An Extract from Hostile Environment by Chinmay Sharma
By Wasafiri Editor on September 5, 2022 in
Read an exclusive extract from Chinmay Sharma’s short story ‘Hostile Environment’, a meditation on distance, relationships and love.
You can read the full excerpt in Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives, now available to download or purchase online.
The grey sky draped over Heathrow was reflected dully in the chrome and glass of the terminal where Anil and Miriam’s taxi was pulling up.
‘Have you got your passport?’ Anil asked for the umpteenth time.
Miriam, who had been staring out the window, was startled from her thoughts and took a second to answer. ‘What? Oh, yes.’
‘And you’ll message me once you get through security?’
‘Yes, and once I land.’
Silence ballooned again in the taxi.
‘Make sure you take me off your lock screen,’ said Anil. ‘In case your folks see it.’
‘Oh! Thanks, I hadn’t thought of that.’
The cab stopped outside the departures building. Anil got out and paid the driver.
‘Don’t forget to ship my books after me,’ Miriam said as they entered the airport. ‘And let me know if it costs extra, I’ll send the money.’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll ship them.’
‘Great, let me go check my luggage in.’
‘Sure, I’ll wait here.’
Anil watched Miriam join a line, one amongst a dozen, in the cavernous departure hall. Light shone through the windows, beaming in between the iron rafters that hung like metal trees over linoleum floors and ribboned walkways. It all felt drab and repetitive — and vaguely threatening. Borders without concertina wires, repeated endlessly across the globe — the same halls, the same lines, the same performance of efficiency as passports and tickets are checked and appraised.
Miriam came back. ‘Okay,’ she said, a slight tremor in her voice. ‘I guess I should go through security.’
‘Yeah.’ Anil caught Miriam’s hand, too numb and overwhelmed to say anything else. Miriam drew him in and pressed her face into his chest.
‘Promise me you won’t mope.’
‘Can’t, sorry.’ That got a reluctant laugh.
‘We’ll make this work, won’t we?’ she asked, unsure and worried.
‘One day at a time,’ Anil replied, repeating their mantra. One day at a time. How much longer can I stay? We’ll see, one day at a time. How will I find a job? Keep applying, one day at a time. Will we last the long distance? Perhaps. We’ll take it one day at a time. Relationship as a daily referendum.
‘One day at a time,’ she repeated. He started humming a tune from a ghazal, Ahmad Faraz’s ‘Ranjish hi Sahi’ — their ghazal, as they used to call it, half in jest, because it would always turn up when they needed it most. She hugged him closer, then let go. With one last kiss, she headed towards security. Anil stayed where he was, looking at the back of her head as she made her way through the walkways and past a white barrier until she was finally out of view. Only then, blurry-eyed, tears threatening to fall, did he put his headphones on and turn towards the tube, as Mahdi Hassan sang the ghazal into his ears.
* * *
A year later, in the tube carriage on his evening commute, music in his ears, Anil stood absentmindedly observing his fellow passengers, never making eye contact. An old woman was reading the Evening Standard that someone had left behind and that she would leave behind in turn once her stop came. A few men huddled silently together near the doors. Bankers, thought Anil, judging by their crisp suits. As he swayed with the rhythm of the train, melancholia and fatigue set in — thoughts filtered out; gaze became blank stare. He focused on a spot on the overhead handrail between two of the unspeaking bankers and, like the other commuters without a screen or grubby newspaper, unfocused his eyes and gave in, just as the ghazal in his headphones started again.
Without realising it, Anil started keeping time with the song, unconsciously nodding his head along to the slow, mournful, six-beat cycle favoured by ghazals — dha dhi na dha ti na. The song changed but the mood was set, as if the algorithm had sensed something in him, an emotional seam that needed mining. Getting out of the station – and getting home – was left to muscle memory. Anil’s feet led him now as he went deeper into the music, till he was finally at his drum kit playing along to his collection of sad songs.
Malika had been smoking in the backyard when the music came on. Notes accompanied by Anil’s beats bled out of their shared house, muffled only slightly by curtains and thin London walls, haunting the early autumn evening.
‘So, Anil’s drumming,’ she said quietly to the other housemates as she went inside. Laila and George, the designated cooks for the night, were preparing dinner while Anh-dao sat at the kitchen table. ‘Does he have a gig coming up that we didn’t know about?’
‘I don’t think so. I think it’s — well, he and Miriam broke up over text last night,’ said Anh-dao.
‘What?’ George shouted, followed by hurried shushing from the others. The drumming continued. ‘Why didn’t you tell us earlier?’ he whispered angrily.
‘I didn’t know if he wanted me to!’
‘What happened?’ Laila asked.
‘I don’t know. He just said that it was mutual, that the long distance had been taking a toll on them, and they just couldn’t do it anymore.’
‘Well that just shows that —’ George broke off as Laila shot him a stern look.
‘We can ask him more over dinner,’ Laila said, looking pointedly at Anh-dao.
‘Maybe we should let him be,’ Malika said. ‘It might be too raw right now.’
‘Yeah,’ Anh-dao chimed in. ‘He will have his own process, I’m sure, and we shouldn’t get in the way of that.’
‘No, we should ask him, just to check if he’s okay,’ George said.
‘It’s fine, I’ll take him aside at some point and check in with him,’ said Laila, and so it was decided. Laila and George cooked as Malika and Anh-dao did the dishes, but Anil didn’t stop. ‘Well, dinner’s ready, we had better call him,’ Laila announced matter-of-factly. A broken heart was one thing; a cold dinner, on the other hand, was a crime against her cooking — a rather more serious offence.
‘Right.’ Anh-dao turned and shouted, ‘Anil! Dinner’s ready!’ The drumming stopped and Anil appeared, his eyes slightly red…
Chinmay Sharma is an Assistant Professor of English at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR. His research interests include epics, adaptations, cultural studies, decolonisation, and the cultural Cold War. ‘Hostile Environment’ is the first story in his exploration of shared humanity in the face of borderisation.
Cover photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash
Edited by Farhaana Arefin and Malachi McIntosh, Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives considers translation as a practice and as a metaphor for all creative writing. With fiction from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinmay Sharma, a conversation with Will Harris, a special selection of life writing curated by Nina Mingya Powles and Stacey Teague, poetry from Hu Xudong, Jane Wong, and more, it’s an issue that delves into the heart of what translation means for the writer, translator, and reader.
You can purchase the issue here.