Glasses Lost

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Tony Sebastian

Venkat thrashed against the waves, stretching his arms towards the distorted image of his glasses. When his fingers almost grasped the ends, he was yanked backwards. Air replaced water and he could see Aunt Arivai wrenching him away from the violent waves. She was dragging Alar, the neighbour girl, along too.

“Why would you both do something like that?” she demanded, voice louder than the waves.

“My glasses!” Venkat said, throwing his arms up in defence. He could taste salt around his lips as he spoke. “I was trying to wash them in the water and the waves just took them away.”

“So?” asked Mother, hitting him hard on the shoulders. Once, twice. And a third time.

“Ah,” said Aunt Arivai, separating Mother from him, her harsh grip loosening. “Don’t beat the child.”

“Still!” was Mother’s argument.

“See Venkat,” said Aunt Arivai, clasping his wrist. “What is more important—your glasses or you?”

“Me,” he muttered, tracing circles on the sand with his toe.

“In situations like this, you have to choose yourself, right?”

“Yes,” he mumbled, lifting his head so he no longer looked down at his temporary canvas. “That’s because I almost died. If I didn’t, it would’ve been the glasses being more important for Mum.”

“What?” screeched Mother, hints of embarrassment in her voice. “Say that again?”

“I just said that my glasses are important too because I can’t see without them.”

Mother arched an eyebrow. Venkat took a deep breath, bracing himself for her scolding. He was saved by his younger brother Varun tugging at Mother’s dress and pointing at a cotton candy vendor. She fixed Venkat with a stare before walking away. 

Aunt Arivai dropped his hand and began collecting their stranded beach toys.

“Why did you run?” she asked with a soft voice.

“My glasses—” he began once again only to be cut off by Alar.

“The waves took away my toy.”

Aunt sighed, pressing two fingers to her forehead. 

“What is more important—you or the toy?”

“Me,” she said, glancing at him before she turned to face Aunt again. 

“We can afford to lose the toy. We can’t lose you now, can we?”

Alar bobbed her head up and down. Aunt smiled and motioned for her to walk along. Alar picked her slippers instead of wearing them and it struck him then that she had run into the sea as well. She still held the toy she had run after. His glasses, however, weren’t with him.

The trio walked towards the footpath lining the beach. Venkat observed the people around, his eyes solely falling on those with a coloured frame around their eyes. He felt empty with the weight of his glasses missing atop his ears. Beside him, Alar stood on her toes, swivelling to look at the beach. She dropped to her heels, face scrunched in annoyance and advanced a few feet forward before she turned to look back again. She repeated this ceremoniously and Venkat had to force himself to not say something unkind. 

“What are you trying to do?” he asked unable to keep it any longer once Aunt Arivai had moved ahead of them. He tried not to sound too friendly since he didn’t want the little girl anywhere around him. His friends had mentioned how this neighbour of his was a complaint box, always telling the elders about their pranks, always trying to be Miss Goody Two Shoes. 

“I’m looking for your glasses,” she said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“My glasses?” he scoffed. “You honestly hope to see my glasses from all the way here? We’re not even standing on the beach anymore.”

“I know we’re on the footpath,” she said, pointing down. “But what if the waves decide they don’t like your glasses and drop them back on the sand? We could go pick them up.”

He was baffled by the childishness of her words. Another surge of annoyance flared in him. 

“How old are you?” he asked. 

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“No, really, how old are you?”

“Eleven,” she said, hopping and turning around to face the beach behind them. She went on her toes and scrutinised the beach before dropping back to her feet.

“And you think the waves will drop back my glasses onto the sand because they won’t like it?”

“Yes,” she said, starting a game of hopscotch on the footpath tiles. “They look hideous.”

“Looked,” he corrected before jogging to catch up with Aunt Arivai.

Mother and Aunt Arivai decided on an early dinner in the beachside restaurant. His head hurt from trying to read the minuscule letters on the menu, because of which he ordered the usual chapatis and paneer. Everything blurred into shapes and colours like Varun’s drawings—as though the colours were made to fit into the shapes by a little child.

Mother was probably guilty about her outburst in front of everybody else and tried to serve him but he made sure to snatch the flatware and do it himself. Alar spent the whole dinner playing Rock Paper Scissors with Varun, something Venkat found irritating. Both of them seemed to have bonded over dinner, this being the first time they all spent more than ten minutes with the girl next door all because her parents would be late from their office. 

After dinner Alar suggested, with Varun looking at Mother and Aunt Arivai with puppy eyes, that they stand at the beach for five minutes only before leaving for home. Mother thought it was a brilliant idea and Aunt Arivai was easy to persuade anyway.

Varun’s hazy form ran to meet the waves, yelping as the sea touched his toes. Mother and Aunt Arivai laughed, wide smiles plastered across their faces as they watched him. Alar crouched to the sand and Venkat couldn’t make out what she was doing. He yearned to run to the sea, wet his clothes all over again and play with Varun but heard Mother’s reprimands from earlier in the back of his head, and thought it better if he stood alone. He hoped she’d notice, call him, apologise for shouting at him and make him feel better about losing his glasses.

She didn’t.

With no watch in hand and nothing else to do, he began counting numbers. At 50, his feet lowered into the sand, at 67 Mother laughed looking at Varun, at 126 Alar squealed in excitement and at 127 she was bolting towards him. His head hurt from trying to focus his eyes but he could make out the blurry navy blue and white of her dress.

“Aunty! Varun!” she shouted as she made her way towards Venkat. “All of you come here!”

His insides squirmed in anticipation of what was coming. She was going to complain about him standing alone, or maybe something he did when playing cricket. His friends’ words rang in his head, a cacophony of voices with Alar’s excited squeals presiding over them. 

She stopped when she reached a few feet away from him and waited with her hands tied behind her until the others arrived. Every step Mother took towards them felt an eternity long. He remembered how he had knocked over Alar’s cycle with his football a few weeks back. That was the only bad he had done to her. He had been wearing the same green shirt then as well. Maybe that prompted her to remember and she was going to—

“Look at what I found!” she exclaimed, thrusting a blur of black and blue in front of his eyes. A familiar black and blue. 

His glasses. 

He snatched it away from her, wearing them in a flash. It was his glasses, no doubt. Brown spots and dried salt caked the lenses allowing him to view an ugly image of the beach and the people around him. It was the most beautiful sight he’d seen all evening.

“Thank you Alar,” said Mother. “Thank you so much, dear.”

“It’s nothing,” she replied, hopping and twirling on her heel. 

“Good girl. Now Venkat has his glasses again,” remarked Aunt Arivai patting him on the back. Venkat felt warm for the first time the entire evening. “Can we go home now children? We spent about five minutes already.”

Varun protested, leaning towards the sea and in a moment, trotted away from their group. Aunt Arivai was quick to catch him by the arm.

“We’ll come back next weekend?” she offered and Varun stared for a moment after which he wore his slippers without whining.

They strolled on the footpath once again, this time searching for a cab. Alar was playing her game of hopscotch on the tiles, trying to persuade Varun into joining her. The gratitude slipped out of his mouth effortlessly. 

“Thank you,” he announced.

“I told you the waves wouldn’t have liked your glasses,” she said nonchalantly, hopping from tile to tile. “They dropped it back.”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling at her for the first time. “Glad to know the waves think like you.”

The Orchid Woman

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Europeana

The Orchid Woman. That’s what they call her in the news one day. 

“Why orchids?” her twelve-year-old daughter asks, pointing at the words on the TV screen. “Don’t you get tired of making them again and again? They’re everywhere.”

“But everyone in the world loves them!” her ten-year-old son shouted excitedly. “You embroider them, you make 3D models out of paper, you paint them on canvases…”

“You embroider them, you make 3D models out of paper, you paint them on canvases,” counted her ten-year-old son on his chubby fingers. “And everyone in the world loves them!”

“Tell us Ma!” her daughter prods again. “Why orchids?”

Roja smiles.

The orchids were a gift from Aunt Mullai who had returned from the city for the holidays. Roja knew of jasmines, roses, hibiscuses–she thought she knew every wildflower. But she had never heard of an orchid before and decided anything with such a name would be beautiful. Vaani, her elder sister, disagreed.

“Is it an aar-kid?” she asked for the fifth time that day. “I think they’re dangerous for kids like us. It’s in the name!”

“Do you really think Aunt Mullai would gift us something dangerous?” Roja asked, gathering her skirt and walking faster over the muddy floors.

“She said it was for father,” Vaani Akka said with a sigh. “Not us.”

“Well,” said Roja, pretending to think. “Do you think Aunt Mullai would gift Father something dangerous?”

“No but-” 

“That’s it then. Let’s go see the flowers, Akka.”

“What if it’s dangerous and-”

“Ah my lovely little girls!” greeted Aunt Mullai, placing a kiss on both of their cheeks. Vaani Akka was forced to shut up and Roja was thankful. Aunt continued speaking, but Roja didn’t bother to hear a word because her eyes had landed on the flowers. 

The orchids had flat petals in a shape she didn’t know how to name. It was not a circle, it was not an oval. It was not a square or rectangle because grandfather mentioned that flowers don’t come in those shapes.

There were layers of petals just like the paintings of flowers on the temple walls. Three petals first, two on top and then three tiny ones in the centre. They had two colours in them–purple and white–as though a child had painted the insides and forgot to outline the edges. 

“Oh it’s so pretty!” exclaimed Vaani Akka, pushing past Aunt Mullai to take a closer look.

She crouched on the ground, careful not to let her skirt touch the dirty soil. Roja couldn’t care less and dropped on her knees in front of the orchids. She drifted her fingers across the petals and over the leaf where a sticky liquid met her skin. She moved closer and took a long sniff of the flower’s fragrance and—

“Achoo!” she sneezed. 

Aunt Mullai and Vaani Akka burst out laughing. Roja could only sneeze in annoyance and it amused them further.

“I hate this flower,” she said when the sneezing was slowly subsiding. She rubbed her nose with a large frown. “I don’t like it one bit.”

By the evening, her fingers had rashes where she had accidentally touched the sticky sap from the leaves. Grandfather applied turmeric paste over her skin to reduce the burning and itching. This ache was lesser than the heaviness she felt in her chest everytime she thought about how she was forbidden from nearing the flowers. 

Mother couldn’t understand how Roja was worried over something as silly as a flower. Father only patted her head before asking her to go study. Vaani Akka was too busy gushing about the orchids to everyone else like a parrot on loop to even listen to her fretting.

The next evening, Roja watched her friends and siblings play around the orchid patch. She knew they weren’t dancing around the flowers in circles just to trouble her. It didn’t stop her from wondering how nice it would’ve been if Vaani Akka was the one with the allergy. Initially, it was she who had hated the flowers, who thought they were dangerous. It would only make sense for the flower to be angry at such accusations and blight her skin. 

Trying to forget about the orchids, she sat on the floor amidst the wildflowers on the unpruned side of the garden waiting for her friends to return. She plucked blue flowers, then white and then yellow. She bunched them together in a thin bouquet and was tying them with a long piece of grass when she realised someone was near. 

She tore her eyes away from the bunch in her hand to see her grandfather walking closer, decked in his white shirt and veshti. He sat next to her, not caring about dirtying his clothes.

“This is our soil,” he had told her many years back. “It can never be dirty.”

“If you can’t have the orchids, make some on your own,” he said now, pulling out a long thread of grass. 

“You mean I should find other orchid flowers I’m not allergic to?” she asked, dropping the flowers to turn to him. Hope blossomed within her heart at the thought of being able to touch and play around those flowers. 

“No,” Grandfather said, looking afar at the children playing. “You’re allergic to all orchids.”

Roja felt her heart plummet to her stomach. Fresh tears prickled at the back of her eye and she tried pushing them away. Maybe if she could start looking at them as just flowers, she’d be able to dull the pain. Maybe she could find other flowers instead. But where would she find flowers with all these layers of petals, with colours as though they were painted by her own hands, with a—

“You could make your own orchids,” Grandfather said, and that was the beginning of it all.


Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Museums Victoria

Two pages into the exam and sleep begins to say hello to my eyelids like an old friend I haven’t met in a long time. I press my eyelids and think of the new film releasing next summer, the upbeat song on the radio—anything that’ll keep me awake. 

I look around at all the bent heads and hands furiously scribbling their answers. The students don’t copy and even if they do, it’s over code words and innocently shared erasers and water bottles. My eyes fall over a classmate whose name I do not know and face I cannot remember, hidden by her mask. She’s lying over the desk with her eyes closed.I am reassured, I am not alone. 

The wall next to her flaunts a forest green patch of algae. All drowsiness is evanescent as I shudder at the ugly bubbles and swirls of the algae. I pry my eyes away from it, looking back at the question paper at hand. Question 36 mentions Faraday and I’m trying to recall his laws when a shadow falls over my desk. It stays there for a while before dancing toward the desk beside me. The shadow, it belongs to the invigilator.

She wears glasses, the invigilator, round and large ones. They magnify her dry eyes as they loom over every inch of the exam hall. She looks at the students, observes the wall and checks her fingernails in a sequence of dance steps practiced several times before.

Just as sleep greeted me, boredom greets her. She pulls her mobile phone out of her sequined pink handbag, places it onto the table, and looks around the room to see if anyone catches her in the act. Her eyes lock with mine and I look away in haste, fixing my eyebrows in a frown at the paper in my hands. Moments later, I peek a glance at her stealthily.

She’s checking her phone, eyes crinkling, from a smile or anger—I don’t know. The cloth mask she wears slips down her nose in slow motion, but she doesn’t notice. Even if she did, I don’t reckon she’d bother. Her eyes don’t move from the phone she hides in vain beneath her table. The students take advantage of the situation and she doesn’t notice their mischief even after their whispers turn into loud voices. I turn my concentration to the doodles on my question paper. 

A few minutes later, or hours, I am not counting—I hear a loud voice and flip the pages in a reflex, plastering an innocent face. 

“What is happening in this class?” the voice thunders. It belongs to the invigilator from the next room.

She has her hair curled into a tight bun over the top of her head, sharp nails painted in neon colors with jewels studded in them and a single chain of cockleshells around her neck. She pauses by the door of our room and scans the room with her eyes like slits. I pull a pretence of blinking at her in confusion. I wonder if she’s bothered that the students were so freely copying, or if the invigilator herself was slipping away from her duties and swiping through her phone. 

At that thought, I peek at the invigilator who stands as straight as a soldier. Unlike a soldier who would strap her hands to the sides, my teacher has her hands behind her, hiding a bright Whatsapp screen. 

“Students sleeping during the exam!” the other teacher yells with even more anger at the lack of reaction from her previous statement. “Is this the place for this?”

The student in question, my friend who was asleep all this while, wakes up with a jerk. She stands up, knocking over the table in front of her but catching it in time. She drops her eyes to the floor, out of guilt or drowsiness, it’s hard to tell. 

“One last chance,” she says. “You do this once again, and we’ll have you barred from the examinations forever!”

I could swear that my friend perked up at the last sentence but she morphs her face into a sorry nod before I could be sure.

“And you!” the teacher roars, pointing a well-manicured and yet oddly colored finger at the invigilator. “Teach this student some manners. It’s like I’m the only invigilator in this entire school. Students eating during the exam, students sleeping during the exam, students—” 

With that she’s off, mumbling to herself about the plight of the school and its students. 

“See you shouldn’t do this,” begins the invigilator, her shoulders now relaxed from its previously stiff stance. She places the phone she tried to hide all this while over the table, her charade crumbling. “You shouldn’t sleep in an exam hall.”

“You shouldn’t look at your phone in an exam hall too!” screams a voice from behind, followed by raucous laughter that I lead in volume.

The First Live

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by John Schnobrich

I attended a Live Poetry Reading a few months back for what I thought would be both my first and last time. The poets participating seemed to know each other, and it made me feel as though I was interrupting a personal Skype call. They read their exquisite poems, and I offered a few compliments. They then proceeded to talk about gardening and  their families, and even complained about each others’ bosses. Something about that entire ordeal put me off and I stopped attending Lives. I hoped with all my heart that this Live wouldn’t be like that too.

I join the Live today in the golden moments between ‘you’re early’ and ‘we were going to start without you’. I tap on the heart button to register my attendance and drop an eager greeting in the chat. The little eye icon by the side declared a sweet 26 people watching. I could deal with that. 

The host wears a smile coated with a rare kind of confidence—the one that isn’t intimidating. She greets everyone that entered by name with a familiarity that doesn’t make me feel out of place. Instead, I feel as though I am being welcomed into a big house by lots of beaming faces. 

“Alright, let’s begin then,” she announces while her eyes skim a screen nearby.

I knew at that moment that it was possible to hear one’s own name and perceive it foreign.

“If the poet would like to join us, that would be great!” she says and begins reciting my poem. 

I wipe my sweaty palms on my skirt and take a deep breath to calm the loud thudding of my heart. I am terrible at speaking in front of a crowd. Even if said crowd is only, as the Instagram count indicated, only thirty-one people. The host finishes reading my poem and I am never more thankful that it wasn’t me who had to read it. I just had to hop in, talk a little about my poem, and then leave. What I would say, I didn’t know.

“That was a lovely poem,” she announces and goes on about the details that she found interesting and compliments my diction. I don’t, however, listen to her entirely because of the error message that pops up on the screen.

The message reads: There’s an error. 

I try to join the live again, once more and then another time. It displays the same message through it all like a stubborn child disobeying its parent. 

As though sensing my anxiety, my phone decides to stop punishing me and permits me into the Live. That is when I realise, I am still in my night dress. I quickly turn the camera to the rear-end and hide it. A black screen prevails and I apologise for the inconvenience. 

She asks me what inspired my poem and I begin describing the picture that I had seen on Tumblr when I notice a few familiar names popping in: classmates from 10th Grade, people I haven’t spoken to in a year, a dear friend. The thought of them all stopping by excites me. It does, however, prompt me into mixing up my words and having me lose my pronunciation altogether.

Nevertheless, the host listens with a calmness I can only envy. She nods her head in the right places and gives an encouraging smile every time I pause to stutter. I talk about my poem, and I suddenly realise that  I never had to prepare. I talk about waltzing with death, why an ancient Tamizh instrument plays in the background of the characters in my poem, and agree to a few observations the host makes. With that, I say goodbye and I leave.

I switch the phone off and turn it face-down on the table. My eyes close of their own accord and I take a deep breath—it feels like being born all over again. There is a lightness to my heart that I want to dissolve every cell of my body in. I flip my phone over, unlock the screen and type a quick thank-you note to the host for her kindness. I hope the thankfulness that brims in my heart is evident in my words. That is when I see, two of the friends that hopped in leave cheerful messages. The lightness in my heart is replaced with a happiness that knows no bounds. 

I decide then that I will do more of these Live Poetry Readings.

It’s Your Day, Live It Your Way

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Betto Galetto

It’s Your Day, Live It Your Way

The words were engraved atop the clay tablet hanging from the nail on the door. From the silence that screamed behind the door, there hadn’t been anyone to inhabit the house since I was two. The doorbell was unwelcoming, dangling loose from its place on the wall. Stray wires were peeking from the plastic, hoping for escape.

My friend, Ritika, pointed at the motivational decoration with an eyebrow raised. Seeing that I didn’t show any signs of acknowledgement, she pivoted the hanging around the nail for emphasis.

I had been wandering around the empty halls of the apartment, filling my ears with the sound of my lonely footsteps when Ritika found me. She rounded upon me in one corner and demanded the reason for my sadness with a stern look. A look that said, I’m not leaving without an answer.

I could think of a good twenty reasons for my numbness, but didn’t know which one to pick. I shook my head and told her it was nothing.

“I don’t understand you,” she had said, eyes dropping to the floor.

I don’t either, I wanted to say.

I gave her a wry smile instead.

It was then that she had decided to point at the decoration to make her point. There was no advice, just a command from her that I shouldn’t give up— and I didn’t. I didn’t then.

It’s been three years and today I stand in front of the same door studying the decoration. It’s just as it had been save for the bone grey strings and the chalky dust that blankets it: brown paint atop the words and sandal beneath, leaves and flowers painted atop the clay, and a single string around a nail. The doorbell hangs loose with wires that fall in grace.

Ritika isn’t standing next to me touching and prodding at the clay tablet, reminding me that it will be okay— I do it myself. She isn’t here to ask what happened and to care even when no answers are received. She isn’t standing next to me today, but it’s only her I see in the words I run my fingers atop.

It’s Your Day, Live It Your Way.

Man Behind The Camera

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Mohamed Nohassi

I catch a glimpse of the man that he once was, now buried in between torn envelopes and photo albums, on a Wednesday.

I have my mouth filled with water, forming two balloons on either side of my face, when he jogs toward me. He doesn’t look like the thirty-two or forty-two-year-old man that he is. With a childish smile that only a teenage boy at heart could wear, he gives me a one-armed hug before cupping his hands around my cheeks and squeezing. I spurt the water out and look at my father, a slight smile threatening to replace the daggers I was directing towards him. With that, he is off negotiating about P1s, Oracles and Codes. 

The dead man returns later that evening when he tackles my younger brother onto the floor. They’re both laughing and suddenly my father’s face looks seven again, sitting in between his parents with a mischievous smile on his face. His phone rings moments later. The skin of his face falls from the crinkles his smile was tethering and the boy is dead. His skin turns into a pale sheet enveloping his skull as he moves to pick the call.

“Yes, I’ll get it done. It’s no trouble at all,” he says, tone clipped and having no resemblance to the boisterous laughter mere seconds ago.

No trouble at all. His vapid tone implies otherwise.

I hold another black-and-white photograph in my hand. Its edges are worn and creases run along the vertical and horizontal centers of the thin sheet. The polaroid’s musty smell is accompanied by the salt of the sea thrashing behind the people in the photo. A matte pallor covers the sheet but does nothing to diminish the bright smile my father sports. In the photo, he has his arm lazily thrown around his sister, and there are two other people I don’t recognise who aren’t looking at the camera. I wonder who clicked the photograph. There aren’t many photographs my father is in today, as he is always the one to volunteer for the clicking. I wonder if he realizes. I wonder if he remembers that there was a time when he wasn’t the one always behind the camera. I never want him to be the person behind the camera anymore—face forgotten with only the physical photograph by itself a proof that someone existed.

At home today, he flips open his laptop after dinner, the carefree smile back in place as he watches a 90’s comedy show. The phone rings again. His smile droops and it’s like watching a flower in my garden dry up in the blazing sun, pink petals turning brown and wrinkled, until it peels itself away and falls onto the soil. 

He works until 3 AM after the call. 

It’s the mornings after these calls when it feels as though the man that he is now may die. He may die once again. The bags beneath his eyes are filled with charcoal, fog clouding his eyeballs. There is a dry lilt to his good morning. He fills his throat with hot tea, the number of cups an unhealthy amount, but at least it brings a slight flush back to his face. He lives on this—the tea, the murukku, the crime novels he reads, and the ghost films he watches. I wonder if he sees these stories, sees himself in the ghosts. I wonder if he sees the remnants of the man he killed and buried with my birth, my brother’s and the job he carries. 

Lunch is served and he slurps the sambhar, spills the rice as he fills his plate. Food covering his chin, and he reminds me of my younger brother learning to eat as a child. It’s in moments like these, that I see the man in those photographs come to life. 

The man that smiles at my mother in their wedding album, young and not yet torn apart by the world. The man that wrote those diary entries years ago, with spelling mistakes and clever jokes that erupt peals of laughters from within my heart. He’s the man that says very good honey! in a video eleven years before from when I sang an English song I didn’t understand. 

He’s the man behind the camera, the one that made everyone laugh at the lens, the one people will remember as the reason for their smiles. He’s the man behind the camera but not the one everyone forgets.

Appu Kutty

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar

Death will tell you if you were loved, if you were feared, if you were hated. Appu Kutty’s death took the form of a newborn baby’s strangled cry to tell us we were vile.

When Appu Kutty died, everyone in the town knew they were culpable. The security guard knew he should’ve rechecked the lock on the temple’s gates. Every employee of the electricity department took to blaming themselves for the unavailability of streetlights that night. The farmer accused himself of digging the well Appu Kutty drowned in. The mahout’s devastated face and trembling hands screamed it was my fault, it was my fault.

It was my fault too.

I watched the baby elephant trotting along the street that led to the farming lands. I should’ve thought about the deep well on the path, realized the danger it posed, and done something to save the calf. Instead I chose to continue watching the blurred cartoon, Dumbo, on the television. The screen kept glitching until it switched off with a dramatic snap. For all I know, maybe that was the moment Appu Kutty fell into the well. Maybe the glitching, the snapping, and the thunder that night was all a sign—the heavens above beseeching us to save him.

Elder Brother says it was his fault.

He had been playing cricket with his friends when they watched Appu walking down the path that led to the farming lands. He says he watched as the gloomy clouds consumed the sky and planned the fastest route back home to prevent getting drenched. His mind hadn’t flitted back to the elephant calf plodding along the soaked slushy roads. He had traversed the shortest route and reached home just moments before the downpour. Moments before Appu Kutty’s death.

Little Anjali, the youngest in our family, was not guilty at all.

Little Anjali did not know many things like the rest of us. She knew her alphabets till F but not what they meant, numbers till nine but not to count, and to cry but not the emotions she felt. She knew something else that night—Appu Kutty was in trouble. She had tugged at Mother’s clothes and babbled in the languages only she understood. I remember watching as Father tossed her into the air and caught her in his arms, a game they both loved. She didn’t laugh like she did on the other days. She kept craning her neck to the front door, walked over,and placed her chubby hands atop the jambs of the door. The golden glow transitioned into a dull black with a forest of stars splayed across. She proceeded to tap on her elephant toy repeatedly, striking it on the ground, and shoving it in front of our faces. When no resolution was made, she began to wail.

We put her to sleep and tossed the elephant into the toy box.

The next morning, we woke up to the agonizing lament of the mahout. Even with the well many meters away, his cries were louder than the customary crowing of the rooster. Elder Brother bolted out before anyone could ask him to stay at home. Father buttoned his shirt inside-out and rushed to the scene barefoot, the action of strapping his shoes deemed an unwanted delay. Mother followed, handing me a glass of milk, hoisting Anjali on my waist, and ordering me to stay home. I watched from the window as all the men and women of the village ran with their hair half-plaited, mismatched earrings, sometimes only one earring, and many still in their nightclothes.

A while later, Elder brother came running with a ragged shirt clutched in between his fingers, rotating it around and announcing ‘Appu Kutty is gone!’. He paused in front of our door, wiped his tears, and sniffled before setting his back straight and continuing his announcement. I felt myself drop to the ground, the heaviness in Elder brother’s voice making me sink to my feet. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t eat. I could only hear some wired noise in my ears all day.

In the evening, the entire village gathered for a funeral. Deceased animals received funerals but none like for Appu Kutty. The mahout conducted the ceremonies alongside a priest and they followed human customs rather than those designated for animals. Appu Kutty was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s brother. As he lay there lifeless, I could see Appu somewhere behind my irises with his flailing tail, enormous ears, and the slight smile on his mouth. I could see us both playing in the tiny pool of water in the summer, smiles and water splashing everywhere.

The priest draped the muslin cloth over his face and I heard his silhouette in my head trumpet, a muffled sound that filled my ears. Through blurred eyes, I could see heads hanging, empty eyes and collapsed knees.

Everyone knew—it was our fault.


Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Joshua Hoehne

“Solve these three questions,” the teacher’s voice boomed across the classroom. “You’re allowed to discuss. First to answer wins something.”

The teacher stepped down from the wooden pedestal in front of the blackboard and strode over to the first bench. He dropped the chalk piece on the table and chafed his hands, looking around at the class. Jerking my head back to my notebook, I began copying the questions. It’s the golden rule of Classroom Ethics; never make eye contact with the teacher.

I read the first question once. Then twice. I read the question many times until I’d lost count. 

“Did you get it?” I whispered to my best friend Betsy who sat to my left. 

“I don’t know which formula to use,” she whispered back. “Do you?”

I shook my head, twisting my lips into a frown. I read over the question again. The more I tried to decipher them, the more my brain seemed to shut off. I looked over at the grimy white wall to my right to prevent my mind from being tainted further with the numbers and symbols. Someone had written VANDALISM IS A CRIME in black ink and underlined it several times. Further below those words was an image of Iron-Man’s mask in black and blue ink. I brought my pencil closer to its face and–

“He’s looking at you,” hissed Betsy, kicking my leg.

I made a show of rubbing the wall and looking at the graffiti with disgust and shook my head, pretending to return to solving the sums.

Though I didn’t look around, I could make out the concentration with which everyone was solving those three sums. There were whispers from all around the classroom, but never too loud. No one wanted to risk being heard by their competitors. I pondered what the ultimate prize would be. I remembered overhearing one of the seniors mentioning that excellent students were given a position in a special batch with many holidays and lots of gifts.

Flipping open my textbook with resolution, I scanned for any similar sums. I slapped my forehead at how silly I had been, spotting a formula I could use. Analysing both the formula and the question, I deemed it the perfect fit. I nudged Betsy and thrust my notebook towards her. She perked her head up, looking as though she’d won the lottery.

I made the derivations and substituted the values as Betsy scribbled the numbers and signs onto her paper with her blue ballpen clutched loosely between her fingers. She did the complex multiplication and divisions. Once she finished, I compared the values and drew the graph. Betsy kept looking around the class, whispering encouraging words: no one else’s finished yet, someone got it wrong, we’re almost there

We finished.

In the seats a few rows and columns away from us sat a group of boys and I saw them all perk up with excitement. We both finished. It was now a matter of who announced the achievement first. Realising this, I thrust my hand in the air, trying to ignore the stinging pain that shot up my fingers as I slapped the edges of my table.

“Sir!” I shouted, the intention to draw attention to us but fueled by the pain.

As if on cue, the bell rang.

“Sir! We’re done!” shouted one of the boys from the other group.

“Alright!” announced the teacher, stepping onto the wooden pedestal. “Good to see you all solving. Some have solved. You can pack and leave.”

With that he stepped back down and gathered his notebooks and walked towards the door. Betsy and I stood still. So did the entire class. Our teacher forgot the prize he promised the winner.

“Sir,” called out Betsy as he just reached the jambs of the door ajar. “What about the prize for whoever solved it first?”

“Did I mention one?” the teacher asked, making a show of thinking about it. It was almost believable. “I don’t remember.”

The entire class jumped at the opportunity to remind him. I could identify him saying something but couldn’t hear among the cacophony he had prompted. Betsy and I looked at each other and back at the front of the class where a few students had cornered the teacher, their voices getting louder.

“Enough!” shouted the teacher. Silence ensued.

The students scampered into their seats while the boys who had solved the questions stood in front of him, withdrawing a few steps back to respect his outburst.

“Is this how you treat a teacher?” he thundered. “I never mentioned any prize. You people must’ve heard it. I’m going home and you better do that too!”

With that he stomped out of the classroom leaving the students bewildered. I wouldn’t have thought about solving a maths question, one tagged difficult by the teacher himself. But I tried that day and we both solved it. All in hopes of winning some silly gift that the teacher now pretended not to remember. Or maybe he hadn’t mentioned one as he claimed to. However, 30 students couldn’t have misheard the same detail. I looked over at Betsy who sighed with a pensive smile on her face.

“Let’s go have some momos,” she said.

The Little House

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Livia Radman

Opposite my house is a little house, an austere little house—and there are so many of them. They live with their little dog and little bicycle. They have a little grill gate about the size of the door opening my wardrobe. They also have a little fence and anyone who sees this little house would agree with me when I say the thorns of the bougainvillea bushes around their house do a better job of protection than said fence. The tallest person I’ve ever seen, a close relative of a classmate, would be able to touch their roof and maybe place his palms squarely on top of it. Their roof, along with protecting their heads also is where they hang big blankets out to dry.

Opposite my house is a little house with little kids, all of whom are, I’m proud to say, my little friends. My first friend from among them was Ammu, the youngest of them all. While her other sisters play with a kitchen set on the window sill of their little house, this little girl flips her shawl around her neck and saunters to where the little boys play with their tops and tyres. She never forgets calling out Akka!(a term of endearment for an elder sister)every time she’s going over to play with her brothers and makes sure to keep calling until I come and wave to her. I’ve never seen her walk, always hopping or skipping about.

I remember quite faintly the day we became friends. She had called me Aunty and spent at least five minutes trying to tell her that I was Akka. I assumed she knew Kannada but soon learnt they spoke not Kannada, but Urdu. I’m still unsure if she knows what it means or if she thinks it’s my name, but either way, I’m happy if she doesn’t go around calling me an aunty when I’m at least a good fourteen years away from being one. Ever since then, it has become a routine. Every time she walks by to go and scare her brothers with her boisterous words, she makes sure to give a call, Akka! and I have to arrive at my balcony and wave to her until she can’t see me anymore.

A relative died one Wednesday and that was the day her brothers became my friends. I wasn’t close to him but to hear he was no longer in this world, leaving behind his young daughter alone made me sick. Everyone at home sat around sharing stories and memories they had with him, an attempt at keeping him alive in words and stories. I decided to walk to the balcony to breathe for the first time all day. A few moments later, I heard a collective shout of Akka! and saw 4 little boys dressed in dirty clothes wearing wide grins and waving at me. Their leader was Ammu who stood with her hands atop her hip, a proud smile on her face. She turned around and said something, nodding her head and pointing towards me. A final wave later, the five of them went back to their little house.

One call became five and I began hearing their collective shouting every day. They don’t speak the language I do, and I don’t speak theirs. And yet, we find our ways to communicate, flinging our hands and shaking our heads. On some days, they show me the toys they build themselves with the leftover wood and cement their parents leave behind. They then explain with wide smiles and flailing hands how they created their cricket bats from wooden twigs and threads.

The last of them to become my friend was the eldest of them all and she took her time. One day when Ammu and her brothers tried persuading her to come to say hello, she scrunched her face and looked over at me as though she disapproved of my existence. She gave me one stern look and marched back into her little house. Ammu and her brothers dropped their shoulders but gave me a wide smile and followed their elder sister. I don’t know what had changed but a few weeks later, the little ones seemed to have convinced her to be my friend and when I was least expecting it, I saw her waving to me along with her siblings.

She stood behind the others, but it was easy to spot her since she was the tallest among them all. She hoisted Ammu upon her waist and waved to me with crinkled eyes. Today, she’s my best friend among them all. She carries mud pots, one on her waist and one atop her head and walks to the public water tank to fill water for her entire family. On her way, she makes sure to call for me. On days when my heart feels heavy from hearing about the death of all those people around, from listening to my teacher go on about grades, from even so much as breathing, their calls give me the strength to go on. I cling onto their voices, their grinning faces and their waving hands and steer my way through my days, my weeks and these months. Opposite my house is a little house with little kids, all of whom are, I’m proud to say, my little friends.

Finding Friendship

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Karl Magnuson

“You’re a sadist,” she told me.

“Excuse me?”

“You’re always sad. So, you’re a sadist.”

I laughed, relief replacing the dread I first felt when I heard those words. I explained her context was wrong. I would’ve never been able to comprehend the various things Anjani declared if not for the explanations she gave. Dhana, her best friend, laughed along and both of us prodded her over this slip-up for many days to come. 

The moment I entered the classroom that day, my stomach plummeted. In the dim-lit corner of the classroom sat the group of boys howling as always, their voices echoing in the silence of the 3rd floor. Most of my classmates mentioned they wouldn’t be coming to school since the exams were over, but I didn’t expect all of them to back out. I hurried out into another classroom, this time an empty one, and watched the nearby trees and train track from the window. 

I didn’t enjoy the loneliness the way so many other people claimed to. I hated it and hated not having a best friend I could always count on. I couldn’t think of one person I could turn to if I needed a shoulder to cry on. The echoes of the laughter of those boys filled my head, rendering me feeling unpleasant all over, as though it were music from a ukulele and I was deaf. It sounded of happiness and togetherness—a sound only they could hear.

My watch beeped when it struck 9 o’clock and the solitude transitioned into an apprehension penetrating me. I walked across the familiar corridors, staring at the grey tiles and memorizing the narrow cracks upon them. I placed my feet at the center of each tile, a shiver running through my nerves every time I slipped and touched the lines in between two tiles. I did everything I could to delay entering the classroom again.

I took a deep breath, stepped inside the classroom and lifted my eyes from the floor. This time my stomach didn’t plummet and, instead, I felt elated. I don’t think I was ever so delighted to see anyone in all my life. Anjani and Dhana sat in their seats, a few spaces away from mine looking over at me with generous smiles playing on their faces.

“You came to school!” shouted Dhana, standing and pushing away her chair. Although I had been friends with Dhana only a few years earlier, Anjani and I spoke less. “We thought we’d be all alone. Thank God we have company!”

The happiness and relief when I first realized I wasn’t the sole girl in class was soon replaced with trepidation. It grew with each passing second as they both spoke in their native languages, Bengali, a language I didn’t comprehend a word of. I felt out of place when they made references from American shows I’d heard of before but never watched. They both attempted to have me participate, asking me what shows I watched, what songs I listened to. I answered their questions, giving replies if prompted, my voice sounding increasingly tepid with each passing second. I wasn’t supposed to be there.

They both either discerned my discomfort or grew bored with the conversation they were engrossed in and switched into a game of Antakshari. They allowed me to begin with a song and Anjani followed with another, beginning with the sound I ended with. Dhana continued until it came back to me. For the first time, in a long time, I felt like I belonged. We played the game until lunch, during which we shared our food, jokes, and tittle-tattles alike.

That day, I became friends with them both but specifically Anjani. She dubbed me a sadist, inquired about what I did to keep my hair long, and asserted that I owned a cottage cheese factory for how often I bought it for lunch. In the beginning, I felt out of place but with the passing hours, I felt at home. I laughed and laughed for a long time. I laughed until I fell off the chair when she called me violent for a frivolous reason I don’t remember. I laughed until I couldn’t breathe when Dhana and Anjani fought over who would eat the last piece of my cottage cheese, spewing silly insults at each other throughout. All the loneliness I had been experiencing over the last few months and years turned into resilience after that day.

It was what one would call a miracle, to see either one of them without the other; such was their friendship. I’ve known them for the last fourteen years and can count on one hand the instances I’ve seen them apart. All those quotes with fancy fonts atop waterfalls about friendship remind me of them. I wonder sometimes, not to pry, merely wonder, at how two people remain friends for so long. Seeing them banter, recollect stories from Kindergarten and accept me as a part of their day changed me. That day showed me that I didn’t need a Dhana to my Anjani to be happy. That day taught me to appreciate laughter, even if I couldn’t reciprocate it. That day taught me to appreciate the fingers stringing the ukulele, even if I couldn’t hear it.