This is an English translation of my Tamil short story ஜன்னல். This translation was published in Unwinding, an anthology of Tamil short stories, compiled by Jayanthi Sankar.
“Are they burning it again?”
When the fumes of burning paper reached her nostrils, Raji strode quickly to the window and glanced outside. Her house was on the second floor and looking out she saw a strong fire spilling over the edges of a cylindrical metal drum on the grass lawn below. An old Chinese man in brown shorts was dropping square pieces of paper with printed alphabets into the flames.
“Ma, why is the old man burning paper?” asked Akshara, who knelt on a chair and had her face stuck to the window glass.
“He has nothing else to do!” Raji pulled the windows shut, latched them and scurried back into the kitchen.
The thought of being unable to take a deep breath even on a Sunday afternoon annoyed her. Akshara continued staring at the old man and the burning flames through the transparent, rectangular windows. Her eyes followed the thick, black fumes that rose up from the flames. Peering upwards, she pressed her nose against the glass and tried to see how far she could keep the rising smoke within sight.
“Akshara, come here! Vadai ready!”
Akshara leapt down from the chair and hopped onto the kitchen table in a jiffy. A crispy golden brown vadai dropped from the frying ladle in Raji’s hand onto a porcelain plate with floral patterns.
“Ma, why does the vadai have a hole?” Akshara loved the sensation of heat on her index finger, as she kept poking at the hole in the vadai’s centre.
A white Ikea table and a white plastic chair stood in front of the tightly shut windows. A black Lenovo laptop lay open on the table. Raji sat in the chair holding a mobile phone to her ear.
“Hello, Sis! Have you started to write?”
“I have an idea. I’m working on developing it,” answered a female voice at the other end. It was Uma. She was the one who had informed Raji about a novella writing contest two weeks ago. An expert author of novels had pronounced that they were both promising short story writers. Upon hearing it, they said, “Congrats Sis!” to each other and decided to write with greater fervour.
“I have no idea how I’ll write 6000 words!” Raji stared at her laptop screen with a blank expression.
“Write a little every day. It can be done.”
“I don’t have a plot yet… I liked the ‘Two Moons’ story you wrote last time. Especially the old woman…”
As she spoke, Raji stood up from her chair and peeped through the window. The fire was still burning outside. A frown spread across her face as she saw small grey bits of partially burnt paper drifting in the air.
“Her character was based on an old woman I knew from my ancestral village.”
“I’m not sure why but whenever I begin to write a story, elements from my native place sneak in.”
“Don’t worry Raji. You’ll write a good Singapore-based novella. I’m sure!”
A short smile played on Raji’s lips. She looked at the five-point list neatly typed out in a word document on her laptop screen.
- A Chinese lady who cleans tables in a food court
- A construction worker who needs to send home some money
- An old taxi driver and his ailing wife
- An old taxi driver and his son who lives in a separate house
- A Filipino maid who is abused
These were the ideas that Raji had. She had written roughly ten stories to date. Maybe she was satisfied with two or three of them. The rest had been scribbled hurriedly to meet deadlines. Her ten stories had received a wide variety of reviews. Two reviews particularly troubled her. “Why do your stories always revolve around a family?” and “The Singapore backdrop in your stories feels forced. It’s easy to identify that you’re an immigrant writer!”
Raji did want to write about pressing social issues instead of family problems. She loved reading essays on writer Jeyamohan’s website. She tried her hand at writing such stories. When she wrote “The Wail of a Refugee” the review she received was, “There’s more propaganda than plot. Avoid writing essays in stories.”
Raji never went anywhere near issue-based stories after that. Whenever she caught herself writing out paragraphs of propaganda, she would mutter to herself, “Not an essay. Not an essay.”
“Alright, Uma. I’ll try writing now. Thanks for your encouragement. Bye!”
Akshara was asleep. Raji had one hour at hand. Then, she would have to sit with her to go through homework. Her husband who was out visiting his friends would be back and want a meal. She decided to write at least a paragraph in the time she had.
Raji was always astonished by Uma’s prolific writing speed. One day she would say the plot was ready. The next day half the story would be finished. In the next couple of days, she would complete the entire story along with a round of editing.
“Why am I not able to write that way?” Raji wondered. She was certain she had spent more time staring at her laptop screen than writing.
There was a movement in the window opposite her block. The opposite block was about fifty feet away from Raji’s. An old woman wearing a red shirt stood at a window that was exactly opposite hers. Although Raji could not see the old woman’s face, she remembered seeing her there before. Every evening, she would come to the window, stand perfectly still and stare out into space. It was not quite clear what she looked at. Did she look at the kids scampering about the play area? Did she stare at the tall trees that grew between the two blocks?
Once the skies began to darken, the old woman retreated into her house. Raji had never seen anyone at that window except the old woman. The lights were always out at night. She always wore red or yellow shirts.
Who is this old woman? Does she not have children? Does she live alone? Have her children died? Why does she stare out the window every evening? Why does she not have lights on at night? Does she have a husband? Why does he never come up to the window? These questions and more popped up one after the other inside her head. Along with them came an idea.
She typed out a sixth point in the word document, “An old woman who stares blankly out the window.”
She heard the alarm. Was one hour up already? The writing would have to be continued some other time.
The next day was Monday. As Raji was about to open her windows in the morning, she noticed two men cutting the grass in the lawn below. They had a piece of cloth wrapped around their faces like a mask. Motors hung behind their shoulders like backpacks. They held a long hollow tube in their hands, at the end of which was a fast spinning wheel with sharp edges like Vishnu’s Sudarsan Chakra. It buzzed with a whrrrrrr sound. As they moved this equipment left and right in a sweeping motion, little bits of overgrown grass scattered in all directions. Akshara watched this spectacle with wide-open eyes.
“Ma, I want to cut grass too!”
“Sure. You can cut them tomorrow.” Raji walked away from the window without opening it. She hated the smell of cut grass, and she had work to do.
“What’s that hanging behind their backs ma?”
“Come here! Do you know what’s for breakfast today? Poori!”
She fried some pooris and fed Akshara. She packed her lunch and helped her board the school bus. She packed her husband’s lunch and bade him goodbye at the doorstep. Finally, she was seated in front of her laptop screen once again. She looked at the six points she had written so far. She was not sure which one to pick. The rules of the contest sounded quite simple. The story has to be set in Singapore. The story must be at least six thousand words in length. To Raji, these two rules seemed like mountains whose peaks were so tall that they were hidden behind thick, white clouds.
If she was asked to write about her native place in India, the stories would flow out of her fingertips. She did not have to think. Her city’s narrow streets that got congested as soon as a water lorry entered, the rants of “cigar grandpa” who lived next door, Nadiyamman temple and its chief priest who wore a wig, her neighbour Bhavani who got married the moment a saree was offered to the goddess… every single detail was secure in her mind. But, if she had to write about Singapore when she thought of a ‘Chinese’ character she only saw a vague face in her mind. That troubled her.
“Uma would have finished writing her novella by now. Do I have to write this? Maybe I can drop the idea. Who is going to bother? Someone might ask why I didn’t write. I openly declared that writing a novella is no big deal. Should I say I had a fever? Why am I unable to write a story in Singapore? How do I capture Singapore’s soul in writing?”
Suddenly she heard an orchestra playing. She looked out through the window. A crowd had gathered in the open space below her block. She did not know what was going on. It looked like some celebration. She saw several men in formal attire, women in skirts and some more men who wore songkoks and sarongs. They had drums, trumpets and other musical instruments whose names Raji did not know. They marched about in sync with the music. A crowd of onlookers had gathered around them.
As she peered through the window, Raji spotted a girl amidst the marching group. That girl reminded her of her college days. She thought of those carefree times when she had fun with her friends and marched around on sports days.
The music stopped. The girl smiled and exchanged high-fives with her friends. They got together to lift a long banner made of cloth. A different tune began to play. This specific girl had very delicate movements. The rest of the girls seemed to be going through their motions like machines. This particular girl’s dance moves were brimming with life.
Raji bent down with the girls and lifted the banner. The yellow banner had huge black letters painted on it. The letters appeared even bigger when Raji held the banner in her hands. She could not fathom the meaning of those alphabets. But, her heart knew that it would be fun to lift the banner and play with it. Her feet moved to the rhythm of the drum beats. She looked at the other girls dancing beside her. Their faces were radiant with smiles. A group of men came dancing towards them. Trumpets were blown. There was one handsome young man among the dancing men. When she saw his eyes, Raji wanted to dance with him. As the drum beats rang out through the air, the men and women danced together. A songkok from an old man’s head plopped to the ground. Raji laughed. She felt she was laughing after a long time. Her laughter sounded alien to her.
The music’s tempo rose. Raji felt the pace of her dance steps double. Her body embraced the air around it. She spread her arms. A bird came flying through the air and kissed her palm. There was dance all around her. She was surrounded by enjoyment. Merriment. She swirled. Her skirt swirled with her.
The trumpet blew again. An undulating dragon figure rose up in the air. Raji realised the stick controlling its head was in her hands. She gave it a swish. The dragon soared up in the skies, ripping through air currents. Everyone looked up at the flying dragon in awe.
She ordered the dragon to fly towards the charming young lad. He pulled out a bouquet from within his jacket. As soon as the dragon touched the flowers, it withered into flower petals. As the petals showered through…
There was a knock at the door. Raji blinked as she sat inside her house. When she opened the door, a slightly tired Akshara stood there wearing a small shoulder bag and fidgeting with an empty plastic water bottle in her hand.
“Ma I’m hungry… what do you have to eat?”
That is when it struck Raji. She looked through her window at the opposite block. The old woman stood there, silent and gaunt. She was staring directly at Raji, with a void in her gaze. For the first time, Raji saw the features of the old woman’s face. Her face seemed vaguely familiar… The wrinkles on it spread slowly across the reflection of Raji’s face on the window.
“Ma!! I’m hungry!!”