This year’s Spider Web Flash Fiction Prize saw some incredible stories featuring complex female characters.
We just couldn’t wait to share some of them with you. So, today, we’re pleased to present (in it’s entirety) one of our honorable mention winners, “Kathakali” by Namrata Verghese.
Chutney-flavored and heavily scented with the pressures of life, “Kathakali” is a bittersweet assault on the senses and emotions. A piece not to be left unread or unexplored. Using vivid, poetic imagery and engrossing cultural elements, Verghese pulls readers into the world and heart of her main character, Niharika beta. Please note, for sensitive readers, profanity and adult subjects are part of the flavoring that went into creating this savory dish of this piece.
Without further ado, “Kathakali.”
Kathakali by Namrata Verghese
The chutney, minty and grainy and not meant to be eaten by itself, burned. I swallowed it forcefully, along with the words that fizzled on my tongue. Instead, I said, “I think it needs more salt, Amma.”
A nice man. An educated, decent man. A doctor, if you can snag one, but if you can’t, an engineer will suffice. An Indian man. Behind us, the green Kathakali dance-mask grinned approvingly. I picked at the burnt edges of the discarded roti pile, stacked high with the pieces too imperfect to serve my father. “Sure, Amma.”
Dark-skinned, tight-lipped, small-breasted, my mother and I looked so alike that I sometimes forgot how different we were. Watching her bustle around the kitchen, nimble hands hovering over knives and pots and pans, I remembered. That she gave up a six-figure salary to carve out a life in America with a man she’d met twice. That all she had to show for her background as a physician was her talent for kissing away boo-boos.
Two years later, college gave me liberation, exhilaration, a little bit of education. Most importantly: the chance to finally prove how different I was from my mother—by losing my pesky virginity once and for all.
Max from Tinder looked exactly like you’re picturing him: impossibly soft brown hair, a mole indenting his cheek into a permanent dimple. Collarbones sharp and expressive in a way his words weren’t.
The first message he sent me read: “Hey, do we have class together? Because damn, we have chemistry.” I snorted, shrugged, and wrote back: “LOL.”
We met at Starbucks. My name sounded clunky in his mouth—foreign. Nee-hur-eeka. He asked the barista for “chai tea” with a smug smile. Seated in metallic chairs the exact color and texture of cheese graters, we kissed for the first time.
Three dates later, I went over to his apartment. “Netflix and chill?” he asked, and I knew what that meant. “Sure,” I texted back. This was not consent.
We kissed on his couch. Hands slippery. Mouths pizza-greasy. He moved downwards, his fingers flirting with elastic. “No, not yet,” I said, pulling away. He held me closer. Fingers demanded what words did not. Persistent. Insistent.
“Don’t worry—you’ll like it,” he said, and I said nothing. This was not consent.
Inside me, the Kathakali man began spinning.The Kathakali man dances out the stories of my ancestors. His green face-paint and red contact lenses express the pain of colonialism, capitalism. Coercion. Wide skirts billow into the hollows of my bones. Open arms receive my silent screams.
Bra unhooked. I hadn’t even realized he’d touched me there. Ears buzzing. Head fuzzy.Throat raw with knotted words. This was not consent.
The Kathakali man’s dance-mask was framed in my family home, a tribute from my immigrant parents to the land they still called home. Green face. Red eyes. A symbol of my heritage; a constant of my culture. His ancient spinning filled my nightmares.
Sweat slithered. Fingers fumbled. The world was still. Quiet. When he moved on top of me, I felt my heart clanging, sloshing, in the vast emptiness of my chest.
Skin against skin in the worst way possible. Clinical. Intimate. The opposite of sex.
I thought about the Kathakali man dancing with my intestines. They were ribbons on his stage; in the imagination of my stomach’s audience, the intestine-ribbons became swords wielded by the fabled Pandava warriors. Slicing out of my skin and into the sun. The battle cries of my people.
“You okay?” he asked me when he was done, rolling off me so that my withdrawn gasp snaked feebly into the air. “God, you’re a good fuck.”
The fricative “f” in fuck hung heavy in the air between us. Fff-fuck.
My face was a grimace disguised as a smile. My skin rough with goosebumps. Sticky.Itchy. My silence silenced. This was not consent.
Inside, the Kathakali man spins and spins. The stories of my people. The nightmares ofmy childhood. Green face. Red eyes.
Later, I realized it was rape.
About the author:
Namrata Verghese is a rising junior and Robert W. Woodruff Scholar at Emory University, pursuing a double major in English/Creative Writing and Psychology/Linguistics. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, storySouth, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first collection of short stories, “The Juvenile Immigrant,” has been accepted for publication by Penguin India.
Stay tuned for more Spider’s Web Flash Fiction Prize honorable mention stories to savor and details about when and where you’ll be able to read or hear the winning story, “Sherry Baby” by Leslie Archibald. For Spider Road Press, this blog was penned by Jody T. Morse, SRP Blog Editor and Right Hand to SRP Founder/Editor Patricia Flaherty Pagan.