When the doctor looked at his latest report and told him he had about six months to live, Akaash Didwania stared at the red bird in the calendar on the wall. It was an ordinary-looking bird in an ordinary-looking calendar that suddenly looked strange; its colours seemed to scream out of the letters and numbers. OCTOBER 29. The car horns outside seemed to have stopped suddenly, replaced by the slow sound of something falling as the doctor muttered through the AC purr. ‘I feel obliged to tell you the truth.’  Truth. A word Akaash had never quite liked for it had mostly caused him a great deal of trouble. And loss. The doctor rattled on. Akaash kept staring at the October bird.

Walking out of the doctor’s chamber, Akaash wandered aimlessly till he came by a massive open drain that stunk of human waste and sewage. The sun was setting above the rusty iron drain pipe which extended onto a track of train lines. The railway crossing was closed and a goods train was chugging in, cutting into an orange sky. Blending with the shit smell and the sunset spreading across car tops, the brown bogies became the slow sound of something falling in Akaash’s mind, for the second time. He walked off the main road and went down to the drain to smell it more fully, to see what waste looks like when it floats freely, waiting to be decomposed by sunlight and slow time. He leant close enough to the drain to see his own reflection. A pair of round glasses on a scared face; swimming with shit. Blending with waste. For twenty minutes, more or less, then his reflection was suddenly smashed to smithereens by a stream of water gurgling into the pool. A middle-aged man stood beside him, pissing into the drain. Akaash got up and smiled at the stranger. The bogie sounds were coming to an end.

 

Akaash worked in a chartered accountancy firm in South Kolkata that advised people on how to store and invest money. Rich men and women with hidden assets and accounts that suddenly became ticking bombs. Like when the Government of India suddenly declared that 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would become useless. Demonetization Day. Akaash remembers seeing a brawl in his neighbourhood grocery store that night where a crowd of people had gathered to change their 500 rupee notes on the pretext of buying biscuits, stale bread loaves and cheap toothbrushes. Almost everyone looked confused, angry and helpless as the government ordered to go cashless. The local grocery shopkeeper didn’t have a TV in his shop. He hadn’t seen the news and had happily accepted 500 Rupee notes until he overheard someone speak about the change. Then he panicked and stopped giving change. But by then a crowd of people had gathered demanding grocery goods. Even as the shutters were being quickly pulled down the angry mob stepped in, breaking in the cash box. Some local policemen who had come earlier in the evening to buy cigarettes and had got rid of their notes turned up to beat the mob. Akaash had stood and watched it all. He remembers the Demonetization Declaration Day viscerally as that night in bed he first felt the sickness in his lungs that would gradually grow into a grotesque body with cells. A growth that now left less than six month’s life in him. Next morning on his way to office he saw a man being beaten up by another mob. In front of the greying Greek Church in Kalighat. Apparently, he was a pickpocket who had nicked someone’s wallet the night before, a wallet that supposedly contained a pile of hundred rupee notes that were now missing. The man began to cry and said a friend of his had exchanged the 100s for four 500s which he was ready to return. Nobody listened to him. Everyone wanted 100 rupee notes. Walking to the Kalighat metro, Akaash heard a beggar woman wail for food and money. He stopped and gave her the only two 100 rupee notes from his wallet. His sickness was growing into something solid, dropping heavily, invading his lungs by then.

That day, in Aakash’s office everyone talked about demonetization; the keywords in those conversations – cashless, corruption, UP election – started banging against Akaash’s brain by afternoon. The office phones and mobiles kept ringing. Panicky clients called, seeking advice on the cash that was suddenly declared illegal. Nobody knew anything so there were lots of names and noises. The sounds were sonorous, the syllables slow, the pitches low. Akaash sat listening to the word bombs that exploded in the empty space in his brain where his attention had spread earlier. He felt like a sound magnet numbed by the noise, unable to attend to addresses. There was a greater strangeness in the air – the country had been suddenly directed to become cashless, nobody paid attention to Akaash’s behaviour. Until he fell. Akaash collapsed on his way to the gents’ washroom, swinging and smashing against the little litter bin where the waste waited to be thrown away. That too was the sound of something falling, but Akaash had long since passed out by then to listen. The last sound he had heard was one of nervous laughter. As somebody tried to explain to a client over the phone what could happen thereafter.

The Bengalis 2

5

Āmādér Rōbindrōnāth

Tagore plus

The Bengalis are a lot more than Rabindranath Tagore, our most-cited cultural icon, Subhas Chandra Bose, West Bengal’s most-cited political icon, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s most cited national icon. Although we might often seem to be striving, quite correctly, to escape the stereotype of being longhaired poets or rebels with or without a cause, that our three most famous sons—bongōshontān—have bestowed on us, we actually adore these images of us. Culture and cause, even reflected culture and cause, provide for some a core, for others a sheen with which, in our minds and through our days, we keep ordinariness at bay.

These three aside, there are several Bengalis who are known to the world outside Banglasphere. However, many not-Bengalis are unaware that a number of these worthies are Bengalis or have Bengali roots. Some of our greatest are not known outside Banglasphere but that’s fine too. It’s enough if we laud our own, if others do too, that’s a bonus.

Let me name a few here (numerous others appear elsewhere in the book), those whose names and influence have transcended our chauvinistic borders or, even if they haven’t, have enriched or enervated our lives in Banglasphere and outside it, shaped us for better and worse. If these judgement calls invite energetic and emotional debate — so be it.

Let’s begin with Satyajit Ray. In the 1950s, he marked the beginning of a certain global acclaim for Indian cinema and moved generations with a mix of realism and class. My former colleague and Ray aficionado Sumit Mitra recalls that time in Calcutta:

During the release of the Apu trilogy, between 1955 and 1959, his apotheosis was complete. The coffee-house crowds began to referring to him by his pet name, ‘Manik-da’.

Gatecrashing into his home on Lake Temple Road in Ballygunj on flimsy excuses became so common a cultural pastime that Sandip, his schoolgoing son, always full of pranks, posted a notice on the front door demanding an admission fee of eight annas. By the ’60s, he was too famous a figure to visit his favourite haunt, the corner room of the Chowringhee coffee house, which was called—still is—the House of Lords.

 

By Shikhandin

Indira Chandrashekhar

Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.

Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’

In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.

Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?

Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.

Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.

Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.

Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?

Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.

An Unsuitable Woman

 

BIRDSONG

Jahnavi Barua

So, what have you decided?’

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare—it is almost winter—and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

‘Are you going to answer?’

Her foot snags on a jutting root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Beyond the small waterhole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree.

She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. ‘What the hell do you think you are playing at?’ He tugs at her shoulder; she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away soundlessly.

‘Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.’ His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on a holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But he too is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television: when she lay ill in bed with dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

‘Excuse me,’ she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows—she can hear him cursing—as he pants his way up slowly.