THE PRISON HOUSE






I have a fascination for extremely short stories, for stories arranged in strange patterns, and for stories told through an unconventional medium. I have tried writing in some of these ways. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it always feels satisfying. 
The story below is one such experiment. I narrated it on my Instagram for thirty days of November, each day a piece posted in the square space that Instagram allows. 
have compiled the story below for one shot reading. I would really love to hear your comments on how/whether you liked it!







If on this day, this year, the river had not flooded, the boy couldn't have escaped the house.

Every single room in the house had been empty. The boy had checked again and again. It had many windows like eyes staring out, and a lone door which had shut the moment he had stepped in, as if swallowing him whole. He could have looked out at the village from the windows, but he was afraid to do it. He didn't want anyone to see him. It would have been dangerous, after what he had done.

One the first day he heard people banging on the door and peeping in from the windows, calling out his name. He held his breath and cowered behind the door. That day he had felt relieved that the door would not open. It was later that he had started feeling scared. As each night fell, he felt something bad was rising up from the floor of the house, like a bad odour. He started locking himself up in the front room at night. And yet he was unable to sleep.

That afternoon, he heard a movement in the innermost room. Like water dripping on soft mud, or like feet moving on burnt grass. He ran to the room but couldn't bring himself to look in. The sounds were real. Somebody was walking inside. But the walking was like no earthly thing.
He bolted the door to that room. Maybe the sound was like crushed burnt grass. He thought of fields of wheat burning in a hungry fire. He had lit that fire. He had known it would burn everyone sleeping in the fields.

Outside, the sound of the gurgling river kept his thoughts company. Water to his fire.

He had wanted to burn the crops, if there had been people inside, it was just their bad luck. No, it was not his fault. Those people had humiliated him, cheated him of his wages. It was not his fault.
But what was that thing locked in the inner room? How had it gotten inside this doorless house. If it had gotten in, was there a way for him to get out?
It started raining that night. The drip drip drip of the rain drummed an urgent beat in his heart. He needed to get out of the house before it was too late. But late for what?

He decided to go to the innermost room, face the thing that waited in there, and escape this horrible prison. He gathered his belongings. His hands shook as he pushed a tin plate, a tattered ten rupee note, and a handful of wheat grain inside his small bag of clothes. The noise coming from the room had grown guttural, repeating, overlapping as if it arose from the throat of a beast with thousand heads. He took hesitant steps, pushing one foot in front of another, and stood in front of the door to the room. The sounds stopped all of a sudden, as if waiting for his next move.

The rain was pounding now, the river was no longer a stream, it was a force. He barely heard the rain or the river, his ears thudded with rushing blood. He clutched the handle to open the door.

The room was not a room at all, it was a furnace. Flames of yellow and red light lapped from wall to wall, like an amorphous beast. The heat could have melted down the walls, but strangely, it hadn't. The room was not a room at all, it was a hellhole.

In the middle of this mayhem was something black, something dark, blowing like a mad tree in a storm. It suddenly broke open into a thousand fingers and slushed towards him, aiming for the black of his eyes. He backed a step, and stumbled, eyes locked into the black fingers. He understood that his worst fate was not the fire, or the prison house, but it was this, the black thing. It had been waiting for him. He recognised it.

It was the soul of the lives he had ended. It was the soul of the birds, the insects, the people, the snakes, the plants, all of it boiling into this angry black mass. No! He yelled, frantic with fear. He couldn't let it devour him. He looked back, the house had morphed into the furnace. Up where the ceiling should have been was a hole, open to the wet sky. It was his only chance.

He jumped up and landed back on the scalding floor. He jumped again, barely missing the black whips of the hungry thing in the centre, and crashed on his back. His clothes caught fire. Maybe this was it, the end. As the flames scorched his skin, a wild thought struck him. What if he could strike a bargain? Give back what was not his, what he should never have taken?

The rain outside bellowed as if the sky had split. He walked towards the inviting blackness and stared into its thousand eyes. He saw his soul reflected back. He sprinkled the handful of wheat he had been carrying into the black bonfire, returning ash to ash. A loud thunder broke out. The river spilled out of its banks and went rushing in all directions. A flood of water entered the house and kept coming in endless giant waves.

He woke up coughing. He was out in the forest. The house was standing at a distance, unharmed by fire or water. The river gurgled peacefully nearby. The only thing affected by the storm was him. If the river had not flooded, on this day, this moment, he couldn't have escaped the house.

He looked at the house. Something had been lost, left behind. All his belongings were unscathed. There were no blisters on his feet and his clothes were intact. Only the wheat grains were gone, and with it had gone the remorse for his act. He had left his conscience trapped in the house.

He touched his heart, but found nothing there. It was hollow, empty, black. He had escaped nothing. The darkness was in him.
He was the black.


Nivedita Barve
30 November 2016

Adventures of a Brahmin priest: Vishnubhat Godse

Title: Adventures of a Brahmin priest. My travels in the 1857 rebellion. (Maza Pravas)
Author: Vishnubhat Godse. Translated from Marathi by Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhale
Buy it from: Amazon, Flipkart


India in the 1857 C. E., what kind of a country was it? What kind of people inhabited it? What motivated them to unite and to separate in the rebellion against their foreign rulers? Did India almost achieve independence through this rebellion or was it as unattainable as ever? Was the revolt a mutiny or a widespread uprising? There were many theories at that time, many analyses, each differing from the other depending on which side was theorizing. But how was India at large perceiving this tumultuous event? In the ‘Adventure of a Brahmin Priest’ we do not get an answer to all these questions, but we do get a precious glimpse into the psyche of a cross section of the Indian society during 1857.

Vishnubhat Godse was a poor Brahmin living in a small village in Maharashtra. His family had incurred deep debts which they had no means of repaying. In this dire situation Godse saw a ray of hope. A large religious ceremony was going to be conducted in Gwalior (North India) which held a promise of earning some money. After convincing his family of the necessity of this journey Godse left with his uncle to travel to Gwalior. It would have been a long and arduous journey, but not really extraordinary, except for the fact that the year was 1857 and the country was on the brink of a major unrest.

Soon after Godse began his journey the revolt broke out. The Gwalior ceremony was cancelled, but Godse and his uncle pushed on and travelled extensively in the North of India, visiting Gwalior, Jhansi, Kashi, Lucknow, Ayodhya and other places of religious importance. The rebellion had flared up all around them and they travelled amidst the battles and the looting that ensued. Along his journey he came across soldiers from both sides, sometimes this put him in danger and at other times he could glean information about how the rebellion progressed. Notable amongst his experiences was a certain period of time he served under the patronage of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. He witnessed the battle that the Rani fought with the British and he was also witness to the falling of Jhansi. Godse returned to his village after a time period of three years and brought back stories and some notes of his experiences from the time period. Twenty five years after his return, he penned down ‘Maza Pravas’ in Marathi language (My journey), a travelogue of sorts which included his experiences from this eventful journey. ‘Adventures of a…’ is the first English translation of Godse’s text.

Religion has always been a prime motivator for political uprisings. For the revolt of 1857, it provided the ultimate trigger in the form of the offensively greased cartridges. Religion and caste structure reverberates in different forms throughout this text. At times it is a motivation to fight the foreigners, and at others it is also a reason for people to distance themselves from the revolt. Godse’s text gives us an insight into the mindset of the people of different social statuses. He talked to soldiers and royalty, as well as common citizens. The intensity of association and the effect of the revolt vary drastically with the geography and social status of the people. The fragmented nature of the society of that time is very startling. Godse’s text is not a comprehensive account of the 1857 revolt, but the most important thing that it does is provide a sense of the moral code of the people, a sense of their beliefs, hopes and fears.

The original was written in Marathi and ‘Adventures of a…’ is its first translation in English. The translation done by Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhale is excellent and feels very transparent and non-intrusive as a good translation should be. It maintains the original tone of the writing intact in the translation. Most importantly the translation makes this text available to a wider audience.

In conclusion:‘Adventures of a Brahmin priest’ is an extraordinary text written by an ordinary man. It was written at a time when it was not very common to travel, and even less to write about such travels. Fortunately for us Godse did undertake this journey and has left behind a rare eye witness account of one of the most intriguing periods of Indian history. I highly recommend reading ‘Adventures of a Brahmin priest’. It is a must read.


Book Source: Author

Three Dog Night: Gouri Dange


Title: Three Dog Night
Author: Gouri Dange
Buy it from: Flipkart

‘Three Dog Night’ is a sweet little story about sixty one year old Viva Pradhan living in Mumbai. Viva has recently lost her beloved husband Ashwin, and is yet to come to terms with his passing away. Everything around her brings back memories of Ashwin and underlines his absence. Perhaps it this new loneliness that makes her contemplate her life, her relations, her age. She decides to simplify her life. She starts giving away her treasured saris, her precious glassware, and her husband’s blazers to friends and relatives. But while she is heading towards austerity, life keeps rolling on, bringing unexpected people and relations into her life making it more complicated than ever.

‘Three Dog Night’ means a very cold night, a night when you would want to sleep with three dogs tucked with you in the bed as a defence against the severe cold. Viva seems to be battling her own ‘cold night’ phase of life. She has an affectionate son, her grandson Dhruvi is much attached to her, and she has kind friends like Moni and Aidan. But she knows that they all have their own lives and she is essentially going to be alone. A brief attempt at dating has been a fiasco; her daughter Shruti continues to be aloof with her, and she has been cheated in a land deal. But despites these kinks, Viva tries to untangle her life, and finds her own brand of happiness and peace.

Dange’s Viva Pradhan is an adorable protagonist. She is very real and we can easily identify with her fears and hopes. She is not perfect but she comes across as a genuine person.  It is Viva’s character that keeps the novel nicely pivoted. The story is fast paced and very easy to read. Dange also weaves in pop cultural references which make the novel fun to read. References to Manna Dey karaoke nights, detailed recipes for exotic dishes and Hindustani Classical ragas find their way into the story. What makes this novel really appealing is that it is kind at its core. There is generosity at unexpected places and it is love and warmth that guides the people in it.

In conclusion: I enjoyed reading this short but fun-packed little novel. I will recommend it for its lovable protagonist and for the fast paced story telling.

Book source: Publisher

The Baron in the Trees: Italo Calvino

Title: The Baron in the Trees
Author: Italo Calvino
Buy it from: Amazon, Flipkart

Young Cosimo, the twelve year old son of a Baron is faced with an unpleasant prospect at dinner one day. His sister Battista has prepared a dish of snails. This circumstance is especially unpleasant since a few days back Cosimo and his younger brother Biagio had tried to help the snails escape from their captivity. The boys had been caught and punished. But as a result now it has become unacceptable to Cosimo to eat this dish. It is sheer disobedience to refuse food at his father’s table, but Cosimo has more will than what his family suspects. Not only does he refuse the dish but he also escapes the stone mansion of his father and takes up residence among the trees.

‘The Baron in the Trees’ tells the extraordinary story of this Cosimo. Once Cosimo entered the world of trees he decided never to set his foot on the ground again. In the trees he grew up to be a young man, a well-read man because he took an early liking to books and spent many a happy hour reading great works in the branches of an Oak or a Magnolia. He found the love of his life while sauntering about in the orchards of his neighbour, the willful Viola, and later assumed his Baronetcy while still living in the trees. He made many friends - unusual friends for a Baron - in the poorest of people of Ombrosa, helped these friends face their adversities and generally lived a good and satisfying life. All in the trees.

A singular story, narrated by a singular author. I will not talk about what a great writer Italo Calvino is because anyone who has read any of his work already knows that. Calvino’s easy and yet meaningful style makes this novel a great joy to read. The social observations, the commentaries on the human behaviour that form such a natural part of his writing make for rich reading.

In this novel he builds a perceptive picture of the social geography of Ombrosa. He writes about the lives of the common people – the labourers, the farmers, even the thieves and the pirates alongside the politics and aspirations of the noblemen. It is very interesting and entertaining to see these dynamics play out into the events of the novel. The character of Cosimo is of course pivotal to the novel. It is very easy to fall in love with this unusual Baron and his extraordinary pursuits. The generosity, the rebellion, the philosophical maturity that he carries in his bosom makes him one remarkable character.

In conclusion: Of course go read this book, while I go and read my next Calvino ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’.

Book Source: Self

The Cosmic Clues: Manjiri Prabhu

Title: The Cosmic Clues
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Buy it from: Flipkart, Jaico

Astrology holds a very important position in the Indian psyche. Everything from arranging marriages, starting businesses, forecasting the future to finding remedies to diseases has solution under the umbrella of astrology. Author Manjiri Prabhu has made another very intelligent and unusual use of Astrology by employing it to solve crime. The outcome is ‘The Cosmic Clues’ a very gripping and enjoyable detective novel.

Sonia Samarth is a young detective who has just started ‘Stellar Investigations’ with the help of her assistant Jatin. But it is not just any detective agency; Sonia is well versed in astrology and believes it can be used to investigate crime. The venture does not begin very well; she is met with skepticism and ridicule. But soon enough a lovely cat wanders into her office and brings with her the first case for the Stellar Investigations. It is a gruesome murder which needs to be unraveled, a murder which appears senseless, without motive and yet has been committed. Sonia puts her unconventional methods into actions and is able to solve the crime. This first success brings her a string of cases in its wake. Some of these cases are easy and yet others are challenging and while solving them all Sonia finds new friends and discovers new things about herself.

Manjiri Prabhu has spun out one gripping case after another in this novel. The most interesting aspect is of course the use of astrology in solving the crimes. I had no inkling going into the novel what kind of role astrology would play in the story and how effective it would be. But Manjiri Prabhu knows how to tell a story well and she makes intelligent use of astrology to give twists to the cases. I adored the protagonist Sonia Samarth; she is a spunky and adventurous young woman who makes the novel an enjoyable read. The novel has a fast pace and it keeps the reader hooked till the end. 

In conclusion: It was great fun to read ‘The Cosmic Clues’. I loved the unusual combination of astrology and crime which Manjiri Prabhu has woven into her stories. I will recommend this book to anyone who likes reading mysteries or who wants to read something unusual and fresh.

Book Source: Self