Kitaab’s fiction editor Monideepa Sahu reviews Culling Mynahs and Crows by RK Biswas (LiFi Publications, Rs 325, 476)
This intriguing story set in West Bengal during the 1980s, explores the decline of the region’s culture through the eyes of two strong, unusual women. The bulk of the narrative revolves around Agnirekha, the firebrand journalist and snobbish “pedigree pooch” from the metropolis of Calcutta, as Kolkata was called in those days. Agnirekha’s life intertwines in mysterious ways with that of Agnishikha, an innocent and beautiful girl from the obscure town of Bisrampur, who is caught up in the dangerous underbelly of the big, bad metropolis. These two mirror-image names have a deeper significance in the narrative. As the author explains, “The two women Agnirekha and Agnishikha are from very different backgrounds and appear to be dissimilar. They are in fact opposite sides of the same coin; somewhere in the book the narrator calls them daughters of fire.”
Agnishikha’s innocent dream is to settle into domestic bliss with her husband Sajal. But Sajal, a government officer in Calcutta, wants to make his mark in life. His ambition and greed lead him down a slippery path to the point of no return. His involvement with political bigwigs and goons, results in Agnishikha and Sajal becoming expendable pawns in their dirty games. Agnishikha single-handedly faces helplessness, shattered dreams and fear, losing everyone she ever loved. Yet she manages to rise above the tragedy and devastation, though something deep inside her dies in the process.
A victim of office politics, Agnirekha is sent on a wild goose chase in pursuit of a non-story from her headquarters in Calcutta to the backwoods town of Bisrampur. A serial killer serving time in Bisrampur jail is the object of her fact-hunting mission. The psychopath killer, known as Paglakhooni, is convinced that he is doing the world a favour by ridding it of people with pathetic, miserable lives. ‘What would you rather see, mynahs and crows or bird of paradise?’ Paglakhooni makes a brief, intriguing appearance in the beginning of the novel before being beaten to death in police custody. His skewed philosophy, however, echoes through the story.
The fictional little town of Bisrampur symbolizes everything that’s wrong in the Bengal of the eighties. Bisrampur’s people live in barren abjection among dilapidated reminders of a past flicker of glory. It is a place where local business enterprise is languishing; where the residents live in narrow ruts without hope for a better tomorrow. Naresh, the orphan reporter in Bisrampur’s local daily, personifies this emptiness and futility. Mesmerized by Paglakhooni’s crazed but compelling rhetoric, Naresh falters on the brink. He seeks guidance and solace from the high-flying reporter from a major newspaper, only to be rudely rebuffed. Agnirekha the “attractive, educated young woman of good family and impeccable English” has no patience with failure, which she considers akin to death.
Agnishikha is a striking character, and one can’t help but wish that her story had been given a bigger share of the overall narrative. As the novel stands, Agnirekha’s cribbing and carping goes on a tad too long, and her snobbery and insensitivity can be overwhelming. She is “too refined, too upper class; the nails at the tip of (her) slim fingers perfectly oval, and glistening with polish.” Agnirekha’s sharp and callous reprimands cause Naresh to end his life. Agnirekha’s careless handling of Agnishikha’s confidences, results in a sensational news story flashed in every paper in Calcutta. This exposure shatters Agnishikha’s life, and is the direct cause of her losing everyone and everything she holds dear.
It is to the author’s credit that she succeeds in holding the reader’s interest in Agnirekha’s story. Towards the end, we learn of her alternate sexuality, and realize why she is so annoying and difficult. West Bengal in the eighties is vividly brought to life, in all its layers of decay. The author’s lively, detailed descriptions and images can be enduring. Thus, Paglakhooni’s taped speeches “scattered the letters of the word ‘assignment’ into different directions. Like a surge of water on a wriggling mass of tadpoles, freeing them violently from their jelly prison in the pond.”
In some places however, the writing could be tighter; where too many trivial details and verbiage add little to the story. Pages 310 – 332 offer a long-drawn account of Agnirekha’s drive from Bisrampur to Kolkata, with needless details such as their searching for restrooms, breakfast at a South Indian eatery, the bananas they ate in the car and the utthapams or sada dosas they order.
Overall, this is a fast-paced and exciting read. The powerful portraits of Agnirekha and Agnishikha, and the decadent milieu in which they struggle to find their own space, stay with the reader long after the last page has been turned.