An Irregular List of The Effects of Fire On Poor Women

Mandira Pattnaik

  1. Of course, fire is sacred, solemn.
  2. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. Except, when you were very young, one morning your mother was oil-massaging you in the tiny balcony of the workers’ quarters, and a ball of people rolled down the road shouting. Two Sikh men, ironically on security duty, had pumped fire, thirty-three rounds you’d know later, into the Prime Minister’s chest just an hour ago. It’d ignite violence, an all-consuming fire of hatred, and thousands from the Sikh community would be killed, yet what you’d remember from that morning: the burning-searing foreboding, palpable and incomplete, as if hungering to feed itself.
  3. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. Except, when your aunt eloped and married her lover at the Marriage Registrar’s Office, there was no solemnity, no ceremonial fire, only defiance and apprehension, and shadow of the wrath of the Fire God, knowingly invited. She worked at a bank in Chennai; the man—unemployed, living off his wife’s wages, seething. Less than a year later, when there was a kitchen fire that gave her 80% burns, the husband didn’t come to her aid, had no burns, claimed he didn’t hear her shrieks. Your grandparents accepted it as an accident.
  4. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. At a cousin’s wedding, when you were eight, you only remember them putting copious amounts of ghee into the ceremonial sacred fire, amidst Vedic chants and invocations, while the bright orange-yellow flames leapt and licked the air amidst hymns and flower showers. Many years later, when this cousin came to your wedding, she welcomed your groom, and carried the sacred plate on which was an earthen diya, some marigold flowers and akshata An odd number of cotton wickers for good fortune was put into the mustard oil in the diya, and lighted. The plate with the flame was waved clockwise because the groom was the embodiment of divinity—and this meant, now onwards, he would be the centre of your life.
  5. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. When your husband and you went to live near the Vindhyas, it was the peak of summer. The river beds were dry and you regularly saw scores of women trek long distance with water pots on their heads over the cracked earth. The universal fire chariot measured the skies—nonchalant, merciless—yet the women continued to worship it every morning. You saw one of those women fall sometimes, dizzy in the heat, and being dragged to the unkind shadow of a thorny bush by the others, left to rest until someone could come and retrieve her. Weeks later, they came—the thunder Vikings with their fiery swords, stabbing at the open barren fields. The women came out of their homes to celebrate. The sound of conch shells and drums rendered the dark volatile, electric.
  6. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. Karol Bagh is a busy place. That chilly November night, people sat around a fire of burning trash to warm themselves, but none heard the rising arguments at the adjoining building. Not the fall from eighth floor either. The girl died in ICU later. Her partner hadn’t been agreeing to a Hindu marriage where the yagna fire would have become the auspicious witness to their union. Ironically, they were long in a ‘union’; living together for many years. She, on the other hand, had become an immoral woman in the eyes of society, and was hoping to convince him, and thus redeem her self-respect.

You read the news report the next morning. It added, but only as a footnote: her family had refused to claim the body and the pyre wasn’t lit by her father or her brother, as per funeral rites. Instead, the body was consigned to flames by a stranger.

  1. Of course, fire is sacred. Solemn. Last week, Burn played on TV. You didn’t know Ellie Goulding before, but the voice pulled you to the core of the feminine energy—delectable, powerful and yet one that doesn’t know its full potential. In the chorus, Goulding encourages you to create a light so powerful it can’t be put out.

Hundreds of miles away, you repeated the lines. Felt powerful, shapeless, limitless. You’d swear the flames of the stove you were cooking on, burned just a little brighter.


Mandira Pattnaik is the author of collections “Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople” (2022, Poetry), “Girls Who Don’t Cry” (2023, Flash Fiction) and “Where We Set Our Easel” (2023, Novella-in-Flash). Mandira’s work has appeared/forthcoming in The McNeese Review, Penn Review, Quarterly West, Passages North, The Rumpus, Contrary, Watershed Review, IHLR, SAND Journal, Quarter After Eight and Best Small Fictions Anthology (2021), among others. Her writing has secured multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction. Her piece “Dark Matter” found listing in Wigleaf Top 50 (2023). More at