Katha Fiction Contest 2017 was co-sponsored by India Currents and the Wellstone Center. Founded by Sarah Ringler and Steve Kettmann, the Wellstone Center is a writer’s retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Entries this year were asked to adhere to a theme of “California Fiction.” A substantial part of the story should be drawn from California and/or should reflect the ethos of what it means to be a Californian. This story has been accepted for publication in the forthcoming 2018 Best California Fiction volume by Wellstone Books. The writer will receive a weeklong India Currents residency at the Wellstone Center i(at no charge) and a $300 cash prize from India Currents.
The tour has not even started in earnest and Priya already regrets coming. The ferry slicing through the surf towards Alcatraz Island is stirring the first waves of nausea in the pit of her stomach. Tourists crowd one side of the ferry, jockeying for the best pics of the Golden Gate Bridge, and she is at once envious of and irritated by their enthusiasm. Almost there, she mutters to herself through gritted teeth as the wind lashes her hair across her face. Perhaps she should suggest they get out of the sun and wind and go downstairs, but here’s Veena sitting next to her, absently recording a seagull or whatever with her phone camera, and there, in the row of seats in front, are Nitish and Sridhar, immersed in conversation.
“Corporate hyperbole rules the Valley,” Nitish is saying. “Forget ‘customer focus’, it’s now all about ‘customer obsession!’ I mean, that doesn’t even sound right. Sounds kinda creepy, if you ask me, like they’re into stalking customers or something.”
Sridhar grins. “For all you know, they might be. Your phone keeps tabs on you, your search engine knows you better than you know yourself. And going by the latest Wikileaks, when you’re watching television, your television is watching you.”
Nitish claps him on the shoulder, laughing. “That’s right. You can invest in all the high-end security software you want, but if you really want to get something across without anyone snooping, the safest way is to write it down with pen and paper and pop it into the nearest postbox. I mean, who would even think of reading anyone else’s snail mail these days? Heck, I don’t even open my own mail.”
The conversation between them flows easily, whereas Veena and she seem stuck in an obstacle course of awkward silences. An outsider might easily assume it is the two men who share the closer, older friendship, carried on from college, with Priya and Veena having the acquaintance thrust upon them by virtue of their spouses, whereas, in truth, it is the other way around.
Once again, she wonders if she made a mistake coming to San Jose. Maybe Sridhar and she should have gone directly up to Seattle where their daughter awaits them. She had thought this stopover would help; she had pictured those long, midnight conversations that Veena and she once used to share, that helpless laughter over the most trivial of things, the heart-to-hearts after which everything used to seem somehow—right. But, all that was decades ago, and the present-day Veena seems to have other things on her mind. Oh, it’s not like she’s been less than exemplary in her welcome. If anything, it’s her insistence on playing the perfect—too perfect—host that grates on Priya’s nerves. Veena seems to have erected this impermeable membrane of courtesy between them that their friendship cannot penetrate to find the familiar, comfortable contours of old.
Priya suspects that Veena’s keeping her at arms’ length has something to do with the distinct sense she’s been having that the two—Nitish and Veena —are in the midst of a marital spat of some sort. It isn’t in anything they say or do, of course. But, there is a brittle air to the way Nitish and Veena sit carefully apart, in the way she handed him his teacup that morning, just so with scarcely a glance, in the way each avoids the other’s eyes even when they refer to each other by name in conversation. Priya steals a sideways glance at Nitish.
Suave, glib talker, his eyes always shrewd and business-like even when his manner was light and friendly—that’s what she’d secretly thought of him when she’d first been introduced to him all those years ago. She shakes her head in amusement now as she watches him laughing with her husband, wondering if there hadn’t been just a tiny bit of jealousy at play in her poor opinion of him. She had been wrong to assume he wasn’t right for Veena. After all, they had made a beautiful life together—the immaculate home in one of those communities that looks like they’ve been transplanted in their entirety from India, groceries, restaurants, movie theaters and all; a son away at MIT; myriad vacations, successes and milestones all assiduously documented on Facebook.
The ferry jolts over another wave and Priya’s stomach lurches, swinging her thoughts to the uncharitable side once again. The Veena of old would have known immediately that something was wrong. She would have wormed it out of Priya in no time, let her talk or cry it out of her system, and soon have her laughing at the funny side. There was always a funny side, no matter what, and Veena could be depended upon to find it. Where was that Veena when she needed her most? She wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake this new starched politeness right out of her. Oh, get over it, whatever this petty quarrel is about, she wants to yell. There are people with real problems in the world.
But, of course, Veena doesn’t know. She couldn’t know how, back in India, on a day just as sunny as this one, a sheaf of innocuous-looking papers had torpedoed Priya’s life.
You see all kinds in a hospital waiting room. For some, it is the first time their body is betraying them, ungraciously jerking the veil of complacency aside to show them a glimpse of their own mortality, and they riffle through the pages of their diagnostic reports again and again in outraged disbelief. For others, it is an old betrayal, the files on their laps thick with the evidence of an ongoing infidelity, and they are wearily reconciled to the injustice of their body’s flirtation with death and disease.
The rows of metal seats, the forcefully cheery colour of the walls, the racks of brochures for diagnostic tests and vaccinations, the woman irately telling the nurse that yes, her bladder was full and could she please get the abdominal ultrasound now, the young couple sitting in the corner, comparing results of their annual health check-up like they were exam scores.
All these details are perfectly recorded in Priya’s mind, but she has only the faintest recollection of somebody finally bringing their reports, of Sridhar opening the envelope and unleashing a whole new set of hard, metallic-tasting words into the quiet vocabularies of their life. Even the one word that was familiar had mutated into an unknowable beast.
For the longest time, Cancer was only her sun-sign—the column at which her eyes paused in astrology sections, to read humdrum, generic predictions—travel expected, hard work will reap great success this week, good time to start a new venture, things like that. Always benign.
This is the first time they are coming to the United States, though their daughter Nina has been pestering them to visit for years. Sudhir has always hated all the hoops one is made to jump through for a simple visa. This time, though, he didn’t protest. Nina, of course, is puzzled and upset. They should have come not now —in the sixth month of her pregnancy— but towards the end, like all good Indian parents, to provide a whole six months of support when the baby arrived. They have come to tell her the news in person. But now, Priya wonders if they should. What’s the point? Nina can’t travel to India in the near future, not in this stage of pregnancy, nor with a new infant. Why drag her into the circle of helplessness? The whole thing feels unreal, anyway. If they don’t give it the shape and credibility of words and tears and plans of action…then maybe, just maybe, it will simply go away…
The ferry docks at the island at last and they line up to disembark. There is a steep climb to the prison complex and Priya finds herself getting out of breath.
Veena calls from up ahead, “You two okay back there?”
Priya nods and waves her on. “Tell me again, what are we doing on this tour?” she mutters to Sridhar.
He shrugs as if to say “your friend.”
“You have to hand it to the Americans though,” he comments, glancing around at the steady stream of selfie-stick-toting tourists. “Back in India, there are all those centuries-old sites going to rot and barely given a second glance, and these folks will take just about anything and package it into a tourist destination, complete with an exit that leads through a souvenir shop!”
Priya peers balefully against the sun at Veena striding up the steps. They were scarcely up and about that morning when she whisked them off to San Francisco. A hurried breakfast at Fisherman’s Wharf, a cursory halt at Pier 39 to click the inevitable pictures with the sea lions, and here they are on the Alcatraz tour she has booked them all on.
The main prison complex looms into view at last. They are handed audio guides at the entrance. Passing through rooms with a variety of prison paraphernalia on display, they enter the main cell block. Rows of cells, three tiers high, stretch before them on either side. Tourists mill around, glancing this way and that in response to the narration in their headsets. Priya plugs in her headset and the audio guide launches into a history of the prison. She notes with irritation that Veena is following the guide studiously, pausing at each display and listening to the narration. There she is now, examining a prison regulation sign that states imperiously, “You entitled to food, clothing and shelter. Anything else is a privilege.” Maybe she should put up that sign up in her precious home—Priya grins to herself at the snarky thought, then is immediately overcome with regret.
When did the distances set in? Haven’t they always made it a point to keep in touch? Yes, but the once-copious letters and emails that had deteriorated over time to a half-hearted exchange of forwards and birthday greetings were perhaps symbolic of the fact that, somewhere along the way, they had allowed the fabric of their friendship to fray from the personal to the generic. It wasn’t merely by coincidence, after all, that all their conversations over the years, whether online or in person during Veena’s whirlwind India visits, always fell back on the past—on anecdotes and recollections of past follies and foibles, adventures and misadventures.
The others have moved on, and Priya hurries to catch up. The audio guide is listing some of the prison’s most infamous occupants. Hardened criminals, all of them. Yet, being here, within the same walls that once confined them, it is strangely easy to separate man from deed and to feel, first-hand, the horror of incarceration.
Priya stops at a cell that has some personal effects on the shelf—a picture, a pack of cards, a board game. They’re only props, but suddenly she can’t breathe.
This is the reality of a life circumscribed by four walls. Where rising from bed to go to the toilet is an event. Where privacy is unheard of, and the most basic of human functions are subject to the schedules and interventions of others. Where the body is thus confined, even as the mind remains free to contemplate the full horror of what is being done to it. Claustrophobia clutches at her throat and she can’t wait to get out of the place.
As Sridhar predicted, the exit is indeed through a souvenir shop. Priya is examining a metal “prison-issue” mug that reads “I Escaped Alcatraz,” when the others join her.
“Found it boring, huh?” Nitish asks with a grin.
“You shouldn’t have left midway,” Veena says, an undertone of accusation in her voice. “The part about the prison escape was quite interesting.”
“I…just…,” Priya gropes for words.
Sridhar comes to her rescue. He takes the mug from her hand. “I suppose that’s for my morning cuppa,” he quips, putting his arm around her and giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze.
Priya glances up to catch Veena looking at them, a strange expression on her face. She turns away the moment their eyes meet.
Priya and Veena sit side by side, gazing across the bay at the city skyline. They have an hour before the ferry back to the city and the men have gone for a walk around the island.
The silence is oppressive, yet Priya can’t bring herself to once again dig up some incident from the distant past to break the ice. And the simple truth is that she doesn’t have a clue about the minutiae of Veena’s life any more than Veena can guess at how Priya’s chic clothes, bought just for this trip, hide the ravages within. Perhaps that’s what all friendships come to in the end. Homes, lives, even bodies— much like Alcatraz, the version packaged for others becomes, somewhere along the way, only tenuously linked to the version actually lived in.
According to the audio guide, over the course of its history, the prison had seen thirty-six escape attempts, all ending in capture or death. What is surprising is that they had even tried, considering the heavy odds against success—the tight security, the icy waters, the rip tides. Sitting there, though, Priya understands. The city looks so close, it almost feels like you can reach out and touch it.
So close, yet so impossibly far.
Veena seems to sense her thoughts. She turns abruptly to face her.
“I’m leaving him,” she says.
Priya blinks in surprise. “What?”
“I’m leaving him,” Veena repeats, with a short nod, as though she’s telling herself as much as Priya.
Priya looks at her wordlessly.
Years ago, they had sat together just like this in Priya’s room.
“I think he’s the one for me,” Veena had said then of this very man, the man who would be her husband.
The fact, so plainly put—Veena discovering it almost the same time as Priya—had sparkled in the air between them like a freshly-mined diamond, and they had examined it in delight, dusting it off, tilting it this way and that in their palms, secure in the knowledge that there would be many more such diamonds to be mined together, shared secrets and confidences, lying in store for them. They had not known then that the years would see their paths diverge, and they would one day have only chunks of coal clutched in weary hands to offer each other.
Then, as now, Priya had wanted to say, “Are you certain?”
But now, as then, she sees the look on Veena’s face, her features shorn of all artifice, the truth of her words in her eyes, and she says nothing, simply reaching over to squeeze Veena’s hand.
Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India. Her work has appeared in the Himal Southasian, New Asian Writing, Commonwealth Writers adda, Muse India, Reading Hour, Out of Print, India Currents, Temenos, The Shine Journal and several other literary journals and short fiction anthologies. She has won prizes in the FON South Asia Short Story Competition 2016 and New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2016. She is a 2014 Fellow of the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency and was selected for the Nonfiction Writing Seminar conducted by The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2015.