The City

by Vrinda Baliga

She was a year old when her parents left for the City.

Varsha, her parents had named her. Rain.

The name didn’t propitiate the gods. The infant came with a copious supply of tears, but the fields remained parched. Her parents finally gave up trying to coax life out of their skeletal land and decided to try their luck in the City, entrusting her to her grandmother’s care.

News from the City took two levels of intercession to reach them in the village—first, of the letter-writer in the City, who made a profession of conveying the words of the illiterate to paper, and second, of the village postman who read the letter out to Varsha’s grandmother. The letters were sometimes brief, sometimes more detailed, depending on the disposition of these interceders. Even so, Varsha’s grandmother sifted the words for grains of hope with which she managed to build entire castles for Varsha. The stories she told weren’t like standard fairytales, but Varsha had never heard any others to know the difference. She accepted without question that the princess—named Varsha, of course—would be dressed not in sparkling gowns, but in a bright, starched school uniform. That she would surround herself not with admirers, but with books that would gallantly hold the doors of the world open for her.

Varsha never asked when her parents would return with these promised gifts. In her mind, they were like boon-granting fairies—you believed in them, you knew they existed, but you didn’t really hold your breath for them to show up at your door. She was patient. She could wait.

And so, they dreamed together, grandmother and granddaughter, of the things that could be, that would be. And why not? Her parents had gone, after all, to the City of Dreams.

Dreams, yes, but also the occasional nightmare.

Varsha can’t remember exactly when her grandmother’s stories began to change but, at some point, it sank in that her parents were no longer in the City. They still cared about her, her grandmother assured her, they continued to look out for her well-being, but from a different place now. She took it pretty stoically. The City, Heaven; for a four-year-old, both are mere places, both equally remote.

Over the months and years, though, certain words dripped from adult conversations and seeped into her conscience. Riot—a fiery word, blood-tinged. Massacre—sibilant and aggressive. In her young mind, places and events merged, and for the longest time, it was not hell but this unknown “Heaven” that she associated with fire and fury.

# Many years later, Varsha arrives at the City. She has no contacts to recommend her, but she is on first-name terms with hard work. She wears no armour of education, but her rough hands have a long familiarity with the contours of struggle. And so here she is, to wage her own battles with the City whose writhing streets once swallowed her parents whole, not even regurgitating enough to allow for the formalities of death. Stepping off the train, she braces herself, half-expecting the City to hurl itself at her.

But the City is in a different mood now. She finds no crazed mobs waging wars under the banners of their gods. Just vast, blinkered crowds single-mindedly focused on the business of survival. The City she has come to is no riot-infested beast, just a cold, efficient machine whose invisible gears grind aimless wanderers to dust.

Tall skyscrapers, bright malls, busy markets, labyrinthine streets, impatient vehicles, —all uniformly indifferent. With its million glittering eyes, the City refuses to see her. It doesn’t want her dead; it simply doesn’t care—or even recognize—that she’s alive.

The City is far more terrifying than anything she has ever imagined.

Vrinda Baliga is the author of the short story collections ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ and ‘Arrivals and Departures’. Her work has appeared in And Lately, The Sun (Calyx Press, Australia, 2020), The Best Asian Short Stories 2019 (Kitaab International, Singapore), The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018 (Kitaab International, Singapore), Asia Literary Review, Himal Southasian, The Indian Quarterly, The Bombay Review, New Asian Writing, Commonwealth Writers adda, among others. She has won prizes/honourable mentions in the Salamander Fiction Prize 2021, The Written Circle Short Story Competition 2021, Bengaluru Review Short Story Competition 2020, Katha Fiction Contest 2017, and the FON South Asia Short Story Competition 2016, and received residency fellowships from Sangam House, India, and The Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, California. Vrinda lives in Hyderabad, India, with her husband and two children.

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