First Prize: Megalomania, by Jobeth Ann Warjri
Second Prize: Not A Day For Outings, by Armaan
Third Prize: Her Day, by Santanu Das
We carry below the entry for the First Prize in this issue.
Jobeth Ann Warjri
She took the scissors from the holder. Snip, snip, snip and the dress material took shape. It has to have a calf-length flared skirt, a narrow waist and broad shoulders. This is how a dress should be. She had chosen the material carefully,―coral pink chiffon―that would sway in a slight gust of wind. She will have the woman down the hall try it on. Heaven knows, she needed to have someone tell her what to wear and how. She cannot understand how people live most of their lives without a care for how things should be. Just last night, she found a little boy flinging a sweet wrapper down the stairs. She had tsk-ed, tsk-ed at him and he promptly took to his heels wailing. Good. Someone should teach kids how to behave responsibly; except, most adults behave just as badly. This frustrated her. Imagine those thirty-somethings who drink, smoke and did God-only-knows what else? Not her. No, siree. Those are bad habits and they are bad people. And she? She is on the right side, the truth. Never tasted wine, wrinkled her nose at any whiff of smoke and stayed away from the fornicators. Of course, sometimes it can’t be helped. Sometimes she senses that she needs them in order to reassure herself that she is right. She also reasons that people could do with some sound advise from her. Like that time at the party. The wine was flowing and some of the party-goers had managed to find a guitar and were singing raucously. That was when she spotted her―poor Nyla, tugging at her blouse. Poor Nyla must have been about twenty-five, younger to her by at least ten years. Smiles were exchanged and she took her cue.
“You know, you shouldn’t be wearing a saree,” she said as she sidled next to her. “You look uncomfortable in it. I, however, am used to wearing it since I was in class eight. A dress suits you better.”
Nyla blushed. “Well, this is only the third time I’m wearing one.”
“Why don’t you come visit me? Lunch, tomorrow? I live in the first floor of the apartment block down the hill.”
The next day, poor Nyla arrived despite the rain. The bottom of her jeans were soaking wet and she resembled a lost puppy. Just as well. Any raggedly puppy is welcome to this wolf’s parlour. Poor Nyla was as raggedly as it gets. She sized her up: hands rubbing against each other (palms first, then the right hand coiled around the left thumb and, finally, ending with the left hand stroking the fingers of the right), shoulders (a bit of a slump), eyes (shifting) and mouth (eager smile). It would take some work, she knew, but the end result would be worth it.
“Have a seat,” she said pulling a chair.
“So, do you cook?”
“Not really,” replied poor Nyla apologetically. “I can only make daal and fried veggies, sometimes egg.”
“Cooking is an art,” she said as she gently swirled the vegetable curry with a ladle. “See, now I’m cooking this curry. First you have to heat the oil, then add the onions with garlic and ginger paste, then the spices one-by-one…make sure the spices are cooked, then comes the vegetables and finally, curd.”
“That’s nice,” responded poor Nyla. “I never learnt to cook that way.”
“If you stay with me, I can teach you many things.”
From that moment on, poor Nyla became a regular visitor at her house. She learnt many things,―how to brew tea the right way, how to sew buttons, even how to eat her soup. Always, there were rules that needed to be followed. For instance, tea has to be brewed for exactly two minutes; any time longer than that would leave the tea bitter and a lesser time would make it too weak. Friendship between the two women grew. Her ideas about perfection awed poor Nyla, who was always willing to please. She, for her part, was only too happy to find someone who agreed with her in most areas of life. Then, poor Nyla had done something that was insupportable.
It began rather innocuously. About a year into their friendship, she noticed a change in poor Nyla. Her hair, which was usually unkempt, began to fall in place. Poor Nyla also started wearing more skirts and dresses instead of the usual stonewashed jeans. She seemed to be paying a little more attention to her appearance: a hint of lipstick, laquered nails and some kohl-lined eyes. At first, she attributed poor Nyla’s transformation to her influence. Poor Nyla looked more “girlish” and that must be because she had set an example for the younger woman to follow. Poor Nyla also started having a confident air about her. One time, she even let out a laugh. But just as she was revelling in the changes she thought was due to her, poor Nyla did something unexpected,―she started making excuses for not coming to her house or for not having the time to stay on a little longer. One day, it was because poor Nyla’s mother was ill; the next, because she had a dentist appointment. Then, poor Nyla declined an invitation to dinner without saying why. Her suspicions were aroused and speculation made up for what she lacked by way of evidence: poor Nyla must have a new best friend,―hadn’t she twiched when she reached for her hand across the dining table? Or, and even more convincing, she had fallen in love! It must be one of those good-for-nothing boys with leather jackets, always lurking about in street corners, smoking and drinking. She had read about them in a novel―Shillong-something. It alarmed her that such characters existed. Poor Nyla needed saving and the opportunity soon presented itself.
On a fairly bright Monday in July, she spotted a familiar figure walking down the street with a middle-aged woman. She took a minute to compose herself―the meeting must appear as natural and unexpected as possible.
“Nyla dear, what a surprise! I haven’t seen you for two weeks now!” she exclaimed, extending her arms to embrace poor Nyla.
She felt poor Nyla’s body stiffen. No matter. She will deal with that later.
“This is my mother,” said poor Nyla, gesturing towards the woman standing next to her.
“Aunty! So good to finally meet you,” she responded. “You know, Nyla has been coming to my house often. I’ve been teaching her things. She’s so beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Thank you for your concern for her,” the woman responded.
“Not at all. I am glad for the company she gives me. If you ask me, we are like sisters now. How about you give me your number? That way, we can all meet.”
“I don’t see why not,” replied poor Nyla’s mother. “It’s such a wonderful thing that Nyla has someone to look out for her.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” she said as she took down the number. “See you soon!”
As she made her way homewards, a plan took shape. She would have to be careful, she knew. But first, there was a meal to prepare. She took a look at her ingredients: a kilo of mutton, a kilo of fish, baingan, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beans, rice and lentil. The baingan would have to be fried with turmeric and salt, she decided, while spices for the rest would have to be just right; enough to produce a tang but not to overwhelm the flavours of the meat and vegetables. Within three days, poor Nyla and her mother arrived to a feast,―mutton rogan josh, fish curry, deep-fried baingan, fried vegetable with a hint of coriander, pulao, boiled rice and daal. There were also some fresh-off-the-stove jalebis for dessert. She scanned her guests’ faces and was certain that the web she had spun has caught its prey. Now onto the consumption. The plates and cutlery were laid out and the eating began.
“So Nyla,” she started, puncturing the pulao with a ladle. “What have you been up to these days?”
“Nothing much,” replied poor Nyla. “I’ve been busy with my studies.”
“Oh, what are you planning to study? Where?” she asked, gently stirring the fish curry with another ladle.
“She’s studying for a PhD entrance test,” replied poor Nyla’s mother. “We hope she will get into the university at Mawlai.”
“A lot of local boys go there, don’t they?” she rejoined. “You have to be careful.”
A piece of mutton plonked onto poor Nyla’s plate.
“Why? What have you heard?” asked poor Nyla’s mother.
“I don’t want to alarm you, but I’ve heard from some pretty reliable sources that they,―the students―do drugs. I’ve read somewhere that one needs only hang out with the wrong crowd to get into the habit. Perhaps Nyla is different.”
“Nyla, is that true? What about your friends from the university? Do they do drugs too?” asked poor Nyla’s mother, aghast.
Aha! So poor Nyla has found new friends. Her suspicions were right all along. Back to the eating. The jalebis were out and poor Nyla was fumbling with her food: a sign of guilt?
“Well, I wouldn’t know,” replied poor Nyla, after a long pause. “I have never seen them at it.”
“Just because you haven’t seen them doing it, doesn’t mean they’re innocent,” she remarked. “People, especially the younger generation, can be such hypocrites. In front of you, they appear so child-like and innocent but behind your back, they’re doing something else.”
She looked at poor Nyla pointedly. At this juncture, poor Nyla’s face turned red,―a sure sign of guilt, she reasoned.
“Are you suggesting that my Nyla too is on drugs?” asked the now distraught mother.
“Oh no, it is not my position to suggest anything,” she replied. “But you know what they say about birds of a feather. Perhaps it is better for Nyla to get married to a nice boy from our community. These local boys are only out for trouble, if you know what I mean.”
Silence. She put the last piece of jalebi into her mouth. The meal was done and she had had her fill.
“I think Nyla and I should get going,” said the flustered and confused mother. “Thank you so much for the wonderful dinner.”
“No problem. No problem at all,” she said, a satisfied smile lighting up her face.
The sewing machine ground to a halt and she snipped the last remaining thread from the material. Softly, she lifted her creation and laid it on her bed. Yes, it is a beautiful dress and the woman down the hall would be privileged to have it. She took some time to admire it and the memories came flooding back. Nyla, poor Nyla. What a pity. The dress could have been hers. Inadvertently, she winced at the thought. She had engineered it so well, and yet, it was not to be. Where could it have gone wrong? Was she too insistent? Hadn’t she been exceptionally kind? She missed Nyla’s company; missed the way Nyla would hang on to every word she said with those puppy-dog eyes of hers. There were other visits too when she had walked all the way to Nyla’s house and kept her mother company. She had stayed away from Nyla’s father when she realised that he was non-commital to her stories. The mother, too, had become wary of her visits. Pity them because she was right…is right. She shoved her thoughts on the matter to the back of her mind because just thinking about it made her well up in anger and frustration. She gazed at the clock on the wall: 5:00 PM. She took out a saree from the cupborad―silk; cream-coloured with pink borders. A pair of matching earrings came out of the vanity case. A bit of kohl for the eyes, frost-pink lipstick and perfume behind the ears and she was ready.
She arrived at the party when the cake was being cut. The usual gang of fools were already there. Slowly, she took some sips of the orange juice and her eyes wandered.There he was, standing awkwardly at the far end of the room. She smiled in his direction.
Jobeth Ann Warjri, from Shillong, Meghalaya, is an independent writer and researcher currently living in Surat, Gujarat. This short story is her first attempt at writing in the genre. She is interested in exploring themes relating to gender, sexuality and race relations.