Dhandapolis: Stories from Bollywood


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Dhandapolis is a set of three stories set in Bollywood, written between 2009-2012 in Mumbai. These short stories explore various facets of life and relationships through intimate and exasperating encounters in the city of dreams.

Aaja Aaja Bombay encapsulates the outsider experience in the film city:

“The industry first humiliates you. You’re new and you don’t really know how it works. Every trivial task they assign you will come with too much pressure. You’re a headstrong guy. Here everybody will give you enough reasons to f**k off. But you please your god; this set is your shrine. Your director understands; your seniors are experienced. They know how to deal with a newcomer. They also know how to handle a problem child.”

Dhandapolis is a Kafkaesque take on the moral and ethical corruption in the industry:

“Your naked belly is studded with diamonds, stars and gold. You are a mosque and a shrine. You also remind me of the naked woman in the bar, dancing to the clattering of champagne bottles and slippery goblets, silencing the gunshots and shrapnel-plague. The civil war ravaged the countryside and then raided the city. I wanted to make films about the war, and the girl in the dance bar, before I went to the film school. I guess I was people then.”

Love Edit is a love story set in the heart of Bollywood. Renu Sharma is a film editor in Bombay, living an ordinary life with a struggling filmmaker for a husband. The quest for happiness and fulfillment through cinema brings their lives to an eventual freeze—until the man plots a new story about the two of them, a newborn child and the sea. “Love Edit” is a simple short story about love and its thousand shades: some beautiful, some ugly. Excerpt:

“The good day doesn’t last. It’s gone before you take note of it. It’s the seed of good work which remains. She spotted familiar young faces of models and actors in the jogging lot as she walked towards her apartment. What is it that brings them out in the street so early and keeps them working out so late? She doesn’t understand these folks, she thought. I have a husband for a filmmaker; but he doesn’t have to appear in front of the camera. He is happy conjuring up his shots in his dreams while I cut them till four in the morning! There is little to complain though and she knows this is the best arrangement so far. This was the first time she got a break in her two-year marriage. The man takes care of her little girl; the woman takes care of his baby. Which is more difficult, they should ask me: raising a film or raising a baby? She knows the answer. She has raised both.”

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FICTION: Zig’s Boars

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Zig flickers against the static wind, resisting the strong pull of the Furnace, a dark skeletal figure sucks the blood off the horizon. The contour of Zig’s body vibrates like strings. All around him the phantom city falls to eerie shambles while the wordcreatures feed on the radiation off the glowing abyss down where the asphalt road ends and the heart of the Furnace begins.

Awakened like wrath of the god with a million eyes, the Furnace rumbles and shakes the earth like a kamikaze bomber. A spear of black light, emitting hatred, turning into radiation, rise to pierce the starry veil of the night sky, followed by an ear-splitting boom. The first wave of the dark light cracks Zig’s chest, knocking him off his feet on the charred ground. Hungrily, the Furnace scorches everything—man obsessed with his machines, women with their décor magazines, children working on models of rockets and spaceships—that lay on its path, extending from its reactor-heart to edge of the island coast, a dead mass unmoored from its orbit, drifting aimlessly until it settled in a new course, if not worse.

“Come, Kid,” says Boar, the leader of the sounder. His body a smooth bump against the raggedy landscape. “Offshore safe and pretty, let us go.”

So Zig follows the snorting succession of the boars, trailing each other like holy monks, their hooves barely touching the charred ground. He still feels it was wrong to leave the city in ruins. “We could start rebuilding.”

“Can’t, Zig,” Boar says. “Worse than poison, the dark force; nay, it doesn’t kill. Wordcreatures shine, glow, and then p-u-f-f—boars or not, out like shooting stars everything goes.”

Boar is right, of course. He is a radiating halo among other death stars. Every second they stay on the coast, they grow more dependent on the evil force—the radiation is corrupting something within them, and they know it. Perhaps their soul.

“We swim to the new island,” Boar says. “Build home. Come now.”

___

Reality is always difficult to recreate. The boy who dreamt of these worlds lies entombed by a planet.

The curator projects the hand-drawn cartoons stored on a micro-ship on a giant white screen aboard Yama IV. A thick wall of light, modified aluminium and carbon shield them from the vast burning cold of the space outside.

We change a few details here and there, lift source materials and transpose them in worlds that we build.

___

“I was better off dead,” Zig declares, raggedy and torn, bending time and space and pulsating everything about him like a teenager. “You wake horrible and wicked things with wordmagic.”

“Harmless Zig,” asks Boar, “What wicked things?”

“The Furnace,” he replies. “You soak and scrub the air and water, but it’s no use.”

“We feed on radiation without getting eaten up. Isn’t that enough?”

“Not for every wordcreature.”

“You have a plan?” Boar feigns interest.

“Something like it.”

“You don’t know a thing.”

“What did I miss?”

“The whole point,” the boar snorts, his back turned against the grim coast. “We’re deader than dead, and everything on this coast. The coast yonder and beyond. We all ghosts here on a phantom planet. One big hell.”

___

The curator is a short man in his fifties with taut features of Asian stock. His audience is fifteen something.

Hiro was four, he said, when he first saw a boar in the wild. They had trapped the boar for a relative’s housewarming party. It was a huge menacing beast with sharp rows of grating teeth, save for its clown ears and snout. They put the poor beast in a cage in the back of their van, which would later reek of urine and shit and fear.

You have seen green-blue egg picture of Earth. Pretty, yes, from long distance. But closer you went, the filth shot at you. The innards of the cities were filthy, ugly—much like it is today.

The curator pauses for effect.

They slaughtered the boar for the party later that evening, but Hiro couldn’t bring himself to eat it. Next morning he went back, gathered the mess of hair and scattered bones in the boar-pelt, and buried it in a hole in the riverbank. Afterwards, he moved to the city to study arts, and apprenticed to a popular animator of his time. You probably already know that story.

Years later, when he returned to the village to scatter his father’s ashes in the Lai River, he saw the ruins of a tall and spent brick furnace, where he had once buried the remains of the boar, preserved by a tangle of weeds and grass. Old memories shook him like cold waves of the sea.

There were big holes along the riverbank. But the river had long changed its course, and then dried up. He could count the inhabitants of the village on his fingers, he said. Young people like him didn’t want to live there anymore. So they moved to the big cities. The whole place was almost deserted. The shocking clarity of the moment, he said, became the basis for the film that we just saw, and his subsequent fantasies. You can’t erase or incinerate that sort of childhood encounter from your being, the place where no instrument of man can reach.

We don’t know much about the circumstances of Hiro’s father’s death. But I tend to believe their relationship was similar to the one the boy has with the boar in this film. We are a million years away from Earth, but we can still experience the emotions that were the basis of his work. That is genius—a gift of humanity, which we carry with us, within each one of us as our common inheritance.

___

Cut to Zig swimming back to the old coast with a dark shadow. A blue and red line of ghosts bound with tattoo spells protects the Furnace from wordcreatures. The skeletal beasts look less intimidating than the towering figure itself, rising hundreds of feet above the ground, daring the Sacred Buddhas to confront it. Gathering courage, Zig steps inside the line of spell, and begins to turn to dust, white as children’s bones and teeth. Slowly, the dust gathers and moulds, and takes the shape of a boar. Every cursed spirit that comes near him transforms—their skin no longer appear inked or incriminated.

“They are now free from the cycle of karma,” the curator informs his rapt audience.

Soon more animated boars arrive at the scene. “Kid, you done it,” their leader snorts. The boar kid smiles as he leads them to the massive heart of the radiating monster. They lick and soak all the waste and ionizing heat. When they return outside, the first green saplings curl and breach the reclaimed territory. “Welcome to postcalypto!”

Now old seeds buried deep within the breasts of the ocean drift ashore, followed by a rapid-motion of a new wave of evolution. The red-green vegetation encroaches the rim of the coast, and then the Furnace. The first saplings touch the spirits freed by Zig, and they start to lift toward the sky as if propelled by life—“pure energy,” Boar calls it—with calm and grateful expression on their round, blanched faces.

All the boars huddle around Zig, the boar-kid, as they snort and watch the spirits leave, without a trace of contempt or envy.

“They are Bodhisattvas,” the curator intervenes, “All of them bound together by suffering.”

The crowd bursts into a loud applause when he turns back the light.

“Thank you,” the curator starts. “We’ll now open to the floor.”

___

Copyright © Salik Shah

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