The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden
by Sukanya Venkatraghavan
Format: Excerpt | Genre: Fantasy
Content warning: sexual assault
The neighbours talked a lot about the occupant of 606 A wing. For one, she was so beautiful. No, attractive, according to Mrs Munshi of 606 B wing, because ‘she is dark, no?’ Dark but attractive, everyone agreed.
Also, nobody knows when she comes and goes, Mrs Sharma griped.
What does she do all day?
She looked great for her age, there were no quarrels about that. What a gorgeous, curvaceous figure! But, wait, what was her age? 25? 32? 40?
They watched her from their balconies and windows as she seemed to wind up and down the pathway, draped in jewel tone sarees, her long hair sometimes open, at other times tied in a thick braid, her skin the colour of a summer sunset, a certain sorcery glowing from within. They really couldn’t tell the colour of her eyes – they may have been black or even a hazelnut brown. Mrs Iyer, who fancied herself a writer, once described them as ‘deep, like the turbulent ocean’. But that could mean her eyes were green or grey, or perhaps even a deep blue.
‘Maybe she wears contact lenses like those actors in serials,’ said someone, and everyone nodded. Maybe.
No one could remember how long she had lived there. She may have told them but they had forgotten. All of them. And now it was a little embarrassing to ask. Neither could they be sure if she owned the flat. It was the largest apartment on the top floor of the building. The only one with a terrace – the terrace. With the rose garden.
The rose garden was a particularly popular topic among the ladies. How the flowers, mostly roses but a variety of others, all quite magnificent, seemed to be in perennial bloom. How they were bigger and more beautiful than any others they had seen. How they never seemed to fade.
‘How come they never fade?’ asked Mr Munshi once. ‘What manure is she using?’
‘Maybe it is some foreign brand,’ said Mrs Sharma.
‘Maybe she talks to them. They say, na, plants grow better when you talk to them.’
Everyone had fallen silent after this exchange.
It was Mrs Munshi’s turn to host the monthly high tea and even though 606 A was invited, she didn’t attend. Not that she ever did. The ladies didn’t mind because this gave them a chance to talk about her over tea and samosas.
They had all been gifted blooms on their birthdays through the year, and Mrs Khanna had once taken a flower apart petal by petal to check if it was made of plastic.
They had all waited for a couple of weeks and then quietly thrown away the still-fresh flowers. Mrs Sharma had stuffed the blooms into a polythene bag and tied it up tightly with a number of rubber bands before throwing it into the garbage bin because she thought they had started to whisper. In the dead of the night. Sometimes in the sleepy quiet of the afternoon. Occasionally at dawn…
This was, of course, Mrs Sharma’s little secret. And Mrs Munshi’s. And Mr Iyer’s, on the third floor. And Mrs Khanna’s. Because who wants to be told they were imagining things or needed their ears examined?
The thing the ladies talked about the most, though, was the men.
‘So many of them.’
‘No shame at all.’
‘Changing boyfriends like panties.’
‘Always someone or the other coming and going.’
Mrs Sharma frowned, a line of doubt appearing on her forehead. ‘Well…no one has actually seen them go? Isn’t it? I only see them come to her flat.’
‘Must be leaving early morning. Who knows?
‘Maybe having wives also.’
‘Her appetite is something else, haan.’
And all of them laughed. A little nervously. But that wasn’t because they didn’t like their neighbour in 606 A. They just didn’t understand her, and because they didn’t understand her they were a little scared of her. Pity, because if they had mustered up the courage and just asked Ira Second-name-unknown, the neighbour in 606 A, she would have told them the truth. About her age, the roses, the men…
Only, they would have forgotten the second after.
For instance, she did tell Mrs Sharma that she was 6,000 years old and still preferred her former life deep in the forests to the concrete jungle she had chosen to inhabit for the last 200 years. Mrs Sharma will not recall this because that is how Ira meant it to be. The old lady had passed out after the information had been shared with her, not just because she knew deep in her tired old soul that Ira was speaking the truth but also because she had looked into the Rakshasi’s eyes and seen it for herself – the forests, the wild magic, the rivers of blood… The pain had been too much to bear, and she fainted. When she came to, Ira was sitting next to her, with a cup of tea, telling her gently to keep a check on her blood pressure. After all, she was getting on in age, wasn’t she?
The year before, at Mrs Munshi’s birthday party, Ira had told both Mr Munshi and Mini, as she was called, on their little balcony, that her entire family had been slaughtered by a king. He had wanted that part of the forest to build a lodge for his hunting grounds and the Rakshasas who had settled there were loathe to leave. This had made the king furious and he had sent a band of soldiers to persuade the Rakshasas into leaving. They had refused. Ira spoke of how she alone had escaped death because she had gone hunting. She had returned to find her village up in flames, her parents dead and disembowelled, and her siblings missing, possibly hauled away to the kingdom to be the king’s slaves. They were too young to use their magic and by the time they would come of age, it would have been beaten out of them. Mr and Mrs Munshi nursed their gin and tonic as Ira told them how she had sunk to her knees and wailed, and the moon had slid out of sight for it could not bear her anguish. The next morning, the couple had woken up with excruciating headaches; doubtless, the wine was to blame, they told each other.
So, you see, if you asked Ira she would be more than happy to tell you everything about her life, including her rose garden. But no one ever asked her about the garden, because after all flowers were just…flowers. For instance, right now, she was in her balcony, absently smoothening the creases on a rose petal, as Nikhil the banker told her all about his life, including the girl who had accused him of raping her when all he had done was be persuasive.
‘Come on, man, if she didn’t want to fuck me why did she ask me back to her house?’
‘I can think of a couple of reasons,’ Ira said.
‘What is a weak no? It’s a yes.’
Ira’s eyes lit up with some kind of ancient rage as she told him why it was not. She told him how the king’s men had taken her, all 14 of them. Grown men, laughing as one took the place of the other while her cries gradually weakened. She told him what she did afterwards, and watched as he started shaking, sweat breaking out on his forehead, trickling down his face. By the time she was done she knew he would remember forever. No, Nikhil the banker did not deserve the kindness of forgetting.
An hour later, in the wing opposite, Mini Munshi’s increasingly fickle bladder woke her up and she muttered her way to the bathroom. The little window in the loo directly overlooked Ira’s flat. Force of habit made Mini peep through and she let out a low aah when she saw Ira in the balcony, pressing mud into a pot that contained a new rose plant. Her long fingers disappeared into the soft dirt and emerged again, nails painted scarlet, as deep as the roses in the garden. She was in a saree, black and gold, a mirror to the sky and waning moon above, humming a strange melody under her breath.
‘She is beautiful,’ thought Mini grudgingly for the millionth time before she reluctantly finished her business and went back to the bedroom.
‘Who gardens at midnight? That girl is very weird,’ she told Mrs Sharma the next morning. Yet, when Ira arrived at her doorstep with a little bunch of roses for Mini Munshi’s daily puja, the older lady accepted them without comment.
‘Diwali is coming soon my dear. What plans? Any family coming down?’
‘I don’t have any family,’ said Ira, smiling. ‘I have told you this, Mini, don’t you remember?’
Mini Munshi flushed a deep red and stuttered her way through an apology. Later she texted Mrs Khanna on WhatsApp: No family. That’s why so many boyfriends.
Poor girl, came Mrs Khanna’s reply.
Ira came back to her flat, her skin tingling with memories that Mini had so unkindly brought back, of mud lamps in huts, meat roasting in a spit by the river, and laughter. The laughter haunted her more than anything else. She wandered into her terrace barely noticing the eager whispers of her blooms. The memory of laughter slowly churned into the smell of burning flesh, the distinct scent of terror and the excitement in the eyes of the men who had returned to the village to look for survivors. They had found her by the river, babbling to herself, cold and alone. They had taken her back at their commander’s order and thrown her in a dungeon by herself. She repeatedly asked them about her brothers and sisters, and all they had done was laugh.
‘You are actually a disappointing lot,’ one of the older guards had said. ‘I can see none of the Rakshasa magic you are famous for.’
She didn’t tell him that the magic kicked in only when you were older, 14 at least. She didn’t tell him that hers had, on a new-moon night after her 13th solar turn. A strange, weak magic that she distrusted and disliked. Wasn’t magic supposed to be powerful? Wasn’t it supposed to make her feel something?
‘Ira, your magic won’t have any effect unless you tie something to it. Some feeling of passion, some strong emotion,’ her mother had told her, keen eyes watching her impatient daughter struggle with this newly awakened force.
‘Right now, all I am feeling is irritation,’ Ira had replied, gripping a dead twig with all her force. It crumbled into ash and fell to the ground.
‘Be patient,’ her mother had said softly. ‘Your magic knows when to take shape.’
Her mother was right. It did. That evening the guards dragged her out of the dungeon into the wild, neglected garden. They had each had a turn with her, spat on her and told her she was ugly. She could barely move, let alone stand, but had staggered to her feet, a fistful of earth in her hand. The men had stopped laughing because they saw it in her eyes, the wild flare of magic, the freshly wrought rage that would not die over centuries, the inexplicable power, visible though her brokenness, electric and terrifying. She had thrown the earth at them, and there was a second when nothing happened. Then the men vanished, and in their place stood cacti, ugly, thorny, rooted forever in their violence.
This excerpt from Magical Women has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and the publisher, Hachette Book Publishing India. All rights remain with them.
Sukanya Venkatraghavan is the author of Dark Things and the editor of Magical Women, a feminist fantasy anthology published by Hachette India. She started her writing career as a film journalist with Filmfare and then went on to become Entertainment Editor at Marie Claire India. Sukanya has also been part of the creative team, including scripting and research, for shows such as Look Who’s Talking With Niranjan (ZEE Café), Design HQ Season 2 (Fox Life) and Koffee With Karan (Season 6). You can find her on Twitter at @suku06 and Instagram at @zooku.