Book Review: ‘The Middle Finger’ by Saikat Majumdar

by Areeb Ahmad

The Middle Finger by Saikat Majumdar (S&S India, 2022)

Saikat Majumdar’s fourth novel, The Middle Finger, seeks to explore the ethical boundaries of friendship and familiarity between a teacher and their student. It follows academic and poet, Megha Mansukhani who might have been teaching at Rutgers at the start of the book but she was writing her dissertation in Princeton, comes from a moneyed family, and moves in social circles filled with fellow Ivy League grads. Her stalled PhD degree hampers her prospects in the States, but her contacts land her a job in India. It might seem ludicrous but it simply demonstrates the nepotistic close-knit upper-class upper-caste circles. Harappa University is a fictionalized Ashoka University where Majumdar heads the Creative Writing Department. Both these names reference a distant, presumably glorious pre-modern ur-India not tainted by Muslim presence.

While it provides Megha a break from the corporatized neoliberal universities in the US, Harappa also highlights the growing inaccessibility of education in India where “quality” institutions become playgrounds of the elite. We are supposed to be shocked at the display of wealth and entitlement alongside Megha whose blinkered vision has apparently hidden the fact of her own privilege from her. She exists in a bubble isolated from the harsher realities of life that mark the trio—Mr. Ajmal, the driver; Reynold, the procurer, and Poonam, a young woman who looks up to her—who help her acclimatize in India. Megha is the determining subject not only because she is the main protagonist and the story is focalized through her, but also because of her specific socio-cultural position which keeps in check any personal reflection or self-examination.

Hence, a distorted worldview surfaces in her indecisive but vaguely dismissive interaction with people. Her poems showcase exoticized and problematic caricatures of the “other.” Race relations turn into bestial clashes with racialized lizards and geckos: “Horns and tails and scales, the forked tongue.” In another chapter, Megha is at the New Brunswick train station and her observations of her fellow passengers develop into questionable verse that ultimately make it into her final book: “There were poems about body odours on the subway. Odours of different races and how they felt in the noses of differently coloured flesh.” Unsurprisingly, her similarly privileged audience, both in India and abroad, laps it up ecstatically without any qualms. After all, this rendering of painful events and systemic problems into blithe metaphor is not new to them.

A little ahead in this section, Megha goes on to describe these clashing ‘odours’: “Black flesh felt like sugar and cinnamon on brown nostrils. Spanish skin smelt like sour cream on yellow nostrils. Brown flesh was hot and sweaty, like moist chilli peppers, on black nostrils. Yellow skin smelt fibrous, sharp, and vinegary on Chicano noses.” Are we to suppose, then, that “Indian flesh” will smell like spicy curry?  So she evinces a certain kind of gaze: sweeping, patronising, diminishing. Kaitlin Ruiz talks about “the kind of writer, nurtured by good schooling and upper-middle-class sensibility, who truly believes they are giving utterance to those without speech—and expects the objects of their curiosity to be grateful for this ventriloquism.” Megha definitely fits the bill. If the novel intends to expose her as such it succeeds and with enough dramatic irony.

Poonam is her protégé but only in the sense you could call Ekalavya a student of Drona. Megha refuses to take on Poonam despite her repeated insistence firmly stating many times that she needs to focus on her students at Harappa so she borrows books from her library and teaches herself without her help. Megha is overwhelmed by her proficiency but neither does she take undue credit for it nor does she ask for any “tuition.” When her students ask her, disillusioned after listening to Poonam’s sermon, whether something like that can be taught, she replies: “No, you can’t. It’s not for people like us. It’s power you can’t create.” While this is written as a profound moment, there are clear undertones of the noble savage trope, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

The Arjuna figure in the novel, appropriately named Jishnu, is a teenage fan of Megha and her poetry. He comes from money and political power, the son of mutual friends. Instead of going abroad, he decides to join Harappa to be taught by Megha who runs Writing to Think, “an intimate seminar where people could be bruised naked.” A whole lot of obscenely self-absorbed hot air so completely characteristic of Megha, the university, and her students. He is perhaps the most visibly impressed student after the previously mentioned sermon. Jishnu thinks of Poonam as a rival but soon realizes he will never match up: “It’s pointless no matter how I try.” Moreover, there are signs that he feels betrayed by what he feels is Megha’s greater allegiance to Poonam. Thankfully, Majumdar does not recreate the Drona-Ekalavya dynamic from the Mahabharat.

Later, it is Poonam who points out the dehumanizing nature of Megha’s poetry: “… [T]hen the scales and the horns and the tails of the lizards and the geckos started to come alive because this is how you think of us, don’t you, people from the forests and mountains, people with horns and scales and tails on their skin?” As expected, Megha’s immediate reaction is denial. She claims that she has been misrepresented, that this is not how she thinks of her. The argument flares out as quickly as it had begun, leading to an unearned tender moment. This is their last meeting and at the end of the book Megha finds Poonam in Calcutta, setting up a domestic space with her. It is a watershed where differences are washed away and a new-found shared intimacy is established.

Unfortunately, it weakens the moment of truth and dulls Megha’s encounter with her privilege and figurative blindness. Poonam’s “rebellion” is subsumed within the larger narrative, a lovers’ spat in retrospect, glossed over and quickly resolved rather than a reckoning with class disparities. Megha comes off on the other side no better or worse for it and Poonam returns to being submissive. So it is regrettable that the novel’s central premise, the trap of intimacy within pedagogy, is also its least intriguing aspect. It crops up late in the narrative, remains underdeveloped and opaque, and is ultimately given a shaky resolution. It does not help that Megha and Poonam never share a proper teacher-student relationship, even informally. Majumdar also says that #metoo was a concern but it does not cast a shadow over the text, considering how it ends.

 Poonam is limited by Megha’s gaze. Always inscrutably smiling, she has no ontological agency. In fact, ‘smiled’ is one of the most used dialogue tags in the book. It fits in the social circles where Megha moves: perfunctory and fake, a mask over jealousy and self-centeredness. In Poonam’s case, it pushes a character who is already significantly marginalized within the narrative further into the periphery. She is enigmatic and elusive, rendered an unknowable cipher, effaced even when she is present. She is the only other character to get viewpoint chapters but she never quite comes into her own. She is reduced to her job at the church and her brother’s death due to alcoholism.

Moreover, her deep regard for Megha is written as an obsessive infatuation. The narrative does not question the troubling perception of Megha as she repeatedly brings up Poonam’s “smell” or references her “dark body”. There is a scene where she mentions “the male odour [floating] all over her house” as Mr. Ajmal and Reynold set up furniture, calling it “a lazy, disagreeable smell”. It brings to mind the Parks in Parasite, scrunching up their noses at a mere whiff of the subaltern on coming in proximity with their servants. Her subway odour poems also uncritically reproduce the racial imaginary and Majumdar never really repudiates it. The reader knows there is something distinctly off-putting of course but nothing critically astute survives beyond the subtle black hole of Megha’s pendulum-turns between artificial self-doubt and natural self-assurance.

Coming to the prose itself, he seemingly aims for a sparse unaffected style but the careful construction of naturality and attempts at subtle lyricism backfire resulting in an uninspired carelessness. The Middle Finger showcases a language of banal observations and strange formulations, full of awkward and unsteady turns of phrase that highlight an unquestioned fetishtistic gaze. It is especially foregrounded in scenes where Megha is thinking of her poetry—the poems themselves as well as commentary around them are characterized by messy similes, clichés wriggling like worms. Truncated sentences, jerky dialogue, ineffectual images—it is an eccentric, hackneyed minimalism that fails to land. Whatever Majumdar’s intentions, they fail to come across clearly in the writing and the laboured style compounds the problems with the narrative and plot, drawing attention to their numerous deficiencies. In the end, the book is all a muddle.

While it is unable to cogently explore “the connection between the artistic, the intellectual, and the erotic”, which Majumdar identifies as the heart of the novel, I will not deny that it generates interesting epiphanies about artistic creation and compromise, appropriation and authority, meritocracy and capital, privilege and performativity. One cannot deny that the idea itself is quite intriguing but its execution as a narrative is less than decent and leaves much to be desired. The novel starts off well enough but quickly loses steam by the middle. It can also get very insufferable to read at times. The focus on exploring so-called transgressive sexualities is half-baked and goes nowhere. The novel’s claims of being disruptive and subversive are ultimately just empty claims in the end, without demonstrable proof. The reader is left frustrated and disappointed.

Just finished with a Master’s in English from the University of Hyderabad, AREEB AHMAD (he/him) likes to write about the intersections of gender and sexuality in literature. He also enjoys exploring how the personal and the political, form and content, interact in art. He remains certain that the author is never truly dead. Most of his regular writing can be found on his bookstagram. Areeb’s work—long-form reviews, bookish articles, and critical essays—has been featured in Mountain Ink, The Book Slut, SheReads, and is forthcoming in Gaysi, The Chakkar.

Editor’s Note

Dear readers,

I started writing fiction a few weeks ago. There is something to be said about feeling like a child again, about feeling as though there is only everything to fear. I like being able to mask myself, absolve myself by creating another to speak for me. What is this exactly: an act of giving birth, of burdening another with one’s trauma, of extending one’s shelf life? I am not so sure. All I know is that I feel as though I am learning how to write again, that I am learning the anatomy and uses of my language.

I have always held the belief that to write is to indulge in shame and guilt. There is much that can be said about those feelings, about law and literature too, but my first memory traces itself back to the opening page of Nabokov’s Lolita where Humbert refers to his readers as “members of a jury.” I want to believe in my humility as a reader or writer and translator. I want to think against reading from the position of being “found out” or “recognized” by a writer, from the position of being “spoken for.” I want to think against readership as some sort of judgement, I want to think against writing as a testimony or deposition. But when I present these works to you every quarter, I feel puzzled, bewildered, confused. I find myself embroiled in the same questions I want to thread myself out of.

It goes without saying that curating and editing an issue is a matter of judgement, and that I want you to approve of our decisions. But I want our relationship to have more body than simple approval, more life than plain reception. I hope you appreciate the video and audio recordings of our poets reading their works as much as I did. The poems in this issue are gems, their language has the force of an insignificant moment that clutches you whole with rapt attention and consumes you. I have reflected a great deal on some words and lines from this issue and, like any good poetry, they continue to raise new possibilities and dangers: Brendan Walsh’s “i cried over the same two poems,” Daisy Bassen’s simple phrase with infinite possibilities, “endless more,” Prithvijeet Sinha’s use of “Such a canvas is somber” which makes me think of the exact moment in which the poem was written; Gregory McGreevy’s razor-sharp lines “metallic clink / fork on plate, / amplified in quiet rooms,” Jessica Heron’s use of “storied chaos,” Mon Malanovich-Gallagher’s line which is a lesson in the quietness of poetic detail, “I smile to the child in our rented kitchen.” I hope you feel equally wounded and healed as I did reading ‘Tell me when the ocean will begin‘ by Sarah Hoenicke Flores. I hope you appreciate the gaze of artists like Jim Ross and Lauren Bartel and marvel at what they created.

It is a frightening prospect, I understand, to read something that exposes you to the danger of never being able to return. But reading is a tryst with the crude pleasures of taking such a risk. I hope you are able to go further without returning. I hope you’re able to feel the full extent of all your ugly feelings, whether they are shame, guilt, joy or pain. I hope you join me in facing, day in and day out, the difficulties and incomparable anguish of reading and writing.

Sending our best,

Devanshi Khetarpal

Editor-in-Chief and Founder

Inklette Magazine

Book Review: If You Could See The Sun by Ann Liang


If You Could See the Sun by Ann Liang (Inkyard, 2022)

Big thank you to Inkyard Press for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful piece! This book doesn’t come out until October, but I personally think everyone needs to put it on their to-read and preorder it as soon as humanly possible, because… wow. This book blew me away.

If You Could See The Sun follows Alice Sun, a young, gifted girl who attends an elite prep school in Beijing. However, when her family drops the news that they will not be able to send her there anymore, Alice discovers she has the ability to turn invisible. By accident. Capitalizing on her newfound power, she teams up with her academic rival who she hates very, very much, Henry Li, to dish out her classmates’ secrets in exchange for money.

It’s very rare I click request on an eARC as fast as I did for this one, but my mouse moved astronomically quick when I saw the stunning cover paired with dark academia, magical realism, and academic rivals to lovers set in somewhere that wasn’t England or the east coast United States. There was no way I was taking no for an answer. And I’m so glad I didn’t; this book checked every box for me. The romance was a perfect slow burn, every character was so fun and wonderful, and the cast was diverse and so, so real. The magical realism was beautifully executed and added a touch of symbolism to the story.

I also would like to mention how much I adore Henry. 

What stood out to me as I read this is that everyone came from different backgrounds, and the book urges you not to judge anyone by their outward appearance. Alice, our narrator, comes from a very different background from many others at her school, but she learns more about her classmates and it reminds us as readers that there is always more to someone than meets the eye. Whether rich, poor, beautiful, privileged, etc, each character is fundamentally different and challenges the reader to look beyond external perception. Young adult novels in academic settings, in particular, can fall into a trap of stereotyping characters. If You Could See the Sun doesn’t do this at all. Instead, it challenges preconceived notions Alice may have about her classmates she didn’t know that well to begin with, and presents a different story for every single person that crosses the page. 

Did I mention I love Henry?

Alice is also a lovely protagonist and is about everything readers dream of in a badass, independent female protagonist. She doesn’t distinguish herself as “different from other girls” or put herself above any of her peers, but she is humble yet headstrong and brilliantly feisty. She also has the best one-liners (my favorite: “I’m greeted at my aunt’s door by Buddha. Not the Buddha himself—though it certainly wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen to me this week.”). Her voice is strong and inspirational and certainly provides a voice to those of us who were mega-overachievers in school (I know I was). I wish I could hand this book to a 16-year old me—Alice might’ve inspired me to slow down a little!

Now to expand on Henry (as I’ve been wanting to do this whole time). Admittedly, I almost always hate love interests. I was thrilled to see that this book subverted my preconceived opinions once again. Henry first comes across as this perfect, smug, beautiful man who Alice feels frustrated she cannot live up to. They are competitive, and he has a way of pushing Alice’s buttons like no one ever has. However, when they end up partnering to create the app together, Alice learns more about him and that his life wasn’t all big money and studying like she originally thought. He grows just as much as Alice during the novel and is much, much more than a pretty face. He is easily my favorite character in the whole book (shocking for you all to hear, I know). 

Aside from the main two, every side character is well-developed and easy to remember. The number of characters introduced is not overwhelming, yet not so small that the school feels entirely empty. The teachers, especially, provide some insight into the story and serve as mentors who push Alice  into making better decisions for herself and not devalue her own worth despite the differences between her and her classmates. 

Without giving too much away, I also commend the fact that this was a young adult novel without an ending where everyone wins. Often when I read young adult novels, the characters are not held accountable for their mistakes. It’s frustrating, and it makes the endings very weak. Liang cleverly challenges this by  creating a favorable outcome for her characters, but not a perfect one. Alice’s problems don’t magically go away with a flick of the wrist but rather, she uses the bad situation as well as her intelligence to her advantage. The characters are held accountable for their actions, and while things ultimately end well, they don’t end with the problems dissipating into thin air. Typically the endings of novels are like a walk through the mud for me, but this one left me pleasantly surprised!
If You Could See the Sun is a delightful read, packed with drama, a wonderful romance, and a spark of hope for young people that may not yet know what they want to do with their lives or understand how much they’re worth. Absolutely unputdownable, with an exceptionally strong protagonist and a compelling story, this is a debut packed with elements that will delight readers of any age. Thanks again to Inkyard Press for a free eARC, and I am on my knees begging anyone who has read this far to wishlist this book immediately!

Add Anne on Goodreads!

ANNE CAYWOOD is a junior at Arizona State University, pursuing a career in English. She is also a full-time barista at a locally owned coffee shop, and in turn, is a bit of a coffee snob and loves promoting local businesses. When she is not working or writing, you can find her reading every dark academic novel she can get her hands on, watching cat videos on YouTube, and playing video games. She is also a volunteer intern for the literary magazine Sepia Quarterly.

Editor’s Note

Dear readers,

I’ve been thinking about what will become of me when favorite writer, Elena Ferrante, dies. How will I ever learn about the death of this ghostly, pseudonymous writer? How will I survive with the knowledge that she cannot write more? This, perhaps, is the danger of being possessed. I feel like a parasite, an organism unable to live on its own, paralyzed by the thought of a life without her. On the other hand, I’ve been so jealous of her prowess as a writer, that I have often wished she didn’t exist. I wonder what will happen to me in the face of her death and in its aftermath, if my mourning will ever evolve into ambivalence, even indifference. I cannot hide from the fact that I will only ever come to be, especially as a writer, when she abandons the world, when she leaves me in the lurch. For the time being, my self funnels through her words, bringing me at peace with language when, in order to write my story, I am in need of my turbulence.

Haley Petcher‘s phrase of ‘teeth and tongue’ comes to mind: the friction in their textures, flows, matter. I feel hungry for the teeth in my mouth. It is a similar urge to that expressed in Esther Sadoff‘s poem: “I want to be kneeling, wrist deep / in something pungent.” Going through the works we have chosen for this issue made me think about these ugly feelings, these desires which fraction our selves into unrecognizable parts. Consider Ajay Pisharody’s ‘Numbers,’ a story situated amidst the devastation in India caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, making life not only unrecognizable, but also impossible. I turn to Sara Murray‘s words: “I grip my mother’s hand: / it is a fossil of my own.” Think of that intimacy, too, and the lifelessness it can hold, sometimes against our wishes. I hope you find something in this issue, in these wonderful works and others, that resonates with you, with your storms and calm.

As we put out another issue, I want to hold space for these unsavory feelings. As we face another uncertain year, I wonder how we will survive, if we will resist forgetting, if we will learn to be again. On behalf of the editorial team, I would like to thank you for your submissions and for trusting us with your work. In this unpredictable landscape, in disquieting circumstances we cannot help, bringing out issues after issues of Inklette is a strange constant of sorts. I hope you see it the way we do, as a space that brings us together and that invites us to listen, to pause. If we can stand with you and pause, I believe we have accomplished what we hope to do. I would like to thank our editors who put in time and effort, care and attention and help these works be. I am grateful, unsure but I am here.

Thank you. Wishing you and yours best for the holidays and the new year.

Devanshi Khetarpal


Taxidermy Memories

            I tell Miss Johnson’s head-like-a-space-alien chihuahua that she’s sweeter than cotton candy. Glancing at my clipboard, I realize the flattery was meant for Mr. Smith’s Irish setter. Whoops. Luckily, the two gone but not forgotten pets reside in the same freeze dryer, a five-foot-by-two-foot metal box resembling an oversized washing machine. I apologize for my mistake then deliver the correct message to the correct pooch.

            To make sure they can hear me over the humming engines, I stand only a few inches from the circular plastic window splitting their frozen world from my movable one. I don’t like classifying things as living or dead. Experiences make up life, right? Doesn’t everything, inanimate or not, have experiences? When I head out the door each morning, my house doesn’t disappear. Dust still collects on the furniture. Light still shines through the windows. And just because my belongings can’t get up and communicate this doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen.

            This same logic applies to all the animals inside the freeze dryers. To their owners, they’ll inhabit a space in-between. To their owners, the animals are as movable as they let the past make them.

            “Be seeing you soon, darling,” I say to Mr. Moore’s rainbow calico, continuing my rounds.

            The best part of this job is talking to the animals. Whenever business slows and there’s nothing to do, I roll my chair back here and just talk. We discuss everything from politics to what movies to go see. However, one subject we always seem to touch on is my love life. Of course, the animals don’t really speak. There aren’t any barks or meows. But what’s the harm in pretending?   

            Ruff, it’s time to move on, to find love again. What about the cashier at the grocery store? She was definitely flirting with you. You should ask her out.

            Purr, darling, don’t take advice from a dog. A dog’s love is suffocating and needy. Cat’s love themselves first then dish out whatever’s left.

            Ruff, how can you love yourself without knowing love? Love doesn’t bend to your convenience, doesn’t wait around until you get bored or lonely.

            Purr, oh what do you know?

            Ruff, I know he’s starved for someone to pet him and say good boy.

            The alarm on the freeze dryer behind me buzzes. I turn around, and Mrs. Miller’s pug, a compressed creature with a body like an accordion and a face like a fighter who’s taken one too many punches, greets me. With my index finger, I tap the thermometer built into the unit. The red arrow slightly fluctuates before stopping at 10 degrees.

            “Looks like you’re ready to come out.”

            Mrs. Miller’s pug, wires and rods jutting from his paws and chin, positioning him in a pose his owner remembered fondly, stares at me with glass puppy dog eyes. His expression, stuck forever as wanting and dependent, reminds me of an infant squeezing his mother’s finger, so I try not to look directly at him for too long.

            I open the freeze dryer. Stale, chilled air blows against my skin, sending goosebumps down my arms. The smell of beef jerky wafts up my nose, a common odor due to all the moisture being sucked out of the animals’ cells, preventing pesky decay. I grab the polished block of mahogany Mrs. Miller’s pug sits on and lift him out of the machine. Then I carry him to the stainless-steel table in the center of the room.

            Pressing on his flesh, checking for any give, for firmness, like a shopper examining the ripeness of a piece of fruit, I get the sudden urge to stroke his fur.

            Three months have passed since Betty left, but I still go around the corner to make sure she’s not waiting there, hoping to catch me getting too attached. In the clear, I return to Mrs. Miller’s pug and scratch behind his stubby ears and run my hands across his coarse hair. I’m supposed to call his owner, supposed to say goodbye, but, like an addict needing a fix, I can’t help myself and keep caressing his apricot coat.

            Soon I notice my hands aren’t awake. They’re hidden in my pants pockets. Instead, a phantom limb does the work of promising me there’s nothing wrong with a minute or two of affection.


            A minute or two transforms into weeks where, along with my other duties of taking orders and preparing animals for preservation (removing their organs, injecting them with small amounts of embalming fluid, arranging their positions), I care for Mrs. Miller’s pug, which I’ve renamed Bread. I don’t know his real name, another leftover rule from Betty’s days, but his shape and color resemble a sack of squished bread so much I couldn’t resist handing out the moniker.

            He needs me. And until the world forces me to start moving again, I’ll continue to take him on window-less drives. I’ll continue to pour him bowls of kibble. I’ll continue to whisper my stolen memories into his ears.


            With Bread buckled into the passenger seat of my car, I turn onto the final street to Taxidermy Memories (the name of my business). My cell phone vibrates. I recognize the number. She’s been repeatedly calling for days. I let the call go to voicemail. Then I pull into my building’s gravel parking lot, type in my password, and listen.

            “This is Catherine Miller again,” Mrs. Miller says, her voice sounding like a mother demanding her child put a toy back on the shelf. “Since you won’t return my calls about my pug’s status, I’m coming in this afternoon.” 

            I unbuckle Bread and hold him between my palms.

            “Want to run away with me, boy?” I say. “Want to become a speck on the horizon?” 

            I know I won’t go through with the escape plan formulating in my mind. How can I steal something so loved by someone else? I can’t.

            I lower my seat and set Bread on my chest. Maybe Betty is right. I close my eyes and imagine where she might be and what she might be doing. She’s cooking breakfast for tiny fingers. She’s folding tiny clothes. She’s kissing tiny brows.

            Good for her.

            I lie like this, Betty curating the miniature museum inside me, a museum missing any paternal history, until my wristwatch beeps 9 o’clock and it’s time to open.


            A white sheet covers Bread, a standard practice to prevent customers from becoming too overwhelmed right when they walk into the shop. When Mrs. Miller stops by, I’ll whip the sheet off like a magician making grief disappear.


            A month ago, I went to the animal shelter in town with the hopes of adopting as many dogs and cats as they’d let me. The nice middle-aged woman who runs the place escorted me to the back where they kept all the animals in kennels. I lied and said I owned a huge farm where the dogs could live leash-less lives and the cats could hunt mice and nap all day. Smiling, she retrieved a Cocker Spaniel. The dog sprinted toward me, but when he licked my hand, all I saw was Betty’s tongue flicking out of Betty’s face. I flinched. The nice woman then asked if I’d rather see a cat. I thanked her, said no, and drove home.


            While I wait for Mrs. Miller, I don’t think. I petrify my muscles and let my eyes glaze. I want to slip into the stillness, Bread’s plane, a plane where I could foster him, a plane where Mrs. Miller would zoom by and forget about us. A vast immobility fills me, and I’m locked in place as if I’m an artist’s rendering of my former self.

            Then my arm itches, and, unfortunately, I’m shoved back into the empty bustle.


            The bells tied to the lobby’s doorknob jingle. Mrs. Miller, a petite woman with dark smudges under her eyes like she hasn’t slept in days, stumbles inside, half a dozen grunting pugs yanking her forward.

            I wander around my desk and meet her near the entrance. Her pugs growl at me. They’re her pig-faced bodyguards.

            “Where is he?” Mrs. Miller says.

            I point at the counter where the sheet conceals Bread like a child imitating a ghost. I glance at Mrs. Miller, not saying anything. Then her pugs start nipping at each other, snapping us back to why they’re here. With Mrs. Miller tugging on leashes, separating the bickering pugs, I show them to their lost brother.


            I jerk the sheet off Bread. Mrs. Miller looks at him as if she’s studying a missing persons’ poster. Then she falls to her knees and wails, her tears as thick as paint.


            Bread’s gone. Actually, Bread never was. I’m in my back office gripping a handle belonging to a filing cabinet. Again, I try to imagine where Betty is and what she’s doing, but all I can visualize is her stirrup-hiked legs birthing a pile of bloody rocks.

            Ruff, it wasn’t your fault. What happened is no one’s fault. What’s in that drawer doesn’t love you. It can’t love you.

            Purr, please listen to the dog.

            The animals are wrong. I’m not starved for love. I’m starved to love.

            I open the drawer and gaze at the reason why Betty left. Then I scoop up the leathery, freeze-dried body and sing my tiny preserved memory a lullaby.

WILL MUSGROVE is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, Flora Fiction, 5×5 Literary Magazine, Rabid Oak, The Daily Drunk, Barstow & Grand, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.

Editor’s Note

Dear Reader,

It snowed yesterday. I felt the snow on my fingers and my bare feet last night. It didn’t numb, it didn’t bite. I saw snow for the first time only three years ago, and am still amazed when I realize how soft and gentle it is, how quickly it seems to melt when it touches my flesh, becoming like rain and less like itself. I feel like that sometimes: falling and falling till I can no longer retain my form, no longer keep it safe. But I think of poetry as something saved: caught before it collapses, pulled back to earth from the edge of a treacherous cliff. I wish I could save more things, memories, people. The last time I wrote the editor’s note to our tenth issue, the world was losing, much as it continues to.

There is never a right, joyous moment of light to come out with an issue full of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and art that touched us, stunned us, threw us into the deep end. I wish it didn’t always feel like we were handing out antidotes, remedies, pills and balms. I will repeat, from Jessica Sabo’s Fire Sign, that “When you ask me what I’m afraid of, I’d hold out my hands.” And in holding out our hands to share this issue with you, we hope you allow us to share what we are afraid of.

In this issue, we hope you come across pieces that make you feel less afraid, less alone. T.B. Grennan’s Cross-Country is the rare example of a conversation-as-story, a form I am now tempted to try. Sharon Gayen’s artworks, on the other hand, are pieces on that delectable brink of chaos. Watching, on the other hand, Julienne Maui Castelo Mangawang read her poem, ‘A Mother’s Silence,’ undoes the form of silence, of the ‘anonymous’ artist. These are all, if you let them be, dear reader, hands holding out to you when you might ask one of the most difficult questions to any of them: What are you afraid of?

Love and best wishes,

Devanshi Khetarpal

Founder and Editor-in-Chief

The COVID-19 Series: Interview with Janice Pariat

What can the literature of lands, territories, nations or zones do in the midst of a pandemic that has made our borders and outlines seem more containing while a virus, invisible to the naked eye, journeys and shape-shifts across them and renders them porous? How do we restore and reconcile with this new, mutating politics of spaces?

Janice Pariat is a writer who comes to mind. In this interview with our poetry editor, Smriti Verma, Pariat answers questions about the landscape of Indian literature and the space of the north-east in it as well as her ‘Where We Write’ series on Instagram.

Smriti Verma: How would you situate the contemporary Indian literary landscape, and the forms of writing emerging in the same? Do you believe there’s a certain characteristic “Indianness” – an aspect singular and definite – or multiple strands of thought?

Janice Pariat: I would say that the “Indian literary landscape” exists in great multiplicity. There is writing in English of course, and a tremendously vibrant scene of literature in many other languages–Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Assamese, Manipuri to name just a few. At the same time, there are regions with incredible oral storytelling traditions–like Meghalaya where I come from–and these too must be acknowledged as “literary”. I would hesitate then to “situate” a monolithic Indian literary landscape when in truth it thrives in plurality. There is no such thing as “Indianness”–I think at a time of rising sentiments of Indian exclusionism, it’s more important than ever to remember and honour this. There is no such thing as Indianness in literary character or otherwise–we are diverse and gloriously multiple. 

SV: To delve into something clichéd, could you tell us a little about your sources of inspirations – places, moments, events, writers – which solidified your relationship with writing and subsequently, your work?

JP: I grew up in Shillong amidst oral storytellers, and they form my first and most important “literary” inspirations. To be a good writer, you must be a good listener, and this is what being immersed in oral storytelling taught, and continues to teach me. There is music and rhythm in language, which comes originally from breath, not text, and this serves as the foundation  of all my writing. To hear it always, to speak it out loud, to align the rhythms of the writing with the rhythms of breath.  

SV: What place do you think writing holds, and may hold, in the increasingly politicised landscape which we find ourselves by the minute in India? How would you place the experiences of the North-East within the same?

JP: We are always political–even when we’re taking a so-called apolitical stance, and it’s exactly the same with writing. But in all honesty, the important issue for me at this time, is who is telling the stories–are communities that usually don’t have a voice being able to find space to voice themselves, are they being listened to? Or are others still writing their stories for them? Are we listening to other people’s stories? Are we trying to work towards building a space–literary or otherwise–where people feel safe telling their stories. I think with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re finally being forced to view our histories through a different lens, through the lens of the ones who suffered, who bore the brunt and weight of discrimination, and acknowledge their version. It would be the same with the “Northeast”–a woefully inadequate blanket term for a geographical region that’s one of the most ethnically diverse on earth. Are we seeing more “Northeast” stories being told by people from there? Is there thoughtful nuanced representation growing from there in the rest of India? Writing helps provide a way for people to tell their stories, of course, but the structures around writing must also change.    

SV: To elaborate on the earlier question, do you think a writer has a certain responsibility towards speaking the social and political truths of their society?

JP: A certain responsibility to whom? To their community? To the world? The nation? To themselves? The pressure to do so probably exists on all these fronts, but a writer must be free to follow the stories they wish to. Art is meant to offer that kind of liberating space–and who knows, within it, the writer might find that the story that resonates most with them also happens to be one that shines a light on their communities.     

SV: I quite fell in love with the Instagram series you started called “Where We Write.” I felt it was quite a lovely way of contextualising the lives of writers during the pandemic. It’d be great if you could talk a little about the same – the inspiration, the impact, what you felt got created in the process.

JP: When the lockdown was announced, I found I was spending extended hours at my writing table, more so than on normal days. My workspace is so much of myself, I realized, and what I find inspiring. It is projection, curation, comfort, motivation all at once. This got me thinking—and curious. I put a post up on Instagram. “What’s your work space like? Do share, send pictures, show.” And slowly the photos poured in, from across the country and across the world. The call had struck a chord perhaps, given that most of the planet was in lockdown ‘work from home’ mode. People were now forced to reassess the spaces they inhabited, for the majority what was personal and work wasn’t as neatly demarcated anymore. Many had to conjure a work space (dining table!) where their homes had none. What I found most moving was that each picture offered a tender glimpse into someone’s life—who they are, what they hold dear and important, the small things they’ve collected on their journeys, and choose to place around them. Each, in their own way, tell a story. The series has become, for me and some others, more than merely a fun thing for our quiet lockdown days. Here is where we learn to adjust, to think things through these unsettling times, to acknowledge our immense privilege to be able to retreat to a work place at all. Where we write is where we are most ourselves, where we are most vulnerable, comforted, most alive.  

Devanshi Khetarpal: Many writers have had their writing practices have changed through this time. Some of us liked to write in public places– in parks, cafes, restaurants, eavesdropping and observing– and some of us are experiencing new sensory limitations since we’re not able to experience the full spectrum of sights, sounds, touch etc. Are you relying more on sensory memory to write? Or have you changed or had to change your writing practices, rituals, habits during this time at all?

JP: In all honesty, lockdown time is just a slightly more exaggerated writerly situation for me, and I say this with the acknowledgement of how incredibly privileged I am–that I have a house, a job, food, a roof over my head–given that too too many don’t and how terrible it has been for them. I don’t ever write fiction in public spaces; I can only edit or read through a draft in a cafe. Writing fiction happens for me in a space of absolute solitude. So in a way I’m always relying on memory. Having said that though, the novel I’m working on now demanded a research trip to the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, and of course I haven’t been able to travel. While I’m hoping to be there at a safer time, I’ve had to rely on memory, other people’s reportage accounts, and my imagination to write this particular narrative down. 

DK: Has truth or some truth shifted for you during this time? I mean, are you being re-introduced in a radically different way to truths you already knew about yourself as a writer and the world, or is the familiar slipping out and taking the shape of the strange?

JP: I think what’s been most striking for me at this time is how my cycle of consumption has broken. That I often indulged in mindless “because I can” consumption, rather than because there really was a need to. I’m going to try and take this forward with me even when we come out of this. I’ve also had to reassess my “travelling often” lifestyle. The planet cannot bear the weight of our wanderings, and I’d like to travel more responsibly from now on, or not at all. As a writer I’ve been thinking about what kind of stories will come out of this time, what is the language we’ll need to invent to capture these experiences…I’m not quite sure yet, but it’s worth thinking about, how our art will be transformed…

JANICE PARIAT is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel. She was awarded the Young Writer Award from the Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013.

She studied English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her work—including art reviews, book reviews, fiction and poetry—has featured in a wide selection of national magazines and newspapers.  In 2014, she was the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Kent, UK.

Her novella The Nine Chambered-Heart is out with HarperCollins India (November 2017) and HarperCollins UK (May 2018), and is being translated for publication into nine languages including Italian, Spanish, French, and German.

Currently, she lives in New Delhi with a cat of many names.

To learn more about our staff members, kindly visit our Masthead page.