Tuesday 10 August 2021

Savithri Vishwanathan, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

A Fish Out of Water

Farid flopped onto his belly and buried his face into the pillow. He crossed his arms over his ears and tried to shut out the silence. The quiet bothered him. He was used to falling asleep in the midst of chaos. The whistle of the pressure cooker from Mrs. Kumar’s kitchen as she was preparing the next day’s breakfast during the previous night, the news anchors screeching their lungs out from Mr. Zubair’s living room, the pathetic flapping of the broken blades from Chintu’s remote-control helicopter and countless other medleys of sounds from Bharati Nivas Public Housing Society morphed into the lullaby that helped him drift into a peaceful slumber every night.

But here, there was nothing. No stray dogs howled because there were no stray dogs in this country. Even the rain seemed mellow, lightly pattering on the windowpane, afraid to disturb the inhabitants and their dull lives. Farid inhaled the worn-out fabric of the pillow covering, hoping to simulate some essence of his previous existence. He didn’t mind suffocating himself if that meant that he could go back home, even for a fleeting moment.

Frustrated with his inability to put himself to sleep, he shifted onto his back. A gush of cold air entered his nostrils and went straight to his head. He felt momentarily dislodged from his current reality and almost heard the shrill screech of the vegetable hawker, Kantamma, who would single-handedly maintain the high decibel level of his old neighbourhood.

Fresh dhaniya just for five rupees. Come and get it!

Almost as soon as he imagined it, his brother’s wheezing snores drowned out his whimsical fantasies. He turned to his left and Jalal’s drooling face came into view. Jalal, his older brother, had once slept through an earthquake that had made the feeble foundation of the housing society tremble like a rowboat in shaky waters. Farid wondered if his brother felt any twinge of longing for the home that they had left behind. The home that they had been forced to leave behind.

‘Lower your voice, Rahim,’ an urgent whisper made its way to Farid’s sharp ears. ‘The boys may hear you.’

‘Let them Sayeda!’ His father’s booming voice came filtering through the thin walls. ‘They have to know that things are not going to remain the same anymore. They have to face the reality, no matter how harsh.’

‘They have to go to school tomorrow, Rahim,’ his mother replied, her tone calm and firm. ‘Let them sleep without disturbance.’

Pin-drop silence followed. Farid knew that no conversation would follow, at least, for the night. But, he also knew that many such arguments would invade his dreams and nightmares for many years to come.

Because the truth was that none of them knew how to navigate their lives in the alien land that was now their new home. And, there was no greater unifier or separator than collective uncertainty.


He awoke with a start. His eyes sprung open and the white ceiling fan slowly gained focus in his view. He turned to his right and saw a dented pillow. He stretched his arms out and reached for the switch board to his left to turn off the fan. His fingers scrapped the dry wall. Realisation hit him like a fast-moving train and he remembered. He remembered that he had woken up in a different time-zone. His jarred memory suddenly had a burst of mild curiosity. It crept into his mind, wading through the fog of nostalgia.

He grabbed the remote sitting on the nightstand and pointed it towards the rotating fan. Holding his breath in anticipation, he pressed the power button. The rotations began slowing down and came to a stop in a short while. Farid pushed the button again and the fan blades picked up speed. He watched the rotating blades, almost hypnotized by its motion. Throughout another five cycles of switching off and switching on the fan through remote control, unbeknownst to him, his lips were stretched in a wide smile.

‘Farid Malik! You had better come out for breakfast in ten minutes,’ his mother’s voice thundered. ‘Jalal is already here, ready for school.’

Farid sighed and swung his legs across the bed, trying to propel his body forward. He brushed his teeth and poured a mug of ice-cold water on his body. He regretted it immediately when he felt his body jerk violently in response. He took some solace in the fact that his body had retained its regular functions in the new country even if his mind hadn’t. He donned a pair of jeans and a blue collared t-shirt, unable to fathom his longing for his old school uniform that he had once loathed.

He walked to the dining table where his mother was clearing Jalal’s plate. Jalal himself was nowhere to be seen.

‘Where is abba?’ Farid enquired.

‘He had to leave early,’ Sayeda Malik replied, her gaze fixed on the table that she was wiping. ‘His shift starts at 7.’

She paused and looked up, meeting Farid’s eyes.

‘You need to start catching up, beta.’ She sighed, placing the washcloth on the table. ‘I know that things are changing very fast. But, you need to change too, Farid.’ She lowered her voice and continued, ‘You cannot stand against the tide. You have to go with the flow.’

‘What if I don’t want to change?’ Farid demanded. ‘I was perfectly happy with our life in Indore.’ He looked away and muttered under his breath, ‘Now everything is different.’

Sayeda walked up to her son and held his shoulders firmly. Her eyes began tearing up as she spoke.

‘We cannot go back, Farid. We just managed to make it out in time.’ She sniffed and looked away, ‘Just the day before your grandmother told me that they have lodged a complaint against your father with the police. We can only go back once we have enough money to repay those sharks.’ She looked at him with a renewed fierceness. ‘That door will remain closed for a long time to come, Farid.’

Farid looked at his mother, his eyes devoid of any emotion. He shrugged her off and walked out of the door into the biting cold Chicago wind. He put up the hood of his windbreaker and

his hands into its pockets. He felt hot tears stream down his cheeks and was mildly comforted by the warmth it provided.

His mother had not said that the door would remain closed forever. He let himself smile despite the heaviness in his chest. He swore that he would one day find the door, along with the key to open it.


Farid made his way through the crowded hallways of Lincoln High, making sure not to bump into any of the strange pimpled and freckled faces that passed by. He watched in awe as some of the towering well-built football jocks flexed their muscles playfully and gave each other seemingly well-intentioned nudges. A group of squealing girls, looking much older and taller than him, were tapping away at their glittering phones and breezed past the hallway like ethereal beings. No one paid much attention to him. And for that, he was immensely grateful.

When he shifted focus from the glamorous lot, he saw many faces that seemed familiar. They were dressed as sober as him and had books and sheets of paper in their hands, as opposed to rugby balls and expensive phones. They didn’t hang around the corners or shout out catcalls at each other. They buzzed around the hallways, going about their scheduled activities like a collective of busy worker bees.

Just then, a very familiar face zoomed past him. Farid caught hold of him before he could get lost in the sea of strangers.

‘Jalal! Where do you think you’re going?’

Jalal flashed a sheet of paper, barely able to contain his excitement. ‘I have to get to 2A for Anatomy.’ He flicked his wrist and looked at his Indian-make watch. ‘Starts in five minutes. I’ll see you later, little brother.’

Jalal was gone before Farid could respond. He was left gaping at his older brother’s receding back. Left to his own devices, he slowly made his way to the counsellor, Mr. Bryan’s, office. It seemed to be a very popular location, with a lot of students seated at the waiting room. When his turn came, he entered the cabin and found a pleasant cherubic face greeting him with a wide smile.

‘Please be seated Mr…’ Mr. Bryan left his sentence hanging, the smile still intact.

‘Farid Malik,’ Farid filled in, sitting down on the chair in front, twiddling his thumbs anxiously.

‘What can I do for you, Mr. Malik?’ Mr. Bryan hadn’t blinked once since Farid’s entry into his cabin. The dimensions of his smile remained unchanged.

‘I just joined today, sir…’ Farid began.

‘Nonsense!’ Mr. Bryan interrupted. ‘Call me Leslie.’

Momentarily disoriented, Farid continued, ‘I just joined today…’ he paused awkwardly and added, ‘…Leslie.’ He let out the breath he was holding in and said, ‘I want to know where I can get the Juniors’ class schedule.’

Mr. Leslie Bryan pulled out the top drawer, reached into it and brought out a sheet of paper, presenting it to Farid with the flourish of a trained magician.

‘Here you go, Mr. Malik,’ he beamed at Farid. ‘Your first class is Medieval History in 4C. Just take the last right along this hallway.’

Farid managed a small smile while collecting the schedule. Before closing the door behind him, he looked at the jovial Caucasian smiling after him.

‘And Leslie…’ he called out, ‘You can call me Farid.’

Mr. Leslie Bryan blinked in response as Farid’s lips stretched in a wider smile. He walked out of the counsellor’s cabin feeling a little less overwhelmed than before.


Farid walked into class and immediately felt a strange sense of deja vu. Many of his new classmates looked similar to his old friends. They all had different shades of his brown skin tone. Ms. Richards, the Medieval History teacher, was in the middle of informing her restless pupils about a pop quiz that she had planned to conduct that hour.

She looked at Farid, puzzled and annoyed at the sudden intrusion. He cleared his throat three times before choking out some words.

‘Myself Farid…new student.’

‘Excuse me?’ Ms. Richards lowered her spectacles and enquired.

‘I am Farid. I have joined school today,’ Farid attempted to form coherent sentences that turned out to be more clipped than he intended them to be. ‘I am supposed to attend your class according to the schedule.’ He waved the sheet in his hand as proof.

Ms. Richards’ brow cleared and she smiled. ‘Of course, please come in Farid.’ She looked towards the rest of the class, half of whom were lost in their phones, and said, ‘Let’s welcome the latest addition to our class.’ She looked at Farid invitingly and continued, ‘Please tell us a bit about yourself, Farid.’

He wiped his sweaty palms on his thighs and moistened his lips. He looked at the faces staring at him vacantly and felt his throat begin to close in. He attempted to speak but his voice seemed to have taken leave temporarily. The room began slowly rotating around him and before he could hold onto anything for support, the darkness took over.

He heard voices before he could gather the strength to open his eyes.

‘You need to make sure that he keeps himself hydrated.’

‘Yes, nurse. I’ll make sure he eats something too.’

‘Nothing too heavy though. We don’t know if he is suffering from any long-term condition yet.’

He blinked his eyes and the world around slowly began to come into focus. He saw a girl. She looked like his neighbour Pinky from Indore.

‘Pinky?’ He muttered weakly.

‘Are you seeing everything in pink, Mr. Malik?’ A coarse voice enquired. He coughed and said, ‘No.’

The owner of the coarse voice, an older Asian woman came into view. She flashed a torchlight at his pupils and said, ‘I want you to follow the light, Mr. Malik.’

After a few seconds of passing the torchlight between both his eyes, she was convinced that there was no sign of trauma.

‘Is this the first time you are experiencing such an incident, Mr. Malik?’ She asked, taking a seat in front of him.

But Farid had eyes only for the girl who looked like Pinky. She was busy tapping away at her phone. She looked up, feeling his stare and frowned. She walked closer to him and sat beside the Asian woman.

‘I’m Priya,’ she said, with a small smile. ‘I was in the class when you became unconscious. Ms. Richards sent me with you.’ She tilted her head slightly towards one side and said, ‘I’m your designated buddy.’

‘Buddy?’ Farid croaked out.

‘Every new student gets a buddy assigned during their first week to help them navigate through the school and its activities,’ the Asian woman took over. She leaned forward and said, ‘I’m Ally Wong, the Head Nurse of Lincoln High. Is this the first time you have fainted, Mr. Malik?’ She repeated her original query.

He nodded slowly.

‘Have you eaten breakfast today morning, Mr. Malik?’ She asked, folding her arms across her chest.

Farid shook his head, looking away guiltily.

Nurse Wong turned to Priya and said, ‘I would suggest that you take Mr. Malik to the cafeteria and give him something to eat.’ She looked at him, an amused smile playing on her lips. ‘The first day in a new school can be stressful. Mr. Malik would need all his strength to face the struggles of a Junior at Lincoln High.’

Priya ushered a slightly red-faced Farid out of the Nurse’s quarters. They walked in silence to the cafeteria. The hallways were clear except for a few students loitering around. It was disturbingly calm, like the aftermath of a hurricane. Farid settled down on one of the tables and Priya placed a chocolate muffin in front of him.

‘Eat this. You’ll feel better,’ she said, pushing the muffin towards him. Farid realised that Priya didn’t speak like Pinky. She sounded different. She sounded like she belonged in Lincoln High. She sounded like she belonged in this strange country.

Farid picked up the muffin and began nibbling it slowly.

‘You’re a refugee from India, right?’ She asked with an eager gleam in her eyes. ‘My parents were also refugees from India.’

Farid set down the muffin and swallowed the portion remaining in his mouth, along with the words Priya had just uttered. Something about it didn’t sit well with him. He hadn’t been persecuted in his country. The fondest memories of his childhood and adolescent life were bound to his hometown, his motherland. Circumstances had forced his parents to flee the country. He had followed his family to the United States of America because that was what being part of a family meant. Sticking together during the good times and the bad.

Farid realised that he couldn’t run away from something that was part of him. He wouldn’t be whole without it. He would carry it along with him forever, not as a heavy baggage weighing him down, but as a badge of honour, as part of his identity.

He looked at Priya and grinned. ‘I’m not a refugee. I am an immigrant.’

She looked at him, unblinking, for a few moments. The depth of his words slowly seemed to sink in. Her eyes then crinkled at the corners as a warm smile spread across her face.

She nodded slowly and said, ‘Welcome to Chicago, buddy.’

Farid knew then that the door he had been searching for was in plain sight all along. It was not the door that he had left behind, but the one that was in front. And the key was his will. He hadn’t entered the country out of his own free will, but he would stay on as a loyal citizen.

He would stay because he wanted to. He would stay because it was home. ----



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