I was 13 when I fell in love for the first time. I remember her clearly. Maya. Her large eyes fell on me in class and the words disappeared from my tongue. I would sit there with my hand raised and my eyes visualizing our joined sequence. The first time she talked to me, I felt a physical ache more powerful than what is about to happen to me.
Will she remember me? Will she reconstruct our interactions? “Jaan, I knew this man. He used to be crazy in love with me at one time. Hahaha. What a joke it was. You’ll never believe it. He asked me to marry him when we were fifteen. His was my first proposal. I hope they don’t come around looking for me because I knew him in high school. Will they? Oh my God. What do we do?”
Or it might go, “Why are they doing this? This was a good man. He asked me to marry him when we were teenagers. He was a little insane. Crazy insane. I could have loved him though. Do you know how and why they caught him? I cannot bear to think about it. This weekend can we go to the beach?”
The day I proposed to Maya was the day that Rio told me the story of the fire in a warehouse in Kashmir. The winter cold had formed icicles around the warehouse and an untended kangdi had resulted in a raging fire. Fire and Ice. The pictures were breathtaking, Rio had said. The cold icicles held its form despite the heat from the burning building. Maya was the fire that would melt my icicle, I thought. With a rare burst of resolve, I went looking for her. I found her just as she was about to enter the restroom in school. I called her name and she turned to look, her long earrings swinging like tribal dancers. There was impatience on her face. I dove to my knees in front of her and grabbed her hand.
“Will you?” I asked.
“Will you…marry me?” I whispered
“Let me go.”
“Not until you give me an answer.”
“This is not even legal,” she said, indignantly. “Is this your idea of a joke? Are you making fun of me?”
“No joke, Maya. We’ll marry when we’re eighteen.”
“Let go of my hand. I need to go to the bathroom.”
I remember clutching her hand tighter and her face wincing and then her great burst of rage, swinging her fist at the back of my head, my falling forward and her clutching her groin as she violently freed herself and ran into the bathroom, crying.
As the skin fries off my bones, will I be dead already? Asphyxiation is what kills; I know this because of Rio’s fascination with fire. I remember, when I was 11, observing Rio strike a match and watching as it crept slowly down to his thumb and forefinger. Then just as it reached his skin he threw it on the ground and lit the next one. The second time, I saw the fire touch his flesh and I yelped in distress. He smiled at me and threw the match down.
“Nothing will happen,” he assured me. “Watch one last time. The fire will die down on its own.” He struck the third match and I paid close attention as it lit his thumb a full 10 seconds before he pinched it dead. Rio showed me his thumb and forefinger. There was proof that this was not the first time he’d done this. “The fire will first attack the nerves and kill it. After that you won’t feel anything. Try it!” he told me. “If you’re ever trapped in a burning building, more than likely it will be the smoke that will kill you. It’s like drowning,” he explained. Instead, I was burned by the encounter.
When I inhale, I will smell burning flesh. It is a smell that comes to me when I think of train compartments full of people sealed and set afire and widows forced to enter the funeral pyre of their dead husbands and people trapped in burning buildings waiting for rescue and Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka tied to trees with tires hung around their necks and set aflame. I am a rebel. I am a man born to a Religion and a Country. My mother is my Country and my father my Religion. Both have let me down. I wait here today, my eyes covered by a strip of gunnysack, waiting for flames to devour me. My captor smells of something visceral. Of sweat, cigarette smoke, and polyester. Funny thing about polyester is that it is highly flammable. How ironical. I feel my condemned mouth stretching.
I think the fire will be ignited around me. When the police came for me, it was half-past one in the morning. The floor will be covered with straw and gasoline will be liberally poured around me. “Traitor,” they yelled at me, shoving me and pushing me. “People like you don’t deserve to live.” It will need just a single match. I watched my sister weep, begging for mercy. “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him.” The flames will rise slowly first warming my feet. I heard my fourteen-year-old brother, his stutter loading the mirth on the men’s faces. It will seem like a mere walk on hot coals. They mocked him and imitated him, while I lay supine at their feet and my sister’s voice reached madness. Then it will rise. “S-S-S-St-Sto-Stop i-i-i-i-t,” they said before slapping her and grabbing her breasts. First attacking the nerves on my feet. I met my brother’s eyes and pointed with my chin. He walked across the room to assist my sister. There they stood, a silent, scared ragtag army of two. Quickly devouring my shins and broken kneecaps. I got to my feet, dragging their attention back to me. The flames will attack my anus, my digestive tract and the lining of my lungs. In a few violent seconds I was on the floor again. From the floor I looked at my siblings, commanding them to stay still and unresponsive, without the words ever being said. I will then lose consciousness. I was dragged out and pushed into a waiting car. At last I will be consumed by eternal peace.
Carbon monoxide, they say, is odorless; it is so much easier to deal with an unsuspecting killer. I recall movies I’ve seen, where the killer creeps into the heroine’s room with a knife.
She is usually sleeping oblivious to the deafening sonata of suspense. Then she wakes up, just as the hero appears clumsily, noisily, and captures the silent killer, while the heroine completes her wakeup routine, wiping the sleep off her mysteriously unsuspecting face, clad in a black or red or white negligee, and looking with exaggerated horror into the face of what might have been. My eyes are sealed shut to my might-have-been.
In these few moments awaiting my pyre, I have never been freer. We are invariably tied to a goal, an ideal, a motive, or desire that pulverizes the idea of freedom. Yet, there is a constant struggle to find that elusive sense of abandon. The fleeting moments rarely add up to a sustained perception of liberation. In my life, liberty was measured out like tonic. In small, spare doses. The past tense seems very apt here, for the future is just a thought away. When I was told about the death of my journalist father, who died in prison after a year of incarceration, the sense of relief that overwhelmed me was my moment of freedom. Freedom was when my fragile, beautiful mother killed herself. She had tumbled into the pewter pits of melancholy and depression and couldn’t see her way out. Or when my sister broke off her love affair and returned to us. Or when my brother got a scholarship for the coveted computer science program of a well-known university. Or when I joined the outlawed party of the people. Freedom was a word, an ideal that we met and talked about. But we were bound by the very act of desiring freedom.
Is that the sound of music, I hear? As a youth, I’d heard of the rock star rebels who’d created music and sold it under the shallow guise of art, but it was more passion and politics that had pulled me into their record banner. The lyrics of nationalism and courage, I thought, in my supreme naïveté, would shield me behind anagrams of combat and conflict.
But the government spoke the same language with different words. Their words were obey, adhere, respond, and surrender. They solved our anagrams, parsed our rhetoric, and deciphered our allegorical references. Yet, I played my violin to the rebel drumbeat. I played in alleyways, in coffee shops, in college libraries, and in private homes. With the rage of past injustices thrumming inside me, I played to stray dogs and old ladies and babies in bassinets, and brothers and sisters and teachers and vegetable sellers. I forgot about the price I would have to pay. The music I hear today is nothing like the angry rhythm I am used to. It is soft and melodic and heralds the coming of my angels.
Each flame will rise up a little higher, curling at the very tip, like a batik pattern across space. The baby was in discomfort, her breathing painfully labored, as I laid her beside Gaia on the narrow bed. The afternoon sun reflected the brown batik pattern of Gaia’s sheet onto her translucent skin, and it seemed as though the child’s entire body glowed from within. The fire was inside her body. I looked down at the mother and child on the bed and exhaled loudly, willing my breath to cut across their thresholds. My wife and my child.
That night the fragile child recovered but the mother died, giving up her battle easily, peacefully. Wrenched by the prospect of a life without Gaia, I left my child behind.
It had been at my cousin Sachi’s wedding that I finally muscled up the courage to approach Gaia. I had seen her around town. She worked at a restaurant, waiting on tables. I made it a point to visit the restaurant once a week. She never once acknowledged me, never indicated that she recognized me or even that she knew what my order was going to be.
“What would you like to eat?” she’d ask each time, with the same inflection of assumed obliviousness.
“Breadbutterjamandtea,” I’d say, all in one breath. Each time, she laboriously wrote it all out in her little pad.
At the wedding, I watched her stride towards the buffet table, marveling at the fact that she was the tallest woman there, almost three inches taller than me. She loaded her plate with food and then she stood in a corner by the trash, and proceeded to remove all traces of mustard seeds from her plate with a fork. Dip, pick, trash.
“Why do mustard seeds bother you?” I asked as I threw my cigarette butt into the trash.
She cast a quick glance at me, laughed loudly, and continued on with her routine. Dip, pick, trash. “Do you know mustard gas blisters the skin? Small little mustard seeds form.”
“It’s not as though you can taste them.”
“Then what value do they serve?” she asked meeting my eyes.
In one smooth swoop, she dumped her whole plate in the trash.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” she said, pulling me by the hand.
“I want to sing,” she said, later that evening, her voice lilting and tilting each word into a tune, and I didn’t know whether she wanted me to know that because she’d heard of my music.
She finally sang at our wedding.
She put words to my violin.
Six months later, she was pregnant and in prison. She survived prison but died in childbirth. I played my violin at her funeral.
And then the flames will engulf, crackling and dancing in the inferno.
Just as I danced as a young boy, when my father received an award for fearless journalism. Those were the days when writing an expose meant ceaseless effort and endless praise. My mother had not stopped smiling. I’d worn a black suit and red tie to the event and watched my father rise up higher than anyone else. My last memory of my father was of a man whose body had rotted away in the damp of prison walls. Even after he died of pneumonia, pamphlets of his writing still found their way to street corners. I collected them assiduously and created a folder titling it, “My Prison, My Future.”
My sister is on the path to losing her future. I’ve seen her striated arms. When confronted, she denies it, and then remonstrates, “How could you think that of me?” I suspect that it is the hand of the government, feeding her narcotics to control her.
My brother’s stammer is worse, these days. I patiently waited for him to finish when he told me last week, “Fuck You-you-you-you…you are the won, won, one that is the cau-cau-cau-cau-cau-cau-use of all our trou-trou-trou-trou-trou-troubles. I wish you would go away.”
I asked him if our sister was on drugs and he told me to let her be. Later he apologized.
I lost my day job as a welder in an auto parts factory, a few days ago. My boss told me that I was on the government watch list and the company would lose its license if they continued to employ me. I withdrew all my savings and left it in the “My Prison, My Future” folder.
I play a word association game.
Sachi, safe; Rio, radiation; Gaia, gone; Maya, memory; Father, fallen; mother, miserable; sister, sad; brother, bright; baby, blue; government, gleeful; future, fuck; rebel, rampage; childhood, cheerful; violent, victory; youth, yearning; music, martyr; now, nothing; violin, vindication; me, maudlin.
Dip, Pick, Trash.
I attend to the sound of a footfall.
“We have good news for you,” a voice announces.
I shift from one foot to the other.
“We’ve decided to let you go.”
I stay quiet, wrapped within my solipsistic preoccupation.
“Did you hear me?” a strident demand. “We’ve decided to let you go!”
A hand clutches my polyester shirt.
“Yes, you’re going to be free!” Another ebullient voice.
I hear the sound of a striking match.
Shilpa Agarwal: This is a story about the utter destruction of a family because of their political beliefs. I appreciated its temporal balancing act—suspending the story in a single present moment while simultaneously revealing the protagonist’s past and gesturing toward his certain, irreversible future. The theme of fire is a smoldering presence throughout.
Ronica Dhar: We had a remarkable number of submissions written in 1st person, and I found that this story showcased the best that perspective offers: it sustains a compelling and original voice.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a prize-winning fiction writer.