Short Fiction ~ Susmita Bhattacharya
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 5
The dandiya beats are at the highest permitted decibel. The building society has spared no cost in setting up the most extravagant dance floor in the locality. Sand has been brought in from the white beaches of the Lakshadweep Islands (so the managing committee say, but it may be from the local one with healthy doses of chalk powder). There’s a live band and none other than Falguni Pathak is bringing the roof down with her ‘Maine Payal Jo Chankayi’. A Big Boss celebrity has been invited to inaugurate the nine days of dancing and revelry. There is a buffet and the men are crowding around the security-man’s shed – a makeshift bar, with the security man guarding the entrance fiercely, a bottle of Johnny Walker stashed in his satchel for later. And the dancers – oh the dancers shimmering in their mirror-work skirts, close-cropped blouses, sequinned dupattas. Glossy hair. Shining teeth. Sparkling eyes. Nimble feet.
She watches from the balcony. She twists the rosary beads around her fingers, her feet tapping to the rhythm of the synthesizer’s beats. She too had danced with her sisters once. And then with her husband and sisters-in-law. Her braided hair whipping the electric air, her skirt whirling while she twirled expertly, hitting her partner’s dandiya sticks with precision before moving on in the circle, moving, moving, moving…
She listens to the song playing now – an old classic remixed for the younger crowd – she sways to the rhythm, remembering his breath on her face, his hands on her waist. He’s been gone a long time, his memory keeping her company now. The others are downstairs, dancing. She helped tie their blouses, add flowers to their braids, slip the bangles and earrings on. Then they kissed her and disappeared, not turning back once to acknowledge that she’d been left behind. Alone. They had their own dreams to pursue.
A tap on her shoulder.
‘What are you doing here? You should be down there.’ Arms encircle her, and she turns around and embraces him.
‘What are you doing here?’ She asks him. ‘The girls are waiting for you downstairs. Go and win their hearts.’
‘They can wait,’ he says. She catches the slight American twang as he speaks. He smells different too. Not the cosy scent of milk and rice, of ghee smothered sweets she’d feed him. He’s so much taller than her now. And so thin.
‘Don’t they feed you in America?’ she complains, measuring the width of his wrist with her fingers. ‘Such a rich country, and yet my grandson returns skinny as a stick.’
He laughs and it’s the same laugh that she has tucked away in her heart.
‘Come,’ he says and leads her into the sitting room. He helps her into a pair of Nike trainers he’s got her for her morning walks. He places dandiya sticks in her hands. As the music floats up from the festivity downstairs, he spins her around.
‘We’re going to dance first,’ he says. And she does.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. She won the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4. Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and will be serialised for BBC Radio 4 Extra in January 2020. She lectures at Winchester University, facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops in Southampton (An ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project. Currently, she is working on her second novel.