The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes each of the winning stories. This selection introduces some of the most exciting emerging talents in the world, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we publish the winning entry from India, ‘Radio Story’ by Anushka Jasraj. You can also read an interview with the author here.
My wife is happiest on Sunday afternoon, when I leave the house. We have been married five years – too soon for us to take pleasure in each other’s absence. The boys at the Irani Cafe do not share this sentiment. They believe love and marriage are separate institutions.
Rustom, my best friend, is unmarried; his opinion does not count in these matters. Edalji is older than the rest of us, but his views are biased, since he is trying to find a suitable husband for his nineteen-year-old. Gieve, the fourth member of our amateur radio club, will go to great lengths to get away from his wife. He is not a licensed radio operator, but he always brings a flask of Black Label to our weekly meetings. The boys call me LK, because my radio call sign is VU2LK. After lunch, we go home and converse only in Morse code, on a frequency no one else has access to. We have voice-capable radio transmitters, of course, but this feels more intimate; our own private language.
These Sundays have no purpose other than food and conversation. We talk about the war, the weather, poetry, women, and occasionally one of the boys will ask me to build or fix a piece of equipment. I run a small radio and acoustics shop, where I sell radios, gramophones, and guitars. The shop does good business. In fact, some months back I was able to hire a young man, who sits in the shop, so I have more free time. Why do you need more free time to do nothing? my wife asks, when I spend my days at home, fixing equipment that doesn’t require fixing.
This particular Sunday was different. The authorities had recently sent notices to every radio operator, revoking our licenses, and asking us to relinquish all our equipment.
What’s the plan, Rustom asked, looking at Edalji.
The plan is to do as we are told, and call ourselves amateur poets or amateur something else.
Professional drinkers club, Gieve said.
My daughter was four, and my wife had become pregnant again two months before. I agreed with Edalji. Rustom taught literary theory at the university, and living without a wife or children left him with too much space in his head. He suggested hiding the equipment. We could disassemble our rigs, and hide the individual parts. He had given this some thought.
And to what purpose, Edalji said.
I don’t know, Rustom said, and proceeded to tell us about Maya, a colleague of his at the university – a pro-independence protester who had shown interest in establishing an underground radio station to transmit uncensored news. We had emptied the contents of Gieve’s flask by this point, and Rustom added that Maya was a very fine item.
Edalji sighed, the way elderly people do, when they have grown tired of explaining things over and over to those younger than them. Baba, I will find you a nice Parsi girl. Don’t worry. Find something else, meantime.
Rustom came to my flat later that evening. When I saw him through the peephole, standing outside my door, I considered pretending I wasn’t home, and asking my wife to make an excuse for me. But my wife, the chartered accountant, is unwilling to lie for me. She does not compromise when it comes to these things. She measures her deeds – varying degrees of good and bad – by adding and subtracting numbers in a notebook labeled Karma. Why should I be the proxy for your sins, she would say.
I opened the door to Rustom, sure that I was going to be found out, arrested, and sentenced to solitary confinement for what he was about to convince me to do.
Mr. Graham Bell has this invention called the telephone, I said.
I don’t read the papers, Rustom said.
That’s why you’re still smiling.
My wife is fond of Rustom. She emerged from the kitchen to ask if he wanted chai-pani. Two cups chai please, bhabhi. My friend will also be joining us, he said.
I gave Maya your address, so she should be here soon, he said to me. All I said was, We can talk in my workshop.
Ours is a small two-bedroom flat on the second floor of a five-storey building. We have electricity, running water, and a private bathroom. My wife shares a room with our daughter, and I have my equipment in the second bedroom, which is also where I sleep. I like to call it my workshop, because this sounds more impressive than just saying that it is my room.
Rustom did not say much until Maya arrived, and even then, he was subdued. The only other person to have this quieting effect on Rustom is his mother. But Maya was not an outspoken Parsi woman like Mrs. Printer. She was a frail Gujarati woman; the kind my wife would affectionately force-feed samosas and kachoris. She wore a salwaar-kameez, and was not particularly well endowed.
This could really be something, she said.
This? I said, having forgotten a majority of words.
If you really think you can build a forty-metre AM transmitter. This is more than anything I expected.
I’ll need to contact some people, and find out if I can get the necessary parts. We’ll need money, and you’ll have to shift base each week, to avoid being tracked.
We have funding. It will be difficult finding locations, but I think we will manage.
Everything she lacked in physicality, Maya more than made up for when she spoke. It didn’t matter what she said; it was the way her hands moved, as if her fingers were orchestrating words. I felt nervous, but I attributed it to the plans Maya spoke of, and nothing else. Before leaving, Maya shook my hand and said Have faith. A strange thing to hear, from a professor of philosophy.
I called one of my suppliers, without thinking, and asked if he could deliver a transistor for a forty-metre. This was a noticeably large order. He said it would take two weeks, maybe longer. Those two weeks went by with Rustom and me dismantling our rigs and hiding the parts – in the hollow spaces inside our beds, in jewellery boxes, in the large tin cans filled with kilos of rice and sugar – but mostly I spent that time imagining what Maya would say when I next saw her.
The authorities arrived at our houses – unannounced, but not unexpected – and we handed over the relics of our rigs from years ago, in order to appease them and not arouse suspicion. They conducted a requisite inspection of our cupboards and rooms, found nothing, and left. Edalji, as we later discovered, had given them all his equipment and wanted no part in this. If they catch you, they’ll break your fingers, and you won’t be able to turn the radio’s knobs, let alone your own knob, he said to Rustom and me.
We’re going to call it the All-India Radio operation, Maya said. Two weeks had passed. She and Rustom were at my flat, waiting for the supplier. I resisted the urge to kiss Maya’s fingertips. Only snippets of her sentences registered in my brain. Communications have been cut off between party workers . . . across the country . . . people do not know . . . state of affairs. In the midst of this, the phone rang, and my supplier expressed his remorse. Next week, surely, he said.
When Maya and Rustom were about to leave, I offered to teach Maya the basics of ham radio. There was a pause, and she looked at Rustom, before saying, Rustom has already been teaching me some things. Maya gave me two hundred rupees to cover the costs of building the transmitter. We decided to meet once the supplier had delivered.
My wife knew what was going on – that I was undertaking something completely illegal – and chose to ignore it. They will not touch a pregnant woman. You do what you want, she said. But I noticed that she went to the temple more often, and the numbers in her notebook labeled Karma grew larger. More unbalanced.
The day I was expecting the transistor, two policemen arrived at my door. They spoke politely to my wife. Routine check, routine check, they kept repeating, as they upturned furniture, and violently sifted through cupboards. Everything they found was heaped in the centre of the living room, as if they were planning a bonfire. My wife yelled, cried, and feigned dizziness. They asked me to accompany them for questioning.
I was stripped down to my underwear, made to lie on a giant block of ice, and told that I was going to be left there until I had more information to give, which I didn’t. My body took a long time to go numb, and when it did, I imagined I was in one of those dreams where you keep falling, but never feel the impact of the fall. When they realized I was telling the truth, and didn’t know who else was involved in this underground movement, they moved me to Arthur Road Jail, where I spent nine months. My wife sent letters written in pencil. Some of the words worn out, or erased:
Without you, life is xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. The house feels xxxxxxx. Why is this xxxxxxxxxx? Nalini asks about you, and I xxxxxxxxxxx. She believes you have been taken by the xxxxxxxxxxx fairy. The baby is xxxxxxxxxxx. I stand outside the xxxxxxxxxxxxxx gate sometimes, with the other xxxxxxxxxx, hoping xxxxxxxxx from a xxxxxxxxxx window. Do you xxxxxxx my letters? This waiting is xxxxxx.
Xxxxxxxx terrified, but I cannot xxxxxxxxxxx.
I xxxxxxxxx your presence, your voice, your xxxxxxxx. Our daughter still thinks xxxxxxxxx. What can I xxxxxxxxxx? I heard more xxxxxxxxx and were arrested. I am sorry for xxxxxxxxx, I should have been xxxxxxxxxxxxxx. Look at me, talking as if xxxxxxxxxxx, but I know we’ll xxxxxxxxxxx again. It cannot xxxxxxx otherwise. I am always xxxxxxxxxxxxx.
We have xxxxxxxxx. She is xxxxxxxxxx. Her remind me of you. I pray that xxxxxxxxxxx, and we will xxxxxxxxxxxx. I have not lost xxxxxxxxxxx, I still xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.
When I was released, I went home, expecting nothing to have changed. I discovered that I had a three-month-old daughter. For a week, I could not bring myself to hold her.
Maya came to see me. It was the third time we had ever been in each other’s presence, but something between us felt familiar. She told me what had happened: After my arrest, Rustom found a more reliable source for transmitter parts, and built the forty-metre. They broadcast every Friday, for three months, on a frequency of 43.5 Mhz, until an unknown person reported their whereabouts, and everyone was arrested. The saddest part, she said, was finding out that Rustom had told them everything there was to know about the workings of our operation, and in exchange he was allowed to leave the country. Maya would be tried in court the next week. After speaking for two hours, she stopped, and we sat next to each other in silence – Maya recovering from the talking, and me from the information.
We heard my daughter’s wails coming from the other room. What’s her name? Maya asked. I don’t know yet, I said. My wife had not yet named our second daughter because she had been waiting for me to return. I kissed Maya, not knowing what else to do. She did not stop me, and we kissed while my daughter cried in the next room. It was not sexual, and it felt as if we were assessing each other like insects, with our lips acting as feelers. She stopped me when my wife’s voice came through the wall, singing a lullaby to our daughter.
I’m not going to say anything in court. I don’t know what my sentence will be. You take care. Maya said this as if the past five minutes had not happened, and then she left. Perhaps this is how karma propagates – you are betrayed, and you betray someone else, and that someone else does the same, ad infinitum.
That night, my wife came into my room, and lay down next to me on the bed. Her hands were cold against my skin. You were away for a long time, and you have needs, she said. I told her I was hungry, but she didn’t respond. She left the room, and stopped speaking to me. We named our daughter Gita, which means song. My wife communicated with me through Gita, who would gurgle appreciatively, because she did not yet comprehend words, only the tone of voice: Gita baby, will you ask your father what he wants dinner? Gita, my raja, someone’s on the phone for your father. Gita, my doll, do you think your father knows that we have barely any money left? When Gita started going to school, my wife would have to speak to me by addressing inanimate objects, or by talking at her own reflection in mirrors and shiny objects.
My shop had been searched and shut down when I was arrested. After independence, I procured a loan, and reopened. I re-hired the young man who used to sit in the shop; he was no longer young, only younger than me. On most days I sat in the shop with him, and he told me about his deaf brother who painted portraits of creatures that were half-man, half-bird, and half-tiger. I wondered how one creature could have three halves. Tragic incidents excited him, and I let him recount to me things I had already read in the papers. It gave him a peculiar pleasure. I did not reapply for my ham radio license, even though by this time it was possible to do so. The young man tried to ask me questions about my year in solitary, but in this I did not indulge him.
The young man had been telling me about his neighbour’s three-legged dog, when an old man entered the shop. It took me some moments to recognize this man as Gieve, but he didn’t look at me, and enquired with the young man about the price of a guitar.
Depends on the make, the young man said, preparing to begin his usual sales pitch about how a guitar was like a mistress.
Never mind. I was just wondering, Gieve said, cutting him off.
Gieve? I said, but he didn’t acknowledge me, until I repeated his name louder, and the young man, thinking Gieve must be partially deaf, yelled Uncleji, and motioned toward me with his head. Gieve finally turned his face to me. He placed his hand over my hand, which was resting on the wooden countertop, as if to confirm that I was made of solid matter. Has old age affected your hearing, I said.
LK. I wasn’t sure. I thought you were dead. I’m taking a new medication. For my joints. He paused between sentences, as if he wanted to be interrupted. Last month. On the radio. They said you were dead. They said VU2LK is a silent key.
My radio call sign had been assigned to someone else, since I had not reapplied for it. I told Gieve this, and his laugh made me nostalgic.
What’s your name? The one your parents gave you, he asked.
My real name is Agam, I said.
We spoke for a long time, about everything that had occurred in the past years, except Rustom. Gieve told me what he knew about my namesake – the other VU2LK had been close to my age when he died of an unknown illness. I hoped it wasn’t a mere bureaucratic error on the part of the deities that controlled death. Perhaps, like Gieve, they had gotten someone else confused with me. I did not voice these thoughts until much later in the evening, when I was eating dinner with my wife, who still would not speak to me. Her face did not show any signs to suggest she had heard me, and sometimes I think she has developed an ability to block the sound waves specific to my voice from entering her ears.
VU2LK is a silent key, I said, the words uncomfortable like sticky toffee in my mouth. This means the call sign is available again. I could apply for it.
When I said this, my wife’s fuse finally ran out. She exploded.
What is wrong with you? It’s bad luck to take a dead man’s belongings. I’m sorry, I said.
She asked me if I wanted another roti, and that night we slept in the same bed.
It was 1961. Jawaharlal Nehru was still the Prime Minister. Mughal-e-Azam was topping the box office. It was the year of dreams in which my body was encased in a glacier stranded somewhere on the Atlantic. It was the night we conceived our third daughter, Gul.
Over the years, snow collects on a glacier, weighing down on it, until every last air bubble has been compressed, leaving the glacier airless and blue. The first time I saw Gul, she had just emerged from my wife’s body. She struggled for air. She looked blue like a child-god from Hindu mythology. At first I thought Gul was the glacier from my dreams, in which I was encased. It was only much later that I realized I was the snow, in which the glacier was encased.
At LK’s cremation, no one says anything to me. Gita cannot be seen talking to me, and Nalini won’t; even though, or especially because, he is dead now. People always behave that way at funerals – as though the dead guy is still watching, still judging them. At least Gieve uncle smiles at me. He opens his
mouth to say something, but when he sees I brought my husband with me, he changes his mind. The last time I saw LK was at Maya’s funeral. We hadn’t spoken in ten years, and when I read Maya’s obituary in the newspaper, I fantasized about a reunion with my father, where I would comfort him, and he would forgive me, and I would stop myself from saying I haven’t done anything that requires forgiving.
My husband is from a Muslim family, and even though my parents adored him when they thought he was just a friend, allowed me to have Ramzaan dinner at his house, and invited him to spend Holi with us; when I told them that we were in love and engaged, they stopped acknowledging my existence, once they realized that I wasn’t asking for permission, I was making a declaration. I was still living with them, and when I finally moved out a month later, my mother broke the silence momentarily to give me a box of my things – photographs, awards for being the fastest sprinter at school, pictures of blue houses I had drawn as a child. I thought it was a gesture of tenderness, until she said, we won’t be needing these any more, as if the memory of me could be returned, like an ill- fitting dress. She died so suddenly, that we didn’t have the chance to say different last words to each other. Mine were: Whatever. At least my husband is faithful to me. In the movie of our lives, this would be the cue for a slap, but she pretended not to hear me. Everyone knew LK was having an affair with Maya. Only Gita, with her selective knowledge of the world, seemed oblivious – a cause, or consequence, of the fact that she was our father’s favourite.
Nalini looks at me in a way that reminds me of our mother. I know what she thinks – I brought Saleem to the funeral for spiteful reasons; but I want to tell her that he’s here so I don’t collapse from crying, and embarrass myself, the way I did at our mother’s funeral. I try to remember the lines from that Gulzar poem LK loved; something about time – how you don’t see it coming, going, or passing by, but it accumulates in people.
At the house, his dentures sit close-mouthed in a glass of water next to his bed. It is too soon to start packing his things – first there will be thirteen days of mourning. I will live here, in our childhood home, with Nalini and Gita, even though Nalini will not speak to me, and Gita will say the bare minimum of words necessary to peacefully co-exist: Lunch. Dinner. Towels, top shelf. More Tea? Flowers. Mouse. Doorbell. I wonder what happens to a dead person’s dentures; I don’t think they can be recycled or donated, and I doubt anyone would want to keep them. I remove LK’s teeth from the water glass, and dry them with a hand- towel. I have an overwhelming urge to make the teeth talk; to make the upper and lower jaw dance, like a chattering-teeth novelty toy, but I cannot bring myself to do it. As if in response to this desire, the dentures slip from my hand, and land on the floor. When I bend down to retrieve them, I find a typewriter and a shoebox under the bed. I open the box, and find it empty. All I find is a page jammed into the typewriter; the words packed together on both sides:
My favourite word is zaum. It was invented by Russian word scientists because they needed a word that had no meaning. I used to imagine them in a large laboratory surrounded by buckets of paper pulp and billions of little vials with words in different colours, and letters in every font lining the walls, and even the gates would be a grid of alphabets. I wanted to be a word scientist. I thought that maybe I could invent the perfect word and it would cure my muteness. Then I found out that the word scientists were just linguists, and most of them worked from home. So I decided to make radios instead.
Radios use frequencies that are below visible light. I imagine them as white rainbows travelling everywhere at the speed of sound. I like to think of my silence as white light, below the frequency of audible sound, but holding the entire spectrum of words. Except I can’t speak, even when it rains, so I write stories sometimes when there’s a thunderstorm. On sunny days I like to read under the mango tree in the backyard, or tinker with radio parts in my workshop.
People call me Sig – as in ‘Cygnus Olor’ the mute swan. There is nothing wrong with the swan’s vocal chords, it is even known to let out the occasional snort, but it remains silent for most of its life, and sings one achingly beautiful song right before it dies. I like to think of my stories as swan songs; if I can write something beautiful enough then maybe I’ll be able to find it in me to finally speak out loud.
I’m not the only one with problems though. My best friend Gieve has a hole in his heart. He says it’s only a physiological hole, and it hasn’t affected his ability to love. But people are scared of holes, and they’re always falling into them, while trying to learn more about them, like manholes or black holes.
I once asked him if he thought there was an entire galaxy residing in his heart, and he told me to stop taking things so seriously. Gieve learned sign language so that he could understand me. It was funny at first, when he kept getting the signs mixed up. He apologized to me for a week, and then I realized that he was trying to say he loved me.
It mystifies me when people don’t say things out loud, even when they have a voice. My parents never said things out loud. They always said what they didn’t mean, in strained voices, but if I had my voice I would say everything out loud. I would buy a dictionary and speak every word.
The girl I love is Maya, and she loves nobody, or so she claims. I wrote to her that I was nobody, and she just laughed. I think she’s scared that nobody will ever love her, because her nose is too big.
At night when we can’t sleep, we talk through our radios. I built her one that can only talk to my radio. She tells me little fibs in the guise of stories, and I tap out a response to her in Morse code, even though neither of us knows Morse code. It comforts her, the tap-tap- tap—tap-tap—tap.
I sit on the floor with the empty shoebox, the typewriter, and the dentures, reading LK’s last words – looking for clues to an unknown puzzle. It is futile, like the mute swan’s last song, or like trying to find a name for nothingness. Perhaps it is best this way, I think, remembering what LK said to me once: Sometimes it is better if you cannot find the right words. In some religions, everything can be destroyed with a word.
What word is that?
No one knows.
Gita interrupts me. Tea, she says.
Look what I inherited, I say, holding up the shoebox and the piece of paper.
Gita takes the page and reads it. You know he stopped speaking after she died?
I want to ask if she means Maya, or our mother. But I already know.
Photograph by Suvodeb Banerjee