Mandira Pattnaik


Somebody died! Because of twenty dollars, Dad!
On the evening of Memorial Day, May 25, someone purchased cigarettes at a grocery store in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, US. He was killed, assuming he paid with a counterfeit bill.
Dad sat to my right at our dining table in a modest suburban leafy neighborhood, India, examining the freckles on his clasped hands like the cartography of the world's problems. Mum clanked a pan louder than necessary from the kitchen. We know she disapproves of this discussion. Not because of twenty dollars, the reasons are far greater than that!
Of course, I understand. Twenty dollars is the sum I won at an international writing contest this week. The only dollars I'd ever owned, the only time I'd felt like there was an invisible pageant crown on my head, even if it were for a day!
Of course, I understand. Twenty dollars is less than a couple of hours work in the US. Worth about eight, eight-hour days of unskilled labor here. Half our country lives on a dollar per person per day.
This time one death had made a difference. It may or mayn't have a lasting impact, but for the time being it has stirred people in fifty nations, taken down mascots of injustice and abuse, if only through their statues. It's the same way horrific rapes jolt our people here. We cascade down promenades, down lanes bracketed by monuments from our Mughal past, sit-in on busy intersections at Delhi or Lucknow, without banners or flags, only vociferous sloganeering. All we want is to make existing laws functional. But weren't they framed, in the first place for the same purpose? Without the nudge of a thousand voices of commoners, students, masses? The high and mighty remain in their ivory towers though, and for some in power, they'll continue to happen because, 'Boys will be boys'!
After days, as best case scenario, the guilty are apprehended, tried for acts more heinous than murders, and in rare cases, hanged. Then we go back to our innocuous slumber, ignoring the many other similar devilish acts taking place. One every fifteen minutes. And wait for another tide of voices.
My mother keeps away from the bold prints in press or media trials. She says they nauseate her; says it must've been difficult to write the small bits where scribes delve into the voyeuristic details. Perhaps they're intended to split us to the core, she adds. Dad and I agree.
So usually we do not discuss news over dinner. We like to believe the walls of our modest rental apartment will shield us from the wrath of not only the elements, but the barrage of filth floating outside.
But I'm sure Dad knows, as much as I, that we can't remain immune forever. We've crammed our heads with those tiny bits Mum talks of, and stored them like cud, chewing them and compressing them to be able to pack in more of the strange events taking place all over the planet.
Tonight we retire to our respective white-washed tiny bedrooms with wall- mounted television sets, mute the noises and watch thousands of barefoot men women and children make the long arduous journey from the cities where they worked for our industries and homes, back to their rural homes where the same poverty and exploitation awaits them from which they escaped. It is a march that is continuous and soundless, like a stream carving its path through the collective stone-cold conscience of a nation. They are called migrants laborers as if they are some other species and the rest of us can forget them and go to sleep. On the way, many are dying for the lack of a fraction of twenty dollars.
This time there's no tide of voices. Perhaps we're too cold and hibernating. Do we, Dad and I, store our accumulated wisdom to prepare ourselves for the worst as and when that occurs? Or do we use them as shields to defend ourselves when we become a part of that news --- we, as objects, exhibited over millions of television screens --- dying of twenty dollars or equivalent, of hunger or pesticide, or of an engineered chaos?
Either way, we can't sleep until our bodies become cold, very cold.


Born in India, Mandira Pattnaik graduated in Economics, but is an activist-writer by choice. She is humbled to have work published or forthcoming in The Times of India, Watershed Review, Citron Review, Commuterlit, DoorIsAJar, Lunate and New World Writing, among others. Her short fiction is currently the Editor's Pick at Juggernaut Books. She tweets @MandiraPattnaik