Bhumika R‘s short story: Shaheen’s Nightmare

Shaheen woke up coughing and gasping for breath. It was only two-thirty a.m as per the clock on her smartphone which meant that she could sleep for another three hours before the alarm would ring and wake her up. ‘It must probably be an acid reflux caused due to the cauliflower curry I had for dinner,’ she told herself and sipped water from a glass jug placed on the bedside table. Ensuring that the alarm had been set at five-thirty a.m, she drifted off to sleep thinking about the possible cause of her waking up. 

Turning off the alarm when it buzzed at five-thirty a.m, she watered the jade plant a colleague had gifted on her birthday two years ago. The plant’s growth was more or less average and definitely not stunted. She stared at the somewhat dusty floral curtain which would have to be changed in a couple of days. Chewing her bread slathered with a nut butter spread, Shaheen sipped her hyderabadi chai as her mind wandered aimlessly. Since it was her day off at work in the sub-editorial department at a daily newspaper office, Shaheen decided on taking a stroll in the neighbourhood park.

It was while walking in the park that the hazy memory of her nightmarish dream sent a chill down her spine. Shaheen feared she might have a panic attack and tried piecing together the jumbled and disconnected pieces of what she could recollect from that strange dream. In that weird dream, she remembered her jade plant had been charred as if struck by a lightning despite being placed on her coffee table. That was when she had felt asphyxiated and woken up choking and gasping for breath. These were the only two fragments which she could now remember. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to listen to the noises in the park- a group of children were screaming in chorus while playing some game, someone else was shouting on his phone about purchasing a plot somewhere and this was accompanied by the chatter of young monkeys on the trees adorning the jogger’s path. Shaheen struggled to relegate the faint memory of her nightmare into the deep recesses of her mind. Taking in a few more deep breaths she walked on the leaf strewn, cemented walker’s path in the park. She must have walked around forty-five minutes or thereabouts when she decided to return home and take a shower to kill that mal-odour caused by sweat.

She had set a reminder on her phone to alert her about the grocery list and her phone did the assigned task promptly. A list of groceries had to be given to the grocer from whom she and her mother had been purchasing for the last two decades their monthly supply of lentils, rice, spices etc. This grocery shop had no name or at least no signboard indicating any kind of name for the store. Most referred to it as nameless Ajjaiah’s store. Dropping the grocery list at the nameless Ajjaiah’s store, Shaheen walked towards her mother’s home. She then stopped by a small bakery in the next lane which looked dazzlingly new and purchased two potato stuffed buns, one for her mother and another for herself. Soon after she hastened her steps in order to avoid the sharp rays of the April sun. 

Giving her mother a potato stuffed bun, she slowly chewed bits of her bun, relishing the mild flavour of spices in the potato curry used for filling. ‘I’ll cook a nice meal of chicken fried rice and a manchurian once the grocer’s delivery boy brings in the required groceries. Is there anything else you would like to eat?’, she asked her daughter who was still chewing her potato bun. ‘I need a glass of buttermilk as well, please,’ she requested. 

I can do that. But let the grocer send home the required goods. Until then I can’t begin cooking as there is neither enough rice nor curd right now at home,’ said her mother, gazing at Shaheen who had already drifted off to sleep on the cane sofa on the veranda and muttered, ‘This daughter of mine barely listens to my response. Why is she now feeling sleepy? I am sure she has had her quota of holiday sleep already.’ A bit irritated at what she thought was her daughter’s lack of patience in listening to her response, Shaheen’s mother walked towards the living room to watch a children’s music programme on the television. 

When she woke up from her brief slumber, Shaheen realised that it had been nearly four hours since the grocery list was given to the friendly old man at the nameless Ajjaiah store. She had initially planned to carry a bag of rice her mother needed thinking that the grocer might delay delivering the goods. But she had later abandoned the idea as the old man reassured her that groceries would be delivered in an hour’s time. Feeling a tad irritated, she dialled the grocer’s number on her mobile and received an automated ‘not reachable at the moment’ response. Thinking she had no option left but to walk to the store and enquire, Shaheen walked under the hot afternoon sun with an umbrella. ‘The grocer has either turned arrogant or irresponsible or forgetful,’ she thought as she walked into the lane on which the grocery shop was located. For a brief moment, she stood confused thinking she had entered the wrong lane. It was then she saw the lane number and assured herself that she had indeed come to the right place. The store had been charred and she could smell the smoke of burnt rice, lentils and meat. But the grocer had no refrigeration facility to sell meat. Why is there a burnt smell of flesh?’ Seeing a pushcart fruit vendor opposite the grocery store, she asked, ‘What happened? Was the fire brigade here?’. He answered her first question, saying, ‘Short circuit, madam. Everyone was trapped inside and must have died. That old man must have died too,’ he said in a detached tone and continued chewing his betel nut. Unperturbed by the charred store, opposite his fruit cart, he packed fruits chosen by a customer and counted the money given by him. 

Shaheen observed that the shutter had been pulled only halfway and wondered if they hadn’t tried to escape through that half-open shutter. She almost asked the vendor if he had tried helping when the fire broke or if he had at least phoned the fire brigade. With a strange feeling of unease and nausea, she swallowed her words and walked back with her umbrella folded as though the piercing rays of the afternoon sun no longer bothered her.

Bhumika R completed her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She has worked as an assistant professor in the School of Humanities & Sciences at Shiv Nadar University Chennai, Jain (Deemed to be) University Bangalore, Shri Mata Vaishnodevi University in Kakryal, J&K and as a language instructor in the Department of Humanities & Social Science, IIT Jammu. She believes that writing heals scars and allows you to mock authority in a subtle yet powerful manner and importantly it allows a writer to tell stories that might be difficult to articulate in academic writing. In July 2022 she decided to focus her energy and time entirely on literary writing and translation having realised that her love and passion for literature outweigh her interest in academia. Bhumika has contributed articles to Cafe Dissensus every day, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. She writes poetry and short fiction in English. Some of her poems have been published in the Visual Verse, IACLALS newsletter, The Pine Cone Review, and platocavesonline. Her short stories have been published in the borderlessjournal, aainangar literary magazineand eastindiastory. She also translates poetry and fiction from Kannada into English and vice versa.

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