Necessary Shadows / Flowercrackers / Empty Stomach Full Belly
We swarmed Amma the instant she strode out of the house, one arm swinging while the other balanced a clay pot atop her head. She gave us a knowing look and smiled. Squatting on the ground, she tossed her scarf over her shoulder and placed the clay jar upside down against a stainless-steel plate. She looked at us as if to ask if we were sure we wanted to see what was inside.
“Amma, c’mon, c’mon,” we cried. We were bored out of our minds since we couldn’t leave the village.
I reached out to grab the plate, but my sister grabbed my wrist and pulled me back. “Only Amma gets to do that,” she said.
Amma made eye contact with each of us until we put our heads down. I dug my feet into the dusty ground while the sun hit the back of my neck with a loyal heat. My sister blew some hair out of her eye with a gruff breath and tucked it behind her ear. We looked at each other from the sides of our eyes.
Amma tipped the jar onto its side and lifted the metal plate away.
A small triangular shadow peeked out of the jar like a snake’s head might, one that had been painted with emptiness and dipped in liquid onyx. I felt my lips part and eyes go wide as it creeped out of the jar. The shadow slithered further out, its body fanning like a banana leaf in an undulating wind.
“Shadows can’t hurt you,” Amma said. “Unless you try to hurt them.”
More of the things slithered out until they formed a morass of crow-black wriggling forms shining black from the hot sun.
“Shadows make us whole,” Amma said. “You need them. Don’t be afraid.”
Amma whistled a quick melody that started low and finished high. The first shadow crept towards my sister, and she stood straight with closed eyes, her lips trembling. Another shadow ambled along the hot ground towards me, curling up into a little ball at my feet. For a moment, the world stopped. It was just me and the thing staring up at me, its triangular head cocked sideways. The only distance between us was silence. When it uncoiled and moved closer, an effervescent chill ran up my spine.
After all of us received our shadows, Amma told us we were whole. I remember my boredom dissipating, replaced by curiosity. Years later, my sister asked me if I remembered that day. “Do you remember how big they got before they wrapped themselves around us? Did you think that the first thing we wanted to do would be to leave the village? But remember how Amma never left? Do you think she ever had a shadow?”
Each Deepavali, we followed Thatha as he dragged a butterfly net full of firecrackers up the metal staircase that led to the flat roof. He would throw the bundle onto the ground, and all of us would pull down our green goggles over our eyes, waiting for the show sitting cross-legged. Sometimes rockets would fly into the evening sky and explode, causing us to cheer in unison. Other times, when a blazing fountain erupted from the ground, and there were too many of us, they would swap goggles and keep their eyes shut and only get a partial show, except me because I wouldn’t share my goggles, something that Amma called me very selfish for. Since Paati died, fireworks were the only thing that could get Thatha up and out of bed, and the goggles were the only thing that let Amma let us keep watching the shows. One time, a firecracker burst in Thatha’s hand, which ended the show early because a doctor had to come look at it.
Since Paati died, fireworks were the only thing that could get Thatha up and out of bed, and the goggles were the only thing that let Amma let us keep watching the shows.
A week later, he was doing something with the casing he claimed would make it safer for the next year. Deepavali was more important than our birthdays, and when my brother said he was sick of fireworks, and he’d rather have money like everyone else, I pushed him when he wasn’t looking, and he slipped and fell and hit his head on Amma’s Godrej.
I left home after University and didn’t come back except when tickets were cheapest, or when I almost married but didn’t—until I found myself flying for Thatha’s funeral. I almost didn’t go because I had used up all my vacation, and they said if I left, I might not be able to come back, but Amma said I had to come because he was getting worse every day. My brother and I hugged, and he said, “You haven’t visited us in a long time.” The wood was stacked almost as high as him, and when I saw Thatha’s form on that pyre, I looked on with a burning shame in the center of my gut. He was small and thin and quiet under a white shroud like he never existed and would never exist again. Amma said he died filling firecrackers and they had to pull off a casing from his thumb.
My brother opened up a bag and handed me a pair of goggles, and I looked at him and asked him, “What are these for?” And he said, “Just put them on.” The orange flames that wrapped Thatha became green as the wood crackled. The crackling wood gave way to a series of rapid bursts that sent our hands smacking our ears shut. My brother looked at me and smiled as those rapid bursts turned into whistles, booms, and upturned chandeliers. As my eyes stung, I saw rockets fly into the sky—three in quick succession—exploding with color like fiery beads against a backdrop of stars and a twinkling Saturn.
Empty Stomach, Full Belly
On the boardwalk in Juhu Beach, a little sex shop sits between an old temple and a looted jewelry store, except it’s not a real sex shop. It has a neon red sign that says, “You’re not welcome unless you got nothing.” So, I figured everyone’s allowed.
One time, after I scrounged for something to eat under the promenade, I found an oiled plastic bag full of dried mushrooms and a stale samosa. I was lonely and had nothing, so I knocked on the shop’s door, but no one answered, so I walked in anyways. I expected a bell or something to announce my entrance, but instead, I heard a frog croak followed by a slurping sound. A pink tongue shot out from a table into a mango-pickle jar full of dead flies.
“How can I help you?” A frog said, its two large, red eyes blinking. It twisted a cap onto the jar with saffron hands. My jaw dropped. “Sorry about that, sometimes I get hungry sitting here by myself. Hope that didn’t gross you out too much.”
“I guess I never saw something like that before,” I said before realizing it was rude to talk about someone to their face in the third person.
“A bottle of dead flies?”
I thought about it. “I hadn’t seen that before either,” I said, shaking my head. “No, I mean you. A talking frog.”
“Serves me right. That’s what everyone says.” The frog croaked again and put away the jar out of sight. “So, how can I help?”
I glanced around the room. The marble floor was fresh, smooth to the soles of my feet. The walls were bare except for a faded poster of Shah Rukh Khan holding a bottle of Thumbs Up. It looked like he was about to wink. “I don’t know why I’m here,” I said. My mouth felt dry, like when I don’t get to drink any water for a few days at a time.
“Everyone who comes through that door is hungry for something. Most know why.”
I guess that made sense, but I still wasn’t sure about me. I put my hands in my pockets and shrugged.
A bubble grew at the base of the frog’s neck before it deflated, and it croaked again. “That’s alright, why don’t you head downstairs.”
The staircase was hot. Its steps creaked like an untrained person playing the harmonium. It smelled like copper, and a faint taste of metal filled my mouth. On one side hung a watercolor of fishermen heaving out a net from a catamaran, and on the other, a scorpion, its tail up and ready to strike. When I got to the bottom, my legs felt rubbery and I needed to sit.
The room was dark. Flickering lights would crackle when flies smashed into them. A woman in pink salwar with a short-straw broom swept up the dead flies into a metal bin. She saw me and asked me something.
“Huh?” I asked.
She asked again and I shrugged. She let out an exasperated sigh and pointed with the broom to the far end of the room at rows of tables. I crawled over to the other side and climbed up onto one of the seats. Someone plopped a bowl in front of me full of a bubbly green liquid that smelled like microwaved mutter. One of the bubbles popped, and it reminded me of the frog I met upstairs. I made a croaking sound and then started laughing.
Someone shuffled over to me, so I turned my heavy neck to look at them, joy and glee still in my cheeks. I thought it was a bear, but it was just a man with a very hairy face and a large black nose, his hair bursting from his forehead like fine turf. He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke. “You take a moment with what you got, and you’ll always have it.”
I guess he was right because I downed that bowl right then and there.