Selection from “Culling Mynahs and Crows”
“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.
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.