Contest

Art Illustrated Short Story Contest, Winner

Dream Home

By Shruthi Rao

Arts Illustrated Short Story Contest, Winner

'When I have a home of my own, I'll fill up my balcony with succulents,' she liked to say. She was a homeowner now, finally, but sans balcony and succulents. All she owned in the plant category was a tiny potted barrel cactus that she had picked up years ago at a garage sale. It had followed her from home to rented home until she scrimped and saved and accumulated some money, a figure large enough for a down payment towards a three-bedroom single family house with a garden and a swing in a place like Utah or Colorado, but this was not Utah or Colorado. Here, all she got was this little matchbox condo with one living room, one kitchen, one bedroom, one bathroom, and zero balconies.

Her real estate agent said this was perfect for her. Technically, it was. Safe community. Close to her workplace. Reverse commute. Stores within walking distance. The schools weren't very good, said the agent, but she had no use for schools, did she, ha ha. Anyway, that's why this place was so affordable. Dream home, he said.

Not mine, she wanted to tell him.

Shruthi Rao

Her dream house was a home in the hills, perhaps with a stream burbling by. A white framed bay window, sunshine streaming in, maybe a tree just outside, dripping flowers in the spring. Or maybe a stone house perched on a rocky cliff, with a view of the Pacific changing colours through the day. A little bench outside the house, on which she could sit and watch the sunset, the wind in her hair.

Sometimes her dream home was more urban and practical. A home on the top floor of a high-rise building, maybe downtown, with a view of the Golden Gate. Or perhaps just a little place in a quiet street, with a balcony filled with potted succulents.

Looking for a new home was exciting. It was full of potential. The home could be anywhere, it could be anything. The imagination is not limited by the amount of money in the bank.

But the thing with buying a dream home is that after you're done, there is no dream left.

Now that she had bought this house, her world shrank into these 500-square feet. With no balcony. Not even a place to put her poor little barrel cactus on – except the window sill. She unwrapped a little figurine of Rodin's The Thinker, another steal from another garage sale, and placed that on the windowsill too.

She would raid other garage sales, and buy other knickknacks and put them all on the window sill, in a line. It wouldn't be a problem, wouldn't come in her way, because she had no plans of opening the window, ever. Because a closed window was more intriguing than a window that faced a brick wall. Closed windows could possibly open out into a garden with fruiting trees or pretty flowers. Or to a view of meadows, or hills, or the beach, or the ocean, or even snow-covered mountains, if that's what she wanted. She could still gaze at the closed window and let her imagination soar.

A closed window has immense potential. Like a dream house.

About Shruthi Rao

Shruthi Rao is the author of 10 Indian Women Who Were the First to Do What They Did (2019, Duckbill), 20 Indians Who Changed the World (2019, Talking Cub), Susie Will Not Speak (2018, Duckbill), The Secret Garden (2016, NSI), Avani and the Pea Plant (2016, Pratham), among others. More at http://shruthi-rao.com


The Best View

By Jyothi Vinod

Arts Illustrated Short Story Contest, First Runner-Up

I follow the nurse and attendant as they help Madam into the room and settle her in bed. As chief patron of Sunset Homes, I've had my way refurbishing this room. Yet, the shut windows and sheer white curtains catapult me thirty years back in time to a night from hell. I fidget with the glass paperweight on the windowsill till my finger finds its chipped end. As if on cue, an old scar on my left temple tingles.

"I'm sorry…are you…my son?" Madam asks. An apologetic toothless smile lights up her face while she waits for my reply.

"I'm Shankar."

She frowns, shakes her head and sighs. "Was my son called Shankar? Oh, I don't know… " She flails her arms as if trying to clear the fog in her brain. "God, take me away," she whimpers.

I kneel beside the bed and stroke her forehead. "Shh... please get some rest."

I listen to her laboured breathing and wish I'd sought her out earlier. Our pasts are tragically entwined, but the truth of my identity will bring her no succor. I clasp her wizened hands in mine and press them to my forehead. "I'm really sorry."

"You've done so much, Sir. I heard this is an exact replica of Madam's room in Madikeri," the nurse says.

Shruthi Rao

I stand up and reach out to open the windows. I've ensured this room has the best view: a sprawling lawn bordered with rose bushes, white benches along the walking path, and the cheery sights and sounds of the busy marketplace beyond the low compound wall.

The attendant coughs politely behind me. "Please don't, Sir. She grows berserk when the windows are open."

I drop my hands slowly. I regard the miniature nude Thinker on the windowsill with sudden distaste and whisper, "Fool, ponder all you want. There's no atonement in this lifetime." I trudge into the garden, find a bench that faces the closed windows of Madam's room, and sit down heavily.

God knows, I had successfully barricaded any window that could open to my past, until I took my wife and daughters to Madikeri last month.

I had not wanted to stop the car, but braked involuntarily at the sight of the dilapidated bungalow. I walked in on a bunch of people watching TV inside. They hurriedly introduced themselves as the cook, housemaid, gardener and driver. I tentatively asked for Madam, and was shown to a room that hadn't changed in thirty years. My exclamation that their charge looked woefully emaciated resulted in conspiratorial whispers about her insanity. I coaxed them to reveal the details of Madam's distant relative who had hired them. I called the relative, and he didn't hide his delight when I expressed my desire to care for Madam; he bought the story of my being a poor orphan she had once helped. It was terrible lying to my wife too, but I had no choice. Over the week we stayed in Madikeri, the relative flew down to officially entrust Madam to my care; there were buyers queued up to buy her property, he explained unabashedly.

I stare at my clean fingers, well-shod feet, and expensive suit till my vision blurs.

#

I'm ten and grimy, immensely proud to be accompanying my father and his men on work for the first time. The women have just seen us off with lit lamps and prayers. I'm running to keep pace with the sinewy men as we leave our hamlet in the jungle. We don't converse unless absolutely necessary and stay mostly wrapped in blankets during the train and bus journeys.

We're met by my father's friend who leads us through the dark night. The men stop to oil themselves, change into black shorts and vests, and arm themselves with iron clubs. Fortified by alcohol, they break loose like a pack of ravenous wolves at the sight of the isolated bungalows in Madikeri. I'm the trained monkey that is eased into small unguarded windows. I can pick locks and squirm in and out of narrow gaps. I open the windows they order me to, and wait for them outside.

It's the last bungalow for the night. I've just opened the windows of a room to let my father and his men inside when everything goes horribly wrong. A man and a teenaged boy enter the room waving rifles that look like toys. My father charges at them with his iron club and strikes them on their heads, and then again till they stop moving. My father and his men disappear into the house to complete their work. A dazed Madam emerges from behind a cupboard. Her trembling fingers dial numbers on the phone, unaware that my father's men have cut the telephone lines.

My father's ruthlessness horrifies me. All his strange lessons and exercises in the jungle suddenly make sense. I'm climbing out of the window when a glass ball hits my left temple. I turn behind to see her crawl under the bed. I huddle under a fragrant frangipani bush and feel a cold mist swirl down. The men leap out of the window triumphantly. I'm nursing my bleeding forehead when somebody grabs my hand, and we're running again. I'm still retching behind the bus-stop when the bus leaves. My father and his men never return to a place of work.

The NGO that found me days later didn't probe my past. When normal schooling failed to interest me, they discovered my aptitude for carpentry. My flourishing furniture business today owes itself to their patience.

#

"Sir, are you ill?" The nurse holds a file that needs my signatures, and a bottle of water. I wipe my face on the sleeve of my shirt and drink thirstily. I take the file, but continue to stare at the closed windows.

"I wonder what she sees that scares her so much," says the nurse, following my gaze.

"That's alright. Leave the windows closed till she's ready for the view."

About Jyothi Vinod

Jyothi’s short stories have won the Katha Short Fiction Prize in 2015 (Second place) and in 2016 (Third Place). She was First Runner-up in the DNA-Out of Print Fiction Contest 2017. Her short stories and articles have appeared in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu, literary magazines: Reading Hour, Open Road Review, OutofPrint, India Currents, DWL- Papercuts, The Indian Quarterly (Jan-Mar 2019), Himal Southasian, and in anthologies (The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, The Other  2018, WE: Our Space 2018).


Disintegration

By Liza David

Arts Illustrated Short Story Contest, Second Runner-Up

He didn’t see it coming. Everyone seemed to know more about what was coming than he did. The neighbours knew, a few friends may have sensed it, the shopkeeper down the street maybe knew and she definitely knew. But, as self- assured as he seemed, he didn’t see it coming until the final moments when she dragged her stuffed suitcases and open boxes out the front door. The times they had known of what he thought were intimate were on drug-induced stupors or drunken evenings spent with take-away boxes. Sometimes pizza, mostly biriyani. He thought everything was okay, but then he always did. That was his way of making sure everything was always okay.

You’d recognise Merwyn by the slight limp in his gait; his left knee needed a surgery that he refused to get because he had no steady job and couldn’t afford it. His friends called him Merv, so did Mrin, and the neighbours, and the shopkeeper where he frequented for beer and cigarettes, and occasionally for fruit and vegetables also. Merv often said that he liked to eat healthy food and spent an awful lot of time making sure his face was well groomed and his shirts were ironed. The neighbours didn’t need to know everything, he told Mrin on several days. She hadn’t told them anything but when neighbours hear loud arguments and things being shattered, they tend to know. Mrin’s normal voice was quite loud in itself and then she went and frequently used language that was quite unpleasant for anyone to hear, though she frequently told Merv not to swear in front of her grandmother or at strangers while he was driving. Home was okay for name calling and fights. Everything had to look good on the outside. That was her way of making sure everything was always okay.

They’d met at the artist Ven’s place, up in the hills, a place frequented by loners and misfits of all stripes – people who thought they were alone and wanted to leave the city to be alone but knowingly, unknowingly, gathered in spaces where other loners and people at the fringes of social acceptance gathered.

By Liza David

The last time they were up there they’d been on one of their drug-induced binges; mostly herbs, even medicinal, but sometimes liquids and pink crystals and white powders that smelled like a chemistry lab and created temporary euphoria and feelings of awe and wonder and connectedness. Ven had given them the sculpture of ‘The Thinker’ as a present. They both loved it. Perhaps even more reason why Merv didn’t see anything coming.

Merv grew up having to act like everything was always okay. Even when he was teased by friends for kissing a girl on a mountain top near school. Even when his dad died. Even when he had to move cities after that and struggled through school, with his mom hovering over his shoulder all the time. Even when he struggled to finish his engineering degree, that great struggle that many of our generation face, as if accomplishment and satisfied parents are a result of finally being called an Engineer. Most can barely engineer their happiness afterward. Anyway, he didn’t finish that all-important engineering degree, much to the dismay of his mother who then used up a handsome sum to send him off to a college abroad to get a degree in business. Even with that degree, there were days spent cleaning shop floors and nights spent dumping out-of-date food into large bins that the poor and homeless couldn’t access.

Meeting Mrin was a breath of fresh air because she had many emotions that she almost always acted upon. Maybe too quick and too often. Maybe he should have seen it coming. Now that they were married, surely everything was truly okay. Merv thought the marriage even made up for the lost engineering degree and the disappointed mom and that he could finally rest in the safe folds of a social contract, signed and sealed and delivered with religious and government authority. Nothing to do now but watch a game, eat healthy food when possible, always ensure his shirts are ironed and the yellow windowsill was dust free. Of course, take the occasional trip to Ven’s in the hills. Nothing more to it.

Mrin had been acting out more often though; even in the hills she was sobbing and seemed to be saying strange things. Was he supposed to take the vague hints of unhappiness that were turning into despair as something more than mood swings? It must have been her work stress. He knew she was in therapy. He hated therapists. His mom had once dragged him to one because he couldn’t finish the damn engineering degree. Besides, he wasn’t working again and all she did was ruin his time watching the game and disrupt his nap and never maintain his painstaking window cleaning. When she yelled, she roared all kinds of cruel things that she hoped the shut windows would block from neighbourly ears. Mrinalini Goswamy, a storm of a woman who flew into stormy rages and stormed out one rainy day. How dare she.

Her bags and boxes were packed slowly over the weeks before she left, the weeks she’d spent curled up on a mattress on the floor in the next room. Some nights she seemed to be imploring him to understand something, something about being ill, something about being terribly unhappy. In her final flurry, there was no space for the fossil rock that he’d found for her on a beach. She’d have loved to keep the sculpture but left it for him. Surely he would look after the cacti. Sod the cacti and the curtains made from old sarees. She shut the windows tight that day and dragged her teary face and over-stuffed bags out the door. He couldn’t stop her leaving.

About Liza David

Liza is a designer, researcher and design educator who has served as visiting faulty at NID Bengaluru. Liza also runs a mental health collective (ahorsewithnoname.in) with a few friends, in an attempt to create, collaborate and share safe spaces.