Sujata Shekar graduated from the Hunter College MFA program in May 2018. Her stories have won a 2018 Pushcart Prize and a Notable Mention in the 2016 Best American Short Stories anthology.
Shekar's short story, “The Interview,” was originally published in The Southeast Review'Vol. 35.2.
We seat the new recruit in a windowless room that is empty except for a table and five chairs, four for us and one for the rookie. We ask him to place his hands on the tabletop, palms down, fingers spread, and advise him to keep them still so the splinters in the wood do not pierce his skin. He obeys. He can feel the gouges in the grain, see the bloom of the stains like a child’s tracing around his fingers. His head jerks, his eyes flicker. The light bulb hangs unwavering.
This is the only story you need to know, we say, of Veera. Our boss, our guru, our mother, our father. Yours too, maybe, if you pass this test. Forget what you’ve heard in the lanes outside, all those feverish tales cooked up by the cops and our sniveling rivals and the clueless press. Listen to us, because we were there in the beginning, when it wasn’t him and us, or us and the world, but the five of us together, only fourteen, working in the tea shack outside Chembur station. Five boys for a single shop—too many, you say? But business was brisk, from the six-thirty local to the last train at two. We would brew, we would strain, we would stir in the milk and sugar with ladles as long as your arm, we would rinse the glasses and load them in racks that could hold a dozen at a time, and then we would pour, not wasting a drop, and carry the racks up the station steps, selling, selling, as we went. By evening, the handle of the racks wore grooves in our fingers that cracked and bled and scabbed over into calluses so precise and smooth that when we pull the trigger on our pistols, we do not feel anything anymore, not a thing.
The story begins on a July morning, with the rain so hard the drops left dents on our sodden skulls as we ran in and out of the station and the shop, the tea more watery than usual, true, but spiked with the nectar of the Mumbai rain. What more can you want, we cried to our customers, double sugar and an extra gulp for free? The teashop owner, a hijra named Sweetie, was our guardian, you could say, the best we could hope for in the absence of our parents, who were long dead or killed or run away from and mostly unlamented. Sweetie sat behind her cauldron of oil frying up potato and chili fritters, the bucket of cash at her knees.
The man arrived on the 11:50 a.m. local from Dadar, a lull in our chores, the cauldron cooling. He settled on the stool beside Sweetie and opened his palm, open, open, like this, we tell the recruit, flip your right hand over, show us that skin, that lifeline of yours, optimistic, don’t you think, so the man sat there with his palm open until Sweetie filled it with ten big notes, a week’s earnings, at least, we counted, a thousand teas, and then the man left, thin, taciturn, weaving through the rain, sheets of it, as if finding the dry within. Go back to work, boys, Sweetie said, and don’t stare every time he comes like that. He’s liable to cut your eyes.
Veera was the one who got inspired. Isn’t that what a leader does— inspire the rest of us, take a normal occurrence, like that goonda man coming around for his weekly protection money, and turn it on its head and sniff at it and give it a poke or two and work it into a chance for himself and those lucky enough, or maybe foolish enough, to be his friends and confidants? Sweetie, he said, why pay that lout? We can protect you just as well, can’t we? Sweetie, to her credit, did not laugh. Get rid of him, and I’ll pay you the same, and let you sleep in the shop at night.
It was raining still the following week when the man returned. We waited until he perched on the stool and turned his palm over and Sweetie slid a fresh batch of battered chilies into the oil, rousing a cloud of smoke that made him cough and pinch his nose shut and close his eyes, just for an instant, but it was enough for us, we four boys grabbed his wrists, his neck, his head, and Veera cocked the knife that Sweetie used to pluck eyes out of her potatoes and cut the man’s thumb clean off his hand. There was very little blood or maybe the rain washed it off as he ran soundless out of the shop and one thing led to another, we will not bore you with the details because that part of the tale is legend now and known to all, including you, recruit, for that is what brought you to us, did it not, our irreversible, thrilling, unstoppable flight from knives to guns, fourteen to, well, however old you think we are now, ageless, some say, for the stolen years of every person we off gets added to ours, don’t you know, don’t you wish, recruit? And that is Veera for you since and forever, wielding the sharpest edge, the quickest brain, the thumb to our fingers, our barreling fist. But open, too, benevolent, humble, insisting we tell this story each time, and how it ended with Veera plopping the thumb in a glass of tea that day and placing it beside a cardboard sign Sweetie had made and most customers ignored that read “Tips Welcome.”
The recruit shakes his head, one palm up, another still down, as if to show he can follow orders, as if he can stay still while his bladder swells and threatens to leak, particularly when he spies us slide open a knife and twirl it in the air like a makeshift fan, it’s hot in here, is it not, recruit, and do you think Veera would be what he is today if it weren’t for us? No, that is not a trick question, answer us, for what is a story but a dead thing without a team of practiced storytellers and that rarest of creatures, a deserving listener, let us see now how deserving you are, recruit, keep your hands still, look away if you must, a flinch is a fail, not to mention fatal, and we do not intend that at all, do you believe us, recruit, do you believe any of this, steady now, steady, take a deep breath…