The Sugargun Fairy
Kuzhali Manickavel

Even as a child, Stalin Rani bore a striking resemblance to brown wrapping paper. Her body was flat and foldable, her face littered with creases that curled into different shapes when she stood in the sun. Her birth had been celebrated with the bursting of four small firecrackers, three of which never went off.

She began life by crawling along the sagging walls of her house, poking her toes into corners and listening to her father climb the ranks of the local Communist Party. In the afternoons she sat under a table and assigned colors and shapes to the different voices she heard. Some were dark grey and hard like wet cement. Others were oily and brownish orange like stale halva.

When she was six, a tall twitchy man named Shoebox Uncle came from London to stay with them. He had a broken jaw and a grubby mess of gauze that was wound around his face like a scarf. He completely ignored Stalin Rani’s existence and spent most of his time listening to an old radio. Then one day he turned to her.

“You have a terrible name—what is it again, I have forgotten.”

“Stalin Rani.”

“Queen Stalin. That’s almost an oxymoron. Do you know what an oxymoron is?”


“Do you know what a moron is? Your father, for example, is a moron for naming you Stalin Rani.”

“Were you really in London?”

“Why, were you?”

“What was it like?”

“London was filled with rain and sugarplum fairies. They had runny skin and carried pink candy guns around their necks. Every Sunday I would go out and collect them in my shoebox. Sugarplums with sugarguns. Say it, sugarplums with sugarguns.”

“Sugarflums with sugargums.”

“Sugarguns with sugarguns. Here,” he said, shoving a thick black shoebox into her stomach. “If you ever find any, you can keep them in this.”

The box smelled like wood and old honey. Stalin Rani pictured tiny fairies crouched in the corners, their skin puddling into pools between their toes. She imagined them waiting for the lid to fall back so they could shoot Shoebox Uncle in the jaw.

* * *

The shoebox contained endless possibilities and Stalin Rani often thought of the things that could be inside if they had the chance. She saw it brimming with sharpened purple pencils or yellow frogs with legs that kept getting tangled together. Sometimes she imagined it filled with milk white erasers stacked like bricks. One day she discovered a tiny wing inside.

“Is this from a Sugargun fairy?” she asked, holding it out on her forefinger. Shoebox Uncle frowned and twitched.

“Can’t be sure. Put it in your mouth.”

Stalin Rani placed it on her tongue and a sour pinprick ran through her teeth.

“Is it like a spoonful of sugar?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Can you say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? Backwards?”


“Then it was probably from a fly,” said Shoebox Uncle.

* * *

The next morning Stalin Rani awoke and the universe stretched over her eyes like a piece of orange bubble gum. She saw a crack in the cosmic egg, elephants mating in a thunderstorm and a broken toilet. She coughed until something hard and black lurched out of her mouth.

“It’s a revelation,” said Shoebox Uncle “Put it in your mouth.”

“It came out of my mouth.”

“Put it in your shoebox then.”

Stalin Rani began bringing one up every morning. Soon the shoebox was filled with them.

“How come you don’t have them?” she asked.

“I do, I just don’t spit them out.”

“Why do I have to keep them in the shoebox? How come I can’t just throw them out?”

“Because everyone must keep a box of things they don’t understand and can’t throw away.”

* * *

The shoebox could only hold so many revelations. At the end of every month, Stalin Rani took them to a nearby canal and tossed them in, one by one. Shoebox Uncle came with her and leaned against the railing cracking his neck, wrists, knuckles and then his neck again.

“Careful you don’t hit any fairies,” he said.

“I thought you said they lived in London.”

“I have a feeling I brought a few over. Something was tugging at the back of my head in the plane.”


“Not lice.”

“There’s this girl Mahalakshmi in my class who had so many lice her mother poured DDT on her head and all her hair fell out.”

“You just hit one on the head.”

“One what?”

“Fairy. Watch where you’re throwing.”

Stalin Rani scanned the murky water, looking for an arm or a tattered set of wings. Shoebox Uncle was making a crackling sound with his jaw.

“Is it OK?” asked Stalin Rani. He yawned and frowned.

“I think you gave it a concussion.”

* * *

By the time Stalin Rani started school Shoebox Uncle had taken to sitting in the yard for hours at a stretch, staring at the ground with his mouth open. He showed no interest in her Chinese fountain pen or her collection of gold and silver cigarette foils. On Sundays she would sit on the floor and watch him to see if he was up to something. Sometimes she would poke him in the arm.

“What are you doing?” she would ask.

“I’m catching flies.”


“Why not?”

Once she watched a fly crawl along his cheek and climb up the side of his nose. It stretched its hind legs and rearranged its wings while Shoebox Uncle breathed noisily through his mouth. Stalin Rani clapped her hands and the fly disappeared into the white sky like a spot of ink.

After that she stopped watching him.

* * *

Time passed very slowly in Stalin Rani’s house. It collected in the corners and clung to people’s heels if they stood in one place for too long. It occurred to Stalin Rani that if she stayed any longer, she too would collect in the corners. Her voice would become colorless and cling to the walls like mold.

After failing the tenth grade and passing her typing exam, Stalin Rani decided to leave. By then she hardly saw Shoebox Uncle at all. He had been relegated to the back room of the house, where he spent most of his time twitching and staring at the floor. When her suitcase was packed she went to his room and poked him in the arm.

“I’m leaving,” she said. “Do you want your shoebox back?”

Stalin Rani watched him twitch, first shoulder, then head, then shoulder again. She waited an hour for him to say something.

And then she left.

* * *

The next three years were spent sharing a room with a spider-like girl named Malli and typing out reports in the cramped quarters of Gnanasekaran’s DTPXerox and Publics Phone Stall Shop. On weekends she wrote postcards to her uncle that she arranged in chronological order on the bottom of her suitcase. One day a tattered blue envelope appeared under her door. It was from her father.

He said he was pained that she had left so abruptly and hadn’t even bothered to call. He was surviving, even though he had so many troubles, the least of which was the humiliation of having a runaway daughter (who he had to track down like a common criminal) but he did not mind because he was only worried about her well-being and hoped she would come to her senses soon and return home.

If she would not come home, would she at least return the shoebox she had stolen from her uncle. It was one thing, he said, to steal from a normal, healthy person. It was quite another to steal from a penniless idiot who was living off the kind-heartedness and generosity of a brother who barely had enough to keep body and soul together. Would she please return the blasted thing because the idiotbastard kept screaming for it like he had demons lodged in his backside and the neighborhood was beginning to think very badly of her long-suffering father.

Or would she send it by post if she was very busy.

* * *

That night Stalin Rani dreamed of angry claws scuttling and snipping at the door of her old house. Shoebox Uncle was standing in the rain, his eyes covered by two yellow moths. He coughed and the moths fluttered and settled, shaking the rain from their furry backs.

“I asked you,” she said. “I asked if you wanted the shoebox back and you didn’t say anything.”

A puff of tiny, transparent wings flew out of his mouth and hovered in front of Stalin Rani’s face. She saw the rain soaking through the moths, dissolving them into streaks of dirty yellow that ran down her uncle’s face. That morning there was no revelation—just a thin trickle of black spit crawling down her chin.

* * *

Malli seemed the most excited about Stalin Rani’s trip back home. After ducking out of her house to avoid an arranged marriage, Malli made it a point to visit her home once a month flaunting a handbag and wearing cheap sunglasses.

“Here,” she said. “Let those country fruits see that you’re a career woman now and you can’t be bullied.”

The handbag was large and flabby and reminded Stalin Rani of the women she sat beside on the bus. She shoved the shoebox inside and made her way down the stairs to the street.

“Hey!”Malli called after her. “Make sure you come back! That’s my only handbag!”

* * *

Stalin Rani’s old house seemed to have stretched in all directions. Balconies and sit-outs had sprouted in awkward corners like pistachio-colored tumors. Two scooters stood in front of the door and a mess of bicycles lay tangled against the wall. The communist flag that had hung by the porch for so many years was missing.

“Where’s the flag?” she asked as she entered.

“Look at this,” said her father, getting up from his reclining chair. “After five years she finally comes to see me and she asks where the flag is—what flag?”

“Have you switched sides?”

“She comes back after seven years and doesn’t even ask about my failing health or how I have suffered, barely keeping body and soul together—where are you going?”

“To return his shoebox.”

* * *

Unlike the rest of the house, the back room seemed to have contracted. The walls that hadn’t caved in were being held up by broken furniture and bundles of moldering communist pamphlets. Shoebox Uncle sat in the middle of this, twitching and drooling, his eyes obscured by milky cataracts.

“Here,” said Stalin Rani, shoving the shoebox into his lap. He pushed off the lid and ran his fingers over the revelations piled inside. Then he picked one up and began breaking it into small pieces.

“I heard it buzzing,” he said. “It’s caught in a corner, I think.”

Stalin Rani watched the revelations snap between his fingers and wondered why she had never thought of doing that.

“What’s caught in a corner?” she asked.

“Can’t you hear it?"

“A wasp.”

“Don’t be an ass,” he said and slipped a piece into her limp hand. “Here. See if you can lure it out.”

The broken revelation was black all the way through. For some reason she had thought they would be white inside.

“You said I hit a Sugargun fairy when I was throwing these into the canal once, remember?”

“Plum. Sugarplum fairy."

“You said Sugargun."

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You told me they were called Sugargun fairies.”

“I did not, there are no such things as Sugargun fairies. And you killed that one, by the way."

“You said I gave it a concussion.”

“You killed it. You made them cry for three nights and four days, I heard them.”

Stalin Rani remembered scanning the water and seeing nothing but black algae and cigarette butts. She remembered sleeping away from the window so the fairies couldn’t come and beat her with their shiny, angry wings at night.

“It’s a wasp,” she said, folding the empty handbag into four and tucking it under her arm.

“You didn’t even look.”

“Yes, I did.”


“It’s a wasp.”

* * *

That evening Stalin Rani sat on her bed and tried to remember what her uncle’s voice used to sound like when she was younger. She couldn’t remember if it was a muffled, sour bread voice or a thin, cracked one that dripped down the walls like a broken egg. She couldn’t remember what color it was either.

She pulled her suitcase out from under her bed and took out all the postcards she had written to him. Their edges were soft and fuzzy— some were already dividing into two or three sheets at the corners. One had separated into five pieces, each curled back and waiting for something to happen.

Stalin Rani opened her window and felt the sunset and purple diesel fumes color her lips. The evening was settling in a cloak of incense, burning oil, and songs that wove in and out of a broken radio. She realized that she had never given Shoebox Uncle’s voice a color at all. Maybe it was something she never got around to.

The postcards fell from the window in soft, jagged pieces, scattering onto the road like flowers on a dirty river.

I’d like to say that this story was a labor of pain and love, inspired by questions of possibility, mythology, and the ever-gnawing issues of ethnic overtones and how they speak to me in terms of being an Indian writer in English.

But that would be a lie.

The truth is that I just think the name Stalin Rani is very cool. I also think there’s something cool about people vomiting except when someone is actually vomiting in front of me—in which case I usually end up vomiting along with them. Which I understand is something heartwarming and good called sympathetic something or other.

“The Sugargun Fairy” is part of my debut collection, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings (Blaft Publications). I think you should buy my book because.

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