The Sea Elephants

    By Shastri Akella


    There was a tropical depression in the Bay of Bengal. Rain, unseasonal, ruined our roads. I went to school, took my first final exam, and came back, watchful of each step as I approached my house: the drainage over- flowed, the one that ran by our alley’s curb, a burbling black stream full of plastic bags, fish eyes, used diapers, drowned rats, onion skins. Would the road clear by my next exam? Our finals ran through the second week of May, each exam separated from the next by a two- day interval.

    I woke up with a start, my bladder full. It was early: the clear sky blushed with the first glow of daylight. I went and used the outdoor toilet. Out of habit, I left the door open.

    As I peed squatting, a white flash winked at some distance. An ar- tificial light. And then another. When I finished, I pulled my shorts up and fled.

    When I got to my room after my second exam, I saw some pictures on my bed. Pictures of me squatting and peeing. Unnaturally bright.

    “Do you know why I took those pictures?” asked Pita- jee. He was sitting at my study.

    Because you’re a sick bastard, I wanted to say.

    “Take these photos to school,” he said. “Ask a boy friend what’s wrong.” He stressed on boy. He separated it from friend by the length of a breath. He had, once again, that crazed look, the sort that, I felt, came to life on a butcher’s face before he plunged his knife into an animal’s chest.

    “I’ll iron you out, oh I will,” he said, gesturing to the photos. “One day you’ll thank me.”

    “And if you’re dead by then?” I asked. “Will I thank your picture on the wall?”

    “I was a teenager once,” he said. “I know what you’re doing.”

    He left the room. As I changed into my nightclothes, I imagined a man developing the film in his darkroom. The studio man doesn’t notice the images at first: not as they emerge in a tray of liquid hydroquinone, not when he strings them up on a clothesline, not when he brings them to the front desk and cuts them, autopilot, each picture a perfect five- by- seven, ready to be inserted into photo albums. He distractedly eyes the image on top as he stuffs the lot into an envelope. The image registers in his head, after a lag. He pulls the photos out to confirm: yes, they are pic- tures of a boy squatting on a hole, his shriveled penis and balls reduced by distance to a wrinkled mass of flesh. When Pita- jee went to pick the photos up, did the studio man deliberate on the change to be returned, tapping one coin, then another as he appraised Pita- jee, wondering if he was a pedophile or if he received a monthly paycheck for photographing peeing boys? Did he try to see if the man before him resembled the boy whose image he’d birthed in the lab?

    It continued to rain. Purple thunderbolts intermittently revealed the gray edges of swollen rainclouds. The power went out. I had to study for English. I lit a candle and went to the living room and turned Ma’s radio on. It was Storytime with Amar Sethi.

    Princess Kunti, beautiful and young, is blessed with a chant she may use to invoke any god of her choice. “Imagine that,” the storyteller said, “you look at the heavens, point at a god, say ‘That’s who I want.’ Like a spoiled child in a toy shop.”

    With no particular desire in mind, with nothing but the knowledge of the chant and the youthful impatience to put it to the test, she looks at the sun and invokes it. And he appears before her: the god who illu- minates the world.

    At that moment, the living room filled with electric purple. A deaf- ening sound followed close on its heel. The windowpanes rattled in their frames. I squeezed my eyes shut. Then the steady drumbeat of rain re- turned. The curtains, scrunched tightly against the window, billowed again.

    I got up, candle in hand, walked to the window, and pushed aside the curtain. In the windowpane, my reflected lips parted, my reflected fist slackened. The candle slipped from my hand. The wick, snuffed against the floor, released smoke and the smell of burned wax. A branch, sawed off the tree by the storm, had made a hole in the roof of our treehouse.

    In the window, a little above me, a little to the right, appeared Pita- jee’s reflection, his candle giving him a hazy halo. He went back into Ma’s room and closed the door.

    The radio storyteller continued his tale. I went into the prayer room and struck a match. Kunti spends a night with the sun god. I came out holding the alabaster statue of Hanuman in the crook of my arm. Kunti is impregnated with the sun’s bastard. I marched up the stairs and flung the door open. It struck the wall and quivered. Pita- jee, who was lying down with his head in Ma’s lap, sat up. The two candles on the night- stand dimmed then brightened.

    Ma looked confused. When her gaze slid from my frowning face to the deity’s smiling one, she started. “What’s going on?”

    Staring at my father, I said, “I hope I never grow up to be like you.”

    Kunti abandons her bastard boy by the banks of the Ganga, the story- teller said.

    “Mud and Milk,” I said. “Were you their father as well?”

    His face crumpled.

    “I get it. If you showed up right when they died, you’d have to be decent.”

    Thirty years later, Kunti’s illegitimate son— fierce warrior, fine archer— is killed by her legitimate son. She casts his ashes in the currents of the Ganga.

    I smirked. “But come six months later and you can get straight to bumping uglies.”

    Ma said, “From the way you’re turning out, becoming him doesn’t seem a bad option.”

    “Did I say something wrong? Oh. My mistake. Maybe he’s going at it so hard because he wants a new kid— to, you know, replace the dead ones.”

    “And why are they dead, Shagun?” Ma asked.

    “What’s wrong with you,” my father exclaimed, looking at her angrily.

    I could tell from his reaction that she’d told him about the hand I had in my sisters’ deaths. She’d promised me she’d keep it a secret.

    I raised the statue of Hanuman above my head and flung it down. My parents got to their feet as Hanuman exploded into a hundred shards of painted alabaster.

    Ma ran to the ruined god. She sank to the floor, collected a piece, and turned it over.

    Kunti swims in the Ganga, her aged, sagging breasts speckled with her son’s ashes.

    Pita- jee charged toward me. Ma, still on the floor, leaned forward on her knees and extended her hand toward me.

    “Go, Shagun,” she said. “Run. Quickly.”

    I pulled the door as I left the room but not hard enough for it to close.

    Between door and jamb I saw her fingers wrapped around his ankle. I raced down the corridor. I was at the mouth of the staircase when I heard Ma’s door whistle open and hit the wall. I watched Pita- jee march toward me.

    My chest went tight. I stood frozen. Enraptured by the crazed look that now filled his face. A hot rush of urine burned the inside of my flesh.

    “Don’t,” Ma shouted, emerging into the corridor.

    His heavy breathing reached me before he did. He raised both hands, as though asking me to stay away. His palms met my back and pushed.

    I tumbled down the stairs, my elbows, my forehead, my hip striking the edge of one tread, then the next. I landed on my stomach. I pressed my forearms to the floor and tried lifting myself. Blood dripped from my forehead but made no sound on the floor. My jaw hurt. My vision swam.

    I relinquished control to the oncoming tide of darkness.

    Excerpted with permission from The Sea Elephants, Shashtri Akella, Penguin Random House India.

    Shastri Akella’s debut novel “The Sea Elephants” is forthcoming from Macmillan (USA, Canada) and Penguin (India). He was a writing resident at the Fine Arts Works Center (2021) and the Oak Springs Garden Foundation (2023). He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and PhD. in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His writing has appeared in Guernica, Fairy Tale Review, CRAFT, The Masters Review, Electric Literature, World Literature Review, and elsewhere. He’s an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Michigan State University.

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