Contemporary Fiction

A Narrow Lane and Other Stories

By

This book will launch on Feb 21, 2021. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

"Writing these stories was a coping method - from failures, losses, and regrets," says Saadia Azim, the author of "A Narrow Lane & Other Stories."

"A Narrow Lane & Other Stories" is a collection of twelve contemporary short fiction on India's present-day debatable issues. The title story, "A Narrow Lane," chronicles the lives of people who witness communal riots in their vicinity. The Eye-Witness is about a real crime and the complex often a failed social justice system. "The Killing" elaborates on the disruption of ordinary lives that come with a sudden mob-lynching of an ordinary man.

"One Day in December" narrates little Asifa's story and her everyday struggles living under the flyover in a city, overcoming grief and loss. "The Refugee Colony" is about young Rana born and living in an unauthorised settlement; "Two Gods" tells the story of love and anguish in times of religious hatred in the country. And there are several others that talk about everyday inequalities, prejudices, and religion in times of hatred and violence in big countries.

The matters raised in the book are lived in realtime by the protagonists in the world's largest democracy - India and are debated worldwide these days.

A Narrow Lane


Never a Sunday crosses the Pygmy girl’s life when she wakes up early. But today is no other day. She spent the night wide awake, counting seconds by seconds for the night to end. Even when the sun rose, the time passed, and bright daylight took over, she uneasily waits as if for dawn to break.


The mother notices her discomfort and calls her near for a cup of tea. The girl doesn't need one. She instead needs the morning newspaper. Never before has she desperately looked for the broadsheets ever. Holding the teacup, in the one hand, she gestures to the mother to keep calm and walks out.

*****

Sundays are the laziest in the Pygmy girl's life. She is called a pygmy by everyone now after her younger brother named her so, teasingly, one day. He had read about pygmies in faraway Africa, and he thinks his sister is a sure fit for it. "Pygmy Char Footiya"- the four feet short one. Everyone laughs at it. While classmates wait eagerly for weekends, the girl detests her days off. It isn't a good idea to be home and called names. There is so little to do and to be in a two- hundred and fifty square feet area. There is so little to live for and laughed at, in her short form in the narrow lane.


It wasn't until some time ago when the Pygmy girl moved around freely in the neighborhood. Then, running ten times to the grocer's shop across, during the day settling her dupatta was not a bother. It did not matter to the mother, either. Mother could also hurriedly pull a scarf over her nighty and cross the road to pick up stuff from the shop as and when needed. 


The shop changed hands recently. 

The new people do not sell everyday things; instead, they sold Ayurvedic medicines and home-purifying products from a closed-door air-conditioned shop. It came up a month back after they stretched concrete pillars halfway on the lane.


Last year, some bike riders stopped the old grocer from selling eggs and vegetables in the open. They just came from one side of the narrow lane, in speeding bikes and toppled carts that came on their way. They stopped at the grocer's shop and pulled down his stuff on the street. They threw some of the things and took away some. Then they raised fingers and directed him never to show his face again. The older man, in shock, begged for mercy. He'd sold eggs all his life from the makeshift low edge platform covering the open drain. He asked the neighborhood people to bear witness to his long service. No one came forward; no one had the guts to. From across her window, the Pygmy girl watched the ruffians browbeat as the older man collected coins and a folded skull cap from under the seat where he sold eggs, bread, milk, and vegetables - day in and day out. He never returned.


All of this but, started with the bike mechanic next to the grocer's shop. Two weeks before the bikers in a saffron bandana and triangular flags struck the grocer, the mechanic shut doors. People in the lane said the shop did not have due permission, so local police ordered him to close shop. The Pygmy girl knew, that it wasn’t the real story. The next day, the aunty Pinky next door, gave the inside story. She narrated every incident to the women, daily during the regular morning women's encounters while cleaning their doorway. The mechanic's shop was an adda for young boys called "Road Romeos”, she said. They repaired bikes and lured young girls. 


One of them followed a college girl to her home. That night when men slept, the girl jumped from the terrace, of her house and eloped. Following that, the brothers of the girl caught the boy’s friends at the mechanic shop. 


They called upon other people in the lane. That was to save their community honor. 


People caught hold of the biking boys and toppled them on the ground. They thrashed them with cricket bats in the middle of the road. The women watched the men beating boys from their balconies. Young girls peeped from behind window curtains. The guys begged for mercy. Fearing for his life, the bike mechanic left quietly from behind and ran away for life. He did not look back towards his decade-old workshop that repaired every wheel in the area.


"The boys could have died, had your uncle not intervened. He made them hold their ears and do a thousand sit-ups," the aunty boasted, referring to her husband's role in the entire incident. The Pygmy girl also saw the boys on the ground - one had his eyebrows crushed; the other with high cheekbones smashed.


One of them was exceptionally tall, with broad shoulders and toned abs. Every day he passed by the mechanic shop honking his bike. She heard him and jumped slyly to catch a glimpse of her face on the high hanging old wall mirror before coming to the window to meet his glance. He looked at her with his bloodied nose, that day too. She couldn't meet his eye. Then onwards, she never saw her face in the mirror before going out.


"What happened to the girl…who eloped?" quipped the Pygmy girl following aunty Pinky's narrative. Mother glared at her. Don't be stupid. Look! It's so peaceful now," aunty explained.


Now the Pygmy girl doesn't have any reason to run for stuff every day across the lane. She prepares the daily list of items and buys them from the mobile vegetable cart. The cart comes in the morning and puts up at the by-lane and the main road’s junction. She picks the items on her way back from college.


After the grocer and mechanic left, her room windows never open. The wet clothes dry indoors now, and the curtains are pulled neatly across the window. They speak in hushed tones and watch the twenty-one-inch TV in low volume. It is always better to get the least amount of attention. The grandmother repeatedly gestures for silence. The walls smell of dampness and a concoction of medicines, mustard, and garlic. The sound of water boiling on a gas burner mingles with prayers and curses of an old grand- aunt bedridden for life. The slightest tap on the low etched iron grill at the doorway makes their ears stand. The mother remains in the kitchen all day; the grandmother spends her time attending to her bedridden half-sister; the half-sister chants regularly and calls for death. The rest live as if the inanimate objects at home, meant for serving some specific purpose.


*****

The Pygmy girl thinks this isn't her home to live any longer; since it isn't the home, it was. The father is home all day on Sundays now. The brother, too, is inside the house all the time. Earlier, they didn't. They didn't need to. Instead, they had lived out in the open at the narrow lane since the time the grandfather lived, and her father followed him. The brother follows their father now that he attains his teenage. They are in and out of the home all the time. It is a living process - moving out and leaving behind spaces for women at home. They come home for cooked meals and urgent needs only.


At night they carry their cots to the adjacent lane to sleep. During the day, when shops open, they fold them back and bring them inside. No one runs over them at nights; no bikes ply, no one honks as men sleep in the open together. The doors remain unlocked. No one knocks ever at the doors. They just walk past cotton curtains. 


Only Aunty Pinky drops by as she did in old times. Just as the usual Sundays, she carries her set of special utensils to cook at their home. Aunty does not make non-vegetarian food in her kitchen, nor does she eat any. No woman in their household does. 


But the men relish meat. So, they use the neighbor’s kitchen for cooking savories. The men do not carry non-vegetarian food inside their homes. Instead, they pull cots outside to eat non-veg dinners. 


On Sundays, shops stay closed. Hungry neighborhood uncles sit together and eat and drink till late at night, and aunties huddle in their extended verandahs to talk and laugh and sew and chew betel leaves. The neighborhood uncles invite her father often, and the ladies call on her mother. While the father hesitates at times, the mother always joins the ladies.


"It's all Halal- the permissible," the uncle laughs while offering the hot cooked mutton to her father. The father laughs too, and the men sit down talking and laughing and listening to FM radio while playing chess in turns under the loose wired low yellow bulbs hanging over their heads. The children play in the middle of the lane, blocking all traffic. Her almost immobile grand-aunt pulls up her window curtains and enjoys the hustle and bustle on the street. The grandmother sits with her prayer beads on the one hand, reciting and watching the kids run around. Girls play the song game Antakshari and the boys play Ludo and snake and ladders board games.


Aunty Pinky does not keep eggs or meat in her fridge, either. She keeps it in theirs. She also does not cook when she bleeds every month. She doesn’t sleep on the bed either. Over the years, she comes for a sleepover with them on the floor. Grand-aunt groans and moans, but it bothers no one. The stink in the house, and the boiling water does not wake her.


On one of the sleepover nights, she tells mother in the dark, "Teach me how to cook, the special non-vegetarian recipes. Your brother loves your food so much", referring to her husband, whom she doesn’t name. Mother understands. She smiles in the dark. 


The Pygmy girl, sleeping beside the women, hears everything. "And if you decide to go away one day and give up this place for sale, we will give you more than the market price." "This is our home, where will we go?" the girl jumps up half asleep. The mother pinches her. "Ouch," and she goes off to sleep peacefully.


*****

These Sundays are no more usual. A couple of weeks ago, the fat-bellied neighborhood uncle brought his new smartphone to the weekly adda. It shone of stainless steel from the sides of his hand because of its cover. A pair of white earphones connected it to his ear. The cable from the phone kept dropping all the time. He smiled at the Pygmy girl with his wide betel-stained smile.


That day he created the resident's WhatsApp group, just for the elders to share "Important News." Then all people sat down to watch a video which uncle had promised to show. People jumped over each other to catch the front view of the 4.6-inch dark display screen. Father peeped in, the brother jumped over people's shoulders, standing on the folding cot on one leg. His co-players ran around to fit in to watch the video clip first-hand. The girl, too, joined jostling around the group.


It was the father who broke the silence, "these are fakes!” At the top of his voice, the uncle asked everyone, "Is this false? Have you not seen Romeos strolling here?” "They're just out of control," someone said. "These girls are simply fools," and everyone looked for girls around.


Father said nothing. He walked away instead. Mother followed him inside the house. The brother went away, singing the tune from the video. The Pygmy girl stayed put. All the rest of the neighborhood uncles and aunties, and boys and girls carried on with more of video-watching.

 "Look at the beard," someone pointed at an old man in another video. "He looks like a butcher."

 "He kills the holy cow." "and eats it too."

 "How can one eat a cow" aunty Pinky wondered, "the whole thing."

 "It's in their Book."

 "Seriously… what book?"

"Their Holy Book." 

"We mustn't allow such people around." Later that week, one evening, the brother came home stamping his feet, his undersized cricket bat on his shoulder.


 He was angry.

 "Why can't you sing…Vande Mataram- the national song?"

 "What's that?" the father was surprised. 

 "Why don't you know anything?" brother was annoyed. 

 He snatched the Pygmy girl's phone and showed him stuff – the forty-second video of five people on the ground, beaten by baton-holding khaki-clad people. Few strikes fell on chests; the tight-booted feet fell on heads. Naked bodies of men heaped on one another, fluffed as cotton packs. "Come on, where do you get all of this?" the father asked. Brother lay on the floor, bare-chested.


"Why can't you see, father?" he pointed to the girl. "She's not attending college, sitting on dharnas, demonstrating against the government. That makes everyone angry”. "We're in deep shit, anyways!" the father sounded defeated.

*****

That night the Pygmy girl did not sleep; she couldn't. She thought about the new law the government had brought. One fine day the government decided to count the heads of all the people of the nation. They called people to produce documents that prove their identity as people of the nation. “Government officers will verify papers," they declared. Those who had no valid documents will have to leave - the homes, the land, the nation forever.


She learned about it only in college. "What documents prove whose nation it is?” She saw a crow crowing from a wall on her way to college that day. "How can it prove if it belongs to any nation" She wondered.


Her nation was hers on its own, just there, just like her face, her short size, all its own. She saw people, here and there and everywhere. 


No one seemed to be bothered about anything. Children played in the dirt on the streets. They laughed at her, and she smiled back. They ran towards her, begging for money.

"Where is home?" She asked them.

"Under the over-bridge," the youngest pointed faraway.

“But first, give me something.” 

"Where's your nation…I mean motherland," she asked. 

"No mother…no land," the urchin laughed. 

"I know," one of them said.

"But first, give that girl something to eat," one of the children pointed at the youngest beggar girl. They were giggling around, their hands dirty, and their faces chapped. 

"She hasn't eaten anything since yesterday." She gave each of them five-rupee coins.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

"Char –Footiya- the four feet short one!" They knew and gleefully laughed and ran away. She didn't mind. That day she did not take the auto rickshaw back home. She just walked home thinking about nations and their people.


That night she heard father saying, "life has changed. People have changed forever”.


He did not carry his cot out to sleep in the open. He slept with them on the floor.


*****

 Things weren't this unusual even when the old grocer and the mechanic left months back.

Ladies still moved out in the lane to get their day to day items. Father spent less time at home. Aunty Pinky gave her money to buy stuff for her. It was the middle of summer months when she went to buy the daily vegetables from the Sabziwallah -the vegetable vendor’s cart at the lane's corner. Some people asked for the name of the vendor to prove his faith. One man asked him for his identity card. The vendor pretended to hide it in his shirt's pocket. People grabbed it from his hand. They said he changed his name to sell vegetables in their locality. 


"He sold to all people," she said. "And all people eat," she thought, "Just like the Protists."She had read somewhere. “The unicellular beings – it lived on so little. Are Protists real?" 

It did not look all that real when she watched the video clip sent by a friend two days back. It kept on popping back in her mind every time; increasing her pulse rate. It came back haunting and made her nervous. She saw hundreds of people running after one, then pulling it down, nails tearing it apart from all sides - killing it at the end. It wasn't at all jungle type. It wasn't animal like. It was so world-like. "That's lynching," the girl's friend had said. She googled to find out about it on her cheap mobile phone.


"What do you want?" asked the vegetable seller, finally turning to her after settling the commotion.


She instead wrapped her dupatta around and hurried back home. The question bothered her.

 What if someone inquires what she breathed?

 What if someone finds out what she thought? 

What if someone asks what made her so short? 


It wasn't long after that when brother missed school to play a cricket match in the lane. He had done that before without his father's knowledge. When father left for the factory that day and mother and grandmother got busy settling grand-aunt, he sneaked out. Granny-aunt was in great pain that day and prayed for death all day. It was a no-class day.


 The teachers asked the brother to stand in school uniform and wave at a VVIP visitor as he passed by their locality. The President of the United States of America and his wife were on their way to visit the Taj Mahal. The POTUS and the FLOTUS visited India for the first time and drove in imported limousines waving at school kids. 


They were curious to see the intense diversity of India and Gandhi's non-violence. Brother took advantage of this and bunked school. He pretended to get ready for school and carried his stuff neatly packed as usual days. 

On the way, he met friends and heaped their bags at one corner to play cricket as done usually on Sundays.


That day he did not return home on time. Mother was worried. She went back and forth, looking for the boy. She asked the Pygmy girl to go around the lane and look for him. When the brother appeared, he did not walk back. He came on the shoulders of his shorter friends. Mother ran to hold him up straight; his clothes torn, his left eye swollen, and barely spoke.


A large group of boys followed him.

"Who did you fight with?" Mother was accusatory. "He's beaten up!”

"What did he do?" "He didn't chant - Bharat Mata ki Jai, our nationalist paean for Goddess Mother India.

"What?" 

The mother looked at the son. He barely spoke, "I would not utter those words, mother!", "Isn't singing for goddesses forbidden.”

"Who taught you this," the grandmother cried. "This isn't worth it," she sounded broken. "Tell him to learn to chant or else he'll not return to his home ever," the eldest among them said and walked away. They were friends. That evening Aunty Pinky dropped by to see the injured brother. She brought fruits for him. "Sister," she said softly, "remember, if you ever wish to give up this place and go away," we'll give you a reasonable rate.” 

That night, father, mother, grandmother, brother, and girl sat in their home locked down in low yellow light. They watched TV. A leader with several saffron threads tied tightly on his wrist raised his fingers and warned people.


"Attention! Traitors of the nation; we'll throw you in the ocean”. No one knew whom he threatened and whom he called traitors. 


The listeners clapped, TV anchors debated, and people retreated. 

*****


Then came the Sunday again! No one was out of home since morning. Doors and windows were tightly closed, packed. The iron grill covering the wooden door that remained open for everyone, all the time, was locked tightly - from inside. 


It seemed that the storm was about to make the landfall. The father was always on the phone. The TV played mutely. They read the scrolls on the TV screen and understood everything. The mother did not cook anything. She chanted prayers. So did the grandmother, rubbing grand aunt's feet. 


The older lady was in pain and could barely talk. All she could do was ask for death. When the doorbell rang, it seemed as if an age had passed. No one had ever needed to use it. Pinky Aunty peeped in from across the iron grill. 


"We are busy," the Pygmy girl replied. "Grand-aunt's changing." Aunty Pinky whispered from the keyhole, "Girl, your uncle's not home." "You should all pack up and leave from our back door. It'll be safe.” 


A pin-drop silence took away most of the time. The grandmother sobbed quietly. It was their time to make the most challenging decision of life. She held the sick grand-aunt’s hands tightly. 

The father dropped his head. No one knew what to do next. The teenage boy hung on to the grandmother's chest. He did not resist her strong clutch as a pet, cozying on her lap. The father went back and forth, redialing his small phone. There were no answers.


"We're locked down.” Father sat lost with his hands on his head. "What's wrong?" the Pygmy girl asked. "Is someone dead?" She tried to ease off the tension. "Dead we are, or we will soon be?" mother goaded. "Don't make a mountain… of a mole", the girl said. “Stop watching false news," she told them.


The TV still played—the anchors' telecast movement by rabbles in localities. Torn, broken, burnt pictures of homes, shops, vehicles, and people made to the full screen. People were running after people, people grabbing people, people killing people everywhere. Everyone ran just like that on open streets, holding knives, shooting guns, carrying flags, throwing stones and hurling abuses -to unknown people. 


As the Pygmy girl turned around, the grand-aunt held her hands tight. "It's time to decide," she said with great effort. She looked around and whispered in her right ear. "This is tough, but the right thing. You should all leave now".


The girl took a deep breath. It was a difficult choice. Life’s precious. She got up and readied items for the sick woman. Then she set her table, kept clothes on reach, brought in the mobile commode, marked medicines, boiled water in the flask, and got a new biscuit pack. The gas cylinder pulled to the locked door as a guard rail - it's hinging pipe and the stove at a reach away. And finally, a bottle full of raw petrol from father's bike and a new box of match sticks. 


"For safety, but who'd ever kill the dead?"

"Don't you worry," the old lady murmured. "I'll live to tell the tale of riots."

*****

That night fifty-five people died in the city. Some killed, some mobbed, some lynched, some torched. Free men shouted, hooted, counted all night as hunters. Others, too, all people, begged, hid, ran, and died like prey.


The morning edition of newspapers accounted for the stories. "85-year-old woman burnt to death in her home in Delhi’s Gamri extension area. The family evacuated their home, fearing an attack”.


The girl picked up the newspaper from a nearby stall and hid it in her bag. It was a precious document.

*********


About the author

A Policy Specialist and a former television journalist with deep ties in rural India, Saadia Azim uniquely tells the tales of India's pertinent issues in her first book. She lives with her mixed family of Hindus and Muslims and proudly showcases the diverse social fabric at home and around. view profile

Published on December 09, 2020

Published by

40000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction