Iniya dragged herself to the motel’s front desk, but no one was there to check her out. She poured some free coffee—it was decent for a hotel brew—and waited, before deciding to leave the key cards on the counter.
The rest of the gang would be testy, she knew. They had been waiting for her inside the airless Camry baking in the morning heat. But Jai had an unsettled look on his face. He pointed to the room on the second floor where they’d spent the night. “Why did you leave it like that?” he asked her, his tone accusatory.
The room’s door was wide open. Iniya had been the last to come out, carrying snack bags and Gatorade bottles the men forgot in the fridge. “What does it matter the room is open or closed? Not like we have anything in there,” she said.
Jai was not interested in her reply. He wiggled in the driver’s seat as if waiting for something to happen. Anuj and KB tactfully pulled a throw over their knees, getting comfortable in the back row.
“Fine. I’ll go, shut the door,” Iniya said, handing Jai the coffee cup, cussing Anuj and KB under her breath.
Iniya’s calves were sore from chasing oases and wildflowers in the high desert all weekend. Every long weekend since moving to the Bay Area for work, the gang went on hiking trips. It had become a ritual. They trudged up arduous trails during the day, got drunk at night in tents or nondescript motel rooms, burning through their precious time off. Deep down, Iniya’s feelings about the hiking trips matched her feelings for the hackneyed Bollywood disco nights the gang attended in downtown San Jose every so often. Her life would be complete without both. But Jai seemed to savor these experiences. He took photos to post on Facebook-Instagram. And Iniya liked that her friends and family in India saw these pictures and thought she was having a blast.
The gang had come to Joshua Tree this Thanksgiving. Images of blooming Joshua trees and Mojave yuccas started to flood #travel Instagram in the second week of November. A blossom in fall in the desert was uncanny occurrence—the gang agreed they had to see it with their own eyes. Iniya had started to feel vaguely guilty about wanting to see the spectacle after reading online that untimely flowers were not good news. Climate change had upset the blooming cycle, vastly reducing the plants’ chances of pollination and making seeds. But Jai said, “if the flowers have already appeared, your and my seeing or not seeing them won’t make any difference.”
Iniya had been the third author on a climate science paper in grad school. She fed data into a model that identified sites for reforestation. She mentally tallied that research project—one good deed—against this trip—one dubious deed—and felt she was even. However, the trip turned out to be disappointing for the gang for other reasons. The blossom was not as abundant, the flowers not as huge as they looked on Instagram.
The daylight biting into Iniya’s exposed arms as she scrambled up the motel’s outdoor stairs intimated her of the scorching afternoon to come. The double queen room where they had crashed the last three nights was directly to the right of the stairway. Its insides were how she remembered leaving. Half-drawn curtains, half turned quilt, a faint gasoline smell in the air. But there was the sound of gushing liquid coming from the toilet. Iniya was going to check if she left a tap running, though she didn’t think she could be that careless, what with the statewide drought on her mind, when the toilet’s door moved slightly, revealing a pale broad man standing naked under the steaming, hot shower. Iniya was dumbfounded. She froze on recognizing the man, but he continued acting as though he was alone in the world. Free of any stress or fear, he emptied a complimentary bodywash tube the gang hadn’t used up, and lathered the slimy liquid across his chest, down in the groin area, and up the arms. His rubbing and washing grew increasingly violent, and Iniya thought she could see red patches form on his skin. The man was in his forties probably—not attractive but interesting to observe, if only for how content he looked under the shower, as though he were parched earth welcoming rainfall after a dry spell.
The unwanted intimacy of watching someone bathe where she had bathed earlier in the morning, massage his body with the rosemary-scented liquid soap she’d layered on her skin, shot Iniya with a feverish shame. She needed to step away discreetly, but an apology fell out of her mouth, causing the man to gaze at her. He caught her watching him. She ran out of the room feeling horrible.
Her apology had apparently been loud enough to bring Jai out of the car. “Was somebody inside?” he was asking from the bottom of the stairs.
“Yeah,” she said, fumbling down the steps. “The receptionist was bathing.”
“What,” Jai guffawed. “With the door like that?”
“I walked in on him when—well, I don’t get why he would shower in there.”
“Maybe he was hot. Maybe he lives somewhere without a shower,” Jai said, visibly tickled.
“Still. Sneaking in as soon as guests are out? It’s creepy.”
Jai waved his hand to hush her, and Iniya gathered someone was watching them. It was the receptionist. He was standing in the open corridor upstairs, dripping wet, partially clothed. A white T-shirt was slung around his neck like a towel. He had put on baggy sweatpants.
“Sorry,” Iniya mumbled at him. The man feigned a smile—it didn’t look forgiving.
Anuj and KB chewed Iniya’s ears with their stupid, ringing laughter as soon as she settled in the car. They had got the gist. “Let a man shower in piss, N,” one of them said when their car was pulling out of the motel’s parking lot. Iniya responded with a brisk giggle, though she didn’t find the comment funny. Anuj and KB’s puns and quips circled around the idea that, accidentally or intentionally, Iniya was invading some sort of caveman world. It began in grad school after Iniya started dating Jai. Whenever she went over to the apartment the three men shared, Anuj would pat Jai on the back and go, “Bhai, I see now why you cleaned your pants this morning.” KB would return from the lab and say, “High heels in our shoe rack. Is this where we live now?” If Jai forgot to laugh at their banter, one of them said, “What has Nobody done to our boy?” On cue the other said, “Buoyed him down.” Iniya’s irritation against the two mounted for weeks but then they would do something kind, like pick her up from the airport, share job openings on campus with her, let her join their Hackathon team, and her anger dissipated. In spite of what they said, Iniya thought, Anuj and KB’s presence added stability to her and Jai’s relation. They were useful scaffolding.
Today, before driving back to the Bay Area, the gang was going to hike one last oasis trail. The trailhead was at a remove from the hullaballoo of the central part of the National Park. As their car winded down the highway, the desert spread out languorously on all sides. Occasionally, fan palms and creosote bushes rose like fissures in the bareness. But, Iniya knew, one couldn’t really tell what was going on in the desert without plunging to its middle. The starkness could be a scaffold, the blooms a façade, both hiding from view something stranger. The desert was capricious. You could never guess what it would throw at you.
Yesterday afternoon the gang was looking for a cluster of pools tucked in a remote valley. The high sun had quietened them, and they carried on silently in the direction of the oasis, listening to the quiet vibrations of the land. Iniya had read on an information board that the first group of white surveyors to reach the pools a hundred and fifty years ago were so stunned to see water and lush green grass in the middle of an ocean of rocks that they named the site Mopheth—a wonder. Many centuries earlier indigenous people had settled around the water. Either smallpox killed them, or they were removed to missions after white people found gold in the desert. But even a hundred years ago, the pools had surface water year-round. Nowadays they were ephemeral. There was a major thunderstorm in October this year, which was why the gang dared hope they could find water, although nothing else on the way suggested the possibility of anything buried in the valley other than weathered rocks, more sand and silt. In the end, the vastness of the desert had invaded the smallness of Iniya’s life. It astonished her even to remember.
They were approaching the trailhead for today’s hike when Iniya’s phone got signal after a long time and a series of texts streamed in.
“We charge for pets.”
“We charge for pets.”
“We charge for pets.”
Same message from the same number. Iniya checked—the number matched the motel’s contact information online. She showed Jai the texts. He told her to call up the motel and ask what’s going on.
The receptionist seemed to immediately place Iniya. “You get my message?”
“What pet are you talking about?” she asked but before the receptionist answered, Jai cut in, “Ask him all the details from the start.”
She rolled her eyes and put the call on speaker. The receptionist was saying, “You brought a dog. It will be twenty-five more a night.”
“We didn’t bring a dog. We don’t have a dog,” Iniya said curtly.
“You do,” the receptionist insisted.
From the back KB whispered, “We should ask for evidence,” and Jai spoke into the phone, “Did you find pet hair in the carpet?”
Iniya tapped Jai’s shoulder to shut him up. “What evidence? When we have no pets!”
Asking meaningless questions was Jai’s way of avoiding a spat. Iniya had known him for years—in grad school he was involved with various student organizations and his wide acceptance among these circles had to do with his tendency of circumventing disagreements.
The receptionist was going on and on about the phantom pet. “I saw a dog in your trunk. You were driving out and it was looking through the rear.”
“No way,” Iniya said, frustrated. “If we hadn’t come this far already, we would turn around for you to check our car.”
“Are you sure?” the receptionist asked. His voice was filled with incredulity.
“That there’s no pet—because I saw.”
Iniya felt like pulling out her hair, but she simply hung up.
What was there not to be sure of? They had no pets. With Jai and her spending most of their waking hours glued to a computer screen inside their office campus, they would be mad to take on the responsibility of another living creature. “Who will take care of a dog?” Jai asked whenever she broached the topic. Iniya had spent her childhood in Krishnanagar, a small town, and her college days in Calcutta. In both places she never lacked for animals to love. Dogs freely walked in and out of the classrooms of her engineering college. In America, it was different. She missed naming and feeding stray dogs. “I won’t be surprised if there’s some law saying neighbors can report you for neglecting pets in this country, and you will neglect the pet. There’s no other way unless you quit your job,” Jai always said to put her off when all else failed. It was the same with children. Jai made her promise she wouldn’t ask to have kids. Iniya had never felt a desperate calling to be a mother, the planet was overpopulated anyway, but a child was still a possibility at the back of her mind until Jai gagged it. “I can’t take care of myself. How will I look after a child? Same goes for you,” he’d said. So, no child, no pet. What was there not to be sure of?
The gang got out of the car to hike, and KB threw a Gatorade bottle at Iniya. “Catch!”
“Keep checking your credit card statement,” Anuj said. “If the fuckers charge an extra cent, I’ll have a bot give them one-star ratings nonstop for a month.”
“I should get a text alert if they charge,” Iniya said.
Jai was retying his shoelaces. He shook his head dismissively. “They won’t charge. The receptionist was just double-checking. He has good work ethic.”
“How do you know?” Iniya asked.
“Remember how he said, ‘I don’t know why people won’t work on Thanksgiving’ when he was checking us in. He was working throughout the holiday weekend,” Jai said.
“Right,” Iniya said and fell silent.
Today’s trail was sandy, unpaved, inclining upward more sharply than they had expected. Haggard rocks, some rounded like skulls, others standing narrow and upright like columns, hemmed them in. There was no other soul in sight. The sky above was a smoky red. Iniya wondered if the air she was breathing picked up debris from the wildfire raging on a few hundred miles to the west, near the coast. It did not feel heavy, but then, living in California her lungs were probably used to inhaling ash and smoke. She recalled how the regularity of office bulletins asking employees to stay indoors and avoid the harmful air had worried her during her first autumn in the state. Back then she had screenshotted an article saying, “World’s worst air quality in northern California” and sent it to her high school Whatsapp group. “Omg. How are you guys???” a concerned classmate messaged. Iniya responded with the recent reading on the Air Quality Index—“345. Considered hazardous. Imagine.” “Oh! Delhi is at 800. Considered death,” the girl wrote back. Iniya was shocked. Even when the world was burning, she was somehow in a better place.
For over a mile the only vegetation they saw was waist-high cactus. The terrain looked brutal, more capable of desiccating rather than sustaining life. Jai got Iniya to stand beside a cluster of cacti. “Put your hand in your hair, and don’t look at the lens,” he said before taking a series of photos with his bulky Canon camera. He then asked Anuj and KB to jump as high as they could in front of an enormous jumble of rocks. They had to leap a few times before Jai got the desired shot. “See I made you guys look like birds,” he said, pleased with his own artistry. “You, too, jump, spreading your hands like wings,” he instructed Iniya when they got closer to a ridge.
Somewhere over that ridge there was the promise of water.
When they resumed walking after the photo break, Iniya said to Jai, “I feel this pet thing had something to do with what happened earlier.”
“What happened?” Jai said absently. He was busy swiping through the photos on his camera.
“I caught the receptionist bathing in a guest room—it was odd,” Iniya said.
“I don’t see a connection,” Jai said.
“He was a man, white. I am brown. A woman. It may have something to do with, like, a sense of control or power.”
“Oof. How much you think.”
“I shouldn’t think?”
“I don’t know. Ask Anuj and KB. Anuj—do you—”
Anuj and KB were a few hundred yards ahead of them now, winding down mesquite shrubs.
“It’s fine,” Iniya said.
“No, no, ask, ask,” Jai said.
Iniya sensed her intuition would be nothing more than a funny story to them, but Jai, not satiated by the hike and the pictures, sought the entertainment. He sprinted forward. Iniya trailed behind, her eyes set on the fan palms shooting like daggers from the scorched basin in some distance. Miners chasing gold had planted those trees around the perimeter of a shallow spring.
When Iniya finally caught up with the gang, KB asked, “So you think the receptionist wants to charge us a fine as revenge?”
“I didn’t say that,” Iniya said.
“What else did you mean?” Jai asked, and the three men laughed at some joke that had been made up in her absence.
“Forget it,” Iniya said and continued walking.
They were a quarter of a mile from the clump of palm trees when her eyes picked up something shimmering at the base of the trunks. An electric sensation passed through her body, as it had yesterday and the day before. It was happening again.
During the hike on the first day, Iniya had been shocked to learn that no one but she saw all that could be seen. Jai, Anuj, and KB were complaining, “dhur, no water on the surface,” while Iniya saw water rise and rise through cracks on the earth’s face until she was only a few steps away from a massive puddle. She thought the men were trying to spook her when they said there was no visible trace of water in the oasis. “You want me to believe you don’t see the water?” she had said, and they looked at her as though she was crazy. “What do you see?” they asked her, wide-eyed. Their awe was sincere—it made her feel unstable. She could not trust her senses. Her stomach cramped at the thought and a nauseating compulsion passed. She lied to the men. “I see nothing.” They found her curious, awkward perhaps, but did not ask further questions.
When they set out on that first hike, Iniya had imagined it would end one of two ways. Either they were going to find water in the oasis, or they wouldn’t. But standing in the shade of living and dead palm trees, under a roof of dry leaves, feeling the closeness of water all by herself, she had momentarily become aware of other possibilities, other dimensions. She did not dare touch the water though. Even when they were back in the car, she had wondered whether she was alive at all, or this was her afterlife. But nothing else going on suggested she had died. So, she was left with the impression that she had been singled out to experience a profound truth—every event had a wider spread of possible outcomes than grasped by human aptitude.
The following afternoon they had reached the Mopheth pools and once more she alone saw the pots dug into the ground brim with liquid. This time she risked climbing the boulders at the mouth of the pools and dipping her toes. The water was unmistakably real. It was as real as her, as real as the bodies of all the people she had loved.
It was happening again today. “Another useless trek,” the men were moaning as they got closer to the basin. “Walking in all this sun and nothing. Not even that many trees.” “Why don’t they post notices at the trailhead? Don’t expect to see water in the oasis. They should clearly say that.” Iniya laughed at them, and they likely thought she found their quips hilarious.
She was no longer scared to touch water. She stooped to run her fingers through the spring. The authenticity of the water—its solidity—still made her somewhat wary. How could she not be nervous to discover something that eluded others? She was used to not trusting her feelings. But it was there. The water—it grew and grew. Sound like facts.
She dared not breath a word about it to anyone. They were men and women of science. Jai would call her demented, or worse, superstitious, if she said she saw what he couldn’t. But the water, flowing through a passage between gaunt boulders, was calling her, asking her to let it in.
The world around her was dissolving in water. She could swim but she restrained the urge and splashed her face with the water. The spray lurched her into something. The touch was cool. Cool, like the pond opposite her childhood home, cool even in the stifling summer her father died. Cool, like what winters used to be a long, long time ago. Like the seas used to be. Like the snow.
“Are you going to stay here?” Jai’s voice reached her. “Are you dizzy?” KB asked.
Looking at her, Iniya knew, the men simply saw a figure flumped on the dirt. They would think her a little out of sorts, somewhat ‘off’. She would, if she were in their place. But she was somewhere better. She stood up, considering the possibility of sharing her vision with them, but what was the point? They would reduce it, rip her to shreds. She quietly turned around and followed them back to the car.
Later that night, when Jai and she dropped the other two off and returned to their own apartment, Jai slumped on the couch, switched on the TV, and ordered her to heat the leftovers in the fridge for dinner, she was not bothered by his usual high-handedness. She felt sorry for him. How could she not pity someone unable to see what they had been chasing in the desert?
They were in the office cafeteria at lunch time the next day when Iniya’s phone buzzed with a call from the motel. She saw no reason to take the call and let the phone ring all the way through the first time. When the phone rang a second time, she answered. “What is it?”
The man on the other end said, “Did you check?”
“About the dog. Wasn’t there a dog in your trunk?”
She was amused now. “And what kind of dog was it?”
“A prick-eared terrier. Nothing like I seen before,” the receptionist said.
“I already told you we have no pets. These calls are straight-up harassment,” Iniya said before hanging up.
Jai was sitting across from her at the café table. With a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, he asked, “The motel again?”
Anuj said, “That man probably has a thing for you, N.”
Iniya frowned and Jai added, “She could have slipped out quietly from the room, but no, she saw a naked man and, as if she has never seen the species before, made a scene.”
“I didn’t make a scene,” Iniya said but it didn’t matter.
“Come on. You called attention to yourself. Anyone would think you were attracted,” Jai said.
“What? Unbelievable,” Iniya said.
A few days on when the motel called again, Iniya didn’t let anyone know. She was leaving work at the time and dropped the ringing phone into her purse. At home, she played the receptionist’s voicemail when Jai was busy watching TV in the other room. There were new details about the phantom dog in the voice message. It had a white, glossy coat. It had firm muscles. It had barked throughout the day, disturbing the other motel guests, when the gang left it in their room and went on hikes. But for all his stories, the receptionist did not charge Iniya’s credit card.
The man’s strange insistence on having his stories heard stoked Iniya’s curiosity. She did not block his number, but she also never directly answered the calls. Still the calls kept coming. There was no fixed pattern. Sometimes there would be texts and voicemails following the rings. Other times, nothing. Iniya wondered if the man really saw a dog—it seemed as though he was finding the gap between his experience and her reality unbearable. His accounts of what he had seen continued to grow increasingly specific to the point that Iniya thought she saw what he had.
After many weeks, when the calls finally stopped coming, Iniya did not notice at first. And when she did, she did not think much of it. Sooner or later the man had to grow tired of imposing his reality on hers.
Yet, as more days passed, Iniya couldn’t also help feeling that her life was a little more tedious without the calls—work and home, home and work. She willed herself to see more, experience more than anyone else around at both home and work, but these attempts brought no result. Sometimes, the thought that she touched water when no one else could seemed unreal. But if she were to remove that occurrence from the story of her life, her life would be diminished. She dared not do that.
Their office’s earnings dipped in the first quarter of the new year, and there were rumors that the Bay Area campus would be downsized. But, even then, nothing remarkable happened to Iniya. The firm transferred KB to Texas and Anuj to New Jersey. Without Anuj and KB, Jai no longer suggested disco nights or hikes, and Iniya realized perhaps he, too, had never enjoyed those activities. During the holidays now Jai did nothing but nap. His Instagram uploads were throwbacks to another time. Iniya nagged him to be more creative about spending their off days until she, too, stopped caring.
Sometimes the gang got together over group video calls, and it was on one of these calls that KB said a colleague of his recently hiked the same oasis trails as them but found water everywhere.
“Lucky,” Jai grunted. “If only we’d seen a drop, somewhere, anywhere—”
Iniya knew she should keep quiet. If she opened her mouth, she would sound improbable. But a rush of memories—the cool touch of water—overpowered her. “I did,” she said. “There was water.”
Everyone stopped talking. Jai fiercely squinted at her. Then, as though she had said nothing at all, the three men resumed talking about analytics and stock futures all at once, each speaking over the other.
Interview with Torsa Ghosal
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you come to this realization?
Torsa Ghosal: My childhood game was to make up stories and rhymes, though I didn’t expect or want anyone to read them. My parents were book lovers, and I think watching them read every night before bed, hearing them discuss and argue about literary works, made me appreciate the written word. But a real turning point I remember is from when I was in the sixth or seventh standard. I wrote an essay about something that annoyed me: parents. Not my parents in specific, but parents in general. At the time, I was irritated with parents who stopped kids at our school’s gate to grill them about weekly test scores, compared and contrasted kids’ homework. Some classmates’ parents had grilled me too. I turned my annoyance about it all into a short essay and sent it to a newspaper that actually published it! My own parents were taken aback and every time they showed the article to others, I could see they were both proud and uncomfortable. I suppose they couldn’t help wondering if they too had been the target of my little attack. The whole experience was very interesting to me. I then wrote a poem protesting violence against women, triggered by certain incidents around me, and that won a national-level poetry competition. These early experiences indicated to me that if I could honestly and thoughtfully communicate what I was observing and feeling, there were people out there willing to listen. That made me want to be a writer.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Torsa Ghosal: For me, short fiction is both a game of make-believe and a means for witnessing what’s happening in the world. Approaching fiction as a game enables me to imagine possibilities beyond contemporary political reality or, at least, tease out aspects of the reality that are ignored or undermined in other forms of discourse. I often think of Emily Dickinson’s line, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Thus, I rarely set out to directly reflect in fiction what I observe and experience. Instead, I try to comment on the world and even shift its axis a bit, as it were, through the actions and situations in my short stories.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Torsa Ghosal: This is a very difficult question. Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (translated by Megan McDowell) is the first book that came to my mind reading the question, and I recall feeling I understood psychological realism and psychological depth in a new, different way when I read that collection. So, I’ll just go with that for now.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Torsa Ghosal: I think great short stories begin with a big or small disturbance in the order of things, which sets up certain expectations. The story, then, goes on to address those expectations while also adding new variables. Most short stories I like have the equivalent of what is called ‘volta’ in a sonnet. That is, a turn coming past the halfway mark, closer to the end than the beginning. This turn transforms whatever we thought we understood about the world of the story.
I am also particularly drawn to short stories that highlight the limits of our knowledge or perception. (I have recently written an essay on this which is supposed to be published in SAAG).
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Torsa Ghosal: It has taught me to respect incompleteness and accept uncertainty. At no point do I feel confident that a piece of writing is complete or done. This is not to say that I am not intentional about writing and revision—I am—but there is always more that could be said or left unsaid. Every piece of writing is a living thing: breathing, thinking, flailing, wanting to become something else. And I no longer resent that.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Torsa Ghosal: I am working on a novel about love and faith. I am also working on a few short stories and essays. It takes me a very long time to be happy with a short story—so, every now and then, I tell myself I won’t write another short story, but then I do. The goal is to one day have my short story collection, but I am not yet there.
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