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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: RK Biswas’ “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

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Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

PAGES 470-474

Sally ought to have returned from her jog. Agnirekha’s head was buzzing again. She was not sure how long she had been staring at the pane. Had she been talking to herself? Listening to the voice? Or had there been more than one voice? She got up deliberately to make herself a cup of coffee. She stumbled on the way to the sink. Sally should have been there. Agnirekha tried not to panic. But something was rising, and it was not only the steam from the whistling kettle.

When Sally returned, she knew instantly that something was wrong, and giving the hall and kitchen a quick look, which took in everything, she raced upstairs. Agnirekha was in the bathtub, shivering in the water, a Smokey rope of blood curled away from her wrist. As the breathless seconds passed, Sally hauled Agnirekha up and out of the water. She unplugged the tub and let the water gurgle away, taking the blood with it. She grabbed the T-shirt that Agnirekha had discarded and tied it tightly around her wrist. “Sugar,” she mumbled, rememberingan old Indian remedy for stopping blood that Agnirekha had taught her on a warm day, a holiday when both of them had had too much beer and were giggling as they tried to cut a salad together. Sally had cut her finger and Agnirekha had swabbed it with sugar grains. The bleeding soon stopped, but Agnirekha, suddenly more sober, had insisted on finishing the salad by herself. Afterwards Agnirekha had washed the sugar off, and put medicated tape on the wound. She did other things to the wound, turning the day into the soft colours of an old sun warmed patchwork quilt. The day had turned out to be beautiful. So beautiful, that it wrung Sally’s heart, just to think of it, as she now raced into the kitchen, returning with a handful of sugar spilling from her fist, and untied Agnirekha’s wrist. She poured sugar over the cut and retied the shirt. And, then Sally half dragged, half carried Agnirekha to the bedroom. She dried the rest of her there on the bed, turned the heater up and put a blanket on the still girl. When Agnirekha woke up she found Sally sitting away from her, on the armchair, eyes blazing with tears, grief, anger and betrayal. She knew instantly that the worst word she could say was “sorry.” She hoisted herself up, shivering a little as the blanket slipped off.

“Look outside your head Aggie! What do you see? Me? D’you see me?”

Agnirekha nodded. “I did not… I was not… I don’t know how it happened…”

“Voices coming for you again? I thought you were cured.”

And it was true. Agnirekha had not heard the voices for a long time. “Tell me,” said Sally.

Soon Sally was holding her, making her repeat the words that she was reluctant to utter. Agnirekha spoke, and when she could not, Sally did not let go. Agnirekha had to tell her everything, all over again.

“You know, we need to make that trip to your city Aggie,” said Sally at last. “We have to. And then you have to let go.”

“You come here now Sal,” said Agnirekha sinking back into the pillows.

But Sally was not done yet. “You know you have to tell your folks. The sooner the better.”

Agnirekha said nothing. Sally rolled a joint, took a long drag before passing it to Agnirekha, who took it with fingers that shook ever so slightly. They lay side by side sharing the joint. When it was finished Sally slid her hands under Agnirekha, half lifting her, as she positioned herself above, careful not to let her full weight bear down on the smaller girl. She brought her mouth down on Agnirekha, who responded, full throated. She lowered the rest of herself on Agnirekha, until they were like a single body. This was not the first time that their vaginas had met, touched and kissed, but today was special; it held a final release. They made love, slowly, lingering over each other’s skin, savouring the touch, the intimacy that was now so regular and felt so natural. The day was growing outside, but they remained in bed, exhausted. Soon sleep also joined them, loosening the arms they had flung across each other. For Agnirekha it was a fitful sleep.

Sally woke up sooner, and lit another joint. She glanced at the sleeping woman next to her and her heart twisted painfully. And still she wondered how long she would have to go, how much she would have to endure before Aggie became herself, healed and became whole. Would she, Sally, be able to make it together with her that far? But Agnirekha stirred again, and Sally was once more overcome by that strange mix of emotions that she knew was more than love. It was an emotion that had grown from their slow conversations, after the inevitable smoke post love-making. Bit by bit she and Agnirekha had allowed each other into their past lives. Not just the events and people, but their inner selves, the paths their minds had taken. But Agnirekha, in the past, had pulled thorns out of her head and impaled people, who were so often harmless and helpless, genuinely in need of compassion; people she could have, and should have helped. Agnirekha had cut herself on those thorns too. Such rage, such viciousness, and such tender helplessness. Sally involuntarily put her hand on Agnirekha’s buttock and stroked it, lower and lower until she reached the small wet and tender part, and let her hand rest there.

She would make Aggie take that trip back to India, to Calcutta, next year. Yes, they would make plans for next year, definitely. She would go with her, all the way. And, she would finally get the opportunity to meet Malathi. Agnirekha had not emphasized Malathi in her conversations, holding back, but Sally had guessed nonetheless, what the woman had meant. Oh yes, she definitely had to see Malathi. How could she not see the woman who was Aggie’s first, but unrequited love? The woman who was unreachable, like a living goddess? And Agnirekha would have to be there right beside her. Sally wondered what Malathi would think of them, their relationship, and would it matter to Aggie. Would it change their relationship? What would Malathi think of her? Sally shook off the doubts. She would take it as it came and she would deal with it. Then, there was another person they had to meet as well, perhaps not they, perhaps only Aggie, whether

she wanted it or not. But Sally was curious, and she wanted to be there in any case. They would have to go to Delhi, and see her, whose name featured every now and then in newspapers, whose speeches rallied crowds, and who had a growing vote bank in Bengal. Sally suspected that Aggie probably would not want to meet Agnishikha. But that made no difference. Sally would take her.

“You can’t run away from your past. Not all the time,” thought Sally as she inhaled. Like it or not she would make sure Agnirekha met Agnishikha. Mirrors, however imperfect, distorted into a grotesque fair grounds show, and no matter how often shattered by vindictive hands, had to tell the truth. That was their job, even though real life was no fairytale. And Aggie would have to confront her alter ego, image for image. And then a thought struck Sally, and it made her laugh silently. When, and if, they really met, would she too lust after Agnishikha, her incredible beauty, her sensuousness that cut both men and women? And if Sally did want to sleep with Agnishikha, how would Aggie react? Would she be jealous? That was a delicious thought; Sally grinned mischievously. But now her Aggie was stirring. And, looking at her Sally had an irresistible urge to give Aggie her breast, and suckle her tenderly, like a new born baby.

 

This excerpt came from RK Biswas’ Culling Mynahs and Crows, available from LiFi PublicationsPurchase your copy here!

RK Biswas is the author of “Culling Mynahs and Crows” published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi. Two short story collections by her are slated for publication later in 2014; one by Lifi and the other by Authorspress. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published across the globe, in print and online, in journals as well as anthologies. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Pratilipi, Nth Position, Stony Thursday, Crannog, Mobius, Reading Hour, to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in an anthology – Ten – published by Nirala Publications and edited by Jayant Mahapatra. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem “Bones” was nominated for a Pushcart as well as a Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writer’s Notable Stories of 2007. She has participated in poetry and literary festivals in India and abroad, and being a past member of theatre groups, she enjoys performing her poetry on stage. An erstwhile ad person, she prefers to spend a quiet life focussed on her fiction and poetry, and is working on her second and third novels concurrently. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.

Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

 

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: RK Biswas’ “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

 

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Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

IT’S THE WORDS AGNIREKHA, THAT EMPOWER THE VOICE (PAGES 461-469)

“I have the freedom to make my choice, my only choice, my last choice, if it comes to that. I have this freedom, and no one can take it from me.”

Ah Agnirekha. You would look again into the silent pool of light below your balcony, smile bitterly and repeat the words like a mantra; the words that had brought good things into your own life. Who had set those words in ink and paper? The words had been spoken aloud too, in a different context many moons ago in a dak bungalow garden. Do you remember Agnirekha? Do you? Go back you fucked up woman. Go back to that chilly pre-dawn time.

It was before the onset of winter. It was in the hinterlands of Bengal. And you would have done better to have wrapped your shawl around you instead of that cotton dupatta, so inadequate for your pinched nipples. But the man sitting opposite you on a cane chair sodden from the night air, would not have noticed, even if you had let the dupatta fall. He sat weeping into your hands. Sticky tear drops falling on your palm. Even his tears seemed unwashed. You had shuddered at the touch.

“Naresh, for heaven’s sake, Naresh! Pull yourself together. Don’t create a scene!” You hissed as you wiped your hand vigorously on the dupatta. Naresh wiped his eyes and then his nose on his shirtsleeve, and still sniffling, gazed up at you. No owner-starved dog could have looked with greater yearning; no loyal servant more ready to obey.

“I’m sorry didi. You are good to me. You mean well, you want me to be strong. But didi, life here is not the same as in the cities. Here, dreams are not even allowed to remain dreams. Here, you are damned if you even think. I envy the cows and buffaloes. Their lives are so peaceful. And, they also contribute something useful. Unlike me. And so many others. We delude ourselves into thinking that we have some worth. Because we want to live, we love our bodies and the life here on this planet. When we get a promotion at work, we hold our heads high. Thinking that by getting a promotion we have increased our worth. It’s the same thing when people get married or have children or buy a piece of property. It’s a false sense of pride, an illusion. Nothing but an illusion. Our presence or the lack of it doesn’t make any difference to anybody but us. But the minute you start questioning, thinking, that is when the whole mirage dissolves. Why was I born? My parents never gave it a thought. They were chasing an illusion. The usual tripe – one must beget a son, he’ll look after us in our old age, our line will continue, etc. Well they died too early to benefit from their son. My uncle, who brought me up died too, of old age. He was many years older than my father. As for me, I did the usual things most guys in my situation do. Attended the local government school, got caned by paan chewing, cranky schoolmasters, bunked classes, and stole guavas and unripe mangoes… The usual small-town life. I did graduate, BSc. pass course. Then there came years of hanging around jobless, with a bunch of friends, who were like me. We’d loaf around the culverts near the market. The days we had money, we’d go to Tripti’s for tea and kobirajis. We’d stare at the girls; curse those who had girlfriends; get into fights with fellows from other groups like ours. Life was frustrating, but okay. Then slowly, one by one, we got jobs. The group scattered. Most of my friends are married now. Except for me. I used to work at the mill before; it was not bad. In fact, many of my friends thought I was downright lucky to land a clerical job in there. That’s where I got friendly with Bachchooda. I’d known him before, everybody knows Bachchooda in these parts, but not well enough. He got me into this reporting thing…”

You listened to Naresh with growing irritation. The life- story that he so eagerly narrated to you was no different from that of hundreds of loafers in the lanes and by-lanes, and market corners of Calcutta. You had come across scores of those useless parasites, who seemed to have but a single purpose in life. And, that was to idle around, with others like themselves, and discuss women and pass comments at them. Unintelligent, swaggering louts, who had never done a day’s worth of honest work. You regarded them with chilling contempt. You took care to avoid them at all costs, because instinctively you knew that they would try to get close to you, and humiliate you, because you were an educated and independent working woman. You already earned more money than they could ever hope to earn. You lived a life they would do anything to live, and over and above that, you were a woman. Your sex was your greatest crime. The louts were the law-keepers of Calcutta’s gullies and ghettoes; in their eyes your crime was unforgivable, and you had to be extra careful lest they made you pay for it. You looked at Naresh distastefully, but he noticing nothing amiss, continued to confide.

“I used to enjoy my job a lot. It kept me on the move, gave me a sense of purpose. I enjoyed digging up details; that’s how I learned so much about Bisrampur. Perhaps that’s why I began to feel the futility of it all. This town was once the hub of cultured and well-to-do people. Murshidabad’s rival in importance. Then what happened? Slow decay, dissipation and desertion. Who cares? The town might as well have ceased to exist. Yes, I could have left long ago. But where would I go? Who would give me a job? There are so many qualified people in the cities without jobs. Besides, this place is, after all, my home. I guess if I was enterprising enough, I could have done something with my life. Gone away, started a business, worked my way up. Look at Madhow and Shiuji, they left their hamlet in Arrajilla, a province in Bihar to come and ply rickshaws here all day. They are poor, but they are better off than their cousins back home. But what purpose does it all serve. Better job? More money? More material comforts? And, after that? First of all, there’s no guarantee. And, even then, would I still matter? By virtue of whatever little wealth I may have acquired, yes. But beyond that?

Pagla-khooni used to constantly question mankind’s existence on the planet. He used to say, ‘What is the real reason for our evolution from apes? What is mankind’s true purpose? Unless there is a direct and solid relationship between the prosperity of mankind and the prosperity of the planet, should humans be allowed to exist? Or at the least, shouldn’t their numbers be vastly reduced to only those highly intelligent and most evolved ones, so that the least damage is done to our home?’ He once told me, ‘Why did God make you a human? You could have been a rock or a tree? A bird or a beast? Those creatures are not inferior, just because they have less control or no control over their surroundings and their lives. They live in perfect harmony with each other; together they form a seamless pattern. Humans don’t see that pattern. Humans without purpose are not humans, though they may look and otherwise behave like members of the same race, and of course, take home all the benefits.’

How do I express myself didi? How do I tell you about the total futility of my existence? And, that of perhaps half the world’s population? Just stop to think for a moment, do people matter? Most of them at least? We may live in concrete houses, use machines, eat cooked food, but how are we really and truly superior to other living creatures? What is the true worth of a human? Are we really that important? Even mynahs and crows, even they are better than us.”
You had looked at Naresh in exasperation. There he was wandering off again into Pagla-khooni land! A part of you felt a twinge of pity for the unkempt, unshaven man with grit in his eyes and bad breath. Another part of you wanted to laugh hysterically at him and his demented theories. And, yet another part of you wanted to slap him hard, right across that shrivelled cheek of his. For presuming that you could be his confidante, and for keeping you awake when you’d rather sleep and gather your wits about you before facing the fresh crop of problems in your career. You had enough troubles of your own; there was no place or time in your life for the likes of him. Your conflicting feelings about Naresh rushed around your head like the first dry winds of a Bengali summer. And, right after that the irresistible urge to slap him, to put him in his place, gained momentum. Life had never been a cakewalk for you. Besides it was not your job to lift up the damned and the diseased. It was a hard world; no place for wretches like Naresh. And, should they come under your feet, you should trample them or risk tripping yourself up. This beetle had to be crushed. Now. That was how you had seen it then, hadn’t you Agnirekha? And when you spoke at last, your voice seemed to have come riding on the back of a Himalayan wind, cold and hard, a club carved from ice.

“Naresh,” you said. “Naresh! You are damn right! Nobody cares a rat’s arse about you and what happens to you. Why should anybody? You think life is a picnic? If life really were meant to be a picnic, God would not have created humans. He would have left this planet the way it was, with plants and birds and animals, including baboons and other apes. That’s the whole point. Are you an ape or are you human? If you are human, it’s up to you to make yourself a worthy member of the race. Your importance depends on you. That’s the challenge. And it’s entirely your choice. There is no place in this world for losers. Why should there be? You’re damn well right; there are too many humans. Yes, we’d be better off if a chunk of the population was wiped out. Only the fittest survive in nature! Why should the fate of humans be any different? If you’re worth it you deserve to be in otherwise you are out! It’s as plain as that! If you think you’re not worth it, you’re probably right. If you feel useless, it’s because you are useless. So why take up precious space as your Pagla-khooni says, right Naresh? And, what is this bullshit about weeping and contemplating death? You think it’s easy to kill yourself? Suicide is child’s play? It takes guts. You ass-hole! It takes solid guts to take your own life. Think you’ve got the guts? Go ahead. But remember one thing; it’s all about you, and you and you alone. Nobody gives a hoot whether Naresh is alive or dead. Got it? Now please go! I have come here on work. Life has not been easy for me. Life never is. Naresh, everybody has to fight. If you can’t then it’s just too bad for you. You don’t deserve life.”

You had felt breathless after your speech. But you stared at Naresh, with confidence and equilibrium. Your eyes were as empty as his were full. Naresh sat as still as a rabbit before a serpent. Sitting there under a sky that still held on to night’s shroud, although the birds, as yet invisible, were calling, it seemed to you that perhaps the whole world was hushed. Stars clung like silver spiders to the firmament, oblivious of the sun’s long tongue that would pluck them soon and swallow them whole. Everything was placid, congealed in inaction. You leaned back on the cane chair, exhausted; rested your hands on its arms, rocking gently. The sky began to lighten, in direct contrast to Naresh’s face that had turned the colour of bile gone dry.

“You are right didi. You are right. It is entirely my choice. I have no reason to blame anyone. Thank you didi. I will go now.” Naresh spoke so softly that you barely caught his words. He turned to go. You began to feel relieved. And then, to your consternation, he turned around to face you again. “Didi, I’ll send Poltu over with the rest of my notes. You know the notes I’ve made on Bisrampur’s history? They might come in useful. Even though I’m not,” he said with a small, sad smile.

Naresh turned once again, for the final time, and strode purposefully down the lawn. You watched him go, a thin shabbily dressed man. For a few seconds, you were baffled by the confidence in his stride. Then you smirked. You had been quite insulting; it had obviously hurt his provincial male ego. But nevertheless, a twinge of guilt rippled through your mind. Perhaps you had been a little too harsh? Would he react violently later on? Your eyes widened at the new thought. You never knew with men, especially the loser kind. Perhaps you should call him back and tell him that you would try for a job for him once you went back to Calcutta? No promises of course. You would try. You shifted in your chair. You slid your feet along the grass. But you did not get up. Morning was descending and the earth was filling up with sweet fresh scents. The birds were visible now, soft shapes that trilled delightfully, but also squawked and cawed. Flowers raised up their faces. You could not have done it. It was aesthetically impossible. No. No. How could you bring back something that looked and smelt and even felt like a plastic bag full of refuse? Naresh was too ugly, like a crow; his humility, his quiet demeanour, his wringing hands, his pinched intense face, his despair, too annoying. No the very thought of having him around seemed unbearable. If you could help him without associating with him, without having his unbearable gratefulness wrapping around you like a woollen scarf in summer, maybe you could have given it a thought. You shrugged. Fresh ideas for the Bisrampur assignment were beginning to blossom. You stretched your toes once more into the dewy grass, luxuriating in the softness and freshness. And, then the tea arrived, jolting you momentarily; razor sharp jabs of suspicion pricked you until you tingled. But even the care-taker turned out to be harmless. Ultimately proved to be harmless; made from the same sentimental loser’s clay as Naresh. Encountering their soft sentimental words and beliefs you felt emotional, too. But the weakness passed out from your body later, like urine after a few glasses of inebriating and diuretic liquids.

Was it so necessary to push a drowning man deeper into the well, Agnirekha? What did you expect to achieve? Naresh was not important. His life was not important. And, it was not important to show a coin’s worth of kindness towards someone who looked up to you, was it? All you had to do was use a few well chosen words that could have uplifted a grieving man’s spirits. Words. They are such soft and innocuous things in themselves. But, Agnirekha, words are the hardest substance known to man, especially when there are no witnesses. Who can imagine the power of a few whispers? There is another thing, one that you never counted on. Words, those air-borne, weightless things, that could have changed Naresh’s life, changed yours. Yes, you my dear, you, wretched woman. Did you even once think of that? And whose words were they?

 

This excerpt came from RK Biswas’ Culling Mynahs and Crows, available from LiFi PublicationsPurchase your copy here!

RK Biswas is the author of “Culling Mynahs and Crows” published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi. Two short story collections by her are slated for publication later in 2014; one by Lifi and the other by Authorspress. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published across the globe, in print and online, in journals as well as anthologies. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Pratilipi, Nth Position, Stony Thursday, Crannog, Mobius, Reading Hour, to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in an anthology – Ten – published by Nirala Publications and edited by Jayant Mahapatra. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem “Bones” was nominated for a Pushcart as well as a Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writer’s Notable Stories of 2007. She has participated in poetry and literary festivals in India and abroad, and being a past member of theatre groups, she enjoys performing her poetry on stage. An erstwhile ad person, she prefers to spend a quiet life focussed on her fiction and poetry, and is working on her second and third novels concurrently. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.

Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: RK Biswas’ “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

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Listen to RK Biswas read from Chapter 7 of Culling Mynahs and Crows!

Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

PAGES 198-209

“Where’s Baba?” said Agnishikha. Her mother was bending forward to touch her forehead to the ground before her deities and did not answer immediately. The house was fragrant with incense and the sandalwood paste she put on the faces of her brass and copper gods. There was vermillion and sandal paste in dots and lines on the framed photographs of Aanondomoyima and Ram Krishna Deb, Saradama and Swami Vivekanando, as well as her Lokkhir Ghot. Agnishikha stood on the outer edge of her mother’s little Puja room, because she had not yet bathed and changed into fresh clothes. The Puja room, which was nothing more than a converted box room, had no ventilator and no source for natural light. But it was the most suitable place in the house because the entrance to the box room overlooked their barely bigger than a family-size bathtub courtyard. There were two taps in the courtyard, the main tap at a higher level, and another one drawn out from the main tap by means of a pipe at a lower level. The higher level tap, unsullied by rice and other food touched by mouths and impure non-vegetarian food, was the supplier of what her mother accepted as “pure water”, and was used exclusively for the washing of all the Puja room utensils and bathing the Gods and Goddesses on their designated days. Meena, their maid, washed the utensils and clothes from water that came out from the lower tap. The crows that habitually perched on the pure water tap and the rice and bits of other food items strewn around did not bother Agnishikha’s mother. Her father had thoughtfully got a cement shelf made right next to the pure water tap where Agnishikha’s mother kept the bar of scouring soap, the coconut husks for scrubbing and a lump of ripe tamarind pulp to keep her metal Puja things gleaming.

Agnishikha’s mother got up, dusted and folded the aashon that she used for sitting during her prayers. She put her hand on the lamp and taking some of the heat from its flame, placed the hand on her own forehead before leaving the Puja room. She touched Agnishikha’s forehead lightly with her flame warmed hand. Agnishikha dipped her head and closed her eyes. But she kept her body at a distance, arching it like a bow, creating an illusion of distance from her mother.

“Go take your bath Shikhu. It’s quite late already. Or do you want tea first?”

Agnishikha shook her head and went away to bathe. Her mother disapproved of waking up late and roaming around in slept-in clothes. She called them stale clothes, and had taught Agnishikha to rinse her night clothes in water every morning and give them a proper soap wash on Sundays. Even during holidays Agnishikha had never woken up late or come near her mother’s Puja room in stale clothes. She did not ask her mother again where her father had gone. The cloth bags that hung from a nail on the store room door were missing, and there was an empty cup on the table. He must have drunk his tea hurriedly and gone to the haat. She wished she had woken up earlier. She could have gone with him. Now Agnishikha gathered her thin cotton towel and a fresh sari before heading for the bathroom. Their three-roomed house had one bathroom and a separate toilet. The toilet had a tiny three-cornered basin outside it, with a shelf above and a mirror. They kept their tooth brushes on the shelf as well as her father’s shaving things, though the basin was ostensibly for washing their hands after using the toilet. Initially, her mother had not agreed to keep their brushes and other toiletries there, but they found it difficult whenever somebody was in the bathroom. She finally gave in, saying philosophically, “After all these are modern times.” Afterwards, she too got used to it.

Agnishikha hung her clothes on the pegs in the bathroom and went into the toilet. She washed her hand at the lower tap in the courtyard, hurriedly and entered the bathroom straightaway, without going to any other part of the house. She washed her stale clothes and bathed immediately afterwards. Agnishikha hung up her washing on the nylon ropes strung across the length of their little courtyard. She entered the Puja room and prayed exactly the way her mother had done half an hour before her.

 

“Shikhu have some tea?”

“Ma, are you having any?”

“I’ll have some to keep you company. Your father should be back soon now. If he sees us having tea he’ll want another cup.”

“Ma, I’ll make breakfast today.”

“Arey baba, you just arrived. There’s plenty of time.”

“Ma, you know, we’ve got a toaster now.”

“Really? But I still don’t like toast. It’s better to fry last night’s rice or heat up stale chapattis with a little oil than have bread. It gives me acidity.”

“I am okay with it now. In Calcutta everybody is in a hurry, so toast and butter is preferred for breakfast.”

“Once in a while your father asks for toast. I make it on the wire rack on my coal stove. I give him jam, no butter.”

“I know Ma. But Sajal likes butter. Ma, you know he makes such soft omelettes!”

“Really? You taught him?”

“No. He knew. I think he learnt it in college.”

“That’s good. I think men should know a little bit about cooking. What else does he know to cook, Shikhu?”

But Agnishikha had already lost the enthusiasm for Sajal’s cooking. Mentioning the omelette had brought back sharp images that she wished had sunk into the lowest rungs of her memory.

“There’s your father back from the haat,” said Agnishikha’s mother. Agnishikha hurried towards him to take the bags.

“What did you buy Baba? The bags are so heavy!”

“I would have bought the whole market if you had brought my son-in-law along!” replied her father tweaking her cheek. “Monu is there any tea for me?”

Her mother laughed. “Can I get away with not keeping tea for you?”

Later Agnishikha helped her mother cook breakfast, wash the vegetables and fish. She pottered around the kitchen, chopping vegetables, grinding masala on the stone, but her mother did not allow her to cook.

“You’ve just come for a few days. Again you have to return to your own household tasks. Let me do the cooking.”

Agnishikha did not say anything. She smiled and relinquished the kitchen. In a way she was relieved. She would not have to answer Ma’s questions or dodge her questioning looks. It was difficult to hide things from Ma, and to make matters worse, Agnishikha had hitherto never had the need to hide anything from either of her parents.

Meena arrived, and gave her wide grins, glanced meaningfully at her belly, but Agnishikha shook her head.

“Didimoni go, you are all educated women. I had my first child ten months after my wedding.”

Agnishikha enquired after her children to pass the time. Meena was very happy. She heard her telling Ma that she, Agnishikha, had not changed one bit in spite of bathing in city water. Agnishikha rummaged among her things for a suitable old sari to give to Meena. But her mother chided her.

“Why do you want to give it to her now? Give it to her on the last day, Shikhu. You’re so impulsive.”

“You keep it in case I forget,” said Agnishikha.

Her mother took the sari and locked it away in the steel cupboard before Meena could enter the room to sweep and mop.

Agnishikha did not sleep after lunch. She sat plucking gray hairs with a grain of rice that was still encased in husk from her mother’s head. Her mother picked out the stray unhusked rice grains from their monthly rice supply and kept them in a separate jar. The jar was kept on a shelf in her Puja room where it was within easy reach for her Puja rituals. A few grains were kept aside from the lot for gripping strands of gray hair. Agnishikha was the family expert in plucking out gray hair. As a child she used to demand payment of one paisa per strand, keeping each strand carefully on her black slate board and chalking up the amount at the end. Baba got her bhar to keep her coins in.

“Ma do you still have my bhar?”

“Yes, she does,” replied Baba, for Ma was already asleep. He was re-reading the paper, lying down beside his wife on the bed. “She’s kept it stashed away in her trunk along with your drawings and baby frocks, her wedding sari and what not! Now it’s my turn Shikhu.”

“Baba, you have only gray hair now!”

Baba smiled at her. “There must be one or two black ones among the entire gray. Pluck those out ma.”

Agnishikha laughed. “You just want me to stroke your hair. Why don’t you say so?”

Soon both of them began to snore, and Agnishikha tip- toed out of the room. She went outside and stood on their bedspread sized front porch. There was a solitary papaya tree growing among the tangle of shrubs her mother had planted long ago on the thin strip of land beside their house, which actually belonged to the municipality, but which the Sens’, like many, used as an extension of their property. Agnishikha stood looking at the cluster of unripe papayas. She watched a tailorbird, two mynahs and some sparrows flitting among their frugal patch of green. A pair of speckled butterflies fluttered past her. The crows sitting on the Shishu trees on the road cawed amongst themselves sleepily. A cyclist rang his bell, pedalled his creaky bike, and stopped suddenly.

“Arey, Shikhudi? Ki khobor? What news? How are you?”

“Oh Naresh? I am fine. Just came to visit. How are you?”

Naresh stood outside their gate leaning on his bicycle. His prematurely lined face was oily with sweat, and the afternoon breeze had messed up his hair. But to Agnishikha, his face looked the same as it did when he was a little boy, when she had first met him. Naresh was an orphan; perhaps that was the reason why her parents were always careful with him and treated him gently. Agnishikha, not having any brother of her own, always invited him for bhai-phonta. He would arrive wearing a new shirt, a bit too large for him, bought by a well meaning relative who wanted the gift to last, a shy smile on his face. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, facing Agnishikha, he would stare at the flame of the earthen lamp resting on the steel tray along with the other ingredients for the ceremony that she held up as she chanted the auspicious rhymes asking for the boon of long life for her brother from Yama, the Lord of death. If she stayed back, she would be able to continue the tradition and Naresh, now a grown man would probably want to buy her presents.

“Oh I am okay. Rather busy these days, with reporting and studying.”

“What are you studying Naresh?” she asked.

“Law,” he said self-consciously. “I… would like to get a degree in law. They say it’s easier to get a degree in law, as it’s an open exam…”

“Is that why you’re studying law?” said Agnishikha, laughter bubbling up from her throat.

“Shikhudi, you look so beautiful when you laugh. Sajalda must be very happy to have you for a wife.”

Agnishikha looked at his serious face, looking at her with a young brother’s adoration, and felt like pulling his nose, playfully. In truth, he was a just few months younger. But she had always treated him like a kid brother and bossed over him whenever he came home to her father for help with his studies. She felt so distant from him now. His life was so much simpler than hers. What would he think of her, if she told him?

“Come in for a cup of tea, Naresh,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

“Not today, Shikhudi. You’re here for some time, na? Enjoying mashima’s cooking?” he grinned.

“Yes,” she replied. “I am enjoying Ma’s pampering. Baba of course is worse!”

They talked of this and that for some time. Naresh went on his way, but dropped in to visit a few days after. They spoke of life in Calcutta and his work at the newspaper. Naresh was eager to learn about the different law colleges and prospects and life in the city. Naresh asked politely about Sajal. His lack of interest in Sajal relieved her. Her parents did not speak too much about Sajal either. The days slipped away uneventfully. Agnishikha took over the Sandhya or evening ritual from her mother, quietly, as if she had never stopped blowing the conch and lighting the lamps at dusk; she made the evening tea and snacks, cooked lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Agnishikha resumed her duties as seamlessly as if she had never left home.

Agnishikha attended the locality meetings with her mother, where all the women got together to plan and practice the plays, skits, recitations and songs they and the locality children would perform for the coming Durga Puja. Often the meetings were held at the Sen’s home after four in the afternoon. Agnishikha would keep the kettle boiling for the endless cups of tea they needed. Most of her mother’s friends brought home-made snacks to go with the tea. Everybody got too busy to ask about Sajal. Sometimes Agnishikha forgot she was married.

 

Durga Puja arrived. Agnishikha attended the community Puja in their locality. She sang at the Puja mandap during the evening functions. She stood back stage and hissed at the impatient children awaiting their turn. She made sure each child got his packet of goodies after each day’s function. The wife of the Public Relations Manager of Bisrampur Textiles sang with her during one of the evenings. Malathi Kesavan was a Tamillian, but so adept at Rabindra Sangeet that her fame had spread throughout Bisrampur. Agnishikha had heard about her during their meetings, but had not met her then. As the wife of one of the senior officers of the mill that provided livelihood to most of the locals, she would naturally sing at the Officers’ Club. Agnishikha’s mother and her friends had not expected Malathi to grace their humble locality Puja. But she did, impulsively meeting them back stage one evening and offering to sing. Agnishikha was charmed. Here was a sophisticated, English medium educated woman laughing, and joking with them as if she was their greatest friend, and they were all equals. Malathi was so graceful. They sang together and one after the other. Afterwards they drank tea together.

A few days later, when the last day of Durga Puja was over, and the Goddess had been immersed, Malathi drove into their lane. She brought a box of sweets, which she casually laid down on the table. She swiftly bent down to touch Agnishikha’s parent’s feet, saying she had a right to as Bijoya Dashami was still on, and charming them all over again in the process. She asked permission for Agnishikha to sing at their club’s Bijoya Dashami function, and invited them to her house for dinner. Her parents declined, but allowed Agnishikha to go and sing. They preferred to stay at home, they told her. They were too old to attend so many functions in a month. But, Agnishikha knew the real reason. Her parents were too proud to go to a club to which they had not been entitled during her father’s employment years. Malathi did not press her invitation; she smiled understandingly. However, she insisted on giving them dinner on the night of the function. Agni Ranjan Sen protested. But Malathi, and her husband Kesavan, who she had brought along, refused to take no for an answer. Kesavan came home to pick up her parents that night and took them straight to his house. Agnishikha went separately with Malathi. They ate South Indian food cooked at home instead of the oily rich club fare that Agnishikha had presumed she would be serving. The Kesavans dropped them back again after dinner. Agnishikha did not meet the Kesavans after that. But the warmth of Malathi’s home and her sweet lilting voice held Agnishikha up like a buoy. It seemed to Agnishikha that meeting someone like Malathi was like taking a purification bath in the Ganges. She felt cleansed and absolved of all taint. Malathi’s aura had touched her parents too. For days on end they went about the house as if their feet floated above the ground. They spoke often of Malathi and Kesavan. Her father recalled many incidents and anecdotes from his service years, and the most popular being the ones concerning Kesavan when he was a newly recruited officer. The days slipped past, like the clear waters of a quiet stream. Agnishikha felt rejuvenated; she began to believe that she was almost herself, her old self, and the wounds had grown thick scabs that would soon drop revealing new skin. And, one day Sajal arrived.

Her parents greeted him with affection and also relief; Agnishikha’s reluctance to speak had got them worried. They fussed over his food and made much of him. Sajal had brought presents for them, a silk sari for her mother and a warm shawl for her father, and sweets, but not from a small sweet shop in their locality; these sweets were from KC Das.

“O Sajal, why did you buy such expensive things for us!” Ma exclaimed.

“Sajal has good news for us, right baba?” said Baba smiling; his eyes soft behind his spectacles.

“No. Not yet. But I am hopeful,” he said. “I just came to collect Shikha, it’s been a long time,” he added shyly.

“Yes, yes baba,” said her father. “A married woman’s place is with her husband.”

Agnishikha searched his face. He looked happy, though thinner. They stayed for two more days before taking the train back to Calcutta. Her mother packed food for them to eat. They both came to the station to see them off. Everything seemed so normal. Agnishikha had not been able to speak privately with Sajal. Besides, the thin walls of their house prevented any kind of intimacy, and Agnishikha felt self-conscious in her parents’ house. Sajal did try to embrace her, and she had to pinch him to stop. She could not say the important things to him, the thoughts that she had put a lid on. Nor could she hear what he had to say. Maybe everything was back to where it was, she thought. Then she shook her head at her own naïveté, for what had occurred had left an indelible mark deep within her. Still, she felt she would be able to get on with her life, and push it all aside. But a strangely familiar figure in a garish purple tee shirt, striding ahead of them at the station made her feel uneasy. She could not put her finger to it.

 

This excerpt came from RK Biswas’ Culling Mynahs and Crows, available from LiFi Publications.  Purchase your copy here!

RK Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi. Two short story collections by her are slated for publication later in 2014; one by Lifi and the other by Authorspress. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published across the globe, in print and online, in journals as well as anthologies. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Pratilipi, Nth Position, Stony Thursday, Crannog, Mobius, Reading Hour, to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in an anthology – Ten – published by Nirala Publications and edited by Jayant Mahapatra. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem “Bones” was nominated for a Pushcart as well as a Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writer’s Notable Stories of 2007. She has participated in poetry and literary festivals in India and abroad, and being a past member of theatre groups, she enjoys performing her poetry on stage. An erstwhile ad person, she prefers to spend a quiet life focussed on her fiction and poetry, and is working on her second and third novels concurrently. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.

Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: RK Biswas’ “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

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Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

DO YOU HEAR AGNIREKHA, DO YOU? (PAGES 114-117)

Where were you going Agnirekha? Who are you my dear? Have you looked into the mirror?

Those days, during pre and post Bisrampur, and when Agnishikha who, for all your efforts, could not be destroyed, was there in your life, you had been steadfast in your refusal to face it. Malathi came in like a cyclone, but still your mirror did not crack, though it came very close to. Oh yes, that was a close encounter.

Deep within you Agnirekha, a hollow space echoed. At a physical level, it felt like the time when you had put yourself on a strict fruits and vegetable salad diet for a week. Your stomach felt full, and even bloated, but the cravings for real food, as in fish curry and rice coated your mouth. It gave you morning- breath all day. But at least with the diet, you had known what was wrong, and what you needed to do. But that strange thing within you was a wart that threatened to grow large and evil. You felt a desperate need to examine it thoroughly. Put it onthe dissecting tray of your school biology lab; pin down its limbs, and peel off its skin. God alone knew how vulnerable you felt with all the thrashing and jostling inside. You grew angry, because the minute you achieved a goal that you had perceived until then to be the source of the yearning, you began to feel hollow inside all over again. And, you had to start all over. There had been so many times when you’d sat by yourself brooding. You’d mulled over the slow progress of your life and wallowed in self-pity for all the unfair acts of injustice flung at your lot. It seemed to you during those depressing times that you would never be able to escape; that you were doomed. But the feelings could not keep you down for long. And a time came soon when you broke away from your earlier inertia, smashed it and took purposeful strides forward, with steely determination. The top brass of the A. Daily began to notice and recognize your capabilities, but you were not able to trash Purnendu Chakladar’s carefully built rapport with them either. So you had to grit your teeth and carry on.

The burning desire to crash through the glass ceiling that hinders every career woman’s life coursed through your veins with sulphurous heat. It corroded the soft tissues of your being, and melted the muscles of your heart, turning that organ of emotion into a hard and incredibly springy trampoline. Calcutta’s slow rhythm began to get on your nerves. Your father’s concerns about you and your future to which your marriage was nailed, which he, now old and superannuated from the army, voiced timidly, almost shyly and often indirectly in your presence, were becoming so irritating that you sometimes even visualized his death.

The visualisations did not rise as conscious, deliberate thoughts. Rather they slipped into your mind as slivers of fear for your mother, because father had grown so fragile. You would see, as the first part of your serialised drama of death, vases of tuberoses through a mist of incense. The cold body draped in white was surrounded by grieving relatives. An enlarged black and white photograph of your father, taken during his army days placed at the head of the hall. Whispered gossip would tread cautiously through the house of bereavement. Then that scene would black out and open into the eleventh day of mourning, the day of niyam-bhanga, when a short but fiery scene would take place between you and your jethima. You would insist on fish being served to your mother. You would insist that she return to wearing her coloured saris, and your voice would hunt jethima down as she tried to shield herself from the blasphemy. The noise and uproar of your rebellion, your triumphant rebellion, would once again dissolve into the third and final act of your father’s demise. That scene would have none of the grief or ferocity of the previous ones. There, your mother in a modest but colourful cotton sari, a wedge of betel nut in her mouth would go about her household chores with the complacent air of one who has long accepted the vicissitudes of life, and has been able to nurture her own routine, her own usefulness in the world immediate to her life. There was just one change in the scene – its backdrop; for your mother, in your mental map of her bereavement, would be living with you in a more prosperous city, not deadbeat Calcutta. She would have you to talk to at the end of the day, when you returned after a hard day’s work, to your home and the hot meal prepared by her for you.

Your daydream would splinter soon after that last comforting vision, and you would immerse yourself into real life once more, where your father tread softly among the newspapers, armchairs, the dining table and the TV. A feeling of sorrow would wash over you as you watched him, a frail old man with a shock of silver hair, still handsome now, but in a delicate sort of way. And you would swing your legs across the chair or divan or couch or wherever it was on which your daydream had taken place and give him a sudden hug. He was your father, and you loved him so much; there never was any doubt in your mind about that.

Back at the office, before the days of your transfer, you worked at a furious pace on your assignments. You took Purnendu completely by surprise the day you rejoined office by handing him not one but two insightful reports based on Bisrampur with a slant on Bengal’s gloomy economic scene. You did not stop after that. You continued to produce article after article, much to everyone’s surprise, and especially Purnendu’s cohorts. You actually wrote a mini-series of pieces that stretched into several months, exploring every angle, giving a compassionate touch to the lives and times of a nondescript small town, with its momentary and unverified tryst with a barely remembered figure in India’s history. Initially, you had been amazed at the ease with which you had filed your Bisrampur articles, injecting them with the insight of one who has spent almost her entire life there. Within yourself, within the total privacy of your mind, you acknowledged Naresh’s contributions. Nevertheless, you also accepted your journalistic skills with the vanity of a woman who has always known that she is beautiful, but has only recently taken to wearing fashionable clothes and make-up.

 

This excerpt came from RK Biswas’ Culling Mynahs and Crows, available from LiFi Publications.

RK Biswas is the author of “Culling Mynahs and Crows” published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi. Two short story collections by her are slated for publication later in 2014; one by Lifi and the other by Authorspress. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published across the globe, in print and online, in journals as well as anthologies. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Pratilipi, Nth Position, Stony Thursday, Crannog, Mobius, Reading Hour, to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in an anthology – Ten – published by Nirala Publications and edited by Jayant Mahapatra. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem “Bones” was nominated for a Pushcart as well as a Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writer’s Notable Stories of 2007. She has participated in poetry and literary festivals in India and abroad, and being a past member of theatre groups, she enjoys performing her poetry on stage. An erstwhile ad person, she prefers to spend a quiet life focussed on her fiction and poetry, and is working on her second and third novels concurrently. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.

Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

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The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: RK Biswas’ “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

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Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

PAGES 2-5

The garbage cans were full, spilling over with last night’s excesses. Maybe they were late or not coming at all, mused Agnirekha. It was unlikely, but not entirely impossible, because even the most efficient system could run into a glitch. The idea of the cans staying there, gathering stench and maggots grew strong and became a vivid picture, even a sensory reality. Agnirekha’s hand involuntarily reached for her mouth to stop the coffee from bubbling out of her throat. She looked at the polished pane beyond the dining table, her reflection shimmering in it, and had a sudden vision of the streets of Athens overflowing with rubbish, flies, traffic, and the shouts of people. The vision trapped her and began drawing her into its whirlpool, but Agnirekha managed to resist its currents in the nick of time by busying herself with the crossword. The visions did not come so often these days, and when they did, they were milder; unlike before. She had Sally to thank for that. Sally with her slanted and slightly gap-toothed smile, her calm and easy manner. Sally with the loping stride, her head cocked just that tiniest bit to the side like a wise crow that took in the world but did not get taken in by it. But how had she been taken in by Agnirekha? And, helped her get used to the new life, get rid of many of her old habits, old beliefs. Slowly, steadily, with the patience that only a trained hospice care giver – which Sally was – could provide, she had shifted Agnirekha’s orbit. But so gently that Agnirekha never realised, and had allowed herself to be shifted, bit by bit, flaking off her old self, hearing the voices less and less, the monologues and soliloquies fewer and further in between, until they were the occasional babble, the tolerable eccentricities of a creative person. The relapses however, when they occurred, were nerve-wracking and painful.

 

Theirs was such an unlikely friendship that every so often Agnirekha could not believe it existed; her disbelief crawling over her back like an army of fire ants. Sally was part Mexican and part African, “with a bit of Native American thrown in, a dash of pepper for that bite!” as she liked to say. Sally was stunning in a curious way, with a mass of ebony hair that curled like tight springs all around her face, and light brown eyes set wide above high cheek bones. She was pursuing an MSW programme, and under normal circumstances her path would not have crossed that of Agnirekha’s. Nor was Sally someone that Agnirekha would have under usual circumstances befriended. But the situation was far from usual. In spite of herself, Agnirekha had unconsciously opened up to newness, because the country demanded it, and she feared that not knowing, not understanding would make her lose her way, irredeemably, and she would fail. The last bit was scary. Agnirekha had swum hard and fast, first through her school, college and university, and then at her erstwhile job at a newspaper, which had been a choppy swim but she had made it. And now that she was out of India and doing her PhD at the University of Georgia, she did not want to slip back again, not to her old job, old routine, old ways. It was instinct that had pushed Agnirekha into taking the leap, instinct and also hurt pride; but she had never encountered Saibal in all those months in America. During the first few weeks she imagined she would, and dreaded it. Yet the dread carried a strange eagerness in it, as if a part of her wanted to meet him. She entertained herself by imagining their encounter there, and each time she did it was different, as if she could not make up her mind about the way the two of them would react. She did not dwell on the fact that she was actually relieved that nothing had come of it; it was the rejection that had annoyed her. But afterwards, when her new life began to demand her attention more and more, she forgot about him. Her life in Georgia had made her forget many things. Agnirekha felt charged with a new energy; in fact she felt like a new person altogether. And then, quite suddenly, out of the blue, a memory would rear its hood, and she would be left to deal with the thoughts twisting and turning inside her head. She would try to bury it out of sight, wishing with all her might to forget, forget and forget.

Agnirekha and Sally had met at what was according to Agnirekha, a most unlikely place – a second hand book shop. Agnirekha used to think (it never occurred to her to wonder how she had got that idea in the first place) that second hand book stores which were a Bengali’s prerogative, could also have, in America, educated whites in them. Yes, educated whites could throng such places, and that much was acceptable. But surely, not people like Sally? She was being a racist without being aware of it. Agnirekha’s ten months at the University of Georgia had not done much to change her home grown ideas of superiority. Maybe it was because she felt overwhelmed in many ways in that prosperous and neat as pin country, where everyone, at least on the surface, was equal. So she had held on to her upper middle class Indian elitism, and put up a cold brave front. But Sally was not impressed. Months later, she told Agnirekha (or “Aggie” and “Aggs” too, as she’d started to call her within weeks of their acquaintance) that she looked exactly like a little brown bird fleeing a cat, and laughed good-naturedly. Agnirekha did not get angry. She did not feel humiliated at the brown reference, even though in Bengal she had been considered fair. Agnirekha knew that Sally was not being derogatory, merely describing what she had observed. Sally’s understanding was unusual. But then again, that was the beauty of Sally; she made it all feel so natural and easy to accept.

 

Agnirekha was leafing through a book about Tango at the “Off Campus Bookstore”. This was a place she had discovered one day after tagging along with a few students she knew. Thereafter, that was where she escaped to, mostly to shake off the crushing sense of solitude of her student’s apartment during the weekends. The book had black and white photographs. Agnirekha gazing at them intently did not notice when her feet and hips had begun to move. The movement was slight, almost like an undulation, but Sally who was nearby suddenly lifted her head from her own book, smiled and swayed her own shoulders and neck, in a fair imitation of Michael Jackson.

“I c’n teach you to moonwalk girl,” Sally said, her white teeth gleaming like marshmallows in firelight. “Forget that old fashioned dance!”

“This is something some of the married women did when I was small,” said Agnirekha without thinking.

“In India?! They did the Tango?!”

“Yes!” Agnirekha grinned. “With elephants and tigers too.”

Agnirekha was expecting it, and her smile enhanced the irony of her reply. She was used to people disbelieving her when she spoke about eating eggs and bacon, ham sandwiches, apple cobbler and fish fondue. They thought she was lying when she spoke about Saturday Night Dances at the club, swimming and tennis. The most incredulous were the Indians themselves. They refused to believe that some Indians not only knew about, but actually enjoyed the kind of things they had been exposed to for the first time in America. Agnirekha had found few friends among her own country folk; she instinctively avoided the Bengalis, the Probashi-Bongs, finding them worse than the ones in Bombay. She recognised instantly that they were not the kind she would have met in Calcutta. As for those that she met that were by birth and family circumstances her equal, they were simply too dull and mediocre to bother with as far as she was concerned. It had not helped that she had, though not in direct words, made the Indians she had met feel rustic. She did not have to articulate it. She thought of them, at least most of them, as low to lower middle class folk that had fled the country to escape their penurious lives, and it showed. It did not matter that she had also escaped, even though her reasons were not the same as theirs. At the same time she hesitated to make friends with the Americans, and her life remained painstakingly in a social limbo.

Sally looked at her for a long second. “Well, I don’t know. I’m guessing there’s more to India. In yours they do the tango?”

Agnirekha was taken aback by her quickness. In time there were more surprises in store for Agnirekha, and when they became friends, Sally did more than teach her to moonwalk. She taught Agnirekha to see herself, understand and forgive. Like old paint peeling off a wall, flake by flake, Sally made Agnirekha peel off the layers she had acquired and reach within. It was liberating. Nevertheless, there were days when Agnirekha wept, and Sally had to shush her, like a mother soothing a hurt child. Some months later, it made sense, economic and otherwise to share rooms with Sally. Agnirekha discovered that Sally’s food tastes and sense of hygiene were impeccable. Sally laughed and told her that squashed between her mom and Martha Stewart she’d had no choice but to acquire good housekeeping skills. From Sally, Agnirekha learned how to fold socks into little packets, and tuck in the bed clothes the right way. She learned how to polish tumblers until they sparkled, and wrap a tea towel around her elbow when she washed dishes at the sink. It took Agnirekha longer to pour left over juice and milk back into the containers. For a long time Agnirekha maintained separate plastic tumblers with fitted lids for Sally’s leftover juice and milk; she herself always took care to finish her glass. She tried to teach Sally to drink from a glass and bottle without putting her mouth to it, and after months achieved only partial success, until a day came when it did not matter anymore. But their friendship was not without its trials.

 

This excerpt came from RK Biswas’ Culling Mynahs and Crows, available from LiFi Publications.

RK Biswas is the author of “Culling Mynahs and Crows” published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi. Two short story collections by her are slated for publication later in 2014; one by Lifi and the other by Authorspress. Her short fiction and poetry have been widely published across the globe, in print and online, in journals as well as anthologies. Notably in Per Contra, Eclectica, The Paumanok Review, Markings, Etchings, Mascara Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Pratilipi, Nth Position, Stony Thursday, Crannog, Mobius, Reading Hour, to name a few. Her poetry has also been featured in an anthology – Ten – published by Nirala Publications and edited by Jayant Mahapatra. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Short Story Competition, Ireland. In 2006 her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize and was also a finalist in the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Arts Contest. Her poem “Bones” was nominated for a Pushcart as well as a Best of the Net by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Million Writer’s Notable Stories of 2007. She has participated in poetry and literary festivals in India and abroad, and being a past member of theatre groups, she enjoys performing her poetry on stage. An erstwhile ad person, she prefers to spend a quiet life focussed on her fiction and poetry, and is working on her second and third novels concurrently. She blogs at Writers & Writerisms.

 

Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirty anthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.

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