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7 June 2024

Ripening by Dushi Rasiah

Wasafiri is proud to publish the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize shortlisted pieces. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by promising new writers from all over the globe. This intimate fictional piece by Dushi Rasiah depicts the narrator's uncertainties, family secrets, and her own sense of identity culminating in a shared moment of compromise. 

The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 1 July 2024. Read the full guidelines and submit your work here.


Olive green (basic bitch); army green (problematic); apple green (try-hard); kiwi green (itchy). 

Juhi turns from the colour chart in front of her to the other end of the aisle, where Ziggy is bent over rows of rollers and brushes. She has typically raced to the end, while he systematically works his way around B&Q. He already has dust sheets and extension poles in the trolley, and he’ll likely head for caulk and sandpaper next.  

Meanwhile, she’ll stand here, frozen in the middle of a colour labyrinth, ruling out shades until he catches up with her.  

It strikes her that her method of selection – ruling things out – is somewhat upside down; she’s merely narrowing down the list of things she doesn’t not want. Juhi hesitates, her index finger hovering above mint green (sickly). She recalls a school report from fifteen years ago, where her Year 11 form tutor wrote: Juhi shows plenty of enthusiasm but little initiative. Could be more decisive in class. 

Juhi’s mother skimmed over this paragraph to the academic results (she’s still sceptical of the idea that education has anything to do with improving one’s character) but Juhi can’t forgive Mrs Miller for adding yet more doubt to a doubtful girl’s mind.  

When Juhi visits her grandfather at the nursing home, she always takes him fruit. They sit opposite one another and peel bananas, lychees, oranges – even grapes – their hands defter by the minute.  

When he can’t remember who she is, he still remembers what he asked her to bring. ‘Did you buy mangoes, Nalini? Oh, you went to Tesco again. Did you pick the best ones? The pomegranates last time were sour.’ 

‘Th—’  

‘I gave one of those girls out there five pounds and asked her to get me some pomegranates from Sainsbury’s, but she just laughed. They’re so disobedient, the girls here. Nalini, close the door, it’s cold.’ 

‘Thatha, it’s me, Juhi. Nalini’s daughter.’  

But he’s lost interest, adjusting his saram to sit on the edge of the bed, one leg thrown over the other. 

‘You know, the best mangoes are from Jaffna,’ he says, as he works at the first one’s skin with his fingernails. ‘Even our people don’t always believe it, but it’s true.’ 

Juhi nods as if she hasn’t heard him say this before, about almost every other fruit. Thatha grunts in frustration as a sliver of mango skin falls to the carpet below, then reaches for the butter knife on his bedside table.  

‘If I could go back home just once more,’ he continues, ‘I’d bring back a suitcase full of them. Sweeter than honey. God, when I had my first mango here… here in…’  

The pause grows heavy, the knife lying redundant in his palm. He tries a different opening, speaking fast as though he can trick his mouth into revealing the end. ‘You know when I moved here to… to…’  

‘To London, Thatha.’ Although her grandfather talks to her in Tamil, Juhi answers in English. 

‘London? Yes, London.’ His face sags, nothing to hold it up now the thread is lost. But then he clutches at something juicier than mangoes. ‘You know, Nalini, your husband didn’t want me here when I first came to London.’ It takes Juhi a moment to realise he’s referring to her father. ‘Of course, having his father-in-law move in with him made it much harder for him to carry on his affair.’  

Thatha guffaws, while she silently congratulates herself on keeping a poker face. She manages this feat better than she did a few weeks ago, when he revealed, voice full of sly glee, that her cousin Thulasi’s car was worth Juhi’s yearly salary as an emergency services dispatcher. It helps that today’s disclosure isn’t a complete surprise. 

Lately, Thatha is loosening his grip on a lifetime’s worth of secrets, impatiently letting them slip through his fingers like grains of rice.  

Sometimes his revelations are harmless, even amusing; the visit before last, he told Juhi that half the names on her mother’s birth certificate are misspelled, because he filled out the form while drunk.  

Then again, sometimes they’re not. Two months ago, Thatha informed Santha Aunty that his son had only reluctantly agreed to marry her all those years ago, after his beloved childhood sweetheart accepted a proposal from a doctor in Norway. 'But I told Kannan, an arranged marriage to a teacher’s daughter is much more respectable than a love marriage. You weren’t my second choice, Santha, only his.' Santha Aunty hasn’t visited or spoken to her father-in-law since. Juhi suspects she hasn’t spoken to Kannan Uncle much either.  

She counts to five in her head, then hands Thatha a punnet of translucent grapes with more forgiving skin, a barely-there green (safe). ‘What did you have for lunch today?’ 

She assesses the decorating paraphernalia laid out on their kitchen floor. The only thing missing is green paint, because Juhi couldn’t narrow it down in the end. But they still have hours and hours of prep work ahead of them, before any colour can go on the walls, the cupboard doors, the skirting boards. 

‘I didn’t realise it would take so long,’ Juhi says. 

‘I did tell you we should get someone in,’ Ziggy replies, though she can tell he’s committed now. 

‘I want to do something by myself.’ 

‘You mean, by ourselves.’ 

‘You know what I mean. How hard can painting be anyway?’  

‘It would be less hard if we painted the whole room white…’ His tone is hopeful. 

‘No.’ Hers is flat. ‘There’s no point doing this unless we do it properly. I want a green kitchen.’ She’s always wanted a green kitchen. For a long, long time anyway. She remembers feeling simultaneously validated and infuriated when she saw Dakota Johnson’s perfect alligator-green kitchen in an Architectural Digest home tour three years ago.  

‘Are you sure? You haven’t actually liked any greens.’ 

‘Well, it has to be the right green.’ She’s not sure that alligator green would work in their awkward kitchen with its meagre natural light. Not to mention she’s shared that AD piece with too many people, she doesn’t want to look like someone without her own taste.  

It occurs to her that perhaps she can’t find the right green because she never envisaged this kitchen being green. Maybe her green kitchen is waiting for her somewhere in a period house in Zone 2 London, next to a bright conservatory, below a dedicated nursery, in a life that’s pleasingly full.  

Or is it just that she can’t picture a green in her own kitchen before she’s seen it in someone else’s? Did Mrs Miller’s report read little initiative or little imagination?  

Ziggy shrugs and unfolds a dust sheet. ‘Green it is. Ready to strip some wallpaper?’ 

Juhi wonders if it’s unusual to want a partner who lingers a little longer in disagreement. 

Next time, she visits the home with her cousin. Juhi and Abi are close. Sleepovers-since-five-years-old, 3am-drunk-phone-calls, communicate-with-eyebrows close. But not know-each-other’s-salary close and definitely not know-each-other’s-parents’-secrets close, so this visit feels risky. 

It turns out Abi has brought fruit too, a fact that irritates Juhi as she claims her usual seat. She and Abi are two of thirteen grandchildren, but Thatha lived with Juhi’s family when she was growing up, his room sharing a wall with hers for thirteen years. He picked her up from school every day, took her to her dance lessons every week. None of that means that she must be his favourite and yet… she’s always assumed she is? 

Juhi gives him the pomegranates she bought at Sainsbury’s this morning, but Thatha’s greedy attention is focused on Abi’s unbranded blue plastic bag, packed indecently full. He lifts out a pineapple by its crown, then dives back in for the rest: mangosteens, rambutans, a papaya fruit and three cans of jackfruit.  

‘My favourite!’ he barks, holding a can aloft like a trophy. 

Juhi rolls her eyes. She didn’t know tinned fruit was allowed. Who’s going to open them for him? 

Sitting side by side on the bed, Abi and Thatha fall into a comfortable patter that Juhi has never been able to achieve with her elders. She can understand her mother tongue, but speaks Tamil like a toddler, muddling her tenses and botching her pronunciation. Abi’s accent is indistinguishable from Thatha’s. They almost sound like friends.  

Juhi’s hands grow clammy as the minutes tick by. Every topic feels dangerous, but she can’t steer the conversation unless she talks over them both in English. 

When Abi regales Thatha with stories from her trip to Sri Lanka (unspoken: can you believe Juhi’s never been?), Juhi turns the TV on.  

When Thatha asks Abi if she’s picked an auspicious date for her upcoming wedding (to a Tamil doctor who is not called Ziggy), Juhi’s neck starts sweating. 

And when the two of them discuss Abi’s recent promotion (what do emergency dispatchers even get promoted to?), Juhi drops her bowl of blood-red pomegranate seeds. 

She gets up to leave after just half an hour. Juhi can’t put words to the sensation in her stomach. She only knows she can’t be around them any longer. 

‘I’m not feeling great, I think I’ll head home.’ 

‘But we came in my car?’ Abi sounds concerned. 

‘I’ll get the bus. Thatha, I’ll see you soon, sorry I have to go.’  

As she closes the door behind her, Juhi hears Thatha asking Abi, ‘What happened to Nalini’s car?’ 

A few metres from the bus stop, she hears her name. She turns as Abi stumbles into her. ‘I thought I’d leave too,’ her cousin pants out. ‘Do you want a lift?’ 

‘I’m meeting a friend, it’s the opposite way.’  

‘Are you feeling better?’ Abi’s question reminds Juhi too late of her excuse for leaving.  

‘It’s just a headache. I think the fresh air is helping.’ Juhi says this with a straight face, as Saturday afternoon traffic crawls past them on the A406. 

‘You’re not annoyed?’ 

‘I’m not annoyed.’ 

‘You know he can’t choose what he remembers, right?’ 

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. ‘He tells me things I don’t want to know all the time, things he should’ve forgotten years ago.’ 

‘He does that to me—’ 

‘It’s not the same. Abi, he doesn’t remember my name.’ 

‘Maybe if you visited more oft—’ 

‘He lived with me!’ Juhi’s outburst surprises her into continuing. ‘Not you or the others, he lived with me. And my mum and dad. We took care of him.’ 

Abi raises a single, flawlessly threaded eyebrow. ‘We were children. Wasn’t it him taking care of you? You’re lucky, I wish I’d got more time with him, growing up.’ 

Juhi reminds herself that her cousin has cut her visit short to offer her a lift home, that the nursing home is a forty-five-minute drive for Abi each way. ‘Ignore me, I’m just shattered. Sorry. Won’t Thatha mind you leaving?’  

‘It’s okay, I’m bringing both our mums to visit tomorrow, I’ll see him then.’  

Her bus is slowing to a stop, but Juhi flings an arm out anyway, her fingertips narrowly missing the windscreen. The driver’s furious honking feels like solidarity, rather than admonishment. ‘I’ve got to get this one. Let’s catch up soon?’ 

She stares stubbornly forward from her seat as the bus pulls away. That sensation in her stomach? Envy green (bad vibes).  

Attacking the freshly plastered walls with a hand sander is the most motivated Juhi’s felt in months. She gave in and let Ziggy book a professional plasterer in the end, after finding hopeless, crumbling walls behind endless (three) layers of wallpaper. Two extortionate quotes and multiple overtime shifts later, the kitchen is back in her hands. 

When her aching arms give out on her, she leans back, panting. It might be in a flat in a not-so-salubrious part of Enfield, but this kitchen will have the smoothest walls in the borough. She says as much when she looks around to find Ziggy holding out sandpaper to replace the sheet she’s worn down. 

‘The smoothest unpainted walls in the borough, for sure. Picked a colour yet?’ 

‘I picked the colour ages ago, you know it’s going to be green.’ And Juhi knows she’s being pedantic. ‘I’ve got it down to nine shades.’ 

Ziggy’s answering smile is honest, if tired. ‘Let me help. Which is the cheapest?’ 

‘Not helpful, Zig. We’re doing this properly, whatever it costs. No, not whatever it—’ 

‘You keep saying properly, is there an improper way to paint a kitchen?’ 

‘I just mean like… like this is going to last, like it’s not a temporary fix. I want it to feel like our forever kitchen. Not that I want to live in this flat forever, but I want other people to think we love it enough here that we might live here forever. And that means the colour has to—’ Ziggy’s bewildered expression stops her in her tracks. Juhi relents with a laugh, releasing a fraction of the day’s tension. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says again. ‘Do you want the sander or the sugar soap?’  

Why can’t he understand what she wants without making her find the words?  

‘I mean, how do we decide which outfit to cremate him in? Would he want his navy suit or the grey? In fact, how do we decide who decides?’ According to Juhi’s phone screen, her mother hasn’t stopped talking for ten minutes and forty seconds. 

Three days ago, the nursing home staff told the family that Thatha ‘passed away peacefully in his sleep’, although no one can convincingly picture him leaving this earth peacefully.  

‘And obviously no one’s helping me with it all, your Radha Aunty and Kannan Uncle are acting like they’ve lost an acquaintance, not a father. Pushpa Aunty wants us to hold off any decisions until she can find a cheap flight to London, but what do I tell the funeral directors? I doubt your Canadian cousins will even come.’ 

Woven in with Juhi’s grief is private relief, that she managed to see Thatha three more times in the fortnight following her joint visit with Abi. The last visit, her mother and Radha Aunty joined her halfway through, carrying between them a Waitrose bag for life filled with clementines and bananas. Thatha had thrived on the chance for cross-generational gossip, delivering each zinger with a magician’s flourish. He even got Juhi’s name right twice.  

‘Then there’s the death certificate – you’d think no one wants us to have the damn thing! I’ve spent hours on the phone tracking it down.’ 

Juhi makes a weak attempt at comic relief. ‘Well, as long as no one drunkenly wrote someone else’s name on there…’  

‘Eh?’ 

‘Like your birth certificate.’ There’s no response. ‘You know the story, Thatha was drunk… He spelled your name wrong, or his name wrong… Someone’s name was wrong.’ 

‘Oh, that! No, he wasn’t drunk, he was angry.’ 

‘What? Why?’ 

‘It was silly. He’d just found out your ammamma might have had some sort of involvement with his brother – you know, Vimalan Uncle. So, in a rage, he went and wrote “Vimalan” under Father on my birth certificate, instead of his own name, Nimalan. He wanted to make a point, I guess. Perhaps he was a little drunk. The funny thing is, no one noticed for ages until he pointed it out; after all, Vimalan, Nimalan, what’s the difference?’ 

‘What?’ Juhi doesn’t know where to start. ‘You’ve never told me this before.’ 

‘Haven’t I? Well no, I suppose I haven’t. No one really talks about it anymore, but now he’s dead, you may as well know.’ 

‘Amma! How have you never told me this before? So Ammamma had an affair?’ 

‘I didn’t say that!’ Her mother is indignant.  

‘But you’re telling me Thatha might not have been your dad?’ Juhi’s doing rapid calculations in her head. Is Abi her half-cousin? Is that a thing? 

‘Sure he was, he doted on me. Wasn’t I his favourite child? Anyway, what difference does it make to you? It hardly made any difference to me!’ 

‘If he isn’t your dad, then he isn’t my thatha…’ Juhi has never met Vimalan Uncle, a mythical relation who still lives in Jaffna.  

‘Of course he’s your thatha! Didn’t he take you everywhere when you were a child, didn’t you cry for him after school if he was five minutes late picking you up?’ 

‘Well, yeah, but—’ 

‘Now you’ve made me lose my train of thought. I don’t have time to waste on hearsay, with everything else going on.’ Her mother’s huff suggests Juhi has single-handedly derailed the funeral with her line of inquiry. ‘This was between Ammamma and Thatha. And possibly Vimalan Uncle. Let’s change the subject.’ 

‘To what? Do you have a secret fourth sibling hidden away somewhere?’ An unexpected laugh flares its way down the line and Juhi basks in its afterglow. ‘Maybe a scandalous lovechild I should know about?’ 

This time, her mother’s snort holds no humour. ‘In my dreams. That child might have made me a grandmother by now.’  

Juhi is reminded of avocadoes, hard and unyielding for days before ripening a shade too far overnight without warning, unseen.  

She has a sudden suspicion that discontent is in her family’s blood, passed down through generations of restless ancestors. No doubt, they too longed for things they couldn’t have. Grandchildren, a homeland, bigger kitchens.  

Paradoxically, this is liberating.  

Juhi stiffens on hearing Ziggy’s keys jangling outside the front door.  

She doesn’t turn around when she hears his footsteps in the hallway followed by the thump of his bag on the laminate floor behind her. She can sense the shifting of his brow, the narrowing of his eyes – tiny movements louder than her silence.  

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. 

One theatrically slow stroke at a time, she resumes painting. 

And finally, Ziggy steps into the kitchen, grabs a roller and crouches beside Juhi to coat the walls in a glorious jackfruit yellow.  


The 2024 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 1 July 2024. Submit here.

Photo by Dan Bucko on Unsplash

Dushi Rasiah is a Tamil fiction editor and writer from London. Her writing explores cross-cultural relationships, inter-generational family dynamics and diasporic experiences. Her short stories have previously been longlisted for the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award and published by Dear Damsels.
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