The Book Review Literary Trust has announced the winning entries for the Short Story Competition 2020 on its website.
First Prize: Megalomania, by JoBeth Ann Warijiri
Second Prize: Not A Day For Outings, by Armaan Verma
Third Prize: Her Day, by Santanu Das
We carry below the entry for the Second Prize in this issue.
Not A Day For Outings
Through the thick haze, Sayma did not see the airborne projectile that smacked her square between the eyes.
When she realized that she had been struck by a rolled-up newspaper, curses came flying out of her mouth at the bitter old goat that came every morning to deliver it on his bicycle. An appropriate response was promptly hurled back. Sayma suspected that his hostility stemmed from the fact that hers was the farthest house to which he pedalled every day, and his old goat legs (hooves?) would no doubt fall off one day if he continued travelling the distances that he did.
On the outskirts of town, Sayma’s house was a dollhouse afloat in a sea of garbage. Her greatgrandfather had built it with his own hands when it had been in the middle of nowhere, but the chrysanthemums in Sayma’s garden now overlooked a rather large slum, which hadn’t asked her permission before mushrooming overnight. Despite the filth that bootleggers, immigrants, and industrialists had dumped at her doorstep, she herself kept the house spotless, having inherited it so. She lived with an extensive (expensive?) vase collection and her daughter, Razia. Apart from the occasional stray dog that wandered through her garden, she received no visitors and led a quiet life. If any neighbours enquired about the reason she never left the house, she always had a response ready:
It’s not a day for outings today.
Sayma called out to her daughter, Razia, to join her for an airing as she checked on the state of the flowerbeds. She had been pointlessly struggling to revive her pitifully weak chrysanthemums, the latest phalanx of flowers that had remained staunchly wilted (toxins in the soil?) and failed her. But she loved them nonetheless. Sayma envisioned her flowers shielding her from the corruption and dirt surrounding her—a fortress with petals for ramparts. She knew that Razia, on the other hand, shared none of her fantasies; for most of the day, her hands clutched a pen and her eyes were trained on a blank page meant for an admissions essay that would perhaps propel her to foreign universities.
Razia! Sayma cried out again. This girl would drive her mad one day. She was on strike two. Sayma stopped in front of her chrysanthemums to examine the poor things once again, a fragile citadel of purity and grace amidst all the filth—a fading benediction.
Razia! When the answer was silence, Sayma abruptly stood up. Strike three. That girl has had it. Sayma had been torn from her flowers, a transgression that was reserved only for when the house might be on fire or for the sound of a terrible crash of china from inside it.
Marching into the house, Sayma repeatedly screamed her daughter’s name to no avail. She scoured the kitchen, the attic, both bedrooms, both bathrooms, everywhere. When that produced no results, she tore up the floorboards, checked behind paintings for tunnels in the wall, and inspected the piping. It was a matter of pure chance that Sayma was able to spot a strip of paper taped to the tap in the kitchen, containing a message that may well have been written by a mouse’s hand, so that one required a magnifying glass to read it.
Gone out to look for inspiration. Will be back by five.
Sayma looked at the paper strip, and then at her door, which was letting in a gentle breeze (without her permission?). As she stepped through the door, she began to run (where?). The lanes between the houses (shacks?) had been made slippery with sewage, and her flat shoes bit her feet spitefully at the sudden demands placed upon them. As she made her way through the dreary pathways, people stopped to stare. Even groups of little urchins, who usually troubled all who dared crossed their filthy paths, ceased their gambolling and watched as Sayma trundled by. She, in turn, hissed at them. The truth was that most of the neighbourhood (shantytown?) had known of a Sayma who had lived in the sanitized dollhouse, but its residents had all presumed that she was a witch, disguised as a middle-aged woman. Children had been told before going to bed that her disguise faded away in sunlight but she would come out at night to kidnap anyone and everyone up past their bedtime.
So, naturally, there was much consternation at the witch racing past the homes of the innocent and unsuspecting.
After getting lost twice, Sayma finally arrived at what appeared to be some sort of workshop, though it looked more like a warehouse. She read the sign above the door-less entrance— Devil’s Spare Parts.
It looked promising. After all, Razia had always been keen on secretly running out and playing with similarly rustic little creatures as a child. Sayma shivered, remembering the battle of wills, the angry threats, the bedroom doors locked for protection. She had done anything necessary to free her daughter from her frightening intentions, and would do so again a housand times over.
Upon walking in, Sayma discovered rows of child labourers wreaking havoc on great twisted masses of machinery with hammers larger than themselves, breaking down the hideous things like furious, miniature Davids (Dawuds?). A supervisor sat in a corner, least concerned with the goings-on of the workshop, chewing tobacco while reading a newspaper. Idle hands? Sayma murmured.
Empty minds, actually, the supervisor replied, his eyes unmoved from the newspaper.
I’m looking for my daughter.
Is she a motor?
Sayma blinked. No.
The supervisor grunted in disappointment. The children, soot seeped into their bones, had by now halted all work (of The Devil?) to gaze in admiration at Sayma’s pristinely clean dress. Moving through the slum had left not so much as a speck of mud on it. Scanning the faces of the faceless children, Sayma remained hopeful that Razia would be among them, which would hasten her return to the refuge of her precious vases.
One of the children was bold enough to walk up to her. The little girl pulled out a strip of paper from under her rags. Sayma squinted at it as the girl held it up, cautious enough to not touch the polluted paper.
I said I’ll be back by five!
Silly Razia—always getting lost. She had always been Sayma’s little songbird. The poor thing did not understand the dangers of the outside world, the risks of flying carelessly through overcast skies. Sayma left the workshop without another word. The grimy girl watched on, her hands a little cleaner now from handling the smooth, white strip of paper.
Sayma was uncertain where to look next. She drifted through the better and worse parts of town as her feet complained louder and louder, sending tidal waves of pain through her body with every step. As she entered a cobbled street, she encountered a prisoner, his hands bound with thick ropes. He was being prodded forward by a constable with a long wooden stake.
Sayma approached the constable and enquired about Razia, but he ignored her. The prisoner looked like the kind of man Sayma would warn Razia about—the reason it was far safer to stay indoors. Nonetheless, she tried her luck with him, beginning by asking him who he was.
I’m a purveyor of aphrodisiacs myself.
The illegal kind.
I’m looking for my daughter.
Is she interested in lizard oil?
This was getting nowhere. The constable seemed to have no qualms about letting his prisoner converse freely with a stranger. He merely stared straight ahead and walked on as if Sayma did not exist. Sayma decided to opt for more aggressive interrogation measures. She slapped the prisoner.
For a moment, even Sayma was shocked. The prisoner narrowed his eyes. I saw a group of girls walk into a park east of here, he snapped. Sayma, having procured an answer that benefitted her (did it?), now turned her attention to the constable. She recognized the same deadened intensity in his eyes as she saw in her father while he had been alive.
I know what you’re thinking, the prisoner said. He leaned close—until his breath withered her olfactory senses—and whispered, It’s gaanjaa.
Gaanjaa, Sayma repeated, half-stating and half-asking.
The illegal kind. The prisoner grinned.
Sayma took a second look at the constable, standing painfully upright as if he himself was being prodded by a spear on his behind. His eyes did not comprehend her. She nodded cautiously and backed away as the prisoner burst into unbridled, hysterical laughter. The high fool’s leading me to my shop! He cackled.
Sayma turned and ran. She had met far too many weirdos for the day and still no sign of Razia. The park was not too far away but she effectively increased the distance by moving in a large circle around every piece of garbage lying in her path.
It was one of those Company Gardens from the colonial times, fenced off with a black iron gate at the entrance and green enough to make up for the rest of the city. This seems— nice, she thought. The park was very much like her own garden, so well-maintained, so disciplined (save for her chrysanthemums?)—a barrier against the miasma that sought to contaminate her. She sat down on one of the benches lining the circular footpath, just to give her feet a moment’s rest and breathe in the cool air. The prisoner (of Eros?) had said something about swings. She looked around to find a mangled body under a heap of collapsed rubble. She jolted and ran towards it.
It was an adolescent girl whose face she did not recognize. Her lips trembled as she spoke. Are you my mother?
I’m Razia’s mother.
What? Sayma was astonished. Did young people always talk such filth? Why do you call her a bitch?
She and some others collapsed this whole swing set on me. I don’t know if I’ll walk again. The girl began to weep. I thought they were my friends—
Where is Razia now, child?
They went into the cinema. She raised a quivering finger—Over there.
Sayma left the girl entangled in splinters and plastic as she dashed through traffic.
The cinema was a square concrete building, as most buildings in the town were. The architects that had planned it only wanted some sort of indoor area where moviegoers could essentially sit, and a square was clearly the most efficient design. The rest of the materials intended for additional washrooms, waiting areas, and a food kiosk had been hauled away to the contractors’ homes on wheelbarrows.
This was it. Sayma would finally see her daughter again and be able to bring her home. She entered the cinema hall confidently, knowing that she was in control now. Where her daughter was concerned, she was always in control. The town, that disgusting outside world, now lay behind her. She dusted herself. The crows perched on nearby electric wires watched her intently—they were clearly expecting something (birdfeed?). Sayma, however, had no interest in humouring an audience. She strode into the hall after asking the disinterested schoolboy at the ticket counter what film was being screened. She was almost gone by the time he replied, Some Australian one.
The hall itself reeked of beer (something brewing?). Sayma ignored the big screen and began to scour the seats. It was unnaturally dark for a cinema hall, but then again—when was the last time she had gone for a film? She deliberately walked down the stairs, taking her time to stare down the rows of—men? There were only men in here. Strange.
A gasp resounded through the hall. Only then did Sayma hear the sounds that chilled her—the moaning of a man and a woman in ecstasy, the sounds of libido that were once so familiar to her. It grew louder, and with every heightened sound the transfixed men leaned a little more forward in their seats. Sayma turned in horror to find skin (so much skin?) covering the big screen. She seized the closest man and asked him what film was on. He replied, Can’t you see? It’s Tessie Takes a Trip Down Under. Sayma instinctively sent up a prayer. Only in the front row did she hear laughter—girls’ laughter. She hurried in its direction as she had been doing the entire day and found Razia falling out of her seat laughing.
Sayma began to seethe. Her fists balled up. The whole day’s chase had led up to this moment. It should have been a relief to find her daughter safe and sound but—This!
Razia! We are going home. Now. She grabbed the girl by her wrist and began to haul her outside. Razia had by this time caught sight of her mother and had begun to scream, leaving her friends gawking in her direction, dumbfounded. The rows upon rows of men turned to find two women struggling against each other while climbing the stairs of the hall (live action?). Razia was cursing her mother without stopping for breath. I said I’d be back at five! Why can’t you just listen to me?
It’s not safe.
I needed to clear my head. I’m sick of lying at home.
You don’t have a say in this!
Finally, Sayma and Razia were out of the cinema. Sayma found the strength to drag Razia on foot back all the way home. On the way she cried out to her daughter, How could you hurt that girl in the park?
Who, that bitch? She got violent first.
See, I’m always telling you it’s too dangerous.
No! Why can’t I take the risk? Why not? Why not? Why not?
So many questions. Sayma ground her teeth—Razia was always asking so many questions. Why? Why did she have to? It was not as if Sayma did not have her own questions from time to time, but she let them remain just that, never affecting her main flow of thoughts. If I say you can’t, then you can’t, Sayma said. That’s it.
No, I’m sick of this!
Sayma’s chrysanthemums were in sight. A few moments more and they would be away from this muck, this giant slum that threatened her with its very existence. She finally shoved Razia through the door and shut it. A moment later, she was running out to check on her chrysanthemums. A neighbour, Anand, had been watching the whole affair. He asked Sayma, Enjoyed your day out with your daughter?
Oh no, it’s not at all a day for outings today.
But—you just had one, didn’t you?
Sayma stared at Anand, then at the path on which she had returned home. Yes—Yes, I suppose I have.
Just as Sayma shut the door behind her, contemplating how beautiful the park had been, how those child labourers had stared at her in wonder, and how boldly Razia had laughed in the cinema hall, she found herself dodging a cooking utensil aimed at her head. Razia roared at her mother. She took a nearby pan and flung it too. Then she began to fling anything—forks, knives, mugs, bowls. When Sayma retreated to the living room, Razia flung the television set at her. That one surprised Sayma, who was now terribly afraid. Razia screamed once again. I hate you! I hate you with all I’ve got! You’ve caged me here like a pet! Razia proceeded towards the mantelpiece and aimed Sayma’s vases at her one by one.
Each vase shattered like a piece of Sayma’s heart.
Sayma was numb by now. Her beautiful house! It was being ravaged by her beautiful daughter. Razia began to spin around holding a chair, destroying anything she could. Tables, drawers, vases, flowerpots, windowpanes—all went up in a whirlwind of debris. But something else had caught Sayma’s attention. A smell, like that of when she would leave food in the oven for too long.
Dodging Razia’s rampage, Sayma made for the kitchen, half of which she found to be aflame (Razia’s rage?). Screaming in alarm, she ran for the door, calling out for Razia to hurry outside. The flames spread so quickly! Out of the house, and expecting Razia to be as well, Sayma watched in terror and dismay as the door collapsed in a burning wreckage in a matter of seconds. Soon enough, the attic collapsed as well. Sayma wept and wept in her garden, a mere ten feet from the house her great-grandfather had built, which now a furious inferno, and hellishly so.
She sat there all night, until all that was left was embers. She lacked the courage to look for Razia’s corpse in the seething remains. In the early hours of the morning, when she would have ordinarily begun checking on her chrysanthemums, she now skirted the charred wood. There was a portion of the structure that was half-burnt (cement?) but had collapsed in a hideous heap.
From there emerged Razia’s ashen face, sending Sayma into the shock of her life.
Razia cackled and howled and wept, clutching in her hand a page that was once blank but now crammed with words—the words of Razia’s uneventful life, as well as her eventful day out—her soul laid bare on the page. Sayma gasped. Her baby girl! Alive! But Razia was having none of it. Pushing her mother aside, she leapt and skipped with joy, her clothes entirely singed off by the fire. Her naked body, scorched and blistered in places, dashed past Sayma’s chrysanthemums, springing into the air, and into the meandering streets of the slum.
Sayma sat there for a long while. Through the morning haze of pollution, a rolled-up newspaper came hurtling towards her, but she caught it in time. She examined it for a moment and threw it right back. Her aim (luck?) must have been splendid, because it knocked the old goat right off his bicycle and sent him flying into the mud. Sayma shook her head at him as she clambered onto his bicycle, looked at her wilted chrysanthemums for one last time, and set off to find her daughter.
Armaan who has recently graduated from The Doon School, Dehradun is the author of two books, Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods and Undoing of the Thieving King, both retellings of mythology for children that are available online. One of his short stories has been accepted by the Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature Journal.