Rajamma was washing dishes late one morning when the neighbors told her the news about her husband’s accident. She dropped the pot she was scrubbing and scrambled up from the plastic stool. The chickens squawked and jumped onto the haystack as she rushed out. She hurried across town and dashed past tomato fields and groundnut farms. Panting, she slowed down at the ragi fields, where a ring of people had already gathered. As she approached, the crowd parted.

At the bottom of an eight-foot-deep ditch lay her husband. His torso was twisted, his clothes were splotched with mud. An onlooker told her some coconut fronds had covered the narrow ditch and her husband had fallen into it. Her husband’s one arm stretched above his head and his eyes stared blankly up at her. His lips were moving but Rajamma couldn’t make out any words. As she bent to listen, her shadow fell across her husband’s chest like a long cloud.

Kavi Yaga

Kavi Yaga lives in Hyderabad, India, with her husband, Hari. Her travel memoir, Walking in Clouds, was published in December 2018 by HarperCollins, India. Her works have appeared in Swamp Pink, The Hindu, Out of Print Magazine, The Bombay Review, Killing the Buddha, and elsewhere. A runner-up for the 2021 Calvino Prize for Speculative Fiction, she is a 2023 Yaddo Fellow. In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a development economics researcher in South India. She is working on a novel.

Patrick Ryan on “You Can Be More”

When I asked Kavi Yaga, the author of our new issue, if she could describe her story with one word, she first replied, “Patrick, this is by far the hardest question! Arrrghhhh!” But then she answered it: The story, she said, is about self-erasure.

That’s a fascinating answer, especially given that “You Can Be More” is about a woman, Rajamma, who believes she is cursed with a bad luck that inflicts everyone around her. She has watched her loved ones suffer one hardship after another, including economic downfall and physical injury, and she’s fed up with her circumstances. But how to lift the curse? What begins, for Rajamma, as a quest for liberation from bad luck becomes a piecemeal eradication of her entire being and, in the process, a kind of transformation.

One of the things I love most about Kavi Yaga’s story is that it keeps you guessing about the wisdom of Rajamma’s actions. Right up until the end, when it seems as if she’s gotten much more than she bargained for, we can’t help but wonder…has she? Or has she gotten exactly what she bargained for? “You Can Be More” is a mysterious story that holds tight to its mystery and asks us to conclude what we will. One Story is happy to be its ambassador into the world.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did you get the idea for this story?
KY: Many years ago, while doing fieldwork as an economics research scholar in remote, semi-arid and hilly areas in rural South India, I saw a family in a village pawnshop. A woman, her husband and their two young daughters sat on white cushions in the small and dingy shop. The mother and daughters wore jewelry, as if they were going to a wedding. The husband finished talking with the pawnshop owner and nodded to the woman. With dignified, careful movements, she removed the earrings from one daughter, bangles from another and took off the necklace from her shoulders. She handed everything over to the pawnshop owner. In India, a woman never sells her jewels unless she’s desperate. I sensed sadness and resignation in her movements. I felt she wanted her daughters to wear the jewels one last time before giving in to her fate. For months, I wondered about the woman. Who was she? What was her relationship with the husband? What bad luck had befallen their family? In my memory, the woman was pretty and dark-complexioned with a long neck and that made me wonder about beauty and body image and societal impositions of the feminine ideal. This brief incident was the seed for the story. I knew also that the story would take place in the dusty hills of the Deccan Plateau, filled with strange boulders and caves and thorny bushes.
PR: How long did it take you to get the story into a shape that you felt happy enough with that you started submitting it?
KY: About two and a half years. I’m just really slow.
PR: “You Can Be More” is a story that gives no indication, at the beginning, of where it’s headed or what its themes might be. It draws us into Rajamma’s life and her belief that she’s cursed. It takes us to a lake that might or might not hold magical powers. The lake—I’m trying not to give too much away here—seems as if it will be a mysterious element in the story, but it’s never revisited and is overshadowed by another mysterious element. Was that always the intention? Or was there ever a plan to have the lake play a greater part in the story?
KY: That was always the intention. The lake is an unresolved presence in the story. It may or may not be responsible for the other mysterious element.
PR: Is Rajamma really cursed? Or does she just believe she’s cursed?
KY: I feel Rajamma isn’t really cursed. However, Rajamma absolutely believes she is cursed and, as we know, beliefs can manifest into reality through the weight of expectations.
PR: The ending is phenomenal. I don’t want you to spoil anything for your readers, so I’ll just ask: was the story always going to end the way it does? Or did you consider different possibilities?
KY: This was always the ending. In one revision, I did experiment with another ending, but dropped it very quickly.
PR: Complete this sentence with one word: “‘You Can Be More” is about __________.”
KY: Self-erasure.
PR: What are you working on now?
KY: A novel set in a fictional town in South India in which a girl mysteriously dies with strange markings, talismans, and other signs of black magic on her body. The story is ultimately about faith, the impenetrability of delusional worlds and the unintended consequences of acts motivated by love.
PR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received/heard?
KY: I take courage from the “Dear Sugar” column # 48 of The Rumpus, in which Sugar (Cheryl Strayed) says, “Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” When I’m despairing about my writing, I remind myself to simply keep digging.