Shefali Shah Choksi (b. 1964) teaches Literature and Composition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She has an MA (English) and MPhil (Women’s Studies) from the MS University of Vadodara (Gujarat, India) and lived in Florida since 1988, when she immigrated from Mumbai. She published her first book of poetry, Frontier Literature, in 2011, and has published short stories, reviews, and reflective essays in a variety of anthologies and publications
Of Fire and Grace
Nothing commands grace like a flame. Anu contemplated this as she watched the languid dance of her finger around the puja flame of her kitchen altar. The flame appeared to answer her play and Anu’s eyes shone with its borrowed red. The fall sky outside her window was an uninterrupted cerulean – not even a cloud threatened the clear horizon. Ever since her aunt had defeated the wind whirl, the extra-terrestrial threats seemed to be leaving the planet to its normal revolutions.
Anu was restless. She belonged to a line of Manipulators, a lineage of women with special powers dedicated to maintaining normalcy on the planet, battling unimaginable threats that regularly wandered in from the outer cosmos. These threats looked like innocent, boring rocks or whiffs of breeze, but were lethal enough to wipe all that could be called life from the planet if left unchallenged. Each Manipulator was drawn to an element and specialized in controlling it. However, any Manipulator could battle any manner of elements or their combination, should the need arise. Anu’s maiden aunt, Kusum, had trained Anu in the art of Fire Manipulation after her familiar peacock had martyred himself in the great battle.
When Kusum had come to discuss Anu’s training with her mother, Anu had been relieved. She was the third of five rambunctious children. Her siblings were a loud, busy bunch, always shouting their departures and arrivals to and from the rather large house that they had inherited from their great-grandmother, as they followed their individual calendars of school and extra-curricular activities that ate up their hours, weekends and months.
Anu, too, attended a hobby center after school, but she hated both the school and the hobby center. It was as though the natural neglect that was her lot in the family extended outwards, and everyone – the teachers, the students, the coaches, the artists, even the janitors – largely ignored her. For her part, Anu found the activities at school and the hobby center pointless. She could not imagine the usefulness of convoluted formulae, poetic diction and recitation, or of creating images with strings and beads.
Anu’s happiest moments were when she was making the afternoon tea, her daily chore. She would switch on the stove first, increasing the round flame until it flared orange, watch it for a full heartbeat, reduce it until it danced blue and low, waiting for the pot with water and milk. She controlled the flame all throughout, concluding the tea-making ceremony by bringing the heavy, spiced tea to boil thrice and switching off the flame with a regretful sigh. Everyone in the family said that no one could brew a cup of tea like Anu.
Anu’s mother, a single parent who had inherited her grandmother’s mansion, tried not to worry over Anu’s school progress report. She reassured herself that perhaps Anu’s particular talent lay in the kitchen. However, as time went by, and Anu was taught the management of staple cooking, no exceptional skill emerged in her understanding of spice balance or ability to tell cooked vegetables from uncooked.
The only thing that Anu mastered (and enjoyed) was making rotlis, paper-thin, velvety flat breads that women of their tribe took pride in making. Anu’s rotlis, though not always round-like-the-moon, were the best-roasted. She seemed to intuit just how much flame to give each rotli as she placed it for a moment on the open fire before flipping it and removing it, leaving the hungry blue flame laced with an orange glow, licking the air, as though chomping its jaws at the remembered taste of the rotli.
Kusum was the only person who recognized Anu as a Manipulator, correctly surmising that her particular element was fire. Each generation had a Manipulator who was recognized early and trained for decades in the rituals, disciplines and habits before she could accept the mantle with proper commitment. However, Anu was already 12 years old when Kusum recognized the Manipulator in her; she would not receive the customary decades-long training. Kusum only hoped to set the young girl on the right path before her time ran out. When Anu first learned about being a Manipulator, she laughed and said it sounded like being the secretary to Nemesis, the Greek goddess in charge of universal balance. Kusum chided Anu and tried again to explain the gravity of their position.
Besides such levity, Anu’s attitude towards her element made Kusum uncomfortable. Anu seemed to be more than drawn to fire; in fact, fire seemed to be drawn to Anu as though to kin. It was as though an elemental fire blazed at the core of Anu’s being: when Anu laughed, this fire could be seen in her eyes, in the upward curve of her lip that hinted at a sneer, in the slight flare of her nostril; even her skin intensified its amber hues when she laughed. Kusum knew that if Anu wasn’t taught how to control it, she would waste her life away, spending all her time and effort in pursuit of the perfect flame.
With Kusum gone — reunited, surely, with her precious familia — Anu lived in the windy apartment on the top floor of the building, alone but for the large orange tabby with ochre eyes. Anu had re-done the apartment, painted it the color of sunflowers in deep bloom. Every flat surface held an aromatic candle against the twilight. She would spend her afternoons dusting and wiping these surfaces and lighting the candles. She had added wall sconces that held sodium bulbs and she lit these as well. She had altars on every threshold, a habit every Manipulator cultivated, which she lit as dusk approached. Every evening, the apartment glowed as though with an inner blaze, the yellow light spilling out, drawing the eye upward towards it, making it seem for a moment that the top of the building was aflame.
The tawny cat watched Anu carefully, almost as though he understood her need to live within the flame. Kusum had picked him up from a sidewalk, starving, too weak to mewl. But now, he had grown into a large animal with a predator’s cold gaze. He had brought a gift for Kusum to show his appreciation of her kindness, but she had recoiled and he had not repeated the gesture. But Anu was different. Unlike Kusum, who wore a breeze like a shawl, a breeze that made him shiver, Anu seemed to flow and sway around the house, her arms unconsciously dancing in tandem with the curve of her feet as she walked. He knew she was the one, as he watched her, swishing his bushy tail in time with her arms and feet.
The first time the cat brought Anu a gift, a decapitated rat, bleeding though quite still, she had sat down on the floor next to him with a laugh, her eyes shining at the red oozing from the still body. She drew a smiling, dancing flame in the red on the floor and looked at him for approval. The cat licked his paw and blinked twice at her. Anu knew that he approved. Her singed art disappeared over time, but both she and the cat could be found staring at the spot, contemplating.
The family wondered at Anu living alone in that apartment. She was still in her late twenties and though a bit plain of feature, had a vitality and grace that could not be learned or acquired. She favored ochres, oranges and reds, wore bangles, earrings, ankle chains and bindis, and her eyes were always lined with kohl. It seemed impossible that the men (eligible and otherwise) would not fancy her; eyes followed her, eyes that asked many questions. But she received no proposals, formal or personal. This didn’t seem to bother Anu.
Today, however, Anu was bored. It was only late morning and the cleaner who came twice a week had just left, leaving the apartment without any chores. She looked at the cat. He growled deep in his throat and padded across to the balcony garden. When he returned, he brought in a dead lizard and deposited it at her feet. She picked it up, thanking the cat with a scratch behind his ear, and laid it on the platform. Then she switched on the gas flame and began her afternoon. She liked to study how fire changed a corpse into a thing. Sometimes, she would draw shapes on the floor from the blood squeezed from the corpse, line it with a little melted wax and watch the match do its magic, bringing dead shapes to life, the most graceful reincarnation of blood.
Often, however, these sessions left her wanting more, but more of what, she did not quite know. She would walk endlessly on sidewalks after dark, studying the lights in shop windows, on billboards, on street lamps. One cold night, she found a group of people around a fire, burning rags and paper scraps for warmth. She spent the night staring into the flames and when she left, she stole a spark of that fire in her palm and she clenched her fist, her bangles clanging with determination. As she walked back, she found a dark house that stank of abandonment and flicked her wrist gracefully at its yawning window. The next morning smelled of a doused conflagration, the whole world smelled acrid and bitter for several days.
And for the first time in weeks, Anu slept soundly with the cat curled up in the gentle curve of her knees. When she woke up, she knew the cure for her boredom. She took to walking around the city once the sun had set, cupping a flame within her palm. The city municipality had begun punctuating streets and roads with barrels that served as dust bins and garbage cans. Each time she came upon a full barrel, she would set it aflame. She would turn her wrist and the fire would emerge, elegantly completing the movement, settling on the rubbish on top of the barrel, and then begin its own dance on it. If people saw her, they avoided her; she was never bothered with unwelcome company.
If there ever was a threat from the outer cosmos, Anu never registered it. She was too hungry for the fire dance. The cat was getting old and spent most of his time searching out the sunniest spot and napping there. He often wandered and hunted the sun for hours before choosing a place for a few minutes. Anu, following the rhythms of the cat, began napping through the day, wandering the nights, burning the nights.
She began refusing invitations to functions, then to family gatherings and finally even to the movies and spicy hot chaat outings with her cousins and siblings. The kohl around her eyes deepened her gaze, giving her a haunted, smoky look. Even though this kept people at bay, women found the look fascinating and a wave swept the city; women of all ages favored the look, their eyes looking as though bruised, smoked and otherwise abused. However, none achieved the look that Anu wore; the difference was exactly that between a spark and ashes.
Anu, unaware and uncaring of the effect, jangled and swayed her way through the city streets, leaving infernos and legends in her wake. Some said that she was a witch who had lost her way in the mirror when she lit a flame in front of it. Others said that no one could resist her, once she pinned them with her kohl-lined gaze. Still others said that her feet had turned backwards and that she carried a pot of live embers on her head. They said that once she caught you with her smoldering eyes, she would come close enough and lift her turmeric and gold colored saree, showing you the blaze beneath her cavernous ribs. And then, when you looked up at her, she would smile the sweetest, most beautiful smile imaginable and this would drive you mad. She would walk away then, gracefully, like a flame on water.
A hundred years passed in this way, the stories building on themselves, walling up Anu and the cat in their apartment.
As the dull afternoon slid into evening, Anu’s restlessness grew. It seemed to unsettle the cat too. He went out into the balcony again. Anu waited for him to come back and watch her light the candles against the deepening evening, but he did not return. Anu waited until it was dark, and when the cat did not return, she left the apartment in search of the perfect orange warmth that would light up her world again. But someone had emptied the rubbish barrels and there was not a single scrap of paper or rag that could be trusted to catch the spark she carried cupped in her palm. Finally, Anu winded her way back to the dark apartment.
Just across the apartment building, however, she noticed a feeble glow emanating from the park with the old palace ruins. Anu crossed the road and stepped inside the park. Almost immediately, she heard whispers and swishes of long past queens and their maidens. Her eyes glowed with promise and she advanced onwards towards the central bandstand where there seemed to be a gathering glow. Anu could see no one, but a lone sconce on the wall in which a light bulb burned steadily. She approached the light and, as she neared it, it danced and burned a bright, electric blue.
Anu’s heart skipped a beat; here, at last, was the perfect flame! No conflagration with jumping oranges and black smoke could compare with this diamond of a flame, so sharp and pure! The way the flame danced was as unique as its color; it did not leap and reach the way other flames did. It burned steady, swaying slightly before it straightened, quite like complex footwork of a classical dance. Anu laughed in delight and raced her finger through the flame. It did not burn her; instead, she saw a face with darkened eyes, framed with earrings that went all around the face. It was too pale and long to be hers, so she smiled at it. The face wavered and dissolved, and turned back into the perfect flame. Just then, she felt the caress of a bushy tail around her calves. Anu knew that the cat had found her.