Tag Archives: Katha 2017

Exaptation

He waits on the corner of Mission and 21st. Their third date. He wears a black shirt, blousy around his paunch. He mentioned in a text that he had ten pounds to lose, though his online profile stated he couldn’t date anyone who was even a little overweight. Well, she wrote the same thing–that she couldn’t date anyone even slightly overweight. But here she is, picking him up.

She is relieved that she still finds him attractive. Dark hair, mischievous smile. She perceives a strong masculine energy that she will later wonder is something else.

“Hey there,” he says, opening the passenger side door and sliding in. He kisses her cheek. “Beautiful day today.”

The Beastie Boys’ ”Sabotage”comes on,  so they share memories of when they first heard it, compelling more conversation about music. He prefers acoustic guitar and used to sing in an acapella group. He directs her to a parking spot a few blocks away. She is relieved she still remembers how to parallel park with efficiency, even though she has not lived in San Francisco for 15 years.

*****

            “So I know you like burgers. I want you to try this place. It’s a bowling alley, but the burgers are really good.” he says once she’s parked. As they walk, she is conscious that she is taller than him and then feels ashamed of the observation. Always, she is aware of two gazes happening within her, a gaze inward and a gaze from outside. She often wishes she could close both sets of eyes.

At the bowling alley, they sit at an outdoor table. He orders a burger and a salad from the pretty blue-haired server wearing cat’s eye glasses and a silver piercing in her tongue.

She is always anxious with men on these early dates, like listening to a song for the first time and waiting to find the part she can hum. His clothes smell mildewy, and she tries not to imagine his little studio apartment in the Mission, how he probably hangs wet clothes over the furniture to dry. Mildew and studio apartments don’t matter, she reminds herself.

But the odor suggests capitulation.

He studied science illustration in college. She asks many questions about this. This is the best part about dating, an ingress into worlds she knows nothing about.

“It’s very precise. Like, I have to count all the scales on a fish before I draw it.”

“I didn’t realize you have to be so exacting.”

“Oh yeah, it’s all about details.”

He tells her about a shark necroscopy he once observed, the creature’s collapsible teeth and immense liver. She explains the adaptation of vultures, the reason behind their featherless, naked necks. Because the feathers get too dirty from the blood.

“You didn’t tell me you were interested in science.” He is impressed.

“I’m interested in everything. There’s a gobi fish in Hawaii that can climb a waterfall using its mouth,” she recalls from an issue of National Geographic.

“Wow.”

“Exaptation. An animal adapts a mechanism used for one thing to allow for some other purpose later. The fish developed a strong sucking mouth to suck algae off rocks and then adapted its use for scaling rock walls.”

“Adaptive behavior is so fascinating.” He is smiling, that unpredicted recognition that she is more than she appears, which makes her feel both triumphant and annoyed. Yes, she wants to say, I am more.

“I wonder what they’ll use those suckers for in a million years,” she says instead.

“I don’t know if it works like that.” He takes one of her fries, a gesture of intimacy. “Like there’s a point to all of it.”

They finish their burger. She wipes a smear of her lipstick off his mouth with her thumb after they kiss. A gesture in reply to his own.

*****

            After their meal, they walk to Dolores Park and climb a hill away from the drum circles and clouds of cannabis smoke. He pulls a soft, faux-fur blanket and two bottles of water from his backpack. They lay out the blanket and lean back on their elbows in the dusk.

“What do you like most about being a mother?” He asks as they watch the darkening sky, the hills toothed with townhouses becoming silhouettes.

She thinks a moment. “That I learned I could love unconditionally.” She is surprised that she feels comfortable enough to disclose this.

He looks at her, pauses. “I read your profile carefully, you know. And my sense was that you’ve haven’t been really seen or valued.”

She has no reply. Thinks instead of her old boss when she worked at a law firm. He would bound into her office without knocking as she typed away on a deadlined brief and put his feet up on her desk to chat. All that white male privilege like old gum stuck to the bottom of his Rockports.

But he interrupts her thoughts. “Do you want closeness? Because I’m not sure with you.”

Her heart beats faster. She looks away at the townhouses and their freshly lit windows. Stories she doesn’t know.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“The windows. Wondering about the people inside.”

He laughs but asks again. This befuddling question concerning closeness.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Do we ever really know what we want? The reality of it is only good when it’s still an abstraction, you know?”

He listens. A directness in his gaze that unnerves her.

“Can we just kiss for awhile?”  she asks, seeking an exit.

*****

            When they come up for air she tells him about her work representing battered women. She describes a recent client whose ribs were broken by her boyfriend, a hulking, tattooed man who stared at his handcuffs during the TRO hearing. She had to keep reminding herself that the boyfriend was undoubtedly broken, too.

“My mom was abused all the time when I was growing up,” he says. “My dad was a real prick. He abused me, too. I don’t talk to him anymore.”

She tries not to take it too seriously, aware of the stigma presented by abuse but not seeking to diminish his past, either. “Yeah, it’s pretty commonplace. The more I do this work, the less things surprise me.”

“Why do you think you do that work? I couldn’t.” He strokes the top of her hands. His touch both excites and repels.

“My mother used to tell me stories about my grandmother when I was little. She grew up in a village in India. Never learned how to read. She was married off at fourteen and had seven kids. Three died. And I guess I thought of her a lot growing up. Her story just felt embedded in me somehow.”

She curls her fingers around his and he responds with a kiss on her cheek.

She continues. “When I was a kid, and I read a book I loved–like A Wrinkle in Time or The Dark Is Rising–I would think about her and feel sad that she didn’t get to read them. And then in law school I felt a different kind of sadness, that here I was shaping an entire life and a career around reading and writing and my grandma never had that possibility. She died young, before I was born.”

“That’s pretty heavy. I do my work mostly because I like animals and drawing.” He laughs.

“I guess the work feels like bringing things full circle. Or a way to alleviate the guilt of my advantage.” It sounds so neatly packaged when she describes her life this way. As though the narrative can pierce through all that rage. She has dreams sometimes that she is her grandmother, that she wakes up with some man’s strange, hairy arm flung across her chest, impeding her breath. When she was last in India, a man groped her breast as she walked home from the beach and even as she screeched with the shock of it, she immediately thought of her grandmother. A sudden, visceral understanding of how her grandmother’s body rarely belonged to itself.

“You do important work,” he says.

“Maybe.”

He laughs. “You are terrible at taking compliments.” He rolls on top of her. She enjoys the weight of his body on hers. His tongue strong and insistent in her mouth. His hand just under her breast, almost-cupping but not quite, which she finds generous of him since it is dark now and they are kissing hard and she could imagine having sex with him tonight, on date number three.

“Do you live close by?” she whispers into his neck.

He laughs. “I do. But I don’t want to do that yet.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She nods in the darkness. Wishes to change the subject. “Hey, can you sing something for me?”

“I don’t really do that.”

“Anything. A line from your favorite Beatles track. Please?”

He rolls off, thinks for a moment. “I have something on my phone that I recorded.” He pulls his phone out of his backpack.

His voice is clear and melodic. Professional-sounding, like one of those slick American rock vocalists. The Goo-goo Dolls or something.

“Wow. This is good!”

“I never play for anyone. It’s too personal.” Subtext: I am building intimacy with you. The realization makes her nervous.

“Thank you,” she says and means it. “Let’s go back to kissing.”

*****

            It is dark when she decides she should head home. 10:30.

“Can you give me a ride?” he asks.

“Sure.” But she always wishes to be alone after long moments of closeness. A desire to find herself again after being so enmeshed with another. Maybe the “one” (if he exists, if she even wants that) is someone who will not leave her feeling like she misses herself afterward.

She drops him off in front of his building.

His tongue in her mouth, searching and possessive, one last time.

*****

            They text throughout the next few days, in the early morning, mutual Good mornings. In one text, he tells her he once made a man cry in the middle of a store after the man intentionally bumped into him. He does not take well to bullying. In another text, he compliments her colorful mind and her beauty, which he insists does not require the excesses of make-up. I’ll bet men fall for your physical beauty but not for who you really are.

He tells her he would do many naughty things to her naked body.

A snaking feeling of desire.

Let’s see each other Friday.

*****

“Hey there,” he says when she walks into the bar that Friday. The bartender is Desi. Tattoos up and down his arms and she wonders, absurdly, what his mother thinks of them. Toto’s “Africa” plays in the background.

He buys her a drink, takes the first sip. She is annoyed by his presumption.

He is wearing khakis. A crewneck sweater. That mildew odor. She leans against him, hoping for desire to return. Beside them a couple talks too loudly and she is cold because the window is open.

“I once stopped a rape,” he tells her after they rehash their respective days. “Right around here. It was at night.”

“That must have been scary.”

“I sort of got a charge from it. That I wasn’t afraid.”

“You’re like that guy in those old Deathwish movies. Those movies scared the shit out of me. I was a kid when I saw one. My uncle was visiting from India so he watched them all the time.”

“Those aren’t for little kids to see.”

“No. I still can’t believe I saw it.”

He kisses the top of her head now. “The worst thing you can do if you’re a woman is wear headphones while walking. That’s really dangerous.”

But that is a singular joy. Walking in the Mission, observing the flight of pigeons and the tumult of hipsters and homeless all in one place.

They finish their drinks and she tells him she needs to get home, an 8:30 hearing tomorrow morning. She is anxious to be alone in her house, to watch another episode of Game of Thrones or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. On stressful days, she regards the prospect of a TV show as a bedouin would regard a desert spring. Everything safely packed in a story with some defined conclusion.

They walk to her car.

“You’re so pretty.” He kisses her. The mildew of his sweater comes closer. His tongue in her mouth feels abrasive. She recoils without thinking.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing. Just getting late.”

“Ok.” He steps away.

“Do you want a ride?” she asks, wanting to mend things but also hoping he’ll decline.

“It’s ok. It’s a nice night. I’m gonna walk.”

Once inside her car, she watches as he crosses the street.

His ill-fitting khakis an ochre flash in the night.

*****

            On her drive back, she listens to a podcast about child sex workers. The stories these girls tell themselves to feel that their lives are not awful and hopeless. One girl, Tiffany (not her real name), remarks that at 14, most girls are too old, but she’s still popular. Special. That’s what her last pimp told her. And anyway, it’s not like she was gonna end up in college.

She thinks of the gobi fish. Adaptive behaviors.

When she arrives home, she sits in her Honda SUV enjoying the heater, the darkness, the familiarity of the Trident gum wrappers in the cupholder, the unread paperback book on meditation she keeps in the driver side door compartment. As she unplugs her cell phone from the car charger, he has texted her.

You were different tonight.

She feels exposed that he noticed.

You care too much about what people think of you. You’re incapable of recognizing the quality man right in front of you.

            She watches the blinking ellipses. Her stomach turns with dread but she isn’t sure why. His second message flashes onto her phone.

I could f*** you so hard you wouldn’t walk straight for days. You’ll end up old and alone and you’ll wish you hadn’t made this mistake.

Goodbye.

She slows down her breathing. A buzzing sound in her ear. She should have seen this coming. She berates herself for her poor judgment.

She wonders if he saw her license plate number or her last name on the credit card she used to pay for a second round of drinks. If he can somehow find her street address, conduct an Internet search to find out where she works.

She exits her car. Unlocks the two locks on the door to her house. She’s left the lights on, slightly dimmed. She thinks of possibilities on Netflix or HBO–perhaps a new episode of Girls or Broad City?

Once inside, she removes her coat. Unzips the convenient side zippers of her on-trend lace-up combat boots. Wonders if freedom will always be like this. Provisional and inadequate, and, at times, nothing like freedom at all.

*****

Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney and English professor living in the Silicon Valley. She has previously been published in India Currents and was published in the South Asian anthology Our Feet Walk the Sky.

Katha Fiction Contest Winners Announced!

Here are the winners of the 2017 Katha fiction contest co-sponsored by India Currents and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. This year’s judges were Steve Kettmann and Sarah Ringler of the Wellstone Center.

First prizeAlcatraz by Vrinda Baliga.

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 in the Redwoods (at no charge) and a $300 cash prize from India Currents.

Second prizeSubterfuge in the Septagon by Mahanth Joishy.

Wellstone Books is interested in developing this story into a novel. In addition, the writer will receive a weeklong India Currents residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods (at no charge) and a $200 cash prize from India Currents.

Third prizeCherry Blossoms by Sandhya Acharya.

This writer will receive an Emerging Writer Residency at the Wellstone Center and a $100 cash prize from India Currents.

Two Honorable Mentions:

Exaptation by Samantha Rajaram

Garden of People by Neerja Raman

Founded by Sarah Ringler and Steve Kettmann, the Wellstone Center is a writer’s retreat tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  They serve to support writers through writing residencies and author events set in a calm, beautiful environment, and they publish books through the Wellstone Books imprint.

India Currents is a media company devoted to the exploration of the heritage and culture of India as it exists in the United States. Through its print and digital platforms, it covers a wide range of subjects—arts, film, literature, travel, food, healthy living, and business. After 30 years in continuous publication, today, it has the largest circulation among Indian publications reaching over 200,000 readers every month

We thank all the participants for their submissions.

Katha Contest Third Place Winner: Cherry Blossoms

Stepping out of the plane, that first day in America, it was the vastness that first struck me. I took in the wide blue skies, the unending green lawns, and the circuitous freeways as we drove from the airport in Arun’s convertible top-down silver gray mustang. I took in the magnificence of the ocean as we drove alongside it and the dreamy skyline of the city rising above a thick fog as we entered the city. We drove much slower now on the narrow roads lined with victorian houses and curious little shops and restaurants. I observed the moving kaleidoscope of images. Pointy mohawks, lacy skirts, long boots, large strollers, little dogs and quirky, colorful people.

All those sights, however, could not prepare me for the sight of the beautiful tree in full bloom right outside Arun’s apartment. It stood as if in welcome, strong yet graceful. Tiny clusters of delicate, pink blossoms covered the meandering branches that reached all the way to the sky.

I couldn’t pry my eyes away from it. “That’s the cherry blossom tree,” said Arun as we walked into his apartment with our bags. If this had been at my home in India, Amma would have stood with a plate with a camphor lit lamp and waved it at us in slow clockwise circular motion to ward off the evil eye. We would have entered the house using the right foot to mark an auspicious beginning to our new life. I tried to remember now which foot I had used to enter the apartment a few seconds back. Maybe if things didn’t go right, I could blame it on the moment my cursed left foot had dared to go first.

While Arun climbed up and down the little flight of stairs getting in the rest of the luggage from the car,  I stood by the window and toyed with my black beaded necklace – my wedding signet. Above the line of trees right outside, the streets of San Francisco undulated up and down like dancing ribbons. They stretched endlessly until the horizon where they met the Pacific Ocean. A large ship floated lazily on the water. In the distance, on the left, I could see the visage of a beautiful rust colored bridge teasingly peeking from a crown of clouds.

Arun was in the kitchen now making some instant coffee. I could hear him beat the coffee and water mixture rhythmically with a spoon. I heard the milk being poured and the beep of the microwave as he heated it. But when Arun offered me a cup, I couldn’t help longing instead for a cup of slowly brewed ginger and cardamom tea.

The cup was huge and covered my hands spreading some warmth into it. I stood facing the tree and slowly sipped the coffee. “Still looking at the tree?”Arun asked. “The cherry blossoms originally come from Japan you know, but now it is our own” he continued. “You will catch sight of them in little pockets here and there. They are lovely in the springtime in California. In full bloom beginning about now. We are so lucky to have one right outside our door, isn’t it?”

A sudden wave of petulance overcame me. I wanted to say, “Bah! What use is a tree if you can’t climb it?” Outside my house, in my village, we have a little backyard with jasmine creepers, hibiscus blooms, and a large mango tree. The mango tree was my favorite hideout. On lazy afternoons you would find me perched there with a book. During the summer holidays, I collected little mangoes before they went fully ripe and handed them to Amma. Then she would sit by her grinding stone and fold pungent spices into a fiery red mixture and soak little pieces of the raw fruit in it. After a few months, we would eagerly open the porcelain jars filled with this concoction. The scent would hit us first and then when we put a piece of the spicy, sour pickle in our mouths, the taste would linger on for hours.

“Did you say something?”Arun asked me. I shook my head and placed my cup a little roughly on the glass topped side table with ivory colored legs. The cups tinkled as he picked them up together and took them back to the kitchen.

I stole a glance at him as he walked away. He looked very much like the picture. The picture Amma had shown me a week before the wedding. He didn’t have jet black eyes; his eyes were a deep brown. He didn’t have soft long fingers; his fingers were coarser and smaller. He didn’t have long wavy hair that flowed when the wind blew around him; his hair was more curly and he was balding a little.

Arun excused himself to go freshen up. I walked around the apartment examining it in more detail. I opened the doors of the cabinets in the kitchen. I looked at where Arun stored his lentils and flours and ginger and tea powder. I wandered to the TV room now. There was a massive brown leather recliner and I sank into it. I pushed a button on its side and my feet began to be lifted up while my upper torso sank down. “Everything is a button away in this place,” I mused irritably to myself.  When I heard Arun turn the bathroom door, I tried to get out hurriedly. But I couldn’t figure out how, so I ended up awkwardly climbing out of the stretched recliner, hoping Arun hadn’t seen my ungraceful struggle.

When Arun came and joined me, I was looking at the collection of books he had in the pearl white bookshelf in the far corner of the living room. “Do you read?” he asked. I was just going to ask him about the Khalil Gibran on the upper shelf when he said “They are not mine, most of them. They belonged to my old roommates actually. I just didn’t want to throw them out when they left them with me.”

The phone rang. Arun handed it to me. It was Appa and Amma. I went into  the bedroom and closed the door to talk to them.

“Did you reach?” Amma asked

“Did you sleep well on the flight?”

“How is America?” Appa interjected, taking the phone from Amma

“Do you like California?”

“No.” I wanted to say. “I don’t want to sit in leather recliners. I just want to sit on our wicker sofa with the old frayed moisture ridden cloth cushions. I didn’t want to drive in Arun’s prized convertible. I just want to take the auto and haggle with the driver about the fare. I didn’t want to eat cold bagels and cream cheese in the airports. I just want to eat Amma’s hot idlis and coconut chutney. And I didn’t want to be Mrs. Arun. I..”

“Appa, I”, I began shakily

“Don’t spoil this”, Appa hissed. “Our honor is in your hands now.”

I suddenly felt out of breath and hung up. I leaned back on the mountain of pillows on the bed. Too many different sizes and shapes and textures. I touched the soft comforter and the red velvet throw on the end of the bed. The tag was still attached to it. Arun had obviously been shopping before the trip.

Arun knocked at the door. “Want to step out for a walk?” he asked.

“Just a minute,” I said. “I need to wash my face.”

I picked up my purse and closed myself in the bathroom. I pulled out a piece of yellow paper with a number scribbled on it. The digits danced before my eyes threatening to wedge themselves into the permanent corners of my memory. I shook my head trying to empty it and turned the paper over. Then I ripped it into small pieces. I scattered the little pieces, a few at a time, into the sink and opened the tap. The water washed them to a unshapely pulp. Some tiny bits clung to the ceramic. I pushed it down the drain, one by one.

Arun was waiting for me when I stepped out. “Look, the sun is setting,” he said.

The sky was covered with long lines of pink and orange. The evening sun made a last show of brilliance bathing the cherry blossom tree in golden light. From the top of the tree, I saw a long line of connecting dots of light all the way from the mango tree in my backyard. The branches swayed and the translucent pink flowers shimmered and danced with the gentle wind.

Sandhya Acharya grew up in Mumbai, India and now lives in the Bay Area. She previously worked in corporate finance and is now a writer. She is mother to two young boys, a dance and running enthusiast. She self-published her first children’s book on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. The book is titled “Big Red Firetruck!”. Her articles have also featured in NPR(KQED), India Currents and IMC connect.
She blogs regularly at  www.sandhyaacharya.com

Katha Contest Second Place Winner – Chapter 1: Subterfuge in the Septagon

The first time that I met her was in the conference room on the top floor of the Septagon.  Well, top floor sounds a bit misleading when you work in a secret bunker somewhere deep underground below Silicon Valley, California.  Even those of us who work down there have no idea exactly where it is.  Not only are the coordinates classified, it also takes a hyperloop vacuum tube ride through a labyrinth of underground tunnels to get to the Septagon, from any of some 35 hidden ground level entrances equipped with retinal and fingerprint scanners.  The entire subterranean system was designed and built by free-thinking construction robots and 3D printers that were immediately wiped of all data and decommissioned for scrap as part of the grand opening ceremony for the building in 2024.  I’ve read several credible Russian spy-hunter blogs on the Dark Web who somehow conjectured we work directly under the seventh hole of Shoreline Golf Links.  I don’t know, comrades, your guess is as good as mine; try digging around that seventh hole putting green and if someone blows your head off, there’s a good chance you’re right.

Uncle Sam seems to be into the number seven these days.  Seventh hole.  The Septagon, for a bunker with seven walls.  Only seven living people at any time know exactly where the United States Cyber Force (USCF) Headquarters is, and the executive suites are on the top floor, which is- you guessed it- the seventh floor.  Maybe that’s because Uncle Sam’s luck had been running real low.

The USCF (pronounced “uskeff” for those in the know) was formed after several crippling cyberspace debacles for America that helped level the playing field of asymmetrical warfare, including China’s cyber theft of every single U.S. conventional weapons system by 2014, including detailed plans for the F-35 joint strike fighter jet (since discontinued), Russia’s successful hack of the U.S. Democratic Party during the heavily compromised 2016 presidential election cycle, the time a still-unidentified group blew up the international space station in 2019 through an elaborate climate control systems hacking operation, and the time Al Qaeda brought down the entire Internet for two agonizing days in 2021.  This of course wrought more havoc on the United States and the world than any day since 9/11.  I was in college at the time.  It was terrifying to be amongst 7,000 college students with useless smartphones and smartwatches and zero idea how to function in real life without a working Internet.  Those were dark days.

Naturally it took two years of bureaucratic nut flexing, study groups, investigations, commissions, and Congressional committee hearings to figure out that the United States needed a new military branch, a Cyber Force on par with the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard to have some capability to defend from and retaliate against folks in the cyber arena threat matrix.  It took another year to decide to place its headquarters somewhere in the sub-vicinity of Silicon Valley, which to me was always a no-brainer as I followed along the debates in the news in high school and college.  Why in hell would you put it anywhere else?

In a predictable sequence of events and affairs, the USCF had steadily gained in stature, to the point where it was considered the most prestigious and critical of all of the branches of the military- and also most secretive, and least understood by an American public that mostly didn’t even know what HTML was.  That’s why I decided to enlist, along with thousands of other intelligent patriots.  It’s why the USCF commander was considered the most important military leader of our time.  Rumor has it that during a heated argument at the White House in the presence of the President, USCF General Nirupama “Nero” Patel was being dressed down by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over something.  Within minutes, irate as hell, she had orchestrated the power-down of every single US Army tank in every single corner of the globe simply by typing orders into her USCF smartphone while sitting there getting yelled at, and wouldn’t power the tanks back up until she received a satisfactorily profuse apology.  I can neither confirm nor deny that I was involved in that friendly little US Army tail-pulling exercise.

Now back to the original subject.  I was summoned to the fancy oak-paneled conference room with huge computer screens that spring day in 2025, having no idea what was in store.  Here I was, an Indian-American, a fresh-faced Cyber Force geek recruit straight out of boot camp, 24 years old, 33 days on the job, attending my first 7th floor meeting.  These usually only include the honchos unless something major was going down.  Two seats away from me was a very pretty Indian girl, with long jet black hair tied into a tight ponytail, a form fitting gray suit, and that caramel tone I tend to like on my candy and on my women.  The seat between us was empty.   I stared at the ceiling, concentrated on keeping my heart rate down, and bravely pretended not to notice her as we all waited for the emergency meeting to start.

“Hi, I’m Manisha,” she said with a sultry Indian accent.  I looked over.  She was looking right at me with her hand extended in my direction.  Stay calm, dude.  Compute?

 “I’m Bart,” I replied, taking her hand.  Man, it was a strong grip. What was this pretty young foreign national thing doing so deep in the Septagon?

“You’re… Indian, no?” she asked after a pause, doing that Indian head shake thing where you can’t tell if it’s a yes or a no, approving or disapproving.  A no with Indians can be a yes, as in, she could be saying, “You’re Indian, right?”

“Right, I’m Indian-American.  Real name my parents gave me is Bharat,” I stammered, guessing that the name Bart threw her off.  Either that or she was wondering if I was named after Bay Area Rapid Transit.

“Nice to meet you.  I’m representing India on the new inter-agency task force.”  Wait, there’s a new task force?  And this Indian chick knows about it before I do?

The USCF General walked in the door, and everybody shut up and stood.  There were about 30 people in the room, including the General, two Lieutenant Generals, and the rest of the brass, along with a few drones like me.  General Patel began to speak.

“I’d like to welcome Manisha Gayatri from India here today,” she began.  “Manisha is on special assignment with us.  She was hired by the Indian Cyber Army after graduating first in her class from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and top scored her Indian Cyber Army training class as well.”  Whoa.  Pretty impressive resume to go with those looks.  IIT and the Indian ICA are both considered top-notch globally these days.  I was nowhere near the top of my own USCF class (insert sheepish face emoticon here) or my Georgetown class.  Too busy socializing with the other recruits, while playing and designing video games.  Perhaps shockingly to you, designing video games is a hobby of mine.

General Patel continued.  “As you know, the Russia-China alliance was able to successfully shut down an entire US Navy carrier group on patrol in the Indian Ocean last week, and the Indian Navy stepped in and helped us keep the carrier group secure during this episode while we got back up and running.”  There were some snickers in the room.  Ah, the Navy.  The seamen let a carrier group go dark over basic sixth-grade malicious code. Should have had a few of us USCF boys on board.  The U.S. government tried hard to keep the situation under wraps from the public, but some excitable Sri Lankan fishermen in the area started a ginormous global Twitter storm with photos of six powerful US warships and a nuclear submarine just drifting around in the water like sitting ducks without even their lights working.

“I just got off video conference with the President and the Defense Secretary.  As you know, President Gabbard considers this an act of cyberwar and wants us to retaliate, exceedingly quietly and with extreme prejudice.  There will be zero public mention of a retaliation, or even acknowledgement of the Navy incident.  The Indian government was pretty pissed that this happened in their own backyard as well, and so have offered their utmost assistance.  I am here to brief you on the mission, which will entail a secret joint US-India offensive operation to hack into and disrupt all Chinese military base activities on the islands in the South China Sea, over a long time horizon.”  The room seemed to let out a collective gasp.  I nearly choked on my latte and almost fell out of my seat.  But Manisha sat there, perfectly calm with a self-satisfied smile on her face.  She already knew.  Before most of us.  Including me. “Agent Manisha Gayatri will be leading the Indian side of the task force,” General Patel continued amongst the murmurs, “and Officer Bart Joshi will be running point for the US side.”  At that point, I did really choke on my latte.  And BJ never chokes.

Manisha slapped me on the back patronizingly while I coughed.  “Time to put your big-boy pyjamas on,” she said sweetly.  Leave it to the Indians to screw up how to say pajamas.  OH, and how in the world was I chosen to co-captain one of the most important military missions that the USCF had ever taken on in its brief yet important history? 

* * *

Talk about a tall order.  Or: how my life was practically guaranteed to be a failure from between the next few years to the rest of my life, assuming I even survived this perilous mission.  The artificial islands in the South China Sea had turned into a beastly network of real and virtual fortresses.  Close to 10,000 Chinese troops and an unknown quantity of cyborgs were stationed on them in a series of naval and air force bases.  These assets had been under construction basically since I was born in 2001 in order to deter China’s neighbors like Vietnam or the Philippines from making competing claims on the rich resources of the South China Sea.  Russia had a bunch of troops, cyborgs, ships, aircraft, tanks, and drones based there too, and the whole thing was wrapped in a tight cybersecurity net manned by several hundred bad hombres.   While neither China or Russia was officially an enemy state, their 2023 formal military alliance had been seen as an act of hostility by the United States, and set the stage for the US-India treaty alliance of 2024, the same year the USCF was formed.  And just like that, there was a new bipolar world between the two axes of power forged just before the US carrier group was hacked into and shut down- the first major “hot” incident of the new 21st century Cold War.  While the Indian Cyber Army (ICA) and USCF had an active personnel exchange program going, I hadn’t yet had a chance to work with one of my subcontinental cousins on anything.  Manisha was to be the first.  Fate and all of that.

It’s probably pretty obvious already, but I instantly developed a sort of thing for Manisha in that seventh floor conference room.  Right off the bat, I always loved the Indian accent.  It reminded me of Bollywood, my dear grandparents who immigrated to this country, and chicken biryani.  Or a good day, during which I watched Bollywood on TV with my grandparents while eating chicken biryani as a kid in Fresno.  Totally unfair to use that accent on me, right?

Of course, I had to play it cool.  I had to prove to her that Indian-Americans were cool.  Plus, national security and the new world order and stuff were at stake, so I couldn’t be focused on playing tongue hockey with my co-captain.  It would be too big a distraction.  We had an example to set for the interagency task force, which was to include over 300 full time cyber-warriors from both countries.

Apparently I had been chosen for this leadership role based on a sophisticated analysis of my keystrokes on the job.  A UCSF computer program called Keystroke Analysis & Integrated Fusion (KAIF) took every single thing I had ever done on any device at work, including the speed at which I wrote emails, wrote code, hacked through systems, scrolled through reading materials, called, video conferenced, messaged or emailed other people, and even the pauses between activities, to determine my aptitude to lead and to take on a cyber mission versus everyone else.  Creepy, right?  I’d be more comfortable knowing that I was just being chosen as a patsy for an impossible mission that needed a fall guy.  Which is what it still felt like this was, not KAIF.

We weren’t just all geeks all the time, though.  In USCF basic training we had to do the physical stuff too, like running, swimming, obstacle courses, wilderness survival, making beds, and firearms training just like the other branches of the military.  The difference being, we had by far the lowest physical requirements, and by far the most difficult IT skills testing.  We came to be known throughout the services as Geeks with Guns.

Manisha asked to join me for lunch that first day, a get to know you sort of thing, and I obliged.  The Septagon cafeteria wasn’t half bad, featuring a team of Indian chefs making authentic subcontinental chow in real tandoor ovens for the some 25% of the USCF headquarters staff of Indian origin, and whoever else.  These guys spent the days pounding Johnnie Walker Black Label in the kitchen and making killer food.  Don’t ask me how they get their security clearance, or avoid burning the naan.

“So you grew up in California?” she asked me as we munched on some bhel puri.

“Right.  Fresno.  Pretty standard upbringing. Gamer.  Hacker.  Tennis player. Went to Georgetown for college.   Enlisted in USCF pretty soon after.”

“Similar to me.  ICA recruited me out of IIT with a bunch of my classmates,” she said.  “I won’t tell you my age, but I’m a bit older than you are.”  Nice.  I liked older women.

“How’d they pick you for this mission?”

“They put a few of us on a plane to the United States with very little notice, and said we’d be briefed when we got there.  I spent some time at the Pentagon, Indian Embassy, doing a bunch of Washington meetings.  Some other members of my team stayed on in Washington to do some other things.”  Wait.  What was that?  Was she?  Yes, champ, that WAS her foot rubbing up on my leg.

“Co-captains…can’t focus tongue hockey…on 300 cyber warriors,” I stammered.

“Want to get a beer with me after work tonight?”

“Um…yes, sure.”

* * *

Mahanth Joishy is the founder and editor of usindiamonitor.com, a blog about US-India relations.  He lives in Brooklyn, and has worked with the City of New York, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Embassy of India to the United States, and the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness.  His work has been published in the Atlantic Online, India Currents, Foreign Policy Digest, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fashion Fights Poverty Lookbook, Pakistan Defense Forum, the Georgetown Voice, the Georgetown Hoya, and other publications.  Most importantly (to some), he voiced a character for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City.
Mahanth was born in Malaysia, and grew up in Indiana, Saudi Arabia, India, England, Missouri, and Ohio. He is a graduate of Georgetown University.

Katha Contest First Place: Alcatraz

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.

“…Oh, 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 TV, your TV 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 like they’ve been transplanted in their entirety from India, groceries, restaurants, movie theatres 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.

Not anymore.

This is the first time they are coming to the U.S., 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 met.

*****

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.