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

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Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”

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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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