When people ask Harita what she does, the answer is always ‘amateur writer’. It comes forward humble, a practised sort of humble, and yet there’s always a defensive note that tells the listener the word ‘amateur’ is to be discarded in their perception.
That’s how it is for an artist to be stuck between hobby and profession. Defensive. Especially an artist who quit her job at a tech startup to be a full-time writer.
The first few months had brought dull web pages and instruction manuals. Harita scraped through solely on midnight fiction writing sprees. And now, almost a year in, here it is. A golden opportunity to bridge the distance, let defence lie in the print.
‘Your writing style is exactly what they’re looking for.’
Harita’s agent is a small person who tries to disguise her smallness with wedge heels. She wears glasses that are stereotypically appropriate for her bookworm nature, and there’s a hint of a lisp buried below her tongue.
‘You haven’t read any of my writing in a long time,’ Harita points out.
‘Not for lack of trying!’
The writer sighs dramatically. ‘I know, I know. There’s stuff, I promise.’
‘There better be because this is your chance, missy.’
Harita knows the bird-like woman is right, even if the choice of pet name sends her back to the scarring days of school. This grant would give her a noteworthy publication, not to mention enough money to hole up with the early drafts of her novel. All she has to do is write one incredible story.
The walk home is stiff with doubt. Each cigarette is used to light the next, she ignores the intrusive stares following the trail of smoke. There is no time for coy disguises when a deadline is looming like a train gone rogue.
The world remains suspended at a distance as Harita strides down the street, without a glance to spare for the panipuri seller set up across from her building, through the maroon gate and up to her second-storey apartment. She pauses on the floor below, distracted momentarily by violent curses exploding through the wall. Two voices, one angry and one shaky, prod at her bubble. A door slams and silence follows. Her feet quickly resume their ascent, slipping back into a mechanical rhythm. The argument carries on intermittently, garbled background noise for Harita’s search through discarded outlines on her laptop. There has to be a story somewhere.
The following day, Harita paces the length of her one-bedroom home. The outlines were a dead-end leaving only blank pages to work with. All she ever wanted, right from the days of childhood, was to be a writer of powerful stories, the sort that shifted something in the world and made it to recommended reading lists in universities. The dream was finally within grasp, staring her in the face, and no story.
She pries open her mouth to scream over the hip hop rhymes banging on the walls. Next door, the sound comes barging in over the Bluetooth speaker and knocks a glass chillum from its owner’s grip.
Dilip stands over the lifeless shards of his prized possession. Harita sits by her window smoking despondently, oblivious to his grief.
‘Ay! You said you won’t smoke inside the house. Shameless girl!’
Landlord Aunty has materialised below, standing over a closed sump nestled into the walkway, bangled wrists on her hips in an image too clichéd for Harita’s contemporary work. An amusing character, but where’s the development?
She stubs the cigarette on a discarded plate. The older woman leaves her with a stormy glare and marches back into her hive to fuss over the children.
As soon as the coast is clear, another cigarette is lit. The gate creaks open and at the same time, both Harita and Ramesh, the panipuri seller, catch sight of a wiry man slipping into the compound. He ducks at the large window of the landlord’s home and heads up on tiptoes. They have seen him before, the indecency of these visits obvious by clumsiness in his movements. He’s a lover, a clandestine secret belonging to the dupatta-clad lady downstairs. Harita giggles at the local chef’s disdain, always delighted to witness a scandal.
She considers the forbidden romance taking place below. There is seemingly little to know about the couple who occupy the floor-length home. Thin construction material has betrayed some bitter scuffles between the mousy wife and perpetually stern husband. Plates and other kitchen utensils have been thrown about a handful of times, with no signs of escalation. When Harita encounters them in the stairwell, he averts his gaze and she smiles politely.
Nothing worthy of publication there either, nothing unique about an unhappy housewife having an affair with a college sweetheart or a man she met by chance at a bus stop one overcast evening. Shocking in reality, yes, though hardly thrilling in black and white.
Heavy on the context, light on the plot.
The thought is interrupted by an abrupt rap on her front door.
Through the magic eye, she recognises the neighbours who share with her the additional level of the bungalow, hastily constructed back in Landlord Uncle’s gambling days. One looks distressed beneath his over-groomed beard. She pulls open the door.
‘Shouldn’t you be at college?’
‘You screamed,’ Aman says.
‘You broke my chillum,’ Dilip says.
‘Sorry, I was just frustrated. I’m fine now. And I was nowhere near your chillum.’
‘Your screaming freaked me out and I dropped it.’
‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t be cradling it at all times.’
Dilip’s glazed pupils fill with something resembling injury. She instantly feels bad, thinking about the many times she had staggered home from a bad date and asked for a hit.
‘Buy a new one and I’ll pay half. Okay?’
‘I need your half to buy it.’
A classic eye-roll moment, if they weren’t so banal.
The boys leave after Harita reaches into her purse and hands over a crumpled note. She returns with a frown to her perch by the spotted glass. Unfortunately, there’s nothing original about stoners either these days. Maybe a story about a guy who cannot remember which college he goes to. She chuckles out loud but feels embarrassed for the poor idea.
An hour or so later, a soft thump from the distance invades the air, surely the sound of a truly passionate tale in the making. Harita’s mind skates back to a skeleton of a plot. Conservative woman, ignorant of her sexuality, meets a simple man and falls in love but is forced to marry a domineering brute, and…
He appears at the top of the street, as if on cue. At first, she barely registers it, quite used to the sight of him hanging around with his jacket folded over the arm and collar button undone, taking determined strides to the market, standing with a cup outside the chai shop. A background character, a paid extra thrust into the protagonist’s shoes.
An echo of the thump arrives in a panic. Jolted from her daze, Harita hangs her torso halfway through the gap to get a better look. He’s examining his second-hand car, parked on the road perpendicular to their lane. The mask of irritation he usually wears has turned into something closer to fury. He kicks the back tire and storms away from the vehicle. Harita can see the sweat coating his forehead. Maybe he pushed the car back to its resting place after it broke down on the way to a mediocre job. Rolled up sleeves fit the bill too.
She takes notes in a scrawl hoping to seem reluctant upon later examination.
The panipuri cart is his next pitstop. This would be the time to go downstairs.
Harita waits with bated breath to see if Ramesh will reveal the secret, but the men say very little to each other during their exchange of money and street food.
Run, bang on the door, tell the affair he needs to go out the back. He’s a rookie, she thinks in desperation. Now is the time to go.
Before she can shift in her seat the lover’s balding head comes into view. He opens and closes the gate gently without lifting his thick lashes, escaping before anyone can react. Harita sees a shadow of recognition fall on the man left behind.
The inevitable could still be put on pause.
He flings the remaining contents of his snack on the street and comes thundering across the worn-out road. Harita rushes out to the landing, listening to his heavy steps get closer. A key turns and the door opens with a bang. She creeps down the first few steps, then a couple more, and squats by the bannister. Their voices are muted, hers more so than his, but Harita can just about decipher the conversation.
‘What the hell was he doing here?’
‘I saw him, Anjana! Don’t act dumb!’
Something clatters to the ground with resounding force making Harita jump back. Behind her, the boys stand wide-eyed with portable game controllers in hand.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Shut up. Something bad is happening.’
The three spectators go down the stairs in single file, lining up against the skimpy layer of concrete between them and the raging scene.
Harita calculates. Domestic abuse. Not unusual, but pressing, topical. Maybe if the result of the fight was worthy of its drama, an ending to remember.
That’s it, she wins.
‘You’re a slut, you know that?’
A slap. Another and another, sharp edges ricocheting.
‘Aren’t you going to call the cops?’ Aman asks her.
‘Why don’t you?’
‘Are you crazy? They’ll search our apartment and arrest us.’
‘That could happen even if I call!’
The possible outcome grasps Dilip by the spine and he disappears, presumably to hide, flush, or consume. The violent tussle gets harder to ignore and in come Landlord Uncle and Aunty, warily, cautiously. They stop just outside the door, he twirls his scanty moustache and looks to his better half for direction. Her expression is strained in a special way, reserved for social situations for which she does not have a rulebook.
‘Aunty, Uncle, call the police,’ Harita pleads.
Her tongue is scratchy and there’s a pain in both temples. It will work out in the end, a reassuring thought if only her favourite endings were the happy kind.
A strangled scream, forced from the throat.
‘Aunty! We need to call the police!’
Pale cheeks go hollow and the folds of skin around their jaws quiver.
‘We can’t get involved in family matters,’ Landlord Uncle decides gruffly. He takes his wife by the elbow and steers her away from what he terms ‘messy business’ under his breath.
Beyond the barrier, a lull extends for a minuscule amount of time.
The quiet is soon shattered by a hysterical weeping. The wheels in Harita’s mind spin frantically.
Amid a ruined home and relationship, they make up. They decide to do better for each other. He promises to be kinder. She promises to toss aside the lover.
A twist ending, a villain turned hero. Not the best but the storyteller is desperate.
No. There’s more yelling, uncontrollable. The chilling crack of bone on a hard surface. Harita hits the emergency button on her phone. The conversation with the police is fragmented by Aman yelling in her ear.
‘Should I break down the door?’
‘Should I go get help?’
She nods numbly and he takes off into the streets, straight for Ramesh, who pats him on the back and explains the ways of the disloyal woman.
‘Leave it be and pray you don’t have a wife like that.’
Aman returns without backup to find Harita slumped on the ground. The noise from inside the apartment continues, scraping against hearts.
A weapon they can only imagine rings out, a final battle cry. Silence.
It was a prayer leaving chapped lips.
Aman runs one shoulder into the door and it groans. Again and again, until it gives way on its hinges, falling with a shower of dust. Harita gets to her feet and trembles over to the gaping cavity. The sleeve of Aman’s t-shirt obscures part of the picture but she can see enough.
Blood swirling onto the tiles. An expensive artefact from a business trip, a solid gold tiger in the clutches of a steaming man. Across the carpet, a lifeless body posed like a ballerina.She doesn’t win.
Aman holds Harita’s hair as she throws up at the feet of a distraught Landlord Uncle, who makes a follow-up appearance ahead of the approaching sirens.
Two cops enter, over-polished black shoes coming to a halt in front of the body. One examines photographs on a shelf, the other circles the husband where he’s slumped in a chair sobbing. The arrest doesn’t take long but news spreads fast and an inquisitive crowd gathers outside to watch the scene unfold.
‘Why didn’t you call the police earlier?’ One of the officers asks after both the murdered and murderer have been cleared out.
‘It was too late by the time we came down,’ Harita says numbly.
The uniform turns his scrutiny on the boys, sizing them up. Dilip shrinks behind Aman. His countenance is washed out, suspicious.
‘Maybe we should check your place too,’ the cop says casually.
Before either can respond, Harita intervenes.
‘Uncle, we are all in shock. We were very scared. These two are still in college, just moved out of home.’
He waits for her to get to the point.
‘We want to thank you for your help,’ she says.
He swipes the note from her fingers and pockets it with a grunt. That’s the end of that. Police vans and a morbid crowd disperse. The three of them are left alone with the scent of drying blood in their nostrils. Landlord Uncle and Aunty speak to a reporter who shows up without a video crew. They cast their eyes downward and tut sadly at the end of every sentence.
An eeriness falls with dusk. The flurry has left the air and everything appears overly still to Harita. She searches for poetry in the deserted street, finds none. Instead, Ramesh stumbles into her line of vision, sucking at a bottle of DSP Black. He takes a seat on the curb clumsily to gape at the heavens.
She doesn’t make the decision to move but her limbs do anyway, jerking the door open and bounding down the stairs two at a time. They are face-to-face in seconds. Harita in her patiala pants and cropped camisole, breath ragged with temper.
‘She died because of you,’ she says.
‘Me? What do you mean?’ He jumps up in astonishment.
‘You didn’t help and she died.’
Sandals shuffle forward threateningly. Harita takes a step back into the bumpy tar.
‘Watch your mouth, bitch’ he warns.
‘You wanted her to die because you thought she was loose.’
‘Ay!’ His voice rises. ‘Shut your mouth, stupid woman!’
They survey each other, locked in a stalemate. His squat figure sways a little from left to right but he remains upright. In contrast, sober Harita’s knees shiver fiercely before giving way. She drops to the ground, a wave of tears bursting forth.
Her rival is taken by surprise. He totters above her unsure of the next step. Eventually, a craggy palm reaches down to grab her by the arm and lead her to the sidewalk.
‘Don’t cry, madam.’
He offers her a swig of his whiskey. She takes it, holding the neck of the bottle above her lips so that the punch lands at the back of the throat. The burn is soothing.
‘Anjana madam was nice. Always gave me extra when she ordered panipuri.’
Harita smiles at the hesitant memory.
A bike goes by and its helmetless rider turns to shoot them a look of confusion. It is certainly a sight to behold, this young woman, half-naked by most standards, and her friend in an oil-stained vest sharing liquor by the side of the road. What else they shared was not visible on the surface, but it hummed between them.
‘I didn’t want madam to die,’ he says. The break in his voice tugs at Harita’s emotions. ‘Me neither.’
A week later, Harita’s literary agent shows up for a chat. Her client stays in an oversized Deep Purple t-shirt for the duration of the meeting and chain-smokes cigarettes without filters. In one corner of the room is a pile of taped boxes.
‘What’s with the cargo?’
‘I’m moving,’ Harita says bluntly.
‘That explains it. Where to?’
‘Back to my parents’ place for a while. I’ll figure it out from there.’
‘Okay then.’ She sits down on the edge of a chair holding dirty laundry. ‘So, are we going to talk about the story? I’ve been trying to reach you all week.’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘Don’t have one what?’
‘A story. I don’t have a story.’
‘Harita, our deadline is around the corner. We should be at the editing stage by now.’
Her eyebrows look darker than usual, ‘like kambalipoochis’ as Harita’s mother would say. Deep grooves lie in the skin above them.
‘I think I’m going to pass on this one.’
The grooves deepen.
What follows is a bit of coaxing, threatening, promising. She leaves in a disturbed huff when Harita doesn’t budge. ‘You’re throwing away a great chance here,’ her nasal voice warns as she exits the apartment. ‘Life is short, you know?’
In the street below, Ramesh is taking down the DIY poster advertising his menu. Their eyes meet briefly. Harita turns away to get on with packing up her dusty books.
He rolls up the poster, places an empty puri basket on his cycle and pedals away to a new location, a fresh start. When she does the same a fortnight later, lugging her belongings out to the pavement, Landlord Uncle and Aunty are showing a family the freshly bleached first-floor flat.
‘Very spacious and private. It’s perfect for a quiet, family life, eh? We never disturb our tenants,’ he says. ‘And the students upstairs won’t bother you either,’ she adds.
Harita loads up the cab and climbs in.
A melancholy radio playlist replaces the voices.
Minal Sukumar is a writer, poet, and performer from Bangalore, India. She holds an MA in writing from the National University of Ireland Galway and currently works as a content creator in her hometown. Minal was eleven when she decided to get into the business of writing stories, a “phase” some are still waiting for her to outgrow. In 2017, she co-founded the literary collective Mouth of Word with the aim of giving more performing writers a stage. Her own work is often a portrayal of the exquisite and resilient journeys of women in India.