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.