Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Lunatic in My Head (Zubaan Books/Penguin India) and Neti, Neti (Roli/IndiaInk). Books Editor at The Caravan, she has published poems, essays and short stories in various anthologies and journals


Killer queen

First, the few birds remaining on earth calling urgently through the open window. Then the landlord, arguing with any one of the three nodal visitors of his morning – the jasmine-seller, the greens-seller, the milkman. Finally, the phone shrieking with all the insistence of the person calling. Sophie Das crawled out of bed, held the phone a few inches away from her ear, and went to stand by the living-room window. She liked to, as she talked to Swami, watch out for her landlord's two-year-old grandson who sometimes strayed out to play in the little mound of sand by the roadside, or climbed his grandfather's scooter, or just stood there, arrested by a mysterious thought, till his grandparents decided he'd had enough freedom for the morning and dragged him back, bolting the gate behind him.

"Sophie, I've got the loan," announced Swami. "I asked my dad for some dough to make the down payment but he won't hear of it. In fact, he could buy me a car off the shelf if he wanted to. But no one encourages that – not the car companies, not the retailers, not the banks. Anyway, I had to take another loan to make the down payment. What I need to decide now is whether to get an SUV, which is the sturdiest, or a three-box sedan simply because they're the best looking. Sophie? Say something!"

Mani, the toddler, emerged from the opposite house and sat down in the middle of the lane; his grandmother followed with his breakfast in a small steel bowl. Sophie tried to wave to him.

"Sophie, I just called to figure out which type to go with and instead you're being a pig about this."

"I'm being a pig? I want to drive a car so big it'll swallow people if they so much as try to press their horns?"

"Fine then, I'll decide myself."

Mani squatted on the ground with his mouth clamped shut, deaf to his long-suffering grandmother's entreaties.

"Of course you'll decide yourself," said Sophie. "You always do." But Swami had already hung up.

Whatever, whispered Sophie, as she went into the kitchen and toasted a slice of dry bread over the gas stove. She then put four small blobs of butter on four corners of the toast and waited for them to melt. In the morning, everything felt heavy. A knife had the weight of an axe. Even from its distance, Swami's voice pressed so hard against her ear, she would do anything to cut it off.

After a few minutes he called back as Sophie knew he would.

"We need to feel happy about it two years from now, five years from now. It's a long-term-thing," he said, while Sophie said nothing – a blank space where the enthusiastic girlfriend should have been.

Continues in issue 19. Order now.



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