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Creative Non Fiction

Travelogue: Varanasi

Outside Hoi An

The Forever Women

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Where Every bylane has a story to Tell

Most people regard Varanasi as a spiritual centre. But the city has more to offer. Street food, a breath-taking boat-ride on the shimmering waters of the river Ganga, the spellbinding evening Arti, gorgeous Benaras sarees and lots more.  Aayushi Sharma,  a native of Benaras takes the reader on an enchanting journey through the by lanes of the city that have an interesting story to tell.

Varanasi is said to be situated atop Lord Shiva’s Trishul (Trident). Located on the banks of the river Ganges, this city is celebrated and revered as the seat of Vedic culture and as the spiritual capital of India. But this spiritual legacy has been celebrated more by foreign travellers rather than its natives. I was lucky enough to be born in Varanasi. Living here taught me about secularism even before I knew this word. From celebrating Shivratri(a Hindu festival that celebrates the wedding occasion of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva) by taking out a Shiv Baarat to taking out Taajiyas on Muharrum (The first month of the Islamic calendar), the city is a happy amalgam of different cultures and traditions. But for me Varanasi is much more than just the spiritual capital of India.

People dream of witnessing a glorious sunrise from a boat Well! this city, makes such dreams come true. Benaras (as it was originally called) is home to more than 88 ghats. A boat-ride on the blue expanse of the river Ganga is perhaps one of the most enchanting experiences for anyone travelling to Varanasi. From my personal experience I can say that a boat ride is much more than an adventure. It is a spiritual quest, a journey that gives a cosmic perspective. I woke up at 4 o’clock to visit the Chausatti Ghat, where one can hire a boat for the ride across Ganga. A few helmsmen approached me, offering their boats for the ride. Honestly speaking, I was a little nervous as I was boarding a boat after six long years. But much to my surprise, as soon as we started moving away from the land, I grew less anxious and more excited.  Soon enough, the grey sky turned a beautiful blue and as the sun rose, the sky was splashed in shades of pink and orange with pristine white clouds adding beauty to an already gorgeous canvas. I could hear the temple bells pealing across the water. I could feel the ripple of excitement among the devotes and onlookers on the banks as they prepared for the prayers and Ganga-snan (bath in the Ganges). My anxiety dissipated and a sense of serene calm enveloped me. I felt confident enough to take the oars from the helmsman and row the boat. My boatman was a garrulous storyteller who regaled me with lots of folktales about the ghats. Perhaps the most interesting tale was about the Leaning temple. Yes! There exists a leaning temple called Kashi Karat. According to the helmsman, this temple was built by a servant of King Man Singh. He constructed the temple as a tribute to his mother’s love and sacrifices for him. But the story goes that after the construction of the temple, he boasted that he had now repaid the debt he owed to his mother. But as soon as he said this, the temple broke from one side and leaned over as though admonishing him for his arrogance in trying to put a value to a mother’s love.

After one hour of the boat ride, I stepped out on the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The day had begun on a very beautiful note, and I did not want it to end. As I stepped out onto the streets of Varanasi, I was assailed by delicious aromas from the food stalls lining the streets. It is a delight to see people enjoying Lassi, Dosa, and Kachori-jalebi with some warm tea in the morning. Even if you are not a foodie, the aromas beckon you to just sit down and enjoy the taste of every bite of the culinary delights on offer. I chose to eat kachori-jalebi that morning. The next day, I could not resist going back to sample more of the delicious offerings. Benaras offers you ‘chaat’ like no other city in India. I went twice to Vishwanath Lane.  During my first visit, I went to Vishwanath Chaat bhandar (a shop which is more than 45 years old) and I had an amazing bowl of the ‘Banarasi Tamatar Chaat’ and ‘Dahi Puri’.  Tamatar Chaat is a lip-smacking snack with a blend of cottage cheese, potatoes and mostly tomatoes, whereas Dahi puri is more on the sweet side with the flavour of curd titillating your taste buds. I also decided to explore the Vishwanath Gali (narrow lane) which is popular for its amazing range of sweetmeats and dairy desserts. I have lived in Varanasi for many years, but I didn’t know the range of sweets these little shops offered until I went on a tour. I started with my favourite Lassi (buttermilk) and then moved on to Rabri and Malai. My favourite dessert of course is ‘Malaiyo’, a sweet made of milk cream, but this secret Banaras recipe is only available in the months of December and January. This is one of the reasons why the ideal time to visit Varanasi is considered to be the winter season. Whether you have a sweet-tooth or are spicy-ophile, this place is heaven for food lovers.

Next day, I decided to take a look at the local market. Hand woven bags, bangles, carpets, were just some of the amazing goods on display. The Dashashwamedh market is the place to go to if you are looking for artifacts. And if you are a ‘saree’ fan and want to see the magic of Banarasi saree weavers, you need to head out to Gauriganj, as I did. Even after the establishment of electric handlooms, the famous Indian designers still come back to these places to get the more intricate work done by these weavers. Intrigued by their work, I talked to the weavers. While talking to the weavers I realised, how badly the pandemic had affected their livelihood. And yet their passion for their work gave them the strength to survive the pandemic generated economic downslide.  It takes a weaver almost 3 days to make one designer Banarsi saree, but every little detail, every bit of embroidery is done with complete dedication and focus. One of the weavers was spinning a purple saree with golden details. Who wouldn’t want to wear these gorgeous confections? I surely would.

But apart from the food and religion, I observed two very different and beautiful moods of the natives of the city of Benaras. They are extremely cool about their lifestyle, their identity and most importantly, their problems. They have an in-built swag which keeps them grounded and happy. Second, they are art lovers. One day, I was struck in a traffic jam on a narrow lane and a man from the back shouted, “Driving in Benarasi Galliyan is an art!” Well, jokes apart, Benaras truly worships art. On breezy afternoons, you’ll always find poets writing poems in their diaries and painters painting on their canvas on the Assi Ghat. In addition to this, on Sunday mornings and evenings, there are yoga events, Indian Classical dance and music events organised on the very same ghat. The sages and sadhus that abound here also, come up with their unique stories to enlighten the public in a lighter way. Here, everything is an art.

The last evening of my trip was spent watching the Ganga Aarti. Five priests on every ghat, perform an aarti (which is an Indian custom to worship god). Thousands of diyas flicker and glow even as night descends, lighting up the atmosphere and reflecting off the shimmering waters of the sacred river. It is a mesmerising sight. People witness it either from the boats on the river or by sitting on the stairs of the ghat. This spellbinding Arti starts at about 7.30 pm(summers) and lasts for about 25 minutes.

People tell me, my city is beautiful, but more than that it is the lively spirit of this city that makes it different from any other city in the world. People go to other cities, to live their life, but people wish to spend the last days of their life in this city, hoping for salvation and a release from the cycle of life and death. Benaras is also a home to the Manikarnika Ghat which is the burning ghat. People desire to get cremated here. I remember, going to this ghat with my brother once. It was a life changing moment. The sight of burning pyres make you realise how ephemeral life is and how death hovers over everyone. So, it is important to live every moment of life.  Perhaps the people of Kaashi believe in living every moment, because they see Manikarnika every day. They know and realise that death is the ultimate truth!

Varanasi is not just a spiritual or religious centre. Varanasi is for seekers, for poets, artists and most importantly, listeners because every lane has a story to tell, every person has a life lesson to teach.


Aayushi Sharma is an ardent feminist who finds comfort in words, music and her work. She likes to read fiction about women empowerment. She hails from Varanasi and she is currently pursuing her major in English Literature. She s a poet who dreams about flowers and mountains.

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The Forever Women

The Women on the Hindi silver-screen have carried shades of black, white and grey, have suffered and fought back, and have also embodied love, devotion and surrender. They are faces of light, laughter, sadness and strength. Indian actresses like Meena Kumari, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Jaya Bahaduri and Rekha have charmed cine-goers with their sensuous beauty, charm and dignity. Balpreet writes about these Forever Women.20

A FILM begins.

And then she enters the screen.

And the story begins. 

A film’s hero gets applause when he appears. And when a heroine steps in, a luminosity enters. You hear the breeze, leaves rustle, anklets tinkle, you smell flowers, the weather changes. The temperature amps up a little – from comfortingly warm to sensuously scorching and mostly, endearingly love-kissed. A leading lady - she brings a whiff of things to come. Exciting things. Beauty, warmth, love, passion, dreams, a surprise, an excitement... A reason for the hero to descend to earth. Look more real. Loving. And human. And for that, she holds the candle, melting him, making him easier to relate with. Making a man out of him. 

That’s our women in films.  At least some. Today, we celebrate Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Kiara Advani, Kangana Ranaut, Sara Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Bhumi Pednekar and more, when they line up crackers like Highway, Raazi, Gully Boy, Piku, Tamaasha, Kabir Singh, Queen, Thalaivi, Tanu Weds Manu, Kedarnath, Barfi, The Sky Is Pink, Dam Laga Ke Haisha... and more. We talk of women finding their voice these days. We talk of women who can tell a man from a moron and walk into the direction that leads her to authenticity, her essence and individuality. We talk of women who play the grey with the white. And go beyond. We celebrate these days, the exciting characters women play in our cinema.

But then, the women in our cinema were always many colours. Ever since India birthed its 70 mm, we have met all kinds – the divine, the good, the bad, the ugly. And for the benefit of those not in the know, many of them cut across the clichéd common. In fact, if I may say, these women went beyond the edges of social mores, even as they stayed beautifully wrapped in femininity, grace and a mysterious restrain. It’s THIS blend of softness and strength without ever touching the aggressive that makes them so interesting.

So it’s like these films have risen like waves, lapping against our anticipations and fantasies before settling back into boxes staved off to archives. And their women have stepped out of the tides, entered our blood streams, cells, eyes, hearts and memories forever.

So let’s meet some of these women, from the Hindi cinema of the 1950s till 2000, that have yet not left our systems. No reboot here. No upgrades here. These women stay. Never to be taken over. That’s how special they are.

Among the earliest films in my memory is Mehboob Khan’s Andaz. Now, Nargis Dutt was a curious fusion. Of impish arrogance and a certain kindness; of passion and sincerity gleaming all over her face; and openness so organic and new, she inspired filmmakers to make films like Andaz and Mother India. Neena of Andaz is this modern woman with a mind of her own who loves one man and is a friend to another. In her careless innocence, she believes she can honour both relationships. But then, she doesn’t know she has friend-zoned a man secretly in love with her. And eventually bears the brunt.

The character was complex which she projected effortlessly. And this wasn’t the only time she played a woman fluttering under extraordinary chaos. There was Mother India too. Here, as a rural Radha, she transforms from a loving wife who’s her husband’s equal in sharing the financial burden, into a toiling widow whose life force is her two sons. And then she evolves into a mother who’d allow her son to do no wrong, especially to women. So she pulls the trigger, killing him, the child she most loves. For a mother to have such ferocious grit isn’t ordinary and absolutely unforgettable.

Then we meet Anuradha - played flawlessly by the lovely Leela Naidi. She doesn’t face a situation as complex as Radha’s. But Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha faces her own demon nevertheless. She begins as an educated city girl exploring music and dance. Then she falls in love and marries a doctor who’s clear about serving the sick in a village. As the film travels, you see a woman flitting between love, devotion, duty and neglect because the husband is too sincere a doctor that he often forgets to be a good husband. Towards the climax, Anuradha faces two paths – one leading to an old suitor’s love who values her and her talents; and the other leading right back into her household of tough chores, endless waiting, and a routine bereft of any creative excitement. Anuradha stays. But in that we sense no sadness. It’s a choice of love, sacrifice and commitment, liberated of the previous resentment or heaviness. 

But five years later, in 1965, came another woman passionate about dance, who does walk out of a loveless marriage. And she also takes a lover and lives with him. For a leading lady of those days to play such a woman could’ve pushed her into a dangerous pit of social judgement. Waheeda Rahman managed not only to deliver such a role impeccably in Guide but also walked away with ‘Best Actress’ while the film itself lapped up awards for best actor, director, dialogue, story, cinematography and was entered for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 38th Academy Awards. In fact, Waheeda always took on layered roles. Khamoshi saw her play a nurse in a mental asylum who invests so emotionally and deeply in her patients’ healing, she herself loses her mind. Then much later, Sunny saw her portray the bitterness and manipulation of a woman whose husband has fallen in love with another woman.

Sharmila Tagore too played outside of clichés. She was this two-piece bikini flaunting actress who began her career with Satyajit Ray in Apur Sansar and Devi before her Hindi debut with Kashmir Ki Kali. But among her really extraordinary Hindi outings was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama. Now as Anupama, Sharmila is so stirring, so attractive in the way she carries her silence. Slender, beautiful in a natural, untouched way, Anupama grows on you with each frame... without speaking much, using her eyes and mostly nodding her way through the film. And when this girl, suppressed and silenced by a father who loves her and hates her at the same time, actually defies him and walks out of the house to be with the man who offers love and understanding... you are overwhelmed as if it’s your own triumph.

The same actress surprises with range across Basu Bhattacharya’s Aavishkaar and Greh Parvesh. In one she plays a wife who questions her husband’s dominance and meets him equally. And in the other, as a wife, she goes from shock to denial to acceptance of her husband’s extra-marital affair and his decision to leave her. And gracefully, extremely maturely, she readies to let go of him with an unconditional love and compassion – almost that of a mother. And in that, she actually wins him back. Such women! Mausam and Chupke Chupke too were roles that Sharmila lifted to levels of fine profundity.

To be profound and yet carry a lightness of being, and a child-like vulnerability is the stuff Madhubala and Nutan were made of.  First let’s take Madhubala. She was beauteous, quite like no else. Period. But then, in this crowning of her angelic charm, her talent often got sidelined. From Howrah Bridge to Kala Pani to Barsaat Ki Raat to Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi to Mughal-E-Azam, Madhubala gave us women who could croon in a night club, stub cigarettes with a look to die for and yet, be carried in the arms of love like a freshly plucked flower. She could giggle like nobody’s business and look splendidly sensuous when rain-soaked and amused. She could tease a Dev Anand in ‘Achha Ji Main Haari’ - blending the teasing, the fondness and the maturity of a woman who knows how to handle her lover. In that one song, Madhubala becomes so many women. Then, in Barsaat Ki Raat, she could play a woman helplessly, hopelessly in love and driven by its ferocity and faith. The Anarkali that she brought alive in K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam goes degrees beyond what Deepika Padukone could do to as Mastani. The pride of a danseuse in a king’s court, the easy surrender to the beloved, the fearless defiance in the face of opposition and then her helpless collapse into death, broken-hearted and disillusioned – Madhubala managed so many layers in this masterpiece for posterity to glimpse again and again.

Nutan too came blessed with a face of love, kindness, goodness, sincerity and a soulful purity. But when Kalayani of Bimal Roy’s Bandini is wronged in love, she crosses over into a dark space where she commits a murder. The changing shades of the mind flit over Kalayani’s face and it all makes for a woman so easy to relate with and yet someone no one would like to imitate in a hurry. Her Sujata, again thanks to Bimal Roy, is so endearing, so vulnerable and fragile and yet has so much character that you come away inspired to lift to the loftiest aspects of you. Her Saudagar with Amitabh Bachchan is yet another woman who won’t leave my heart space for the sheer goodness and forgiveness of a woman abandoned by her husband.

Then there is another woman who carries resentment as well as love for a man she was married to as a child and who has apparently forgotten all about her. Gulzar’s Khushboo is a masterpiece for how Hema Malini’s Kusum carries the complex role so effortlessly. She is deeply hurt, hopeless and resentful about Brindaban never coming back for her, and when she meets him as an adult, she is way too self-respecting to tell him to accept her or even that she has always waited for him. But, she also looks after and cares for his child from his brief marriage in-between. So she is a bundle of contradictions and yet, real and convincing. 

In fact Hema Malini has given us beautiful, compelling women in Gulzar’s Kinara and Meera, Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan, Yash Chopra’s Trishul. And a never-to-be-forgotten Basanti in Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, who chatters and lights up the frames all through and along with Dharmendra, makes for the most beautiful couple of all times.

Sholay also brings to mind Jaya Bhaduri who hardly speaks in the film and yet her presence throbs. She earlier immortalised Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili, who won’t let her terminal disease make a victim out of her. And when she does become a victim of her husband’s ego in Mukherjee’s Abhimaan, she makes no noise about it even if it means suffering so deeply she almost loses her will to live. Her Uphaar by Sudhendu Roy brings Meenu who is so unaware and innocent, she hurts her loving husband for a long time till awareness enters. Baawarchi, Chupke Chupke, Zanjeer, Parichay, Anamika, Kora Kaagaz, Silsila – Jaya Bhaduri’s women are always next-door simple, humble and yet quietly headstrong.

Somebody in that category is also Vidya Sinha, who makes Deepa of Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha so relatable even as she zig-zags with her emotions, pendulating between a boyfriend of her past and one of her present. Her full Indian face, her kaajal streaked eyes and her breezy, flowery sarees... Vidya Sinha is so enchanting it’s hard to find such charm in today’s gym-toned bodies and flawless bone-structures.

Then there are women whose sensuousness-meets-passion-meets-intensity is yet to find an equal... Go check Kidar Sharma’s 1964 films Chitralekha. The way Meena Kumari moves, speaks, looks, gets dressed, oozes love, surrender, confidence, pride and vulnerability – is a performance budding actors need to look into. It goes even beyond another of her highest – Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. Chitralekha is a maligned danseuse, bad news for other women and yet her search for the divine is so real, she renounces her man’s love and comfort to chase peace a twisted sense of spirituality puts into her.

Another character who exudes grace, sensuality and eventual sacrifice is Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali played impeccably by Vyjanthimala. Her Sangam too throws an important question about how men forget to ask a woman what she wants. Her Radha carries the complex layers of a woman caught between two men, one her beloved and the other a friend of the two and the tragedy of being married to the latter and learning to love him. And yet being questioned for loyalty. She also created Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s Devdas which is yet to find its equal.

Devdas also saw Suchitra Sen become Paro no actress could come close to. Both these women, embody love and pain so palpably that sometimes it gets tough to watch the film. But the same Sen has also created Aarti of Gulzar’s Aandhi which many say was modelled after Indira Gandhi. To play a woman of teasing wit, facing her father’s ambition and her own personal loss, isn’t a concoction easy to deliver.

And well, the list is really extensive of women who make us curious, inspire and surprise. Rekha does it in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khoobsurat and Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan; Smita Patil in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika, Mircha Masala, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar; Shabana Azmi in Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, Nishant; Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom, and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh. Tanuja in Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav, Rameshwari in Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaaye, Sridevi in Sadma, Lamhe, Chandni, Chaalbaaz, English Vinglish, Deepti Naval in Ek Baar Phir, Panchvati, Chashm-e-Badoor, Angoor, Moushami Chatterjee in Angoor, Madhuri Dixit in Tezaab, Saajan, Pukar, Dil To Paagal Hai; Bhagyashree in Maine Pyaar Kiya; Pooja Bhatt in Daddy, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Tabu in Virasat, Maqbool, Cheeni Kum, Haider and Aishwarya Rai in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.  

These women have carried shades of black, white and grey, have suffered and fought back, and have also embodied love, devotion and surrender. They are faces of light, laughter, sadness and strength. And they aren’t of today.

They are forever.


Balpreet is a senior print and TV journalist, who also makes films. Her film, 'Mera kuch samaan' received the PTC Digital Film Award 2022 for the Most Romantic Film. She also received the Critics Award for Best Director for her film, 'Lockdown.'

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Outside Hội An

In his sojourn to Hoi An, the writer comes across an old, dignified woman. Her hair was gray and held back from her face by a ragged string. Her eyes were shrivelled and small, like two raisins. The writer, James Roth,  describes at length his brush with this woman from Hoi An.

On a trip to Vietnam several years ago I had the opportunity to stay in the Than Binh Hotel in Hoi An, just south of Danang, which had been a U.S. Marine Corps Airbase during the war. Because of its history, Hoi An is a UNESCO site, which wasn't the reason I went there, however. I just wanted a clean room after backpacking down through southern China into central Vietnam. Hoi An, an old city, on the Thu Bon River, is lined with stone warehouses, where silks, porcelain, and spices were kept when there was an active trade with China, Japan, and India, during Vietnam's pre-colonial period.  Now the city is a major tourist destination that is awash with Westerners who barter with Vietnamese shopkeepers over the cost of tailor-made suits and dresses. None of this history, or buying a shirt, interested me, and so one day I rented a motorbike and rode out toward the distant green hills.

When I came to a particularly graceful home set up on a hill, I stopped the motorbike to admire it. The naturalness of the home's setting was what I liked most. It was as if the land and the home had gown together, one complementing the other. A line of reed-thin palms, like the bars of a jail, stood between me and the home, as if offering some protection. The red tile roof had faded into a soft pastel, and the walls, a chalky kind of masonry, were painted an aquamarine green that issued an invitation of escape from the stupefying heat. None of the windows had glass; the wooden door was gray, and weather beaten.

As I was admiring the home, someone stepped out of the front door. An old woman waved to me. I had no idea what she wanted, but knew I had to find out. I walked up the hill to her. The nearer I came to her the smaller she seemed. She was about the same height as the hoe she was grasping. Like her, its handle was hard and dry, cracked by the sun. She was wearing rubber sandals and a white pajama-like outfit of cotton gossamer. Her hair was gray and held back from her face by a ragged string. Her eyes were shriveled and small, like two raisins. She was gnashing on betel nut.   

She said something to me, but I had no idea what, and, seeing my confusion, she gestured toward the door of her home. I thought that she was going to offer me some tea or water, perhaps even some melon. I could feel the blistering heat on the back of my neck and forearms.

I stepped inside and was immediately struck by the room's austere dignity. Before me there was a small table, covered by red vinyl, and next to it a hardwood chair. Set on the table, as if positioned purposely for a still-life painting, was a battered thermos, a blue plastic pot, and a couple of red cups. Hanging on the wall over the table, all clustered together, there were two photographs, one of her and the other, I assumed, of her husband. There was also a certificate or diploma of some kind and a very large electric clock. The photographs had not been taken when either she or her husband were young. Both had gray hair. She had on a simple black blouse, and a necklace of what resembled pearls hung from her neck. Her husband was wearing a white shirt open at the neck. He looked a bit uncomfortable and unsure of himself. I guessed that he might have been a schoolteacher or government worker, because of the certificate or diploma. There were no photographs of children.

She began to mumble to herself. Betel juice seeped from a corner of her mouth. Then she began to sob. I felt that I had intruded and turned to leave, puzzled at why she had invited me into her home, but then she nudged me, pointing at the wall, and gestured that I should take a photo. I took a couple of photos, but they seemed lifeless without her in them. I put a hand on one of her bony shoulders, to try and position her in a photo, but she covered her face and would have none of that and pulled away from me.  

Once again, I turned to leave, but she began to wail and blocked the door, thrusting out a brown, sunbaked hand. Now, at least, things were clear. I gave her some money. She demanded more. I don't know how much I ended up giving her, maybe the same amount as a night's stay at the Thanh Binh, and then she allowed me to leave.

I returned to the motorbike and headed back to Hoi An.  When I came to a coffee shop on the bank of a river, I stopped and found a chair in the shade of a large tree and had an iced coffee and watched the fishermen who were at work. Sipping the coffee, I continued to watch the fishermen cast their nets and draw them in against the strong current in the enveloping dusk of another day, hoping that the nets would be full of fish, but they never were.


James Roth writes fiction and nonfiction in most genres but leans toward noirish stories and creative nonfiction. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in, several journals. He has a novel that is set in Meiji era Japan coming out in late 2022 and has just finished a modern detective novel/love story set in Tokyo. 

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