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.

Their Daughter

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Carlos Bobadilla

It had been ten years since Preeti encountered those black eyes twinkling back at her. While everyone in their family inherited brown irises, Nidhi alone had acquired black ones.

Preeti had known her sister was troubled, but she hadn’t expected her to run away. She’d noted Nidhi sobbing to her pet squirrel alone, begging to lie on Mother’s lap often and making sure she spent more time with Father after work. Nidhi had left a letter, her tear stains on the paper being the only part of her she left behind. They had searched the entire village, but couldn’t find her. 

Nidhi was missing and so was Devan; they must have eloped. But no one dared to say that aloud. Father had declared in front of the entire village that he’d kill her if she came back home and that he considered her dead. Devan’s parents simply said, our son’s happiness is ours and had continued on with their lives as though nothing had changed.

At their own house, everything had changed. Mother cried, her Sari cloth always covering her face as she hiccuped and sniffled in intervals. Father kept sharpening his aruval, the billhook, and gazing out the windows. All the photographs of Nidhi were thrown into a burning pile of her clothes and books. Preeti had hoped to hide the photograph they took last summer, an oddly timed photo with Nidhi pushing away her curly hair from her eyes and Preeti looking away from the camera. It had been the most recent photograph of her sister and she hadn’t wanted to lose it. But Father had noticed her trying to steal away the photo, and wrenched it from her, promptly thrashing it into the fire. He had been so desperate to remove every trace of Nidhi that he had even wanted to throw her squirrel into the fire. It slipped from his fingers and bolted into the forest never to appear again, maybe having found Nidhi by itself.

When Preeti had seen Devan’s parents at the Village Festival, they hadn’t looked like they had lost a son. His mother’s face wasn’t tear-stained—she had a broad smile plastered across her face. His father’s eyes weren’t searching the crowd, aruval hidden within his clothes, waiting for vengeance. When any prying neighbours mentioned their son’s elopement, they gave a kind smile and said our son’s happiness is ours and nothing more.

A few months later, Mother stopped crying, but Preeti decided she liked the crying Mother better; at least then she showed some sign of life. Father still sharpened his aruval every day. Preeti wed a man, Murali, whom she had chosen herself. Murali had the approval of everyone in the family since he wasn’t the son of the family they had feuded with for centuries. Father declared on her wedding day, with his head lifted high, that she was his sole daughter. She had yearned to be their only daughter—their favourite daughter—when younger. But hearing those words from Father after losing Nidhi stung like a slash onto a scar.

Over the years, Preeti caught glances of Devan’s parents every time they visited the temple in her street through the window. She wished to talk to them, ask them if they had encouraged the elopement and if they had heard anything about her sister. She wanted to meet them, see their gentle smiles up-close and take all the strength that she could from it. She had loved her sister; the only bitterness in their bond had been foolishly fighting over who got to eat more candies or whom Mother and Father loved more.

Now, by the door of her house stood Devan’s parents, a girl child hiding behind them. It had been ten years since Preeti had seen those black eyes looking at her. She pushed away her curly hair from her eyes to peek at Father, then Mother and then Preeti. Preeti waved and the little girl lowered her gaze to the floor with a smile. 

Preeti realised they had been standing with no one offering them chairs or water. She yearned to do so and walked towards the kitchen, but Father, who was the only one sitting, crossed his legs and gave her an intimidating look. Mother stood by the wall, determined to look anywhere but at the uninvited guests. Preeti didn’t dare move then and wished Murali wasn’t at work since he wouldn’t have been reluctant to be cordial towards them.

“Nidhi and Devan died,” said Devan’s mother after a moment. “This is their daughter. She had been asking to see her Amma’s parents. And so we’re here.”

The air in the room shifted. Father put his legs down and the intimidation on his face paled into the vulnerability she saw every time Nidhi’s favourite song played on the 9 AM Radio. Mother clutched the wall and her legs wobbled. Preeti couldn’t bring herself to glance at the little girl anymore. It had been obvious that she was Nidhi’s daughter upon first seeing her, but it suddenly hit her that this little girl was the only remaining proof of her sister’s existence. The bridge of her nose burned and the air in the room felt like it was closing in on her. 

No one inquired how. Devan’s parents said they’d come back later and walked out of the house after giving an encouraging smile. Father motioned for the little girl to come closer and she hopped a little and hugged him. Mother let out a strangled cry and rushed to where the girl stood. Preeti stumbled closer and they all took turns embracing her and searching her face and tiny hands for every sign of Nidhi they could. It was astonishing how similar they looked. Just like the day Nidhi was born, three brown irises filled with tears of joy met black orbs glistening in the daylight.

Mahogany Box

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Barbara Bumm

The mahogany box sat in the tree bark like a forcefully fitted puzzle piece. It reminded Adirai of a similar box lying in her mother’s dressing wardrobe. Mother had disagreed with Adirai’s pleas to open the box and that was all it took for her to make the new mahogany box hers.

There were intricate designs carved onto the lid of the box, flowers and leaves and stems, and a single ruby sat in the centre. A gentle clasp held the lid and the body together, which, when lifted off, revealed emptiness inside save for a crimson velvet sheath. 

After taking the box out from the tree bark, she took it home and placed it safely inside her wardrobe beneath her gowns and shawls. She left the door of the wardrobe open, walked a few steps back and scrutinised the place where she hid it. No one would realise. Satisfied with her results, she shut the door and hopped to the dining room. 

Over dinner, Mum and Dad spoke about stocks, shares, surges and other words she didn’t understand the meaning of but could recognise. She didn’t mind much because she got to eat her favourite chapatis and egg curry. Mum seemed to be in a great mood that day as she brought in some ice cream for dessert.

“—box,” she heard father say when she bit onto the cherry and froze.

Mother and father continued their conversation about whatever it was that elders speak about but father had mentioned a box. She dropped her ice cream onto the table, pushed her chair backwards, and stood.

“Finish your ice cream!” shouted Father.

“I’m not hungry,” she announced and sprinted to her room. 

She opened her wardrobe door and recoiled when the wood hit the cement walls, earning Father’s scream of apprehension from the dining room. After pushing away the gowns and shawls, she viewed the mahogany box. She let out a breath at its undisturbed presence and buried the box back into the wardrobe along with her worry

About an hour later, when she was done changing into her nightclothes and climbed onto bed, mother shrieked loudly. There was the constant thudding of feet and Mother’s constant complaints of my Uncle gifted that to me, he was so poor back then but he still gifted it to me, he struggled so hard to gift that to me, Oh my dear Uncle, and everything else along those lines. Adirai wasn’t bothered and fell asleep to those sounds as her lullaby.  Father barged open the door and demanded if she’d seen the necklace anywhere. Mother followed a while later and wanted to hear for herself that Adirai had not seen it. They both returned then, shoulders slumped and tucked themselves in the blanket of the night.

The next morning, Mother and Father kept getting irritated at even the smallest sounds, like her chair screeching, or the clanging of her spoons. They mirrored dark bags beneath their eyes and knit their brows.. She couldn’t think of anything that they would both be vexed over and, instead, busied herself by drawing leaves with the liquid on her plate.

After they both left for work, Adirai took this time to look at the mahogany box. She could contemplate what to put into it without having to fear anybody’s questions freely with Aunt Selvi, the caretaker, busy cleaning the house.

She threw aside the large gowns covering the mahogany box and picked it up. The metal of the clasp and the clicking-clacking sounds it made were her favourite part of ownership. She decided to open and close—and open and close—over and over again until a jingle and a shimmer inside caught her eye.

She unlocked the box again as though it would break if she was hasty. Inside, as she feared, was a necklace. White diamonds or platinum, she couldn’t care much about which one, glittered in the sunlight. She didn’t remember seeing any necklace inside the box yesterday.

Adirai felt her stomach plummet and it wholly came crashing down on her. The box wasn’t her own, to begin with. And currently had a necklace inside it. Maybe someone had placed the box with the expensive necklace inside the tree bark for safekeeping. And she had gone about and foolishly stolen it. 

Her heart hurt and so did her entire body, so she decided to drop the box back into the tree bark. After mumbling an excuse to Aunt Selvi, Adirai ran to the tree from where she had taken the box. The box hit her ribs hard at every step she took but she didn’t slacken her pace. Standing on her tiptoes, she settled the box back in the tree bark. Some serrated edges scratched the rear end of her palm and her ribs still hurt from where the box struck her, but she relaxed. She hadn’t stolen anything. And even if she had, she had returned it. It was no longer her fault.

That evening, when Adirai was painting the wheel of her wooden toy, Mother squealed.

“I’ve found it!” she shouted. “I’ve found the necklace. It’s over here in my mahogany box!”

The Ink Pen

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by David Pennington

The pen hadn’t been worth stealing.

The ink pen wrote well. Its body was the shade of dull green that reminded him of the olives he stole last week. Mani thought he’d weave a story, say the pen belonged to a political leader, or that the Constitution had been written with it, or that it was the first pen to have been made. He’d weave a story and some foolish person would believe him and buy it. He clutched the pen hard. He had never been more certain about selling away something before and the one time he was, he was deceived by his own mind.

Brown and sandal trains terminated at the Tambaram station, honked their departure and chugged away at intervals. Porters and almond milk vendors stood scattered across the platform, singing their chants. Mani stood at an ideal position, beside the State Map and in the eyesight of those who’d descend from the train. And yet, he hadn’t been able to sell the pen away.

The storytelling was his favourite part of the job. In all thirteen years of his experience, not once had his stories ever been questioned. He’d weave a story, whatever came to him upon looking at the artefact at hand, and he’d lose himself in it taking the listeners along with him. A guaranteed purchase. He prided himself over the fact that he hadn’t once been captured by the police either.

Other than that, he knew how to read and write having attended school for a few years and had profound respect among the other thieves. They stole jewellery and ornaments while he aimed for mundane objects that may sell as an antique with an eloquently told story. He wasn’t a thief; he was a mastermind. He’d steal things off the people who wore rich suits and sell them to anyone that bought his stories first.

A shrill whistle asked the train to leave and the train honked in approval. Upon seeing a man walking towards him, Mani straightened and was ready to begin when the man moved to observe the State Map behind. Mani didn’t bother trying since the man looked as though he’d buy the story but not the ink pen. A girl with two braids came next and the moment their eyes met, she looked at her shoes and scampered away. Another fail. He wiped his moist hands on his white shirt and decided it was time to get down to action.

“Hi, hello, and welcome!” he announced. “After B.R. Ambedkar wrote the constitution, he gave this pen to me.”

He grabbed their attention with that. Trying not to smirk at their immediate reaction, he continued.

“I worked for him when younger,” he said, bringing his hand to his heart. “I asked for a pen to write my school exam and forgot to return it.”

“Come here,” he called out when he saw a couple slip away from the group. “Come and have a look!”

Everyone huddled closer and some whispered to each other. The air wasn’t filled with the usual excitement his stories were met with. 

“I’m giving it away!” he announced as he broke through their conversation and a few people gasped. “I’m giving it away for only three thousand rupees.”

“Three thousand!” the crowd exclaimed before they all returned to wherever they were going before. 

“Of course, Sir and Madam. It belonged to the Great B.R. Ambedkar!”

“I was here just to have a look,” said one woman to the man next to her, who nodded. “I wouldn’t have bought it anyway.” 

“I’ve taken a picture,” said a man to no one in particular. “That’s sufficient for me.”

The remainder of the crowd dispersed and Mani called out a deduction in price too. He walked a few feet forward behind a man who looked rich enough to buy it but the man waved as though shooing a dog away. No one bothered about antiques in this place. He returned to his original spot by the State Map only to see an old man looking at him with his head tilted. 

“Sir!” said Mani with a wide smile, unable to contain his excitement. “Would you like to hold this ink pen in your own hands before you consider buying it?”

“I’ve seen you before,” the man said, stroking the white hairs of his beard. “You sold me a walking stick three years ago. Told me they belonged to Gandhi.”

“Oh, yes Sir,” Mani replied immediately. “I remember. I remember. How’ve you been sir?”

“Do you know how to write?” he asked instead of answering. 

“Ah yes,” Mani drew on, unsure of what to say. “Know the occasional few sentences, yes Sir. Like I mentioned, got this pen from the Great B.R. Ambedkar when I—”

“Good,” he said. He perked up and clapped. “I want you to find paper somewhere and write. Write about that day. Surely you didn’t just walk up to him and demand a pen, did you? Write it all and if I can believe that story, I’ll pay you then. Double the amount you’re asking for. Can you?”

“Uh,” he began, unsure of what to say. The man took a step back and turned. So, Mani said the only sensible word he could think of.


Six years later, Mani hadn’t changed significantly. He didn’t sport any grey hairs, still wore a white shirt, and he still did the same job. He still sold stories. He was still at Tambaram station with a crowd in front of him. Except, the ink pen was in his coat pocket and he wasn’t selling anything.

“Sir,” began a man, notepad in hand, breaking through the police line. “You prefer to take the train to your book launches. Why is that?”

“I’ll make sure to tell you,” said Mani as he walked through the crowd with the help of his assistants. “—in my next book.”

The Engraving on The Stone Wall

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Greg Willson

Indira had never heard of dead people being buried in walls before.

“You don’t have to believe me,” Meera said. “But it’s the truth.”

Every time someone mentioned that she didn’t have to believe them, Indira always found herself doing just that. 

The horrendous face of a man with a crooked smile and equally crooked teeth was carved on the stone wall of her school. Beside his sordid face was a heart with an arrow striking through it and the illegible names of two lovers. She remembers thinking the carving was the artwork of one of those children who decided to display their vast talents on walls and doors. She’d seen many such drawings on her school’s bathroom stalls, and it was no surprise that someone had drawn something so scandalous on the walls. Meera had a different theory about the origin of the drawing, however.

“They were lovers,” she said, her tone dropping an octave lower, picking up an uncomfortable flatness. “The school didn’t allow them to love, neither did their parents. They thought it would be better to die alongside each other than to live alone, and so they killed themselves.”

All the girls gasped. Indira did not want to believe what she was hearing, and looked away from the group. The Sun seemed to agree with Meera’s story and turned his head away from their classroom, allowing only an eerie amount of light to filter through the canopy of trees outside, through the window and onto the grey tiles of the classroom. The entire classroom seemed dull as though in commiseration of the lovers. 

“I don’t believe you,” Indira said defiantly. 

“You don’t have to believe me,” Meera said. “But it’s the truth.”

“Keep telling the story,” urged another girl. “Ignore her.”

Meera turned away from Indira with a huff and continued, picking up her eerie tone once more.

“They buried themselves between the walls of our school in revenge,” she said, and Indira forgot for a second that dead people couldn’t bury themselves. “The drawing that we can see—don’t go looking at it now, first listen to me.”

The girl that had left her seat to have a look at the drawing through the window silently sat back in her place.

“The drawing that we can see was formed on its own. No one knows when,” she said. “Be careful you all. Don’t even think about going near it or touching it. I heard, from my friend’s sister’s classmate’s friend’s elder brother’s friend who heard it from-”

Indira glared at her and Meera stopped promptly.

“Anway,” she continued, waving her hand. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that I heard that someone touched the drawing to see what it would do and he was found dead the same day. It happened three times.”

Indira couldn’t keep herself from flinching at that. 

“You can look at it, I think,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “But I’d be careful around it.”

That had been the last time the horrendous drawing was spoken about. It has been nine years since then and Indira has never even so much as glanced at that cursed stone wall. She doesn’t need to anyway, for the image of the man—his crooked teeth and the heart beside it—was forever etched in her mind. She didn’t want to admit it back then, but she’s a grown-up girl now, and it doesn’t hurt to be a little vulnerable now and then: she is afraid.

She is terrorized by the carving. She is scared of stone walls with engravings on it, she is scared of stones, she is scared of people in love and she is scared of her school’s throwball court. She can’t bring herself to draw hearts after hearing that story, can’t bring herself to play throwball, or even stay on the grounds for too long. She thinks of Meera, the girl behind this all, who left school a year ago. She wonders if she still remembers the story she told everyone that day, when they were only little children.

Indira has a sudden desire to fight her fears, to touch the drawing and see once and for all what happens. In the worst scenario, she may die. As a sixteen-year-old, she finds herself unafraid of this prospect. If it is her against death in order to fend off her fear, she’d face it.

Muttering a few excuses here and there to her classmates, Indira walks away from the group to the ground floor, towards the throwball court—a place she has avoided all these years. The stone wall slowly comes to view, the drawing exactly as she remembered it. She is about a furlong away from the wall when she can’t bring herself to move any further. The image seems to have become scarier, the face uglier and the names were more smudged than ever. 

Indira no longer wants to face her fears anymore. The eyes of the man seem to bore through her, and she feels a chill through her spine. Facing fears could happen some other day—for now she had to turn and leave. And so she does.On her way to the classroom, she continuously looks back, even though she doesn’t want to. Not at the wall, but just behind her in fear—now of something new, of someone walking behind her. Indira walks back to class, painfully aware of the sounds of crunching leaves following behind her.

The Other Side

Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Rowan Aldib

Ravi left. He left and never came back.

Shriya tried not to feel guilty; it wasn’t her fault. But she remembered the moments  before he left.

“Leave,” she had shouted. “Now!”

He threw a look of mock annoyance at the group and disappeared.To be precise, he jumped across the wall fence, and then he disappeared. The soft thud of his landing told her he’d reached the other side, and it was that sound, that muffled thud from across the cement wall, that continued to fill  up her ears and head and heart. Even now.

That was the last anyone’d heard of him.

She waited, cursing at him for taking so long as the rest of their friends grumbled about the interruption to their Sunday game of cricket. None of them had any kind words to say about Ravi.  Maybe he’d heard them all and decided it was better if he never came back. 

Rhea, his younger sister, wondered if he found another world on the other side, some Narnia or one of those fictional places from his video games. Maybe in search of the cricket ball, he ended up finding a world he decided he liked better than his current one. Maybe it was a land with neon-coloured street lights, and professional video-gamers, rich off of playing Poptropica. A land where parliament and office employees wore punk jackets to work. We found it funny.

The others, Shriya included, thought Ravi was less important in comparison to the touch-me-nots and spent time touching, watching the leaves droop, and doing the same all over again. Darkness enveloped the sky, turning it into a canvas of orange and pink, then blue followed by a slight purple hue. When sunset-gazing  became boring, they turned their attention to a little snail they found.

It was dark by the time Hari had come to a brazen conclusion. 

“I think he’s kidnapped,” Hari said, looking forlorn. 

The moment the words left his mouth, everyone stood transfixed. Shriya hadn’t realised the time that had passed, only noticing the universe spread its black blanket onto the earth slowly, invitingly. It seemed as though it was telling her that, with each spread of darkness,  Ravi too, was in the dark. 

They ran back to Shriya’s house, which was the closest from the play-area and Ravis’ disappearance. His parents were called, the situation explained. It was a pandemonium of words spoken, accusations directed and police officers notified. It became late, that Shriya knew, with many stars adorning the sky—blinking, trying to keep themselves awake to watch what would happen to Ravi.

People climbed over the cement wall in khaki uniforms, blinding white and yellow lights in their hands and around their heads. This time, when they crossed the wall, there were several loud thuds followed by the crunching of leaves and the sound of footsteps on mud. Shriya sat still in the grass with a sleeping Rhea on her lap, counting the footsteps.

After some time, the men had not returned and the five children were rounded up by Shriya’s grandparents, ready to take them back home. The grandparents were of the opinion that naughty Ravi, with his lopsided grin and silly pranks, was probably hiding in some bush. Hari exclaimed it was the best thing he had heard all day and called his mother’s phone to say just that. Grandmother cooked food for all of them, her usual chapatis and potato curry. Despite it being her favourite, Shriya couldn’t bring herself to eat much. It all tasted bitter like the tears she had accidentally swallowed the last time she cried. Rhea pointed out that Ravi never liked potatoes and maybe he’ll come a little late after they’re done eating. Shriya didn’t have the heart to think otherwise.

The five of them had fallen asleep somewhere in between scolding Ravi for his stupidity and whispering encouraging words to each other. Shriya woke up to the sounds of her parents talking in hushed voices and strained her ears to hear.

“Let the kids all sleep here today,” her father said. “It’s completely okay with us.”

“I hope it’s not trouble,” came the voice of Anu’s mother, one of the five who was now fast asleep. Or maybe she was listening while pretending to sleep too.

They obviously found Ravi and he was going to be sleeping at his place. She’d see him tomorrow and give him an earful doing whatever he did. Like her grandparents said, he probably was hiding in a bush. After a few more moments of hushed voices, she watched with eyes half-open, her parents walking into the house.She couldn’t hear anyone else and assumed the other parents had gone back home. She let out a content sigh, Ravi was safe. She said that to herself a few more times and thought her parents would be feeling the same sense of peace in them too. Except, she kept hearing their hushed conversations throughout the night. 

The next morning was a blur of men in khaki uniforms, phone calls and the distraught cries of Ravi’s mother. Little Rhea seemed to realise what the elders were too hesitant to say and sobbed quietly. Though little, she was clever enough to understand what the feral cries of her parents and silence in the others meant. Anu and Varun looked determinantly towards the window that overlooked the play area as though their sharp gaze would bring him back. They’d furrow their eyebrows together in concentration whilst their eyes and noses twitched, keeping intact the tears that threatened to fall.

Shriya saw the image of herself screaming at Ravi to go get the ball and her heart sank. It dropped and it plummeted, she couldn’t feel it anymore. And so she watched everyone else, memorising the dolour in each face and the lost look in each eye to tell Ravi when he came back. 

She couldn’t though, for as Ravi left. He left and never came back.