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?
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.