Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

No One Prays to the Goddess

He took a wrong turn on P.M. Road and found himself face to face with it.

“Devi,” he said, touching his forehead in the Hindu genuflectory gesture similar to crossing oneself. And took a step back. Then another.

It was a small temple. A shrine, really. Perhaps seven feet high and five feet broad. Built, like most temples in India, at the base of a tree. Two tiny marble arches framed the front portal. An elaborately carved bunting ran around the top of the roughly squareish structure. The top sloped upwards in a much sharper dome than was usual, concluding in a spire-like tip that was almost Christian in its sternness.

He took a step forward, still unable to believe he had fulfilled his life’s greatest quest so unexpectedly. He looked around, reassuring himself that he was still in downtown Bombay, in this narrow alley just off Sir Phirozeshah Mehta Road, the heart of the city’s business district. Barely five metres away, traffic rushed past on the crowded boulevard, carrying home commuters at the end of another hectic weekday. Car horns blared, London-style BEST buses roared and farted, Hindi pop music blasted from a street vendor’s stall: Any 4 tapes, Rs 100 only. The city breathed and lived, sinned and fornicated, worked and pleasured around him. But here, in the presence of the least known of India’s 5,000 gods, he felt cocooned, secluded. It was as if a glass door had been lowered slowly into place, separating him from the street, from the city. Sealing him off. As if he had stepped momentarily out of Bombay, and into another realm.

He smiled nervously, brushing aside these imaginative thoughts. It was due to the excitement of the discovery, he told himself. And the general sensory overload of the past week, the exhaustion of coping with India after a lifetime spent in the relative luxury of Connecticut, USA. The anxiety of being home again, yet not being able to truly accept this filthy, overcrowded, polluted island as the place that had birthed him and his lineage.

He stepped forward, toward the shrine, and examined it more closely. The portal itself consisted of two intricately designed gold-plated doors, with a central latch and bolt. The deity lay behind those doors, naturally. And from the distinctive markings on the pillars and the sides of the shrine, it was clearly a temple of the Fisher Queen. He had seen the markings and designs often enough on ancient texts to be sure. And thirty-one years of searching had only sharpened his senses further.

Overcoming the initial sense of anxiety—probably a reaction to finding what he had sought for over three decades—he made himself walk carefully around the perimeter of the shrine, confirming his first recognition through a dozen different details. The tiny fresco carved on the bunting, depicting an oceanic scene: a boat setting sail from shore, women and children waving goodbye. The boat drifting on an empty ocean, the fishermen pulling up empty nets. The men praying to the Fisher Queen, she who ruled over all life on the ocean. The goddess rising up from the deep, terrible and towering as a kraken, glowing with the haloed light that Hindu gods shared with their Christian counterparts. Then the fishermen hauling in huge catches, returning home rich with the bounty of the Devi. Then a marking to indicate the passage of time; generations, actually.

The fresco continued around the third and fourth sides of the shrine, taking him around the tree itself, stepping carefully in the dull gloom of the alley to avoid tripping over the overgrown roots of the banyan tree, rising out of the concrete of the street like the coils of a gargantuan sea serpent. The last part of the fresco depicted the rise to riches and power of the tiny fishing hamlet on the West coast, one of the seven village-islands that made up the original seven islands of Bombay. And then the tragic, inevitable fall from grace as the villagers failed to honour their patron goddess, and she wreaked a terrible vengeance on them, destroying the village-island itself and washing all its denizens into the ocean, back to the womb of their creator. He was back at the front portal again. And by now, eager to see the Devi. To do puja. Offer his penitent homage. But all that faced him were the bolted doors. He looked around again, although there was nobody there. Slapped at some insect, probably a mosquito, that nibbled briefly at his ear. This was puzzling, and frustrating. What purpose did the doors serve? It was true; most Hindu temples were barred at night. But that was to keep out bandits who sought to plunder the day’s charitable takings. And at least one junior acolyte of the main pujari always slept on the premises in the event of an untimely worshipper’s visit.

Harry looked around once again, making sure that there really was nobody around. No pujari, temple priest, or even a sadhu performing sanyas. After all, this was the shrine of the Mumba Naag Devi, the sacred Sea Goddess or Fisher Queen, or Serpent Mother, to use just a few of her many names. There should have been lines of devout worshippers, brahmins to supervise the maintenance and upkeep of the shrine, flower and incense vendors to sell the paraphernalia needed to pay homage, old women squatting on the ground to watch your shoes and slippers for a rupee while you performed your puja, altar boys in their dhotis and brahmin threads to prepare and offer you the puja thali as you stepped up to the altar: an entire support system earning a living and providing services to the followers of the Devi. Especially in these confusing millennial times, when India seemed to be swept by a religious resurgence of epic proportions, every temple thronged by mile-long queues, raking in millions in charity, feeding small townships of brahmins.

But there was nobody here. Not a soul in sight. Just a dead-end wall at the far end, marked with obscene graffiti, a Bombay Municipal Corporation rubbish bin overflowing with aromatic refuse, a few discarded cans of Pepsi, a Domino’s Pizza box (twelve inches, with the plastic packet of red chili flakes still Scotch-taped to the top), a shrivelled-up used condom, a pile of corrugated cardboard boxes that had once contained some household durable. And this amazing shrine. It didn’t make sense. It just didn’t. His hands were reaching out. Toward the portal gates. Just a few inches more, and he could unlatch them himself, and take darshan of the deity. He was a devout Hindu, a brahmin no less, and despite his life spent across the ocean, still a stout devotee of the Goddess. What else was this shrine built for, if not for people like himself?

“Baba?”

The voice startled him, almost caused him to pitch forward, fall into the shrine. He tottered, stumbled forward, then regained his balance.

He turned around, and at first saw nobody.

“Ikde, baba. Khalee bagaa.” Here, son. Look down. Then he saw her, squatting in the familiar posture of Maharashtrian women since time immemorial, on her haunches on the pavement. A round tokri of woven-straw before her, filled with some produce. A street vendor. Had she been there when he entered the alley? Through his examination of the shrine’s markings? How could he have failed to notice her earlier? Well, of course. She was crouched down beside the corrugated cardboard boxes. Sitting almost stone-still, probably chawing her tobacco, waiting for customers to stop and purchase her wares. He had overlooked her completely.

“Ikde ye, baba. Bugh, mee kai sangeetho.” Come here, son. Listen to me.

He went toward her. As he approached, he could see her more clearly in the light streaming from the P.M. Road side of the alley. She was ancient, older than her voice suggested, face wrinkled in that parchment-like map of ages that was peculiar to Konkan women. And she was chawing on tobacco, like they all did. He glanced into her tokri as he reached her. The basket had probably contained a load of seafood at first. Now, the only remnant was a pair of bombeel. Bombay Duck. A flat ocean fish that could skinned, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried to a crisp, then eaten like an omelette, bones and all. Deliciously crunchy. He preferred pomfret. Or bangda even.

“Tuzha naav kai?” she asked in Marathi. What’s your name? “Hari Prasad Rathod,” he replied. Not adding: But everybody back in Connecticut calls me Harry.

She nodded slowly. Her glass bangles jangled on her forearms. An old tattoo, almost faded now, marked the backs of her hands. She poked a finger in the direction of the shrine.

“Tumhi devicha darshanla aale?” You came to worship the goddess?

“Ho,” he said, surprised at how naturally his native language rolled off his tongue, even if it was a single word. Yes.

She took out a small aluminium canister, the kind most Maharashtrians of a certain class carried, and began to make herself another wad of tobacco, supari and lime. She patted the mixture together in her left palm, using her right thumb to rub it together with practised ease. Harry had seen even Bombay policemen, semi-automatic machine guns slung over their shoulders, taking time out to mix this traditional Marathi mixture. It had taken city authorities crores of rupees and decades of advertising to convince people not to spit the blood-red betel-and-tobacco juice at every available wall. Even now, he could see the telltale stains on the wall beside the old woman, spread out in a map-like pattern similar to the Galapagos Islands.

“Bassa,” she said, indicating the ground in front of her. Sit.

Harry suppressed a smile. The old woman probably had bad eyesight. To expect him to squat on his haunches on the street, like a cart-puller or a peon!

He spoke to the old woman in Marathi, framing his words carefully. Surprisingly, the words, grammar, syntax all rolled easily off his tongue and palette. Thirty-one years since he had spoken more than a sentence, and yet he spoke as fluently as if it was yesterday. Like riding a bicycle.

“This shrine,” he said. “Why isn’t there any pujari or pundit here? Is there a particular day or time for worshippers to come for darshan of the devi?”

She finished making her wad of timepass, raised her palm, transferring the entire mass from hand to mouth, using her thumb to stuff it into her left cheek.

He asked his question again, rephrasing it marginally in case she hadn’t understood it the first time.

“You have been away,” she said in Marathi. But in the old dialect, the fisher-people’s tongue, Koli. “Across the ocean. A Brahmin should not cross the ocean, you know that.”

He was surprised to find himself feeling embarrassed at the admonition.

“Ho, bai,” he admitted. Yes, mother. “I was a child when my father took me. He had a good opportunity, we had to go.” He felt the curious need to explain further, to justify. “We live a good life there. Honest, hard work. Follow all the rituals and traditions, just like at home. Even in America, we live like Mumba Devi’s children.”

She nodded. Her cheek was swollen from the tambaccu, her lips barely moving to form the words. But he could understand every syllable. She picked up the two fish from her tokri, wrapping them in newspaper, tied the bundle with twine from a roll mounted on a stick. She handed him the bundle.

“This is one thing you could not have found on foreign shores,” she said. “Here. Taste Mumba Devi’s bounty. Taste it and remember who you are, where you belong.”

He hesitated. But felt a peculiar pressure to take the fish. Without allowing himself time to object, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the first currency note he touched. It was a 100-Rs note. He handed it to the old woman. It disappeared into the folds of her choli, the fisherwoman’s traditional low-cut cotton blouse. He took the bundle of fish, finding it heavier than expected. He saw that it contained a pair of pomfret, not bombeel. He must have been mistaken earlier when he thought he saw Bombay Duck. The old woman was rising to her feet, raising the tokri to her head, arranging the coiled pad of cloth on her skull. He helped her place the tokri on her head and watched her shuffle down the alley. The wrong way.

“Bai,” he said uncertainly. “That way is a dead-end.”

He turned to indicate the street, P.M. Road, down the other way. “That’s the way to go out.” He barely turned his head for an instant.

When he turned back she was gone.

• • • •

Aarti sounded concerned on the phone. “But, Harry, you don’t speak Koli.”

“That’s the point, Art,” he replied, excited. “My parents used to speak it. I must have retained memories. Just enough to converse with the old fisher-woman.”

“Johnny’s getting tired of managing the store all day,” she said. “Labour Day weekend’s coming up. He wants to go with the rock-climbing group. He asked if you’d be back by then.”

“He’s spoilt,” Harry said. “Just because you and I have managed the store on our own till now, he thinks he’s too good for it. It’s decent work, Art. Do him good to spend a few hours at the register. Maybe he can learn a bit about the business while he’s at it.”

“I thought we talked about this. He’s going to college next year. He’s already applied to Boston, you know that.”

Harry didn’t want to talk about his children. “Okay, okay. I’ll be back in time for Labor Day weekend. He can go on his rock-climbing campout. But, Art, listen. Those fish the old woman gave me were the best. Finger-lickin’ good! I wish you were here to share them with me.”

She snorted. “You mean you wish I was there to fry them for you. How did you manage to cook them up anyway? Sunita-Bua must have done it.”

“What, you think I can’t fry a couple of fish? Sunita-Maasi’s maid ground the masala, and I did the rest. Both Sunita and Kishore said the same thing, that it was the best pomfret they’d ever had.”

Aarti sniffed. He realized suddenly that she was feeling neglected.

For twenty-five years she had cooked every meal for him, after all. Even though, he thought, without even being aware of the inherent chauvinism in the thought, a desi wife’s self-esteem takes much of its strength from her prowess in the kitchen—even more than in the bedroom.

“Of course,” he added hastily, “not as tasty as the way you cook them. But the masalas here, Art. Even the top-of-the-line imports in Connecticut just don’t have the same flavour.” She sounded a little mollified. But he had to promise to return by Labour Day weekend twice more. Even though he knew that as a good desi housewife, she couldn’t come right out and say that she was missing him. Three decades in America still couldn’t erase deeply ingrained desi customs.

• • • •

He had a few minor chores to take care of the next day, looking up old schoolfriends, a dearly loved teacher, other old faces from the distant past. And of course, the property matter for which he’d come in the first place. It was just a broken-down shack and a few acres of infertile land. But it was oceanfront property, on Kashid Beach in Alibag. And Sunita and Kishore said that droves of rich Malabar Hill-types were buying property in Alibag and building cottages and bungalows for weekend holidays. If he put it up for sale through a good downtown real estate agent, he’d get a good price. Enough to pay off the rest of the mortgage on the new house back in Connecticut, and to put Johnny through college. Maybe even a little left over to upgrade from the Ford pick-up to the GM van Aarti had been eyeing so wistfully. The trip out to Alibag and back took half a day each way, what with the ferry service being so irregular, and the ocean being choppy at this time of year. And then the long, bone-banging ride by auto-rickshaw to the village.

Before leaving India forty-three years ago, he had lived in Bombay City, in the same house where his sister Sunita and her husband Kishore still stayed. During the nine short years of his life before migrating to the US of A, he had visited his ancestral village perhaps twice in all, once when he was barely an infant.

So he had grown up with an idealized, romantic image of his family’s village, and was disappointed to find Pepsi billboards by the roadside, empty packs of Lays and Kelloggs Chocos clogging the monsoon-swollen gutters, and satellite dishes sprouting from the roofs of ugly, concrete-block bungalows. But as the auto-rickshaw bumped its way past these modern outgrowths into the more remote heart of district, he found the vista closer to his memory: Red-tiled sloping roofs and mud-and-brick houses for the upper castes, thatched huts and cowdung-cake walls and roofs for the lower castes; an open patch lined with coconut and palm trees where children played gilli-danda, marbles, and yes, of course, cricket too. But even that colonial game seemed homegrown somehow, the brown-stained bat and tattered rubber ball seeming more Maharashtrian Indian than English in this rustic setting.

The property was a mess. It took all of the first day just to get it cleaned up. But afterwards, when he sat on the verandah of the old cottage and looked out at the Arabian Ocean, at the sunlight glinting off the fish-rich nets of the village boats out in Kashid Bay, he smiled in satisfaction. Perhaps he wouldn’t sell after all.

For a brief moment, a vision of himself and the kids, still small enough to be dependent on him, and Aarti, frolicking on the white-blonde sandy beach, flashed in his mind. But of course, that was impossible now. The kids were grown and on their way out. If only he had come back sooner. Why hadn’t he? He had certainly wanted to badly enough. But there had always been the store, sucking up his days from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., weekends and holidays too in those early years of the first mortgage. Sammy’s illness; his long, expensive hospitalization, and subsequent death. The gap of six years before he and Aarti dared to try again. Then Sanaya, and then Johnny. The post-Gulf War recession. Etc., etc., etc. And the years had just rolled by.

In the vision he had glimpsed, Sammy had been there too, a little ’un about the same age as Johnny—which was patently impossible—leaping through the surf in pursuit of a large coconut husk-ball. Dream on, you foolish dreamer. Destiny sniggers in the wings.

Later that same evening, he was walking on the beach, the soughing surf and gentle salty breeze relaxing him more thoroughly than the palm liquor he’d drunk in the village earlier, when he saw the woman.

She was walking away from him, hand on one hip, a bundle poised on her other hip. She seemed younger, more shapely, but he had no doubt it was her. She paused at the top of a dune and looked back. In the serendipitous light of the setting sun, he was certain she smiled at him. A very sexy, inviting smile.

Then she went over the dune and disappeared from sight. He sprinted as fast as he could over the sand, his lungi, unfamiliar folds of cloth between his legs, slowing him down. And the weight of time, all those fifty-two years, the majority of them spent standing behind the counter of the superstore. Age turns desire to molasses in the veins.

When he reached the top of the dune, there was no sign of anyone for several hundred metres in either direction.

• • • •

He was drinking with the village headman, Surpanch Joshi, late that night, munching on koliwada-style batter-fried prawns that brought out the full flavour of the potent palm liquor—and broke out a sweat on his forehead. He told the Surpanch about the shrine in the alley off P.M. Road. The Surpanch had never heard of P.M. Road, and showed only passing interest in Harry’s description of the little temple with its elaborate fresco but when he reached the part about the old woman, he stopped short.

He turned large, red-streaked eyes on Harry. His long, lustrous moustache—oiled every morning with shark-fin oil—twitched visibly as he stared at the Non-Resident Indian. “You must not speak of her to me,” he said, glancing around nervously. “Or to anyone. Her words are for you only.”

Harry frowned. “But she was just an old woman, a fisherwoman. It’s just that she knew the old dialect. So I thought perhaps—”

“No, no,” the Surpanch replied, flapping his hand vigorously in a fly-away gesture. “Say not a word more. It is only for you, her darshan. She chose to appear to you.”

Harry couldn’t understand head or tail of this. He tried to tell the Surpanch about the other young woman he’d seen earlier in the evening on the beach.

“I thought maybe she’s a relative. There’s a strong family resemblance.”

But the Surpanch was rising, apologizing profusely, making some excuse about having to rise early the next morning. He thrust the bottle of feni into Harry’s hand, and added an earthen container of curried fish and rice, for dinner. And all but pushed Harry out the door of his house.

• • • •

That night, after he finished the bottle of feni, Harry had a dream. Well, not quite a dream, because he was awake when it happened, but he had drunk enough to doubt if maybe he was asleep dreaming he was awake when it happened.

He was sitting on the verandah on the old khaat, the wooden cot. He had finished the alcohol, and knew he should eat something, but lacked the will to get up and go inside to fetch the pot of rice and curry. The kerosene lantern had gone out a while ago, and he didn’t have the energy to re-fuel and relight that either. So he was sitting in the dark, with a little light coming from the crescent moon low in the Western sky. Even the crickets had stopped chirrupping, so he knew it was late. When she spoke, he thought for a moment it was Art. That he was back home in Connecticut, in the old clapboard house with noisy plumbing and the squeaky fourth stair. That he had passed out on the old recliner in the living room after watching a ball game. And Aarti was trying to wake him up to go to bed.

Because that’s what she was saying to him: “Come to bed.” Just like Aarti, Art, his wife, the only woman he had ever slept with in his entire life.

But she was speaking in the village dialect. Which Aarti didn’t know, had never known. Because Aarti’s people had come from a village in the ghats, the ridge mountains north of Bombay, where they spoke a different Marathi from this ancient dialect. Then he listened more closely as she said it again. And realized she wasn’t actually saying “come to bed.” She was saying those words, so yes, that was a literal translation. But what she really meant was the other meaning of “come to bed.” And her tone left no room for doubt, soft and sibilant, undulating a coiled desire in his groin.

He found himself on his feet and stared down for a moment, unable to understand how he had stood up so fast. His feet began to take him toward the voice. Into the darkness of the hut’s inner room, where the light of the moon didn’t penetrate at all. Toward the coconut-husk mat on the floor where someone sat who was not Aarti, nor any other woman he knew. The scent of freshly applied coconut oil came to him, and he sensed rather than saw her hands moving, winding and braiding her long black hair, lustrous with oil. The scent of mogra, nightqueen blossom, which she had sprinkled across the mat. It was used for bridal beds on the first night. Suhaag raat.

And below these two powerful, evocatively familiar scents, as redolent of memories as a flashback in a film, was the smell of something older, stronger, and so firmly embedded in her flesh that even the potent mogra and sweet-smelling coconut oil could not hide it. The smell of the ocean, of millennia spent in the arms of the brine-king, the pungent aroma of his salty seed, fish and plant, moss and crab, the broth of creation itself whence all life had originated. Her father and lover. Her ruler. He moved a step closer, unable to resist the lure of that powerful and ancient aroma, more irresistible than any synthetic perfume, and felt his erection rise strong and true, drawn to the source of the smell: Her yoni. Splayed between parted thighs, inviting, waiting.

He felt the aching grow intolerable, the pounding in his head threatening to drown out all reason and consciousness, and had all but succumbed to her power.

When she touched him. Reached out and placed her palm on his bare thigh, beneath the hitched-up lungi. Causing his flesh to tremble terribly, melting with desire.

And said: I have waited for you for so long, why didn’t you come home to me sooner, my son?

And he turned and ran from the cottage. Ran, ran out into the aangan of the house, toward the partly cleared pathway to the beach, still rough and tangled. Through bamboo and banana-leaf, papaya tree and palm trunk. Stumbling, slapping, colliding, falling, yet getting up and running on, ignoring pain, bruises, scratches.

He spent the night on the steps of the village temple. Beneath the watchful gaze of Hanuman, the Monkey-God, protector of the brave and strong.

• • • •

Harry returned to Bombay the next day. The estate agent had called to leave two messages. He had a buyer for the Alibag property, offering a good price.

“You should sell, bhaiya,” Sunita said. “The rates have never been this high ever.”

“Yes, yes,” Harry replied, promising to call the agent and discuss the offer. And seemed to be thinking about it. But in fact he was deciding whether to take a slow BEST bus or a fast overcrowded local train to get to P.M. Road. Finally, he took a quick expensive taxi.

He got out in front of the old brownstone which housed the department store. Walking along the pavement, avoiding the electronic vendors with their wares stacked enticingly on plywood-shelved stalls. The video porn vendor selling VCDs which all seemed to have the word “Night” in the title, as in “Night Eyes,” “Night Moves,” “Night and the Maiden,” “Night of Nights,” the cellphone stall right in front of the stationery store, the music store.

He stopped.

He must have gone past it. It was between the stationery store and the electronics showroom. He remembered looking at a window display of Oxford Notebooks and Parker Pens and then turning left, and coming face to face with it.

He went back a few metres. The stationery show window was still there, displaying the complete range of Faber-Castell colours, pastels, crayons, pencils, and paints. He walked forward again, looking left, certain the alley was right here. And came to the music store.

Staring at a poster of a new Hindi film, featuring that wolfish-looking new male star everybody was raving about, he felt a moment of overwhelming panic.

He regained control of himself and retraced his steps, going all the way around the block and returning to the exact same spot. Then he went the other way around, the D.N. Road side. And met with the same results.

He crossed the street to get a different perspective and paced up and down the length of P.M. Road, all the way from Smoker’s Corner Bookstall at the Fort Market end to the Citibank ATM at the D.N. Road end.

There was no dead-end alley at all. Every lane crossing P.M. Road led to another lane, in the Manhattan-like grid-like pattern of downtown Bombay. The store owners he asked, the street vendors, the restaurant manager, the traffic cop at the signal, even the magazine vendor at the corner, everybody agreed that there was no dead-end lane leading off Sir Phirozeshah Mehta Road, had never been such a lane, couldn’t possibly be one for obvious reasons. On his fourth circuit, he stopped asking about the dead-end lane and tried asking about the temple of the Devi instead. This time, he met with strange looks, irritated reactions, hostile stares, even an outright stream of Hindi abuse, colourfully inventive phrases and insults he’d never heard before. Finally, an old watch-maker, his eyepiece still clutched in one eye, shook his head grimly. “Meri baat mano, bhai, apne ghar chale jaao. Uss Devi ki talaash mein arbo mard barbaad ho gaye.” Take my advice, brother, go home. Countless men like you have ruined their lives questing for that Goddess.

Harry tried to probe further, but the old man wouldn’t say another word. When he came back on his fifth circuit, the shop was closed, although he thought he could make out a glimmer of light from beneath the rolldown shutters.

Brother, go home.

He couldn’t go home. Not just yet. Home was 3,000 kilometres away and there were questions he wanted answered first.

He went instead to the place where most men go when they fail to find what they seek.

A bar.

• • • •

When he staggered home in the early hours of the next morning, the lights were on in his sister’s house. Sunita was sobbing on the sofa in the living room. Kishore was sitting with his head in his hands, staring at the black television set. They looked up at the sight of Harry, swaying drunkenly in the doorway.

“Kai zaala?” he asked, understanding that something was seriously wrong. What happened?

It was Johnny.

“Janardan was locking up for the night,” Aarti said on the phone, reverting to their son’s Hindu name in this moment of ultimate crisis. “These three men came in, the police say they were probably some kind of naval cadets, Japanese or something. They had some kind of argument, I don’t know about what, I was in the backroom at the time, taking inventory. I think they asked him to empty out the cash register. He did that. Gave them every cent. Didn’t talk back or make any sudden movements, just like you taught him when he was small.”

She paused. “He did everything right, Hari,” she cried. Yes, yes, yes, he cried silently, maudlin with booze and shock, waiting for the punchline to this awful unfunny cosmic joke. “But they shot him anyway.”

She began to lose it, sniffing uncontrollably. “T . . . t . . . twice in the head, once in the chest.”

He leaned slowly against the wall, the cracked plaster flaking and powdering his right shoulder. Like dandruff.

• • • •

The ferry was closed. A storm was expected, the operators at Gateway said. A cyclone, headed toward Gujarat. Perhaps after a few days, the service would resume. A large sign posted beneath the monument, at the jetty, announced that the motorboat launches were officially barred from taking passengers until further notice, by order of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Water swirled well over the jetty, right up to the top of the pier, washing over toward the monument itself.

As he argued with the sullen launch operators standing in the shadow of the Gateway, he heard a guide explaining to a group of tourists that this was apparently the worst storm in the region in twenty-eight years.

“No, you don’t understand,” Harry said. “I have to go today. Now. Quickly. Laukar!” He struck his palm with the edge of the other hand, karate-chop style. “Laukar!”

Finally, he found an operator willing to take him for a fee that was probably more than the resale value of the rickety old launch. Harry didn’t bargain. He paid the man cash up front, keeping half of the agreed sum in abeyance till they crossed. The ocean was furious, raging with an intensity Harry had never seen outside of films and television. The clusters of yachts, playthings of rich Bombayites, rocked violently in the bay like plastic ducks in a bathtub into which Homer Simpson had just dropped anchor. He was the only passenger on board: even the villagers huddled in the shelter of the Gateway had watched him leap aboard without asking to come along. They preferred to squat five days on the street until the storm cleared and regular services began. As fisherfolk, they understood and feared the sea’s wrath more than anything else.

He clung to the railing at first, staring out at the foggy, rain-smeared horizon, an ageing, slightly overweight Cortez awaiting first sight of land. The launch was buffeted by waves that reared over his head. Spray drenched him from head to toe; he had to keep wiping his eyes to be able to see clearly. The owner was piloting the launch himself. Two workers had come aboard with him, reluctantly. But as they passed the stolid grey eminence of INS Vikrant, aircraft carrier-turned-museum, they began a heated argument with their employer. It ended with both of them leaping overboard at the point closest to the neck of land jutting out from the naval pier and swimming out vigorously, as if their lives depended on it. Which it did, Harry realized.

As the launch pulled him out of sight, he saw one of them clamber slowly onto shore and throw himself face down, the other one probably following right after; but they might as easily have been caught in the riptide and taken out to sea. Obviously, they feared the voyage more than that risk. Harry watched the skyline of South Bombay disappear into the foggy obscurity. The simplistic block of the new Taj Hotel faded into the swirling spray and rain like the last frame of an Impressionistic Italian film. After they left the Elephanta Island buoy behind, the ocean grew worse. The sky, already clouded over with curdled grey madness, darkened as suddenly as if a light had been dimmed. Thunder boomed frighteningly close; lightning crackled somewhere high up, blanketed in the clouds. The wooden bones of the battered launch moaned and screamed as the ocean intensified its assault. Harry gripped the railing hard enough to numb his hands. The water flailing across his face and body was cold now, Atlantic-cold, as frigid as a splash of exposed water on a winter’s day in Wisconsin.

A succession of giant waves reared toward him, approaching with grim determination. One, two, three . . . a dozen more followed. Until he lost count, and measured time only by the steady throbbing of his pulse in his throat, the desperate chug-chugging of the diesel engine, the frantically shouted prayers of the petrified Muslim owner at the wheel, the roaring of the ocean, and the Dolby-enhanced boom-crack of thunder. Lightning illuminated the night, limning his hands with ghastly fluorescence. He felt old, at the end of his tether.

And that was when he saw it. Her.

It was a wave, yet another in the countless succession that battered the boat. But unlike the others, it reared up to above his eye level . . . and stayed.

It took his beleaguered senses a moment or two to realize that the wave had not struck, was not going to lash him with icy spray. He raised his head slowly.

And looked full into the face of the Devi. She was the wave and the wave was her. Undulating, twisting sinuously, her form merged with the ocean, half-morphed somewhere between woman and water, eyes flashing green as burning jade, hair black and streaming the length of her body like a dark fin. And he smelt her once more. Not the same mixture of mogra, oil and ocean he had smelt that night in the cottage. There was no attempt to anoint herself with perfume now, just a raw sewage-strong stench that he knew at once was her true odour. She was grinning at him, yellow, cracked teeth bared in a shark-like grimace.

He heard her speak, although she did not use words. She spoke with the wind and the rain and the waves and the thunder and the mouths of fish teeming in the waters around her. Are you pleased with what you have wrought, Hari Prasad Rathod? You see the price of spurning me? You should have accepted my embrace that night. Now, you suffer the pain of a father bereaved yet again.

He felt his anger rise like bile in his throat. Screamed back at her across the raging cyclone, in an all-too human voice. “How dare you harm my son! I was your loyal devotee all my life. Prayed to you even when I could not find your shrine. Long after others of my tribe had forgotten you or turned to other gods. And this is how you repay my loyalty and penitence?”

Her eyes burned brighter with anger, turning from green to blue.

It was necessary, to prove to you my power. Even halfway across the circle of waters, you and your seed still belong to me. If you had accepted my embrace, I would have showered you with blessings unimaginable. But you spurned me. Me, the Daughter of the Ocean! You had to pay the price.

He laughed then. Knowing that he had overestimated her from the very beginning.

“Just a girl,” he said bitterly. “Countless millennia old, but still a girl in your own mind, unable to accept rejection.”

The ocean roared and thundered, infuriated by his scorn. A wave lashed the railing with a razor-sharp finger, sending a chip of wood into his shoulder with the force of a knife-throw. He ignored the pain and the tiny trickle of blood seeping down his kurta. It was just a small splinter.

“I know how alone you are,” he said. “How abandoned you feel by my race. Nobody has paid homage to you for years, perhaps almost a whole generation. Yet when I came across your bed of brine to seek you out, you caused my own son to suffer? How cruel and thoughtless of you, my goddess. I command you to restore my son at once. Return him to his former healthful state this very instant.”

The howl of wind that followed was almost petulant.

Why should I help you? What do I care if your son dies?

“Because I am the last believer. If my son dies, I will leave this land and never think or speak of you again. But if he lives, I will worship you forever. I will see to it that your glory reaches across to other shores. I will devote my life to your service.”

And in return, all you wish is the life of your son back?

“Of course not,” he said, smiling in pride, knowing he had won. “I have other wishes. But first you must promise never to harm my loved ones. Next time, I will not relent as easily, my Devi.”

There was a long break, and the storm seemed to pause briefly, as if frozen momentarily by a finger on a remote control unit. Out the corner of his eye, Harry sensed the launch owner emerge from the pilot-house, stare incredulously at the sight before him—his passenger talking to a Goddess in a wave—and return hastily to his steering again, muttering an audible appeal to his own god for sanity and safe return.

“Very well,” she said, speaking in the same voice she had used that first day as an old fishmonger, the same weary accent. “But you must pledge that your seed and the seed of your seed will always be mine.”

Harry knew he had no choice.

“Yes,” he replied, fighting to conceal his inner turmoil. “I swear allegiance.”

And the storm vanished, leaving them in a clear blue ocean beneath an azure, sunlit sky.

• • • •

He returned to Connecticut a week later, bearing bags of gifts. Johnny and Aarti were both at the airport to receive him, Johnny looking just the way he’d looked when Harry had left. Harry hugged his son with caution, afraid to hug too hard. “Feeling okay?” he asked, rubbing his son’s shoulders through the windcheater.

“Never better,” Johnny replied.

Aarti turned limpid, luminous eyes up at him. “The doctors said it was nothing short of a miracle. Complete recovery and regression. Never seen anything like it before.”

He kissed her on the forehead, then directly on the lips, surprising her and causing Johnny to raise his eyebrows. In all the years they had been together, they had never kissed on the lips in public.

She looked surprised, but pleasantly so.

“There will be some changes,” he said to her quietly as they walked to the truck. Johnny was ahead, carrying Harry’s overstuffed bags with the ease of a wrestler carrying a welterweight. He tossed them into the back of the Ford. Harry and Aarti stopped. He felt her eyes on him, questioning, wondering. He hoped she couldn’t smell the ocean on his breath, in his pores, the roots of his hair. He could smell nothing else.

“What kind of changes?” she asked, staring wide-eyed at him now. Then, softer, almost unsurely: “You seem different. The trip was good for you.”

“Yes,” he said. And felt the onset of unexpected tears. “It was very, very good for me. For all of us.”

She glanced at him, surprised at the sudden release of emotion.

He grinned, blinking away the tears.

“Come,” he said to both of them, throwing out his hands. “Let’s go home. I’m famished. What’s for dinner?”

“Fish,” Johnny replied, starting the car.

Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the pioneer of the speculative fiction genre in India. His ground-breaking internationally acclaimed eight-book Ramayana Series was the first trilogy and series ever published in India. It revolutionized Indian publishing, creating a genre which is now the biggest selling in the country. Ashok’s 52 books have all been bestsellers in India, as well as translated into 18 languages and sold in 58 countries. He has also been credited as the author of the first Indian science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, thriller stories and novels in English, creator and screenwriter of the first Indian TV series in English, the first Indian ebooks in English and other firsts. He is one of only a handful of living Indian authors represented in The Picador Book of New Indian Writing and the Vintage Anthology of Modern Indian Literature. Two new novels are due out in 2018: Upon a Burning Throne (John Joseph Adams Books) and Rise as One (Delacorte). He is of Irish-Portugese-Sri Lankan-Indian parentage and lives in Los Angeles.