The Smoke Is Rising: An Excerpt by Mahesh Rao

The quarterly general meeting of the Mahalakshmi Gardens Betterment Association (MGBA) was scheduled for seven in the evening at the function hall of the Erskine Club. The MGBA had been set up nearly fifteen years ago as a reaction to the municipal authorities’ steady indifference to the provision of essential amenities in the area. The objects of the Association were ambitious: once the local community’s activist potential had been harnessed to resolve the neighbourhood’s problems, the same faculties would be directed towards uplifting more disadvantaged localities and creating a sense of unity in Mysore. Unfortunately the last decade and a half had seen the pioneers of local welfare becoming mired in a swamp of issues very close to home. As a result, the more philanthropic aspirations had been postponed indefinitely.


Sunaina Kamath had recently taken over as the chairperson of the MGBA’s Executive Committee, in what the previous incumbent, Mr Nandakishore, regarded as a savage coup. She had sent out a memo reminding members that under Article 54 of the articles of association no officer of the Executive Committee could stand for re-election for a third term, a rule that served to terminate Mr Nandakishore’s excellent stewardship. He had grudgingly stepped aside but was determined to ensure that the MGBA would not be deprived of his years of experience in matters of civic importance.


The general meeting had originally been due to take place a week earlier but a violent downpour had meant that many of the MGBA members had stayed at home. In spite of the sparse attendance, Sunaina had been minded to continue with proceedings. Mr Nandakishore, however, reached into the same constitutional arsenal that she had previously raided and introduced a point of order with regard to the conduct of general meetings. He was surprised to note that Mrs Kamath intended to proceed with the general meeting despite the inevitable violation of Article 14 of the MGBA’s articles of association. The provision required a quorum of thirty members for the transaction of any Association business. Mr Nandakishore’s careful calculation had arrived at a figure of only twenty-nine. After a hurried discussion with some of the Executive Committee members, Sunaina had adjourned the meeting in an asphyxiated voice. In the car park of the Erskine Club that evening, Mr Nandakishore strode through the stinging rain with his head held very erect.


The second attempt at the meeting was far more successful. It was a clear evening with a punchy freshness in the air and the car park at the Erskine Club was almost full. When Susheela arrived, most of the seats inside the Club’s function room were occupied, even though she was a good twenty minutes early. She walked to the front of the room, smiling warmly at fellow residents who were either currently in her circle or who had left it without causing offence. She sat down in the front row where a few seats remained and continued to look around the room, trying to make her scrutiny look as casual as possible. A tap on her shoulder made her turn expectantly in her seat.


It was Jaydev: ‘Hello again. It seems we only meet in situations of high drama.’


Susheela immediately looked embarrassed, not expecting to be reminded again, and certainly not at an MGBA meeting, of her strange vulnerability during their first encounter.


‘Hello, what a surprise to see you here. What brings you to our neck of the woods to witness our little dramas, as you say?’ asked Susheela.


‘Sunaina and Ramesh have promised to take me to a new Italian restaurant by Tejasandra Lake after the meeting. Being an old man with far too much time on my hands, I have followed them here to make sure that they don’t give me the slip.’


‘I certainly hope the food is worth it, if it means you have to sit through discussions about our garbage and traffic lights and so forth.’


‘Let me just move forward instead of leaning like this. Is that seat free?’


The seat next to Susheela was usually free these days.


At that point Vaidehi Ramachandra gently squeezed Susheela’s elbow on her other side.


‘How are you Susheela? I haven’t seen you for such a long time,’ said Vaidehi morosely.


‘That’s true, how busy we become without even knowing why,’ said Susheela, with as much regret as she could marshal.


‘I’m glad that I’ve seen you here,’ said Vaidehi, cheering up and rummaging in a Shanta Silk House plastic bag. ‘I have been meaning to give you this for a long time but kept missing you.’


Susheela watched the ominous movements being made by Vaidehi’s hands, all the time conscious of Jaydev looking on.


Vaidehi pulled out a pamphlet and presented it to Susheela with a flourish. Under an image of a coastal sunset, the front page read: ‘The Twilight Terrain, A Guide to the Final Paths to the Almighty by the Mokshvihar Spiritual Trust’. If the unequivocal wording were excised, on the face of it, the pamphlet could just as easily have been a guide to honeymooning in Goa.


Susheela scanned the inside pages, which offered vignettes of rudderless pensioners who had eventually discovered the Mokshvihar lecture programmes and trademarked MokshDhyana group meditation techniques. The rest of the pamphlet was devoted to an extensive biography of the Trust founder, a charismatic humanitarian who frequently toured the world with his message of sanctity and salvation.


Susheela glanced at Jaydev who appeared to be spellbound by some object in the vicinity of his knees. Around them, even more people had arrived and the pre-meeting chatter echoed loudly through the hall. To one side of the dais, two young men in waistcoats and bow ties were setting out more cups and saucers on a long table.


Susheela looked up at Vaidehi, whose face had settled into an expression of beatific encouragement.


‘Don’t say anything about it now. You need time to go home and reflect on what is said there. If you have any questions later, please come and ask me,’ said Vaidehi, turning to face the front again, satisfied but with an air of modesty. She was, after all, only the messenger.


Susheela thanked her and put the pamphlet into her handbag.


She had never really questioned the complexion of her spiritual fibre: she believed in God, knew she lived a principled life and performed the correct rituals on festival days with an undeniable precision. She would no more have considered becoming an atheist than she would the cultivation of marijuana on her front lawn. But the truth was that she found it difficult to entrust other beings, mortal or celestial, with the business of running an organised existence. Even when Sridhar had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, she had not sought relief in appeals to the divine. Her natural instinct had been to throw herself into finding the best oncologist, keeping an unfaltering watch on the hospital staff, ensuring the maximum possible comfort in his daily routine and communicating regularly with those who needed to be kept informed of his progress. When her sister-in-law had suggested a special pooja for Sridhar’s well-being, Susheela had quickly slotted it in on an auspicious day free of other commitments and made brisk enquiries on acceptable rates for caterers.


Vaidehi Ramachandra’s overtures did not offend her from the point of view of scripture or orthodoxy. What Susheela did not care for was the presumption that there was a space in her life that needed to be filled or that she was adrift in a sea of moral doubt. The fact that Vaidehi felt entitled to give Susheela advice on her spiritual nourishment was no less irritating: she was hardly a friend, habitually wore her sari two inches above her ankles and her husband had made his fortune selling steel utensils in an alley behind Shivrampet.


Jaydev leaned in towards Susheela and said under his breath: ‘So when are you off to the ashram?’


‘Please, not now. She might hear you.’


‘I don’t think so. She looks like she is in some sort of trance.’


‘Please Mr Jaydev, here is not the place.’


‘All I am asking is that you allow me to wish you all the best on your journey to salvation.’


Susheela could no longer stifle her smile, but persisted in looking straight ahead at the bowl of chrysanthemums on the Executive Committee’s table.


At that point Sunaina and her colleagues on the Committee took their seats on the dais, the Treasurer stamped on the floor a number of times and the assembly was called to order. There were weighty issues to be discussed.



Mahesh Rao was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. He studied politics and economics at the University of Bristol and law at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics. In the UK he has worked as a lawyer, academic researcher and bookseller. His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest; his work has appeared in a number of publications including The Baffler, Prairie Schooner and Elle. The Smoke Is Rising is his first novel. He lives in Mysore, India.