This edition of WEP Writing Challenge is a prompt fiction based on “Phantom of the Opera”
——–So here’s my WEP entry, a prompt fiction flash piece I’ll feature only here on this site.
(I set a timer for half an hour, and cleaned up the results–this is part of my practice to not take myself too seriously and recklessly put up quick sketches for the world to see. These snippets of prompt-fiction show aspects of the story only hinted at in the novel. When you read the book, you’ll recognize the characters, and the voices will (hopefully) blend into the tapestry of the book. If you want more such vignettes, look up Blue Mumbai Stories.)
Damyanti Biswas © 2023
TAGLINE: Things only begin with mistakes. That’s not where they end.
WORD COUNT: 997, FCA
You lot, you. You think of old age as a failure, and youth some sort of achievement.
You know, don’t you, that it’s coming for all of us? Old age, I mean. Also, death. And disfigurement, if you’re not careful. I wasn’t careful and yet survived with a few bruises and broken bones, but that’s a story for another time.
For now this is what you need to know: it all started with a mistake, as many things do.
My sister married the wrong man. He was low-caste, but good looking, the poor bastard. I’m not high-caste myself, and I don’t mean to curse–he actually didn’t know who his parents were. His smile made women turn around and giggle, covering their faces with their hands. By the time my sister married him, and left the village to come stay in our chawl in Mumbai, that smile had curdled into a sneer.
He beat her, but she said that was no reason to leave him. Most men in our tenement beat women, and so what. She asked me, a priest at the Kaali temple, to pray for her husband’s well-being. A better temperament. As if my fierce-eyed, long-tongued goddess cared about such things–my Ma Kaali can swear and kill with the best of them. She’s the dark vengeance incarnate after all, the slayer of wicked demons. I burned incense and prayed for her to take him. I rang bells, clanged cymbals, and prayed for deliverance for my sister.
At any rate, my brother-in-law’s temperament grew worse, aided along by cheap liqour. He and I got into shouting matches. He always won, because he was married to my sister. By the time their son was about to be born, my sister spent more time working even at nine months pregnant than her no-longer-good-looking wastrel husband.
The goddess Kaali in her wisdom listened to my prayers and took him away one night, snuffing out his life with an affectionate puff of air. My brother-in-law walked out in a storm, and was blown off the roof. Or he lurched off, who knows. He fell neatly into a wheelbarrow parked near the dustbin, and waited, quite dead, for us to find him and take him for cremation.
His son entered this world soon after, wailing his lungs out. Many said it was the father re-incarnated into the son, but I didn’t agree.
The infant took after my sister: her snub nose, her thick head of hair, her tendency towards misfortune.
My sister died a few nights later, while still feeding her baby. Ma Kaali is a capricious goddess, who knows why she wanted my sister.
The tiny nephew nearly choked, but my wife heard his cries, and that’s how we found my inert sister. My wife said there was a man loitering in the corridor when she rushed there. He looked like the infant’s father.
But he’s dead, I protested. My wife would have none of it. I know what I saw, she said, and that was that.
From then on, many people caught glimpses of the phantasm, my dead un-dead brother-in-law. Whispers raced through the chawl: those who saw him would die soon.
I named the boy Ram Chandra, after Lord Ram, another powerful slayer of demons. I lay my hand on his soft head and swore to protect him. To no avail. My nephew was ever-terrified–he saw this scary man, he said, as soon as he could speak. The good-looking man with angry eyes.
At sixteen, he ran away from home with a bunch of disheveled, drugged-up tantric monks. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it, because a priest can hardly abandon his temple and his family to run after a determined, wayward, possessed boy. So I prayed to Ma Kaali and waited.
Sure enough, my goddess has a sense of humor. Ram Chandra returned, a full-fledged tantric, a passionate devotee of Ma Kaali.
That proved to be both his calling, and his ruin.
As a tantric he earned some money–people trusted his promises because he was my nephew, the nephew of a temple priest. He saw the phantom, who he now knew to be his father. I cursed it, but I couldn’t remove it from our lives.
You lot have no clue the trials I went through for my Ram Chandra’s sake, but what I was supposed to do–I couldn’t save my sister, was I supposed to abandon her son, too? You’re here for one crime or another, but you understand family, don’t you? All of you have family, of one sort or another.
My Ram Chandra flew into rages–always when he saw the phantasm, his dead father haunting his days and nights–but my nephew harmed no one, at least no one I’d heard of. He was irresponsible, ungrateful, but no–I don’t think he ran from the police lock-up because he’s a murderer.
I know my nephew is in that cell opposite, where they put under-trials, and he might confess if they give him a good going-over with the police baton, but I don’t think it will end like this. His phantom father might goad him, bully him to admit to a crime he didn’t commit, but things only begin with mistakes. That’s not where they end.
Ma Kaali is as compassionate as she’s capricious, and I’m her priest. You wait and watch, all of you.
In the end, if you stick with your family, if you make fun of no one, certainly not an old fat bastard like me, it all turns out all right.
By morning, when the inspector who put us here comes in, I’ll tell him a few things I’ve been keeping to myself. I’ll beg the police if I have to, because I don’t think I’ll last another night here.
I see my brother-in-law, and you can too–look, there, at the end of the corridor, that bit of darkness that moves against the shadows. He’s here. The phantom of my life’s opera is here.
If you’d like to meet this character in THE BLUE MONSOON, all details and pre-order links are here. If you’re in the US you can also enter the GOODREADS GIVEAWAY–it ends soon. This will support the book at no cost to you!
Do you read or write flash fiction? Do you feel intrigued about this character, like him or hate him? Have you read any of the Blue Mumbai novels?
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