Category Archives: Fiction

Star-crossed Lovers

Romeo was beginning to feel underappreciated. His special talent, of brawling on the streets, was not being particularly well-received in Verona. Having decided to find a place where people would get him, he shifted base with Juliet to Uttar Pradesh in search of #innerpeace, #yoganotyogi, #eatpraylove, and #spirituality. His feelings about UP, for the sake of hastening the narrative, can be summed up through the caption of his Instagram post of a bike with ‘dekho magar pyaar se’ written on the license plate: ‘Indian spring, love and laughter’.

Nevertheless, it was a happy time for the couple, as it was spring, and they sat around basking in the sunshine, singing:

“It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.”

Romeo had gone to get some poison juice, and Juliet found herself all alone. The police personnel in the area, seeing an unattended young woman, were hovering around in the interests of the ‘Anti-Romeo squad’, the interests of which they were enforcing with dedicated zeal, despite there being a slight problem: they were unsure about what exactly a Romeo was. And what did one do with a Romeo once they caught one? Most confusing, especially as it was entirely up to them to decide upon the properties of a Romeo, and what they should do when they found one. A logical argument was made and agreed upon; that this species could be identified by “the look in their eyes, their face and the way they stand”. Soon, Juliet called out, “Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” and Romeo hastened to her side. The police personnel’s ears pricked up. ‘It is a Romeo! We have found it!’ they cried, ran towards the couple, and surrounded them.

Romeo found himself picked up bodily by a police officer and was delighted, for here seemed to be an opportunity for a brawl. “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” he asked heatedly.

‘Don’t talk,’ replied the officer. ‘Go sit on the road, and do push-ups while holding your ears. This is how we punish young loiterers like you.’

‘Punish? But why? What has he done?’ questioned Juliet, who was a bit slow on the uptake.

‘He is harassing you, and we have to protect young women from their hormones and their boyfriends,’ said the officer.

‘But I’m clearly into him!’ cried Juliet. ‘That is to say, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea/ My love as deep; the more I give to thee/ The more I have, for both are infinite.”’

‘It is not up to you to decide that,’ snapped the police officer. ‘It is written in the manifesto that there will be anti-Romeo squads. This is a Romeo, now here is a squad. You are spreading immorality. And besides, “These violent delights have violent ends/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder/ Which, as they kiss, consume”’

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” lamented Romeo, in handcuffs, as he was frogmarched to the police station.

‘No, stop! I trust Romeo! We have a deep level of trust and affection, because we’ve only looked at each other once before falling in love. We share a genuine friendship!’ pleaded Juliet.

All the police personnel exchanged knowing glances, and smiled, used to hearing this. ‘Madam,’ stated one of them, with the air of one who puts down a fundamental truth. ‘A boy and a girl can never be friends.’

Written by Anushmita Mohanty

Image by Stuti Pachisia

ACROSS THE FENCE

A whirlwind of emotions ventilated her striped outfit, as her weak eyesight drank in the picture of daisies smiling in the countryside. She hung from the doorless opening of the carriage chugging off at a snail’s pace. She didn’t want to obscure the few beams of joy lighting up her miserable world by gazing at the sickly faces wearing morose expressions in the train compartment. So she allowed the gloomy wind to caress her matted hair and strained her ears to hear birdsong. Only jarring sounds of machines and unceasing wailing welcomed her into Hamburg.

Hurtful wires and snide comments formed her first unflattering impression of the camp. Stony visages forced her into a large hall where shaved heads and hopeless eyes drowned the canvas in black nothingness. The guards cringed at the sight of her long hair- a source of perpetual lice and disease. As the razor touched her curls, she remembered how her mother expertly braided her chestnut locks, interspersing them with roses, violets and her favourite- daisies. The image of her mamma’s bloodied body being hacked to pieces by the Gestapo as her shrieks resonated in the street, fluidly entered her consciousness. This made her freeze in the queue, with another girl behind her nudging her forward.

Her Papa had been exempted from this tormenting scene as he had been picked up a day before. Her optimism compelled her to believe that he was alive and well. She soon realized that she would prefer to not see her gentlemanly father as an invalid living in nauseating conditions.

A new number was then branded onto her arm. The pain it caused was a minor prick in comparison to the emotional longing she felt for Papa. A laxity in discipline allowed the women to cling to the thorny fence. In the pandemonium that ensued, someone whacked into her. She banged her head against something, and the world went blurry. She imagined that her hoarse cries were met by a weak shout,”Liesel, my baby!” She imagined that she reached out to hold his hands. “Everything is alright, darling. Don’t panic. Papa’s here,” she imagined him saying. She told this to the violets hidden under the wires, their petals torn by metal thorns. At least someone would know her story now.

Was she dreaming up the violets? Huh. Why not daisies, then? She had always found the violets insipid before.

Soon, gunshots echoed in the bloody atmosphere as the inmates refused to be calmed down.

“These bloody rats!” an official shouted, aiming his rifle everywhere and nowhere.

A stray bullet hit her.

“I guess you’ll do then. Is it alright if I call you Vi?” she whispered. Her soul bled out into the earth, watering the plant’s roots.

The wind took a baby breath to convince the violets. They reluctantly shook their heads in acquiescence.

Someone stepped on them before they could tell her their story. Tell her how they refused to die because Lebensraum was too silly. Tell her how they hid in the dirt behind trembling feet that fed them a diet of bright liquid every time a gun coughed a bullet. How their insipidity had let them meet her.

“Hmmph. Bloody daises”, was all they could say.

Liesel and Vi died on the spot, hand in hand, across the fence.

 

Written by Tript Kaur

Image by Kanishka

SWINDLER’S LIST

“For how long do these two plan to waste my time?” the cranky bookstore owner thought, as he glared at the two men browsing through titles of the same section for the past half an hour. They seemed to be well dressed and conversed in soft whispers, grinning occasionally. He finally heaved a sigh of relief when they walked towards the counter. They nodded at him once and exited the shop, leaving him fuming. He shook his fist at them and turned. Only later would he realize that half of his expensive pen collection was missing.

A cool wind blew past them, spreading earthy fragrance carrying the promise of rain. One of them caught a pamphlet and stared at it until his friend finally cracked and asked.

“Well I’m knackered. This man here looks like you Sanjay, don’t he?” They read and re-read the paper fluttering in their hands and smirked. “Looks like we’ll have some more fun today.”

A light drizzle made them smoothly steal umbrellas from passers-by without a break in their gaits. Soon, they reached their destination. A large tent swayed in the breeze over the trees laden with flowers and fruit. Much of the audience was already seated. The journalists directed their crew hither and thither, arguing with the security guards, trying to secure all angles for the tardy minister. They had a hard time pacifying other dignitaries on stage, most of who claimed to have pollen allergies and grumbled until they received refreshments. The two swindlers adjusted their disguises and delicately coughed at the harried security guards outside the venue.

“Do you realize how long you have made me wait?” Sanjay began his tirade. “I’ve been sitting in my car waiting for God knows who to come receive me. I’ll not tolerate this shabby treatment any longer,” he shouted with an air of unmistakable authority. The organiser profusely apologised for his oversight and led him onto the stage, flattering him all the way until his righteous anger had cooled. As Sanjay delivered a generic speech, peppering it with false promises and unachievable targets, Amar had a field day pocketing purses and accessories. He chuckled when a garland of folded currency was graciously presented to his companion.

The real minister finally arrived with his entourage and shouted at the flustered organiser who was too shocked to apologize. It was almost dusk and tiny stars had already started peeping out of the sky. Sanjay and Amar were long gone. Later when the press reported the incident, one of the people interviewed answered, “What difference does it make?”

 

Written by Tript Kaur
Image by Sanna Jain

I Made a Thing

The making of the thing didn’t happen without provocation. A certain gathering had been made, and people try to impress people in gatherings, particularly those of the elite kind. In any case, the thing being made had intricacy involved, references were made within it, and the overall effect, in the end, was quite funny.

“What did you make?” someone asked the maker, laughing.

“Just a joke, you know,” laughed the maker right back.

Within the community, it was quite a masterpiece of a satire, when all was said and done.

They all chuckled, laughing, grinned, giggled and looked at the thing.

It was a small rock, one populated with green stuff (the maker called them trees). There was a vast amount of blue, and apparently, that was water. Somewhere in the corner of the rock, a species of animal was busy with fire, as if it was the most interesting concept in the world.

When asked, the maker said, “It’s funny now, but give it a few thousand years, it’s going to be hilarious.”

Down on the green rock, the species of animal was busy with the orange flames and the fact that you could grow plants to suit your purposes.

Quite a clever little joke.

Written by Tanvi Chowdhary
Image by Sanna Jain

We All Fall Down

The first time Sam asked her who Katie was, she had just shrugged. She didn’t quite know how to explain it to Sam in the first place, and in the second – Katie was hers. Hers intimately, personally, inescapably. This ended when Sam found her, sprawled on the floor of her room, crying.

“There’s so much blood,” she’d said. “Why is there so much blood? Tell her to stop, Sam, please – she keeps cutting herself and spilling it on my sheets.”

Sam had looked at her funny, and Isabella had wanted to demand to know what he was thinking. Why didn’t he find Katie? Why didn’t he get her to stop? Katie was always making such a racket, always screaming, demanding, asking for food, for water, for something more – and always clawing at her throat, as if she knew something about Isabella that Isabella herself didn’t.

Sam got used to Katie eventually – as did Isabella. There was no shutting her up after all. She couldn’t help it – the constant screeching wouldn’t stop, and Isabella was not equipped to handle it.

“She used the knives again,” she told Sam one day. “There was so much blood.”

Sam looked at her, as her fingers tapped on the plastic table.

“So much blood,” she said quietly, contemplating the smears on her fingers, that left fingerprints everywhere.

*

She always dreamed of the first thing over and over again – it was hard to remember her sister, you see. So in her dreams, she’d appear over and over and over and over again. She didn’t know what point her sister was trying to make – but Katie never really had much subtlety that way. And the dream always started with a doorway – or a cliff, or an entrance.

And Isabella was always falling.

Falling.

Falling.

Falling.

Until Katie appeared again, her face smiling, telling Isabella that she had done well, that everything was going to be alright.

Katie smiled.

Blood dripped from her eyes.

*

“How is… everything… today?” Sam asked her.

“She used a rope this time,” sighed Isabella. “She’s over there,” she added unnecessarily, waving in the background. Katie’s body swung from side to side, as it trying to prove a point.

“Isabella… do you remember anything about Katie?” asked Sam

Isabella frowned. “I remember – I remember Mum and Dad loved her,” she said slowly. “I remember she was always loud – always, always, always. She took my favourite Barbie when we were six, I remember. I think her name was Violetta.”

“Anything else?” prodded Sam.

“Why was she so loud?” asked Isabella helplessly. “She always wanted everything – everything!”

“It’s alright Isabella, come on,” said Sam, patting her hand.

“She smiled so much – all her teeth, you could see them all, always –”

“I know.”

Isabella buried herself into Sam’s chest. “You’ll stop her, won’t you?”

Sam’s hand was hesitant on her hair.

“I’ll try.”

*

Isabella examined her nails. “It was a spanner this time,” she said.

“Yeah?” said Sam cautiously.

“I don’t know why she keeps doing it,” said Isabella, reexamining her nails.

“Isabella – you – do you –”

“What?” asked Isabella earnestly, looking at Sam’s worried face. Maybe something was wrong – maybe Mum and Dad weren’t well.

“Did Katie ever tell you why – why she does this to you?”

Isabella frowned.

She remembered the doorways, the cliffsides that she was always falling over. The entries, the break ins, and then Katie’s smiling face, over and over, saying words that sounded all wrong. “She used to say that there’s a threshold – to becoming stars or fire. She said hers was limitless. She said mine was limitless.”

“For what?” asked Sam.

“Mine for her,” said Isabella quietly. “And her for more.”

Sam didn’t say anything.

“But I showed her –” said Isabella fiercely. “I showed her. I showed her. There are limits.”

Sam collected his coat, leaving the room.

“Will you be coming to visit your sister again?” asked one of the attendants.

“Probably,” she heard Sam say. “Next week maybe.”

She wondered why Sam always asked all these questions – she found it hard to remember whatever he asked her about. Whenever she tried hard enough, she remembered Katie’s face, blood pouring out – everywhere, everywhere, everywhere – and a knife in her hand.

She sometimes wondered which threshold she’d crossed simply by placing a limit on Katie.

 

Written by Tanvi Chowdhary

Image by Sanna Jain

COUNTDOWN

60
59
58

 A loaded vest fits snugly on my slender frame. It clings to my torso comfortably. My loose salwar-kameez flutters against the breeze and I hear memory murmur…

Rude grunts of one-sided lust
Overcome subdued screams of despair.
A pair of eyes hidden in the dark
Cry silent tears behind coarse greens
Tracing paths of teardrops behind armed lines. 

45
44
43 

My dupatta flaps around my braided hair, tamed by branded rubber-bands. I feel the texture of memory…

Sleek shiny metal fits into fingers
As hands run over the surface
Of carefully crafted earrings
Hanging from earlobes pierced by bullets,
Dancing around armoured smiles with AK47s for teeth. 

38
37
36

I climb the steps of the abandoned warehouse, adjust the ‘PRESS’ badge dangling from a noose-like ribbon around my neck, and peer at the scene from the rooftop. A large crowd chants his name and memory tickles my nose with the smell of…

 Freshly mowed grass fighting with dirty boots
Kicking unconscious bodies of suspects.
Suspicion forces batons onto battered frames
Pain satiates rifle-butts
And torture grins over bloody carcasses. 

21
20
19 

I make my way through the crowd, push past enthusiastic supporters with an apologetic smile and fix my head into a knowing nod to assure my cameraman. Nervous sweat trickles onto my lips as memory tastes…

Smoky ash swimming in freshwater,
Rendered stale by the stillness of algae-filled lakes.
As paradise flicks salty tears into the bosoms of its people
Salinity floods lives confused by
Legal terminology and censored news.

10
9
8

I discretely press a button resting behind my kameez and bestow a 1000-Watt smile on the Minister. The electricity of my grin begins the countdown as I ask a flattering question. The Minister chats like an old acquaintance while his bodyguards restrain the crowd. I see numbers flashing past…

5
4
3
2
1

 Fireworks spin around our bodies
Cracking bones with light and sound
A loud disclaimer rends the air
And fatal blasts leave smithereens behind
To decorate currency-garlands
With soil drenched in my people’s blood. 

 May peace be with you.

Written by Tript Kaur
Featured Image by Kanishka

 

SHELF(ISH)

1986
My VIP logo gleams in the dark room. I am too close to the roof for comfort. However, this is still better than my cramped former home at the shop down the road. A majestic red American Tourister suitcase struggles with me for space. The handy Samsonite black bag grins at our antics. As the days pass by, the Samsonite gets on and off the shelf, telling us stories of airports and hotel rooms. Jealousy gnaws at my insides, making my zips vibrate.

Finally, a calloused hand with multicoloured bangles on its wrist, gently pulls me down the shelf. It carefully unzips me to place neat bundles of clothes, undergarments, toiletries, towels and sanitary napkins. It lovingly pats my cover after it is finished. The red suitcase and black travel bag are already on holiday, forcing me to gloat by myself. I roll my wheels with excitement.

The calloused hand comes back. It unzips me with a jerk, throws all the packed items out and pushes me away violently. A few of the bangles slip out of reach, cracking under my weight. Shards of glass sadly twinkle in the grim light of the room.

1991
A new, work-roughened hand hurriedly wipes my case nowadays. My companions laugh at my short journey. Up and down the shelf I go. Up and down.

Down.
Dow.
Do.
D.

1997
The slender calloused hand has lost most of its bangles. It wears a single gold bracelet that refuses to tinkle, for it has lost its friends. The hand touches me sometimes. Its fingers trace untold stories, hummed songs and blurry pictures on my cover. It impatiently drums its fingers at times, working me up into a frenzy of anticipation. Its broken nails and chafed fingers seem too tired on other days.

2006
A new Safari Bag has usurped my place on the shelf. I have been confined to the store. Dirty trunks, unused curtains, moths and flies invade my privacy every day. I rest forgotten, like lost sepia photographs that make memory forget.

2016
Suddenly, I am jerked out of my slumber. A slender, weather beaten, shrivelled hand happily pulls me out of layers of grime. It throws me open under the benign yellow light bulb and cleans me thoroughly with soap water and dry cloth. Then, it puts a few dull coloured saris, some jewellery and many packs of medicines in me. As sugar free pills and tubes of volini scramble for space, the tired (albeit hopeful) hand places a passport in the centre. The red American Tourister suitcase, black Samsonite bag and Safari bag on the esteemed shelf look away furiously.

Indira Gandhi International Airport

Now, it is my turn.

 

Written by Tript Kaur

Featured image by Hitashi Arora

The Arbitrary Goat

No one was quite sure why it had happened or how they decided that this was a good idea. I maintain that I had nothing to do with why Champi, the – well, she wasn’t a local goat, and she certainly wasn’t one we had bought, but the long and short of it is that we had a goat on campus.

I know, you’re all wondering how this qualifies for the theme. But the narrative of Champi the goat is going to be completed, by hook or by crook.

In any case, Champi the goat is the focus of this story. I know why. I certainly don’t know how. Here’s what I know: Champi turned up on campus. It was something completely unexpected, a bolt out of the blue. All I know is that there she was one fine day, hanging out with the puppies and cats.

Quite used to animals turning up arbitrarily, we dealt with Champi’s appearance the way most girls do – by either including her in mainstream society by feeding her leaves of grass (much to Whitman’s chagrin) or by denying them space in the human world.

Champi did not have an easy time. Girls would run away from her, working men would throw stones  to chase her away, and the Animal Welfare Committee controlled her right to food. As a result she didn’t fare that well. On top of that, the garden was a sacred space, magical lawns were not to be nibbled at, and only the social responsibility of petting could make her feel included. Even that was in short supply, since protection against the germs in her fur became a burning issue. Regardless, the goat persevered – she fought for her space in the college hierarchy, nibbling leaves drowsily. She was a good goat, a mascot for the animals because she belonged to the minority community and was small enough to prevent complaints against her forays into grazing. And then Champi decided to take a holiday.

It all changed when the English Department decided to take her on the Department trip for the purposes of the article. Champi had been looking extremely restless for a while, as her attempts to escape campus were frustrated by the lack of space.

Like everything about Champi the goat, this was also shrouded in mystery. The girl who was handling her held onto a thick rope and muttered to herself about how “the whole idea was insane,” and “is this really worth an article?” Champi the goat was smuggled onto a bus and taken across borders for this covert operation to succeed –which, it did.

That was when all of us noticed that Champi had curiously emotive eyes, and in the darkness of the bus, some girls swore they could hear her thinking.

We woke up during the first night in the bus to curious sounds of metallic clunking. This was dismissed at first. After all, we were on a bus heading to the Himalayas – there had to be some amount of clunking around. Nobody suspected the goat.

But the noise continued, and eventually one of us investigated.

Champi was eating the bus.

I know it is quite impossible to believe such a thing, but the story begins with the presumption of a goat on campus. The reader will have to suspend logic for a while for it to function.

Back to the story: Champi had been chewing away at the bus. Some of the chairs had been chewed up, and we could see one of the tires through ghastly eaten metal.  We aren’t sure how she ate metal. She was a miraculous goat after all.

Some of us pondered abandoning her on the highway, while the rest were concerned about how we were supposed to get past the checkpoints with the bus falling apart. Funnily enough, when we did stop at the checkpoint, the man was more concerned about the number of girls travelling alone.

Itni saari ladkiyan akele?” he asked. “Aur kya hoga? Ladkiyan akeli ghoomne jaati hain toh yahi hota hai unki buson ke saath.”

Nobody cared about how freezing and disorienting it was to have the bus half open, but we made it – by another small miracle – to Manali.

By the time we got there, Champi had chomped off half the bus and had decided to begin with the suitcases. We all grabbed rooms to shower, while the same exasperated girl was stuck with Champi once more.

Champi followed us around everywhere we went. She came for the water sports and the hike, and managed to climb up to the corners we couldn’t reach. She came to the DJ night dressed in a red shimmery scarf, and nobody knew where she got that from. She was everywhere. People found her in multiple rooms at once, and most of us were angry at how this goat had been causing such havoc by messing things up just enough to cause a ruckus.

Eventually, we went to the Mall Road in Shimla. This was not a place where goats were traditionally allowed. Hell, even cars weren’t allowed. But nobody said anything about Champi (apart from the antique manager at the antique shop who warned her against chewing the antiques).

All the dogs on the Mall Road strangely avoided Champi They growled and grumbled around her, and made all of us very nervous, but maintained their distance. On the other hand, many eyewitnesses swore that Champi had a red glint in her eye whenever animals approached her.

If you think this story is going to end in a psychedelic goat with glasses, I will have to say no. Champi came back from the trip having traumatized the people who thought that the goat could read minds. Hostellers began to see her apparitions in the mess, calmly nibbling salad. The Animal Welfare Committee which was supposedly handling the problem planted more trees to feed her.

This story is a pieced-together report of what happened afterwards – because all the other animals in college rallied around Champi to demand food, water, and most importantly – holidays.

The animals declared that they were quite done with eating out of dustbins and being treated like second rate citizens. They were aware that it wasn’t a perfect world and they couldn’t get everything but basic necessities were something they deserved like the hostellers, deprived though those girls were.

The Animal Welfare Committee had long conferences with Champi the goat – the spokesperson of college animal rights. Nothing was resolved (which was just at par with usual college business, someone remarked at the Café while buying a sandwich that cost her sixty rupees). People were confused about how the goat was conducting negotiations, and even more about her demands.

The animals (the ones who were on the margins) became more and more of an inconvenience to the girls. The Admin didn’t like the whole affair either, and eventually, Champi the goat and all the dogs left. Like some grand Moses and his flock, they disappeared, searching for places to stay, food, and – holidays.

The cats stayed in the hostel, because they didn’t care for politics, and cared even less for grand narratives. They were cheerful as long as food was being given to them.

Like I said, Champi didn’t disappear randomly. But does it really give us credit, if the story demands her disappearance, for natural order to be restored?

Written by Tanvi Chowdhury

Featured image by Sanna Jain

Kindness

 

Today, she decided to make blueberry scones. It was nearly Autumn, and the air was crisp. “It’s scones weather!” she exclaimed, as she pressed the blueberries into the dough, loving how they bled into the white butter-egg-flour mixture.

The scones had to be perfect. Not because she took absolute pride in her baking, but also because she had to raise funds for the Shishu Seva Association.

As the blueberries simmered, and the knife sliced into the butter, she reviewed her checklist of tasks to finish.  Once, she was done baking and delivering the cookies, she would clean her house, go visit her sick friend with a batch of homemade chicken soup, and then, call her mother. New in this area, she was glad she had made some friends. She always tried to find a way to involve herself in the community, even though she moved around a lot.

This was partly because she understood what kindness meant. And no, it wasn’t the volunteering-everywhere sort of kindness, but the intrinsic kind, like drowning in a long story in a group conversation.  Knowing what the flipside looked like, a random act of kindness like, that Aunty offering you water in the metro pulled you out of the long sleepless nights when the sadness won’t go away.

Always good with tools, she was called regularly, during those hostel days to hammer the nails into the wall or fix a broken window singing, “I will try to fix you,” to the nails.  Carrying a toolkit in her van was a habit, now. That was probably why her favourite word was ‘kindness.’ Someone once told her she was kindness in human form.

Her van pulled up in front of the first customer’s house. He was a regular customer who lived alone. She wondered if he ate her cookies alone in front of the television, and if there was a word for that experience. “It’s funny how we name feelings,” she thought. “Kindness being the word we use to describe sending someone flowers on their birthdays or putting a dying animal to sleep,” she could be so many other things, but she was associated with kindness.

Ringing the bell, she pulled on her gloves. But of course, she couldn’t handle scones without her gloves. The customer opened his door, smiling at her; the kind of smile on a face that, hadn’t smiled for a long time. “Could I come in for a glass of water?” She asked. Recognition was the key. It differentiated a funny person from a kind one.

She could see the customer’s back. “What’s your name?” He asked. She reached into her bag and pulled out a fine, sharp tool from the toolkit, and pierced it into his neck. Blood spurted out on her gloved hands as he kneeled over. “My name,” she said, “has been a lot of things in different places. I’ve been called kindness in human form. But, my favourite name is The Screwdriver.”*

 

*Based on a true dream

 

Written by Anushmita Mohanty

Image by Kanishka

Second to the Right

Selling words was an odd job – sometimes, Vanna would be completely lost on what charm to cast on them. At other times, words were needed for spells with the right ingredients acting on them. Words were bits which came and went, and Vanna’s job was to find their roots, their very essence, and help them make sense.

Vanna loved words – she loved the way they moved, the way they created thoughts, and how different words in different languages could give very distinct feelings. She loved helping people with their words – Jaya would snort at the idea that there was a sense of satisfaction in giving a boy the words to tell a girl he loved her, but there it was.

Vanna used words in very specific ways. They were sold in bits and pieces, were meant for spells and incantations occasionally, and for writing and expression elsewhere.

But primarily, Vanna sold words to create magic.

There was a magic behind what she did to them already, she knew. She could manipulate words the way some people would breathe – she could sift them from thin air and paste them all across the sky. But the real magic was not in the way atmospheric words with the right charm could actually change atmosphere (Double, double, toil and trouble hadn’t been a scene created out of thin air, after all. Though Shakespeare’s witches were culturally appropriated, they held a sliver of truth: messing with major power structures and very intense inner psychology required a very specific form of tempest) or in the way animalistic words could give you the feeling of being that very animal when used right. Magic was created in the words themselves.

Word magic was found in the roots of the words, roots were found in sounds, and if you went back far enough, everything was made up of the same energy that Vanna tapped into when she manipulated it.

That’s what Jaya also used when she manipulated colours.

You had to be careful with words because they didn’t belong with you for too long, not if you shared them all at once. You had to keep some to yourself, or your stocks all dried up – and that would be a bloody disaster.

*

Jaya operated on colours. She knew how to make reds and blues speak, to make things change appearances almost completely, and to fashion something new out of nothing. And there was Avantika, spouting the roots of words and sounds and whatever else she could think of. Apparently, Sanskrit was important for something, and there were plenty of people speaking French.

When Jaya first came to Delhi (she was actually a resident of Calcutta, and no, she was patently not Bengali) to see Vanna’s shop, all she could think of was “Oh, Avantika.” This didn’t help the state of affairs at all; but at least she was surrounded by good artwork that appealed to her high standard of art – and Jaya had a very high standard of art. She was a Colour Mage, after all.

And then Vanna had gone ahead and named her shop Word Smith of all things. Avantika liked naming her shops after poets and baloney like that, which is why it irked Jaya that she had named it after Wordsworth of all people. And she had done it knowing that Jaya was going to be working there for at least six months.

Jaya’s only reason to be working with Vanna was disgustingly sentimental- she wanted to be with her. After Witch Academy, their paths had only intersected when Jaya was in India. Vanna chose to stay there, while Jaya had taken up different jobs all around the world, manipulating colours and paints and people and monsters into giving way to her.

Art was so much more abstract. The specificity of words made Jaya’s head spin, and she didn’t know how Vanna managed to sell love in so many different shades: love, pyaar, mohabbat, ishq, prem, and god knows what else.

Whichever the case, Jaya didn’t want to have anything to do with it. It was dizzying – even before the kid walked into the store.

“How can I help you?’ Jaya asked without sparing the kid a glance. Kids came to Vanna’s store in hordes for it was rumored that Vanna charged very little to help you bring your girlfriends around.

This kid was disproportionately small, compared to the other kids that usually came.

He looked completely unsure – (‘distracted?’ thought Jaya) – of himself, so she took the liberty to shoot a red (the bright, scarlet variety) ribbon of light from her finger. He started, and glared at Jaya.

Boys are almost always nervous or headstrong. They either become nervous and unsure of themselves, or just infuse some bravado into their twelve-year-old selves and manage to get entire cohorts of dark wizards after them or some other Harry Pottery bullshit.

“I want yellows and greens, please.” He had a determined bent to his mouth, making Jaya wonder what girl would be convinced by sickly greens and yellows.

Jaya and Vanna shared a look. “What kind of yellows and greens?” Vanna delicately asked.

The boy thought about it. “Sunshine. And I’d like some Pixie Dust, with Radish Ash, preferably. Do you serve hell broths?”

Jaya set away her broom. “What do you take us for, three witches trying their best to create chaos in a Shakespearean play?”

“But – the recipe… says hell broths,” he said hesitantly.

Recipe? What was this kid in for? Jaya half-turned to Vanna to tell him to fuck off – they didn’t need the trouble of associating with whatever the hell he was trying to resurrect – until Vanna glared at her.

“Could we have a look at the recipe? We will stock you adequately,” she said politely.

The boy seemed to be shunning Jaya completely and focused on Vanna’s heart-shaped face. Jaya felt good – she still had it in her to scare boys.

He slipped a sheet to Vanna. Jaya dumped her broom and climbed behind the counter to have a look at it. It demanded the creation of a hell broth, which tipped Jaya off with its nonsensical effort to appeal to a certain audience.

It seemed a simple enough mix – the kind that you got from slightly shady sources. Vanna, however, was frowning. “You need Black Pixie Dust, Radish Ash, and a pinch of Merwater Salt?”

Jaya had no idea what this mix was supposed to produce, but she had a feeling that it wasn’t good from the way Vanna was looking at the recipe.

“Jaya, could you bring the Dust and the Ash? I’m sure I know where the yellows and greens are,” Avantika said, still eyeing the kid suspiciously.

Jaya shrugged. It was the kid’s problem, whatever the hell he was doing. When she came out, Vanna had taken out some specific yellows and greens- a bottle that held a piece of sunlight and sap coloured greens – so there was a bright green, and a dull one.

“Please try to use only one pinch of the Pixie Dust. It can be harmful in large quantities,” Vanna cautioned. Jaya knew this too well, Pixie Dust was a little bitch when you were trying to make memory potions for recollection. You had to tame it just right – especially the black one. Vanna was the best Pixie Dust supplier in the country; she sold it pre-conditioned so that you needed as little effort in making it listen to you as possible.

“While using the Pixie Dust, I would also advise you to use it with gloves on. Store it in your refrigerator, preferably. If you don’t have one, try to maintain a two-degree temperature for it,” Vanna went on. “I would also like to tell you that amateur Synonacromancy can be dangerous, and it is advisable to hire a professional. It would cost less in the long run.”

Woah. The kid was trying to bring words to life.

Jaya was itching to tell Vanna not to do it, but Vanna’s heart melted very fast. She liked helping people, and the kid was pulling his best forlorn act behind all the ridiculous bravado he had conjured up from nowhere.

“I’ll be fine,” he told Vanna.

“As for payment: everything except the Pixie Dust can be paid for in money,” said Vanna.

Now he looked nervous again. “What do you want?” he asked.

“What are you offering?” asked Jaya almost threateningly.

The boy glared at Jaya. Jaya stared back with complete apathy.

“It’s a full moon,” said Vanna kindly. “Child Blood is generally a very powerful ingredient in hell broths.”

The boy thought about it. “Alright,” he said. He looked faintly green at the thought of it, but Jaya, distinctly done-with-this, pulled out a card and swiped it in the blood machine, putting in some numbers.

“You could take it on my card,” said Vanna with an indulgent smile.

“You’re overdue,” said Jaya darkly.

“She keeps my blood accounts better than I do,” said Vanna with her nicest, most ‘I’m-a-lovely-sunshine-and-hipster-witch’ laugh.

“Right,” said the boy. “Where do I sign?”

Jaya snorted again. “Honestly, what do people take witches for? Some alternative weirdos, who make hell broths in icy weather? That is just so old.”

As soon as the receipt for the blood deal came out, a small vial of blood appeared out of nowhere.

“Ouch!”  the boy yelped.

“There you go,” said Jaya. “If the spell fuc –”

“JayaHe’sTen!” said Vanna very sharply under her breath.

Jaya glared. “ – Messes up, do not come back.”

“Don’t worry,” glared the boy right back. “I won’t need to.”

Jaya mentally rolled her eyes. No way in hell was this kid not coming back to appeal to Vanna’s wonderful sense of helpfulness.

*

The boy obviously came back, and Jaya itched to unleash all her powers in light and colour manipulation and blast him outside with a glamour charm, making his head look like a beaver’s. Since her daydreams were impossible due to Vanna, she bit her tongue and looked at the boy as if he had trespassed on all Ten Commandments and more in one go.

“What do you want?” she asked him. His scruffy face had lost whatever bravado he had most definitely conjured up, and he looked at her pleadingly.

Thankfully, Vanna was not here yet, so Jaya was at full liberty to kick him out.

“’Please – you have to help me –” he said frantically. His bag rattled.

“Get out of the shop,” Jaya ordered. She did not want to deal with this again. When Vanna had been working in Calcutta, and had sold someone some Phoenix Tears, Jaya had come down to find the shop in complete tatters, with several colours escaping out of jars. It had taken Jaya, Isabella, Morwenna, Chris, and Rob’s combined effort to find some of the creatures and words that had escaped in that fiasco.

“But you have to!” he practically sobbed.

“Vanna gave you safety tips, and she told you to hire someone. We don’t owe you anything,” Jaya condescended.

Vanna chose this moment to come in, and smiled at the boy. “Hello, Veer,” she said pleasantly.

Jaya shot daggers at Vanna. “His name is boy or you, interchangeably!”

“This isn’t Harry Potter,” said Vanna, her eyes still smiling. “What’s the problem?”

Even as the boy looked like he would burst, his bag actually did.

It broke into pieces, with birds and colours leaking out. Bright yellow dripped from a book, while green glittered everywhere.

Vanna’s face went blank.

“What,” she asked, her voice venomous, “were you trying to do?”

Jaya had only seen Vanna angry twice – once, when Chris had decided that he would give up going to University classes in favour of joining a very niche society of people using magical enchancers. Vanna had become cold in her anger, and when Vanna became cold, she was ice.

 

*

The kid had fucked up.

Vanna didn’t hold back. Words were to be treated with care; they were not abstract like colours. They had minds of their own, and the ones that were tampered with, were to be used carefully.

She could see that the sunshine yellow she had given him had melded into something else entirely- beeswax. (Wonderful word, that, her brain went idly). She noticed so many other words that were dripping out of the book that she wondered whether the kid had been trying to give the book a coronary.

Flibbertigibbet floated through the shop, with its feathers and everything. Jaya looked at the bird-thing interpretation of flibbertigibbet with mild incredulity.

“I just wanted to talk to Luna Lovegood!” said the boy.

“So you try to bring her to life?” asked Vanna dropping her tones so low that even Snape would have been impressed.

“It was supposed to last only an hour!” said the boy desperately, “I was just –”

“First of all,” said Vanna, her cold voice making the kid tremble. “Black Pixie Dust cannot be used to bring people to life. It’s used to bring animals to life. This would have worked for an ordinary fictional animal and even then you do not use words so frivolously! Do you know what happens when they decide to do things their way? All the ‘razzmatazz’es in the word start up a goddamn cacophony of saxophones. ‘Whoosh’ goes into the trees and makes them all explode – if you use a ‘whoosh’ powerful enough, it may even cause major weather changes, locally and otherwise.”

Jaya put her hand on Vanna’s shoulder, which Vanna promptly shrugged off.

The book let out a high pitched scream.

“What’s happening?” asked the boy, in tears.

“Your Luna Lovegood is stuck somewhere between the words and corporeality,” said Vanna scathingly. “Or rather, whatever the hell you brought to life. Jaya, bottle some of the colours.”

Jaya worked quickly and carefully.  The yellows began to come in control, as Vanna ran around looking for the right words and spells.

You needed something with more of a kick for bringing something back to life and –

The book snapped at her, creating teeth from nowhere.

Vanna swore, and Jaya smiled imperceptibly. She tied the book down with one of her moon-chains. She hated using moon-chains; they began to dissolve from the very first use.

But there was the book, trying to eat her arm off. It snarled, and snapped at her again. The white chain gripped tight against the binding of Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix and a few pages went astray.

Jaya swore so loudly that the ten year old would most definitely have picked something up – but Vanna didn’t stop her. Jaya was being attacked by paper cuts.

Vanna rushed to her aid, but Jaya shooed her away. “Pass me the magnifying glass and fetch a subduing potion. While you’re at it, I think you also ought to try and get this fucking book to stop.”

Vanna tossed the magnifying glass to Jaya, and she rushed to the back. She picked some Phoenix feathers, moon dust, and sea salt. She also chose a little bit of Ice-Blood.

They used the subduing potion quickly and effectively against the pages, and Vanna began to mix everything up extremely, extremely fast.

“What’s happening?” asked the boy.

“Shut up, kid,” said Jaya, echoing Vanna’s emotions. Jaya had found an ingenious way to burn the papers,  (which had caused the child to burst into proper tears, but Vanna didn’t have the time or inclination to feel bad for him) – she was using a magnifying glass to focus all the sunshine-y yellow, converting it to actual sun. The paper burnt vigorously.

“Right. I have to undo the chain, Jaya,” said Vanna quickly.

Jaya nodded, grimly shoving all the sunlight into one of her Unicorn Glass jars.

Vanna opened the book, and almost immediately a shapeless, horrifying, monster of a thing emerged from the pages. It screeched at them, deathlike – and sharp, black, faceless teeth snapped at both of them.

Vanna shut her eyes, focusing on all the important words: mimble-wimble, went her mind numbly, as she began to piece out the figure one at a time.

Here was the good thing about good words and good Word Witches – they knew how to tame their favourite words. And this thing was essentially made from some of Vanna’s favourite words – she separated all the ‘whoosh’es and shoved them all back into the page, dropping a bead of acid into the book to stop the wind from going nuts.

Then, she moved her fingers, adding a little moon dust as she did so – to sooth the ‘Bamboozle’ into being quiet. It erupted into ribbons and party hats, which was – well, bamboozling. That might have been caused because Vanna was thinking about eating cake after this.

The words finally settled down a little, and Vanna used her wildly put together mixture to silence the book. She forced the poor word creature which was stuck between worlds and words to recede into the book.

Vanna and Jaya took deep breaths, wondering, in all honesty, what they had just been through.

The boy looked at the pile that was his book. Jaya swept it into a dustpan, wriggled her fingers over it, and ordered the paints and colours and pages to heal. Vanna could never understand how Jaya could do that without conscious thought.

“Here,” said Jaya, shoving the book back to the boy. “Do not come back.”

The boy nodded gratefully.

Jaya and Vanna had a mental conversation, simultaneously deciding to have a cup of tea.

The ‘closed’ sign hung on the shop’s door. As for where the shop was? Second to the right, obviously. And straight on until you found it.

Written by Tanvi Chowdhury

Featured image by Sanna Jain