL television sets and Kelvinator refrigerators from where Samir’s father had bought a fridge.

How Samir had carried bottles of chilled water for Amit. They’d held hands, laughed, gazed at each other and, when their eyes had locked, a shiver of affection surprised them.

***

A group of right-wing fundamentalists had demolished Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in late 1992; followed by a group of terrorists who, in retaliation, had planted bombs in various parts of Bombay. Both events had triggered riots between Hindus and Muslims in most parts of the country, but Delhi was spared a great deal, and yet, a sense of suspicion had prevailed between the followers of the two religions in the capital city.

This was also the time when, among the issues the right-wing had trumpeted, homosexuality had turned their faces red with rage.

Fronting as a furniture shop, Shri Ram Woods was a symbol of preparedness for Hindu radicals; several trishuls and bamboo sticks were stocked in its storage for mass distribution if a riot were to start. Madhav, the owner, had a fleet of trucks under the same name. “I have political connections,” he’d told Samir one day.

“I don’t care. Your encroachment and your truck almost killed a child last week.”


“You, a Muslim?”.

“You almost killed a child, I repeat.”

“Go to a country where there are only mullahs.”

“Was born here, will die here.”

“Your parents are scared of us.”

“In your dreams.”

“Leave or get thrashed,” Madhav had warned. Amit intervened and took Samir away. He knew it was in their interest that they’d avoided Madhav since he’d also had seen them walk by his shop holding hands when, what two boys or men usually did upon meeting was a handshake or a brief hug, anything beyond which had triggered homophobia.


***

When he crossed the halfway mark of the stretch, a sudden verve in the air was evident. The vegetable vendors were calling out to the few people who were rushing to their homes. When one heralded that his tomatoes cost less, his helper sprayed water on them; no sooner another announced that his cucumbers were fresh than his assistant sprinkled water. It favored the vendors that their shops stood at a vantage point since a narrow lane had cut right into a residential area; Samir and his parents had lived in the A-block.

A cumulonimbus cloud had carried dusk with it one day as if, storm’s urgency craved twilight’s composure. Samir and Amit had met in the former’s house when his parents were away.

A twin-sized bed sat in a corner, the smell of the worn teak was saccharine. A rumpled cream  sheet appeared rested on a thin grey mattress. Rain whipped leaves, thunder wailed, chirrups of the unseen sparrows were unexpected. Across from the bed was a square window left ajar and through which, rain slanted in, spraying Amit’s arms, cooling his reserve of heat. He glimpsed at Samir who’d sat on the bed, glancing back; the ceiling corner right above the bed was a circle of fulvous mold ready to dribble water. The silence in the room discharged a feel of sweet uncanniness.

Water trickled in from window and ceiling, forming rills on the floor, but yet to cross each other’s path. Amit had closed the window and inched towards the door. Both were 17, in the repressed India of the 90s.

***


When he reached the end of the stretch, he met another t-point — a proper, wide road where: big vehicles plied their routes, proud shop owners rejoiced the swarm of people since a bus stop was nearby, encroachment caused jams and inconvenience. Shri Ram Woods was one of the shops. Amit unzipped his waist bag, yanked a kitchen knife before stuffing it back in; then, pulled out an Archie’s card, and a notebook: stuffed between its pages were faded petals of dried rose.

At the bus stop, his watch struck 1.30 pm. He read from the card: Your sensitivity and my charm have become too apparent to be missed — the glare and the snap of the people will be humiliating rather, more painful than from being stoned to death — the riot of religion I know, cannot rough up the strength of soul which, can confront threat in pursuit of truth, can destroy the strongest of walls that often stood on shaky grounds…

A year prior today, he’d stridden from this stop into a grocery – the nearest one then was a shop next to the vegetable vendors – to buy a bottle of water for Samir, who’d stayed back at the stop to watch the traffic. Fifteen minutes later, he’d glided back to Samir whose eyes had let out a gleam of yearning; hand had held a rose. Amit handed him the bottle that he barely held as a truck had hurtled towards them. He flung the bottle, pulled Amit aside, but was late himself to steer clear of the monster’s rush. The truck scraped Samir, its impact tossing him down to a side where, in that violent fall, his head hit a sharp edge, crushing his skull upon contact. In his dead clench, his fist had the rose, its stem breathing out from the other end, like a cupid’s arrow. Amit clambered to his feet – his body torpid and drenched in sweat – not realizing, he’d dropped a card.

With tears rolling down now like a runnel of rainwater surging alone, he read the last line. Let’s break the barriers.

O Typekey Divider

Mahesh Nair studied fiction at New York University, learned acting at Lee Strasberg, and is working on his first novel, an autobiographical fiction. His work has appeared in The Bookends Review, Smokebox, and Crack the Spine.

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O Typekey Divider

–Art by Felix Lu

Breathlessly Yours

Smokebox, a literary journal, has published my short story, “Breathlessly Yours.” The journal is an interesting mix of art and fiction.

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Mahesh Nair – Breathlessly Yours

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breathlessly yours

Somebody’s proposed to me,’ she said. A truck whooshed by outside, scattering dust. That the window they’d sat by became blinding. Blank; it hindered his outside view. His fingers on his pulse…”

 

by mahesh nair

 

A man, two decades older than the woman he lost his heart to, thought about her often, remembering her now as he recuperated from an asthmatic attack in a hospital bed in Delhi.

If the sun were too hot, Jon wouldn’t curse the sun. Instead, he’d seek the shade of a tree or be in Barista for iced coffee. He wouldn’t judge anyone even if the urge tempted him – drinking unsweetened coffee although he’d requested sweetened. A 55-year old virgin, he’d never kissed a girl as life’s events had benumbed him to the charm of women. His mother died when he was young; then father’s illness brought the best out of a dutiful son.

Only when he met Andrea, a brunette with a natural tan, did he realize what he’d been missing. She carried an aura, enrapturing him; spoke freely, matching her words with her intention; and when she kicked in the air, the demonstration validated her black belt degree.

They met a few times, but he made her memories his present, calming him in her absence; and though she found a friend in Jon, her eyes searched for the man of her dreams not realizing, she was a woman of his dreams.

He was drawn to her like the toy train car he’d attached to its engine as a child: magnet then, magic now. The engine unaware of the car being attached, he’d ensured its pull didn’t give a sound; for their age was an issue, his financial instability another.

It was a Saturday. Clear blue skies stretched till the hours of the evening. The streets were beginning to swell as dusk approached. Sounds of laughter from a nearby park indicated husbands were back from work spending time with their wives.

He was waiting outside her building about which, she didn’t know, as he’d arrived there an hour before they were to meet. He found a corner at the bottom of the stairs to her second-floor apartment, making sure she didn’t see him from her window thirty feet up. He enjoyed waiting, the flutter of longingness fondling his soul.

She rushed down at 5 sharp. “Just got here?”

“Ten seconds ago.” He scanned his watch. “How are you?” His frail voice went weaker by the discordant mixture of sounds building in the street.

They were standing in the middle of the footpath, blocking pedestrians. She pulled him aside. “Cafe Coffee Day?”

At the cafe, they ordered their drinks and sat opposite each other in a corner by the window.

“Somebody’s proposed to me,” she said. A truck whooshed by outside, scattering dust. That the window they’d sat by became blinding. Blank; it hindered his outside view. His fingers on his pulse.

He drank from his iced coffee, guzzling the news down. “Who is the lucky guy?” The dust settled outside.

“He’s a hunk, looks like a ramp model, with chiseled jawline.”

“You should talk to him, you see. Wisdom and conduct of a man should top her list when a pretty woman says yes to a proposal.”

“Well, you have wisdom and certainly, conduct.” She tee-heed. “But isn’t physical attraction important?” She tee-heed again.

Her honesty was forthright, he thought, as he gazed at the window, hoping to see a reflection of his face. He did: a distorted view. “Physicality is temporary, Andrea. What stays is not jawline,” he said.

Dropping her back home, he watched her climb the stairs, one measured step at a time. Her American sophistication. The smell of her Chanel trailing her. He closed his eyes, breathing in, and sneezed, and checked his pockets for Asthalin; the inhaler was there.

He rolled in bed that night and leaped off it with clenched fists. In the bathroom mirror he saw, that his hair was grey and wispy, his jawline blurred. He opened the tap and splashed water in his eyes, then pulled his cheeks in to see, staring back in the mirror if he looked chiseled. Huh! He took a pill for hypertension before retiring to bed.

A few months later, Andrea traveled back to the US for Christmas. The NGO they volunteered for allowed Andrea that break.

Jon, the local man, reminisced his treasured moments with her, as they provided oxygen to his lungs. He hoped that his engine was not dating a car in the US, and when she returned in January, he hoped she hadn’t said yes to the hunk.

But his hopes were just hopes, not serious expectancy which, if failed, would crush him. What strengthened him was his unquestionable loyalty to her, without analysing her feelings for him; which prepared him, or perhaps not, for the bitterest of consequences.

They decided to meet a week later. It was raining.

The thick pouring of drops hurt him as he stood in the same corner by the stairs, peering at the sky with folded hands. He could have moved a few feet away to be under a shade but he worried, that if she’d stepped down and didn’t see him, she might climb back up to never return. She longs for me, I know. Water dripped from his pants.

“I just arrived, forgot my umbrella,” he said, as she’d come down fifteen minutes earlier.

“Wanna go home and change?”

“I am fine. It is only rain, you see.”

She sipped from her hot chocolate at the cafe. “He’s taking me to Agra. Taaj Mahaaal.”

A-choo…atchoo went Jon. The dryness in the cafe from the heat triggered that. He glanced around, massaged his chest, then throat; was glad Andrea’s attention was fixed on a text she just received. When his breaths became shorter, he searched for Asthalin in his pockets finding which, he covered it with his kerchief, before bringing it up to his mouth to puff it in.

When she looked back at him, he said, “Can – both of us go – to Taj Mahal?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes – I am, you see.” He took another puff and grabbed his chest.

“Jon, you okay?”

“Yes – no – it is an attack. Ambulance.” He shrunk in his chair.

He had asthmatic attacks in the past, knew how to relax, and hope, everything would be fine. His sweaty hand gripped hers, slipping…and slipping.

People from the cafe joined her, but he still grasped her hand as though, he was in a dream where they went for a stroll in the nearby park: her head resting on his shoulder; him caressing her fingers; her telling him he was her Shahjehan and him telling her she was his Mumtaz.

Then there was a thud, a whisper and a silence.

Two days later in the hospital bed, he asked the nurse if the girl who brought him there was around. “She never came back,” the nurse said.

“She must have gone to see Taj Mahal, you see,” he told the nurse as she was leaving the room. “Hopefully, alone.”

(photos: james beach)

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Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Three
July 2016

Mahesh studied fiction at New York University; learned acting at Lee Strasberg. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bookends Review and Crack the Spine.

A Distance Away

My short story “A Distance Away” is published in The Bookends Review,  a literary journal. It has three main characters with first POVs. Genre: Thriller.

Original link:

Mahesh Nair – A Distance Away

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Mahesh Nair – A Distance Away

 

A Distance Away

Randy’s wish

I’ve rented a motor boat for two hours. I’m in a maroon tee and bermuda shorts, waiting for Jane. The twilight is a tint of orange with threads of red rising from the horizon, which may not last long, unlike her presence that placates my soul.

I have known her for sometime, only know that she works for a store, but it’s enough data. Love, they say, is blind.

But I have a point to prove, and have long waited for this moment, like a poor Alaskan waiting for years to get to Florida, away from the sucker cold. Worse, I was treated like a pole a dog would lift its legs to pee on, and using the smell as a mark for other dogs to shame me and my competence. I laughed it off, never protested, but I was dying within. They pushed me into desk jobs, I wanted the field.

Listen, it’s been my persistence, and Jane’s promising presence. May this cruise be a good omen, a start.


Jane’s dream

I look soft with a pale tone of brown. Add subtleties of expression to it, and my friends say, I have an aura. Yes I ignored  Randy  initially,  as  I  thought  he’s an unemployed wanderer at best. I also loathed him, for he’d never looked at my face when he spoke to me, which I figured was a sign that he was not trustworthy. But my joy found a source, like a tulip that stretches its head to face the light, when he began to lock his eyes with mine. And guess what, he told me that he owned a boat. I have a thing for boat owners. But I’m not stupid. I cross checked with a close friend who verified, and confirmed that the boat was his. I have friends who care.

My father, who wanted to own a boat for my sake, could only clean somebody’s all his life. But that somebody died, and he lost his job. We were poor but never failed to conform to social norms, never leaving a hint to suggest otherwise. When Randy asked me out on a boat date yesterday, how could I say no?


Steve’s way

Steve’s my name, one of my names. I’m the boat owner, and I own everything in Jersey City, in a way. I steal. Great track record: 5 years of stealing, never arrested. Decimated my dad’s record; he was handcuffed on his first attempt. “You’ll smash records like my ol’ man,” he’d said. Now both father and son must be discussing their stats in some far corner of hell. I’ll go there, too. Also because I’m responsible for two homicides. Shush, the murdered ones are believed to be missing.

Randy has rented my boat for two hours. 30 minutes to go. Told him to wait for me on the boat itself. I’ll collect the keys from him, and leave, and hide in an abandoned fort in Staten Island,  before  I  set  out  on my conquests again. Because tomorrow, my sources told me, cops will raid my uncle’s house, where I stayed for a while, in Newark Avenue.


Jane, with Randy

Aboard the boat, 90 minutes into the ride, as we are cruising on the Hudson River, the breeze of the late spring caresses my lips as much it appears to tempt his, and our eyes lock under the moonlight, the smoke of passion leaving our breaths. But wait.

“Whose boat is this?” I said, as wind breezes up.

“Mine.”

“Really?”

“Of course.” He scratches his head. It’s 8 pm, and the dock is quiet.


Randy, with Jane

“We’ll do this again,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Mind if I take you to a disco now?” I’ll drop Jane at Perry’s disco, a good distance from the boat, then come back, meet Steve, and go back to her.

“We still have 15 minutes. Champagne on the boat, instead?” Her eyes glittered.

But my heart’s pumping hard. We should be out by now, the omen I was talking about. But listening to her might be a prophetic sign, too. What if my emotional weights mar my strategic steps, would soulfulness be bravery, given luck goes the brave’s way. And only I know where Steve will come to. I’ve been following him for months, but couldn’t have arrested him in public. My seniors, the dogs who ridiculed me all these years, will find nothing in Newark Avenue tomorrow.

I check my .357 magnum tucked into the back of my shorts. I’d slid a packet under the driver’s seat, just in case.


Steve meets Randy, Jane and …

I see a steady Randy on the boat that sways from side to side. A woman is looking out into the black water, while faint dock lights to her right reflect uneven ripples in the river.

“Hey Randy. You plus the lady enjoyed? Keys, please.” She turned to face me, and said, “Roger.”

I winked at her. “Kathy.”

“Hands up,” Randy said, pointing his revolver at me, but also glancing at Jane, who’s also Kathy. His feet jived, and eyes rolled left and right, as though he were at Perry’s.

I respect cops, so I raise my hands, but show both middle fingers; right on cue, the old man shoots a bullet that crushes Randy’s left eye, knocking him into the river. Cries of gulls reverberated off the docks.

“He must be dead,” I said.

“He sure is,” Kathy’s father said, as he steps out of the dark from behind me, and on to the boat.

“But dad, I think the bullet only scraped him.” The daughter gazed at the father.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said, and as I turn the engine on, my right ankle feels something under the seat. I take a peek. “It’s a packet, gift wrapped, maybe for Kathy, sorry Jane.” We speed away.


Randy’s act

The boat whirs away, and the sound recedes. I splash about in the water, my head’s above it, but I feel thick warm leaks around my left eye. I fish my hand in my shorts pocket, and take out my phone that I’d wrapped in a ziplock.

I place the call, airwaves will capture the signal, which must energize a relay I connected to the blasting cap on the packet.

A distance away, a flaming white bleaches the black waters, stacked on top of it are colors of orange and red, not particularly in that order. The smoke that went up is barely visible under the moonlight.

– Mahesh Nair

Mahesh Nair  studied creative fiction writing at New York University, learned acting at Lee Strasberg, and is working on his first novel, an autobiographical fiction.

Acceptance, Publication

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I can’t believe that I’ve been away from blogging for almost four months. It’s a long time and yet it’s not, as though a truck whooshed past in slow mo.

I sent a couple of stories out during those months. An online journal accepted a story. I was thrilled.  They publish a new piece every Monday. So I waited to see my fiction appear on their website; I was desperate to write a post here linking it to the piece. I waited.

Eight weeks passed, Mondays continued to be menacing. I considered writing to the Editor to check on the date of publication, but feared that my email query might be perceived as impolite. But, when the story didn’t appear last Monday, I wrote to them and got a response within an hour: that my story would publish on May 23, 2016.

I rubbed my eyes, scratched my head, comforted myself thinking the month of May this year was still away.

No. We’re already in August and the year mentioned in the response was 2016. Huh.

There was a note in the Editor’s reply that though my story would certainly appear on their website, it might also be in print if chosen for their yearly anthology.

I wanted to send a mail seeking clarification on the bewildering year-long gap between the dates of acceptance and publication. But I stopped, and surfed their website. The contributors, whose stories have appeared, are published writers with some having been published in ten other journals. This journal – with categories like fiction, non fiction, academic, poetry, and multimedia – chooses one piece from among these categories every week. The last short story under fiction was published six weeks ago.

Math: 4 pieces per month multiplied by 12 is 48. Since their reading periods – when one can send the stories – are three months in the beginning and three months in the middle of a calendar year, they possibly accepted 45 stories for publication before they accepted mine. They claim that they receive hundreds of submissions every year.

Which means May 23, 2016 is rewarding; a truck whooshing past in slow mo is comforting.