Bangalore in Flower by Neeraj Sebastian

Mahesh walks into the kitchen and Vasundara walks in behind him.


Shall we do this, he says and rubs his hands together.


He puts the frying pan on the stove and lights it. He watches the water which had remained in the pan boil and evaporate, leaving behind a whitish mark on the pan.


He pours oil in and turns to Vasundara and says, I was telling Asha earlier that I am afraid of uncertainty. I know that even if someone says I am certain, they cannot be hundred per cent certain because the world is built on probabilities. What I mean is I look at the future as a distribution of probabilities.


So what you’re saying, Vasundara says, is that the past is fixed and the future is uncertain?


Mahesh drops mustard seeds into the oil. They crackle and some fly up and out of the pan.


Yes, that sounds about right.


He opens the cabinet behind Vasundara and takes a steel container out. He opens the container and picks two pieces of cinnamon up and breaks them and drops them into the pan.


But you don’t think that in that uncertainty there is hope, Vasundara says.


Hope in uncertainty, he says.


He drops a few cloves and a few cardamom pods and two bay leaves into the pan. He closes the container and puts it back into the cabinet. He takes a packet of dried chillies out and puts it down beside the stove. He turns the dial to a lower setting. He takes two chillies out of the packet and snaps them in half and drops them into the pan.


If for example, Vasundara says, there was a traumatic event in your past and things were going well with you for a certain amount of time and then things aren’t going well again, you can look at the good period after the initial traumatic event and hope that your future can be good again.


Mahesh takes the cutting board to the stove and pushes the onion pieces into the pan with the knife.


But hope in its essence carries uncertainty with it, he says. You say I hope it works out because you don’t know whether it will work out or not. And people use the word hope when they are desperate.


Sure, Vasundara says. I can see the word hope used in desperation.


She takes a spatula from the dish rack and moves the contents of the pan around. Mahesh walks to the fridge and opens the door. He pulls the bottom compartment open and takes a plastic bag out. He takes two tomatoes and a twig of curry leaves from the bag. He takes the tomatoes to the sink and washes them. He dries them on his shirt and puts them on the cutting board.


Vasundara, he says, can you wash a few curry leaves?


Sure, she says.


Mahesh cuts the tomatoes. Vasundara turns the dial on the stove to its lowest setting. She picks up the twig of curry leaves and breaks a small section off. She takes the leaves to the sink and rinses them.


Do you want me to put them in now?


Yes. Thank you.


Vasundara drops the curry leaves into the pan. Mahesh takes the cutting board to the stove and pushes the tomato pieces into the pan with the knife.


Smells good, Vasundara says.


Let’s hope it tastes good, Mahesh says.


There’s the word, she says, laughing, and it’s not in a desperate scenario.


Ha, he says, smiling. I wasn’t even thinking. You’re right, there’s no desperate or ominous scenario here. A bad tasting fish curry is one outcome and a tasty one is the other. Well then, I say it again, I hope it tastes good. Hey listen, do you want a beer?




Okay. Just one second.


He takes the spatula and pushes the contents of the pan around. He walks to the fridge and takes two bottles of Kingfisher out. He puts them on the counter and looks around.


I have an opener, Vasundara says.


No, I got it, Mahesh says and takes the bottle opener from near the fruits.


He opens the bottles and hands one to her.


Did you want a glass?


No. The bottle is fine.


Vasundara takes a sip from her bottle. Mahesh drinks from his bottle and puts it down beside the stove.


But I understand what you mean when you say hope, Vasundara says. There was a time in my life when I was so depressed it was crippling. There was one day in particular when I was having dinner with my parents. My mother had made lemon chicken, which is my favourite dish of hers, and puliyogare, which I also like a lot.


Lemon chicken and puliyogare, Mahesh says, sounds like an interesting combination.


She smiles and shrugs.


Her reasoning was that I like lemon chicken and I like puliyogare, so she made both. Anyway, it was so nice and pleasant and my parents didn’t ask me how I was doing. I told my mother how nice the food was and she said thank you. My father talked about his childhood and how his mother would send him to the vegetable shop when he was in fourth standard. He told me about using a few paisa to buy snacks from the tuck shop and I told him I had no idea what a tuck shop was. He smiled and said that it’s incredible how things change and certain things simply cease to exist, like the fact that the word tuck doesn’t even exist in the local lingo.


Mahesh laughs and says, Did he actually use the phrase local lingo?


Vasundara smiles.


I think he did, she says.


So what happened then?


My mother spoke about the nature of memory. She told me about her grandfather and said that there are only two memories of him that she has. She said one memory of him is him sitting in front of their house in an easy chair, holding a newspaper in his hands, wearing a whitish shirt and a whitish dhoti, looking somewhat sad and tired. And the other is her parents going to Mangalore late one evening when he was dead. My mother said that it was strange that an entire human life, that of her own grandfather, was reduced to those two instances.


Mahesh drinks from his bottle and asks, What did your great-grandfather do?


I asked my mother that, Vasundara says. And I remember exactly what she said. She said that he was a writer at the police department in Mangalore.


What does a writer for the police department do?


He takes the spatula and pushes the contents of the pan around.


Vasundara laughs and says, I don’t know. I remember asking my mother that but I don’t remember what she said.


Okay, Mahesh says and drinks from his bottle.


Vasundara drinks from her bottle and puts it down.


She points to Mahesh’s front pocket and says, Actually, can I have a ciggie?




He puts the spatula down and takes his packet of cigarettes out.


He hands one to Vasundara and says, We’ll have to turn the exhaust on.


He reaches across the stove and presses the switch. He looks up at the exhaust fan. He looks at its blades as they spin and listens to the whirring sound they make. He looks at the grime above the stove and around the fan and smirks.


I think I’ll have one as well, he says and puts a cigarette to his lips. Here.


He passes Vasundara a steel tumbler. You can ash into this.


Do you have a light, she says.


Oh sorry.


He takes out his lighter and lights her cigarette and brings the flame to his.


Sorry, he says, I interrupted you.


She exhales and says, No, so it was a very nice dinner and I liked listening to my parents. And after dinner I went into my room and sat there and thought about what my parents had said and tried to think back on my own life and see whether there were events I could talk about in a happy and optimistic manner. I couldn’t think of anything. I know it sounds stupid when I say it now but that really is what was in my head back then.


Mahesh looks at the pan. He takes a steel plate from the dish rack and covers the pan with it.


And I went into the bathroom, Vasundara says, and took my razor. I used my father’s Swiss army knife, which was one of those big ones with the clamp things, to pull the blade from my razor. It came out and the plastic broke. I looked at the broken razor in my hand and the blade on the floor. I remember that it had fallen in my shadow. You haven’t seen my bathroom but it’s full of white tiles and the walls are white. And the old bulb had blown out sometime earlier and the only bulb at home was a hundred watt bulb and so the bathroom was really bright. And I cut myself with that blade and looked at the blood come to the surface and watched as it flowed out of the wound and drop by drop fall into the sink. I remember the little drops around the bigger drops like satellites. I can’t believe I did what I did and I don’t think it’s something I can ever do again. But every day I have to live with the past. Every single day. It’s right here.


She extends her arm and as she does, drops ash onto the floor. Mahesh looks at the floor and taps his ash into the tumbler.


It’s right here, she says. This is your concrete past. But there was a glimmer of hope and that kept me going.


Mahesh looks at the scar on Vasundara’s arm.


I’m sorry to hear that, he says. I didn’t know how bad it was. Does it ever come back?


Sometimes, she says and puts her arm down. I could be having the nicest day and something small triggers it. There was one day when my friend was leaving town in a few days and said she wanted to see me and I decided to wait for the bus and the bus didn’t come for a very long time. When it finally came, it took a long time, and my friend called and said, how can you be this late? And I remember feeling so worthless that I hadn’t taken an auto and I couldn’t understand why I had waited for the bus. And that small thing triggered something in me and I felt really miserable for a long time after.


Isn’t it funny how much the magnitude of our feelings can be out of sync with the events that brought them forward?


Funny isn’t the word I would use, Vasundara says and takes a drag from the cigarette.


I’m sorry, he says, I didn’t mean to.


He turns the dial to a higher setting and says, I’m going to put the fish in.


Asha walks into the kitchen and asks, Is there more Appy?


Sorry, Mahesh says and taps his ash into the tumbler. I only bought one.


That’s okay, she says and points to the stove. That smells good, even through the cigarette smoke.


Sorry. Let’s hope it tastes good.


Vasundara smirks and extinguishes her cigarette in the tumbler.


I’m sure it will, Asha says. Do you want me to make rice?


Sure, Mahesh says.


He extinguishes his cigarette in the tumbler and walks to the fridge. He takes the bowl with the fish out and puts it on the counter. He picks up the spatula and moves the contents of the pan to its edges. He pours in some oil. He drinks from his bottle and puts it down on the counter. He washes his hands and dries them on his shirt. He takes the pieces of fish from the bowl and puts them into the pan. He covers the pan with the steel plate.


Asha opens the cabinet door and takes a packet of rice out and puts it on the counter. She opens the neighbouring cabinet and takes a cup and a bowl out. She pours rice grains from the packet into the cup and pours the grains from the cup into the bowl. She takes the bowl to the sink and turns the tap on and lets water flow onto the grains. She runs her fingers through the grains and moves her hand away. She looks at the grains on her fingers and on her palm.


She watches Vasundara as she drinks from her bottle and turns to Mahesh and says, I think I’ll have some beer as well.


I’ll get it for you, he says.


Mahesh looks at Asha’s back as she washes the rice.


One second, he says, let me wash my hands.


Asha moves the bowl of rice away and he puts his hands under the water. Asha kisses him on his neck and he looks at her and smiles. He moves his hands out of the stream and flicks water onto her.


Hey, she says.


He walks to the fridge and takes a bottle of beer out. He opens it and puts it on the counter.


Your beer is here, he says.


Thanks, she says and brings the bowl to the counter.


She dries her hands on the back of Mahesh’s shirt.


There was this movie I saw, Vasundara says, I think it was French. It was called Jeanne Dielman, and in it, there’s this housewife who is also a prostitute. In the movie, there are these extended scenes of her cooking. We watch her as she scrapes the potatoes and boils them and serves the food to her son and she cleans the house and it goes on and on. It’s repeated three times and the movie is over three hours long.


What’s the point of that, Asha says.


Mahesh puts the mitten on and raises the plate from the pan. He turns the pieces of fish over with the spatula.


Well, Vasundara says, I think the point of it is to show the banality of bourgeois existence.


Asha laughs.


I don’t think that that would work in India, she says. I can imagine middle class people sitting in the living room and watching cricket while some poor woman does the cooking and the cleaning. I can’t imagine anyone middle class here who would need to be a prostitute.


But there was this rhythmic quality to the movie, Vasundara says, and once the tone is set you just go with it and your mind fills up the spaces and the silences in the movie.


Mahesh walks to the dining table and picks the Swiss army knife up and brings it to the kitchen. He looks at Asha’s back as she scrubs the pressure cooker.


Oh I’m sorry about that, Mahesh says. I used that for the fish.


That’s okay, Asha says and puts the scrubber beside the sink.


Mahesh walks to the stove and turns the dial to its lowest setting. He uses the Swiss army knife to open the can of coconut milk and as he does, spills some onto the counter. Mahesh walks to the sink and washes the Swiss army knife and washes his hands.


Asha puts the pressure cooker on the stove and lights it.


So what happens in the end?


Well, Vasundara says, on the third day, things are different and she looks more frazzled and her hair is messed up and when she cooks, she fucks up the potatoes. Her client gives her an orgasm and she stabs him to death with a pair of scissors.


Mahesh laughs and says, So there’s where you get all your stabbing ideas from.


Oh, Vasundara says and smiles, I didn’t actually consciously think of that movie when I wrote those poems. Perhaps it was burned onto my subconscious mind.


Mahesh pours the coconut milk into the pan and watches as the yellow of the turmeric bleeds into the white. He stirs the contents of the pan and covers it with the steel plate. Asha watches the water which had remained in the pressure cooker boil and evaporate, leaving behind a whitish mark on the base of the pressure cooker. She pours in oil.


Unfortunately, Vasundara says, the movie didn’t show the brutal nature of being stabbed to death with a pair of scissors. I mean, with a blunt and short blade you would have to be really strong or rupture an artery but whichever way you cut it, it would be a bloody and protracted process. Instead it was an extremely theatrical and bloodless act, chest-clutching and dying in a dramatic manner.


Did you look at it as metaphorical, Asha says and picks up the bowl.


The death? Yes, I suppose. The whole movie is very artificial and staged, so I suppose it was to be expected, but it did take me out of the movie, so to speak.


Asha takes a handful of rice grains and drops them into the pressure cooker. The rice crackles and some oil flies up and out of the pan. Asha moves a few steps back. She runs her hand along the inside of the bowl and gathers the grains. She shakes her hand over the pressure cooker. Some grains fall into the pressure cooker and some fall on the stove and some fall on the floor. She puts the bowl down and stirs the rice with a ladle.


Mahesh takes the steel plate off the pan and puts it beside the stove. He puts his head above the pan and inhales deeply.


Hm, he says and closes his eyes and smiles.


He cuts a piece of fish with the spatula and looks at it.


The fish is done, he says and switches the flame off.


Great, Vasundara says.


Asha picks up a wine bottle with water and pours the water into a cup. She pours the water from the cup onto her hand and the grains of rice wash off her hand into the bowl. She pours another cup of water into the bowl. She pours the water and the remaining rice grains from the bowl into the pressure cooker and closes its lid.


She turns to Vasundara and says, So wait, you said she stabs the client to death because he gave her an orgasm?


Well, Vasundara says, he gives her an orgasm and then she stabs him.


Do you ever feel like stabbing someone after an orgasm?


No. Do you?


No. I don’t think so, though that would be interesting.


What do you mean that would be interesting, Mahesh says.


I mean that it would be interesting to imagine a person who wants to stab someone after she comes, Asha says.


Okay, it would be interesting indeed. I’m going to go to the bathroom.


Mahesh walks out of the kitchen. Asha drinks from her bottle and puts it down.

Vasundara puts the mitten on and raises the plate from the pan.


She inhales and says, Call me Shakuntala.


Why Vasundara, Asha says and looks at the beads of sweat on Vasundara’s nose.


I like the image of a sunburned, lithe man looking into the eye of a fish as it dies. He sticks his knife into it and slices it open and extracts its viscera and amongst the viscera and blood finds a glimmering ring. He says, this is the ring of the king and our king is our god and I live to serve the gods, I live to serve, full stop, and he takes the ring to him. And lives are changed. I’m writing a Shakuntala poem.


Asha reaches across the stove and presses the switch. She looks up at the exhaust fan. She looks at its blades as they slow and come to a stop. She looks at the grime above the stove and around the fan and smiles. The pressure cooker hisses.


How many times are you going to let it go, Vasundara says.


Once more, Asha says. I’m going to set the table.


Let me help.


There’s not much to do. It’s just the plates.


Asha picks up three plates from the dish rack and walks to the dining table. She puts the plates on the dining table and runs her fingers across the surface. She picks up a notebook and a pen and newspaper and a plastic bag. She puts the notebook and newspaper and pen on the sofa. She takes the plastic bag to the kitchen and puts it beside the gas cylinder.


Vasundara picks up the pan and says to Asha, Should I just take this to the table?


Yes, Asha says. Thanks.


Vasundara walks to the dining table and puts the pan down on the trivet.


Mahesh walks into the room and looks at Vasundara’s back as she drags a chair towards the table. The pressure cooker hisses and Asha turns the flame off.


Mahesh looks at the plastic bag beside the sofa. He picks it up and finds half a head of cabbage inside.


What about your cabbage, he says to Vasundara.


Oh fuck, she says and laughs. I forgot about that.


I forgot as well, he says and laughs.


Well it’s too late to start that now and I don’t want to take it back. I suppose I’ll have to give it to a cow on the way. That’s the whole reason I came.


Oh so you didn’t want to meet us?


Vasundara smiles and says, No Mahesh, I did not want to meet you and Asha. Why on earth would I want to do that?


Asha puts the pressure cooker on the counter and walks into the living room.


Mahesh looks at her and says, We forgot the cabbage.


Oh no, Asha says.


And Vasundara says she wants to feed it to a cow on the way back.


Did you think we were cows, Vasundara, Asha says, smiling.


Yes, Vasundara says. Anyhow, the fish smells good and I’m looking forward to eating it.


Asha walks into the kitchen and brings two bottles of beer.


She hands one to Vasundara and says, This is yours.


And she drinks from the bottle in her hand.


Mahesh walks into the kitchen and picks up a serving spoon from the dish rack and puts it beside the pan. He puts coasters beside the plates. He walks to the kitchen and picks up his bottle of beer. He drinks from it and puts it on the coaster.


Ah, he says, the fish smells nice. I like fish but Sufiyan doesn’t, so I didn’t make it much when we lived together.


Well, Asha says, that’s his loss.


What are you doing after lunch, Vasundara says to Asha.


I have to meet Shanti, Asha says. You?


I don’t know yet, Vasundara says and turns to Mahesh. What about you?


I am going to meet Nithin in Koshy’s, he says.


Okay. I guess I’ll walk with you when you leave.




Asha walks into the kitchen and takes the lid of the pressure cooker off. She uses the ladle to scoop the rice from the pressure cooker into a bowl. She brings the bowl to the table and sets it down beside the pan.


Mahesh walks to the kitchen sink and washes his hands and dries them on his shirt. Vasundara sits down at the table and puts her bottle down on the coaster. Asha and Mahesh sit down.


Mahesh gestures upwards with his hands and says, Attack.


And he picks a piece of fish up from the pan with his fingers. He opens his mouth to eat.



Neeraj Sebastian was born in 1989 in Puttur, Karnataka. He divides his time between Bangalore and Philadelphia.