Sumana Khan - Winner

Competition: Change Short Story Competition

Sumana Khan is a research student by day and a struggling author by night. When not working on her thesis or manuscript (and trying not to mix up the two), she lurks around cinema halls in Berkshire. This is her first thrilling Writing Magazine win after a couple of shortlists.

Sumana Khan

Eclipse

There is never a good time to get out of a bad marriage. She’d been trying to break free right from the early years, when she had just peeped into her twenties. Thirty-five years later, she was still making half-hearted exit plans. It was a joke, really. She could barely make her way to the railway station without getting lost, even in this small, dusty town folded away in a corner of Uttar Pradesh. Life was not like that English movie, no? The one where the woman went eating, praying and loving in different countries?
The thought that she did not exist occurred to her as she rolled out chapatis for dinner. Perhaps that’s why she never managed to crawl out of the carcass of this marriage. Of course, she had stayed on for Dipu. She had promised herself that she’d walk out the day Dipu turned eighteen. Then, the deadline got pushed to the day Dipu settled down with a job. Then she figured she’d stay on till he got married. Dipu had crossed all the milestones, including becoming a father himself, but she was still—
‘Is dinner ready?’
She did not answer at first. She was a bit slow that way.
‘Dinner?’ Dilip repeated, voice raised.
‘Ten minutes.  I—’
Dilip walked out.  He came back after a minute and said, ‘Switch on the goddamn chimney. The whole house smells of your burnt chapati.’
She did not respond. In the afternoon, he had yelled at her for switching on the chimney and creating a ruckus just to cook rice and dal, especially when he needed some peace and quiet.
He came forward and switched on the chimney. He picked up a steel jug that sloshed with water and flung it to the ground.
She jumped but did not turn around. She gripped the rolling pin tightly and continued to roll out the chapatis.
He pulled the rolling pin from her hands and smashed it on the floor. ‘Don’t you dare ignore me,’ he snarled.
‘You have not done anything that deserves my attention. Not now, not ever.’
For a minute she thought he would hit her. She hoped it would come to that. At least then she would be cured of her ennui. A slap or a punch would fire her dead self-respect. This scene had played out many times before in the past three decades. She knew each and every line that appeared on his face when he was angry this way. There would be that deep furrow between the brows, surrounded by tiny little lines; a crease would appear from the edge of his eyes and run straight across the temple; deep gash-like folds would emerge on either side of his mouth when he snarled; his neck muscles would stand out in a V as he gnashed his teeth. But today she saw a struggle in his face – lines rearranging themselves reflecting something she did not understand. He had tears in his eyes. It shook her.
He walked out abruptly, deflated.
A wisp of pity curled in her; he was surely in some extraordinary pain. If he were a dog, the vet would have put him down.   
She picked up the rolling pin and the jug from the floor. The pin had split, and shrapnel stuck out. She threw it in the bin. Well, no more chapatis till he bought a new one. The jug had a dent. She heard him come into the kitchen again and turned around. He was staring at the rolling pin.
‘It’s eight,’ he said and walked out.
She followed him and sat on the sofa. He prepared the insulin injection and gave her a shot. Then he went and sat at the dining table, staring at the wall, his back to the living room. She plated the dinner for him.
‘How many chapatis are there for you?’ he asked gruffly.
‘Enough.’
He grabbed the hot case from her hand, counted and thrust it back.
She took her plate to the sofa and switched on the TV. A program on snakes. They were extracting venom from king cobra fangs.   
‘Why do you watch disgusting programs while eating?’ he said without turning around.
She looked at his back. She increased the volume. She saw his shoulders sag. She changed the channel. Apparently, a lunar eclipse was about to commence that night. They were going to relay it live on this channel.
‘You can sit in the balcony and watch it live,’ he said.
He was done with dinner in five minutes. He stomped into the kitchen with his plate. She heard him wash up at the sink. Then she saw the mop swishing about on the floor where he’d slammed the water jug. She saw him stand in front of the kitchen slab with a sponge.
She walked into the kitchen. He seemed startled by her. He threw the sponge into the sink and walked out. It was only then she noticed the slab dusted with flour. He had traced Mickey Mouse. She smiled. That’s how they had taught Dipu when he was a kiddo. Dipu had uttered his first word only when he was six. The teachers figured he was a special needs child and most of the regular schools refused to admit him. But she knew he was just fine. He was bright and focused. Only, he communicated using pictures. It was probably the first time Dilip had interacted with her as an equal. As a friend. They were Team Dipu. They both agreed Dipu was taking his time to speak. They taught him alphabets and numbers through pictures. On many evenings, as she prepared dinner, Dilip would hoist Dipu on the slab and spread some flour. Draw an animal, whose name starts with F, he’d say. Or she would tell Dipu to keep a count of chapatis and write down the numbers. Now this kiddo was thirty-two. He was a scientist in Netherlands. Something to do with the weather. They give me equations and I interpret that in pictures, Ma. Sweet, gentle Dipu. Made whole by two broken people. Whatever prisons she and Dilip festered in, Dipu was the no man’s land between them and because of him, for him, they somehow stuck together as a family.
Maybe he’s missing Dipu, she thought as she cleaned the slab and washed up. Dilip had been more irritable than usual these past couple of days. Or maybe his affair went off the rails. Oh, she had known about it for past three years. Only, she did not know who the other woman was. It was fascinating to observe the transformation on Dilip’s face whenever her call came, like watching a cactus turn into a rose. The harsh lines on his face would disappear – that razor-like line of the mouth, the frown, the flared nostrils, the throbbing temples. A sort of tenderness would bloom on his face and it always struck her how handsome he was, even now at fifty-eight. His tone would be different too; none of the whiplash effect.  There would be a lilting softness in his voice, as if he were about to burst into a song any moment. She did not begrudge the other woman, or even Dilip for that matter. She only resented the fact that he had found love, and she did not even have that option.    
 She walked into the bedroom to sort out the laundry. It was a mystery as to why Dilip did not walk out. It would have ended the misery for them both. Maybe he was worried about Dipu. There was no two ways about it – Dilip was the best father in the world. If there was any shard of her that loved him, it was for this.
A strip of tablets fell out of Dilip’s trousers as she folded them. She picked it up and read the name – Zolfresh. She opened the drawer in the bedside table where they stored medicines. She saw piles of strips of this medicine. More than twenty strips for sure. Each strip had ten tablets.
She walked into the living room. Dilip was not around. He had probably left for his post-dinner walk. He wouldn’t be back for at least forty-five minutes. She dialled Raghunath’s number. Raghu ran the pharmacy down the road and delivered medicines home.
‘Raghunath? I am calling from Dilipji’s flat.’
‘Hello bhabi. Need any medicines?’
‘No. Can you tell me what Zolfresh is used for?’
‘Sleeping pills, bhabi. Should be taken only in emergency. Better to consult doctor. Is everything okay bhabi?’
‘Yes, yes. Thanks.’
She sank to the floor. Something was wrong. Either Dilip was contemplating suicide, or he was planning to kill her. Dipu. She had to call Dipu.
She heard a low, keening noise from the living room balcony. It took a moment for her to realise it was Dilip. She rushed to find him crouched against the wall, weeping bitterly.
‘Dilip?’ her voice was thick with fear.
He looked up and held out his arms. For a moment she thought she was seeing Dipu as five-year-old. He would lift his arms this way, beckoning her, unable to express what was hurting him.
She rushed to Dilip; his agony thrusting icicles in her heart. He clung to her neck, sobbing against her chest. She held on to him fiercely.
‘Is it Dipu? Tell me… is Dipu okay?’
‘Dipu… fine,’ he stammered eventually, still racked by his inexplicable grief.
‘How many pills did you take? Let’s go to the doctor.’
He shook his head. ‘Did not have the courage. I couldn’t do that to Dipu. To you.’  
‘I know about the affair, Dilip. Go. Just go to her. I think it’s time we chose happiness, isn’t it?
Dilip went quiet. Still. ‘He died. Martyred. Three days ago. His regiment came under attack in Kashmir. He had named me as the emergency point of contact. They confirmed his death an hour ago.’
She held him close. She did not want to process this. Not now. All she knew was his prison was worse than hers.
They sat in silence, holding each other, and watched the full moon emerge from the eclipse.  

Judges Comments

Sumana Khan's Eclipse, the winning story in our Change Short Story Competition, demonstrates the importance of creating character and viewpoint. Sumana's story is literary fiction, and though it's told in a third-person voice, it's such a close third person that the reader identifies completely with the viewpoint character, who isn't named, just as a first-person narrator would not need to introduce themselves. In Eclipse, such is Sumana's skill at character creation that we see the world of the story entirely through the lead character's eyes.

It's a bleak enough world: she's trapped in a long, loveless marriage with a man who is introduced to us as impatient and irascible. But the beauty of this humane, compassionate story is that it enables the reader to see, and perhaps understand, in a different way, just as its narrator does, by its end.

The relationship between the narrator and her husband is conveyed to us by way of domestic details: chapatis, broken rolling pins, bickering about her choice of TV. The narrative shift, when it occurs, is also conveyed through a telling domestic detail: the way Dilip used to teach his son via images drawn in flour. From this point, we can no longer see Dilip as a one-dimensional failure of a husband. The tender depiction of him as 'the best father in the world' is at odds with what we know of him in relation to the narrator, and from this point, the reader's perception of him begins to change. For the two characters in the story, the change comes at the end, when she knows and accepts the truth he has been keeping from her. It's a beautifully judged balancing act in a delicately conveyed story that allows its characters to be complex and flawed, and as a result of change, to begin to see each other in  kinder, better ways.

 

 

Runner-up in the Change Short Story Competition was Sarah Morris, Montgomery, Powys, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk. Also shortlisted were: Karen Ankers, Holyhead, Anglesey; AP Arkright, Bolton, Lancashire; S Bee, Brighouse, West Yorkshire; Dominic Bell, Hull; Philipa Coughlan, Nottingham; KC Finn, Chester; Ronnie Karadjov, Rumuera, Auckland, New Zealand; Norman Kitching, Gosport, Hampshire; Amanda Marples, Rotherham, South Yorkshire; Ian R Matthews, Arbroath, Angus; Gwenda Mitchell, Quedgeley, Gloucestershire; Janet Mary Zylstra, Viterbo, Italy

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