Short Fiction ~ Kasturi Patra
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
I read the first few lines of the bestselling thriller for the fifth time. Still, nothing registered. The oil-stained suede couch sagged further, its springs creaking in agony, as I slouched to make myself invisible to the people in my parents’ living room. It was difficult to ignore their words though.
“Forty-two and still single, chhi chhi…are you sure she isn’t, you know…” Neela Kakima let those words hang in the air. I doubted whether she actually believed her hoarse “whispers” wouldn’t reach me in the balcony.
“Na na, nothing like that,” Ma sounded apologetic, “we’ve talked about that, too.”
Baba cleared his throat; he was an expert at squashing uncomfortable conversations be it the refugee crisis in Syria or his own daughter’s sexual orientation.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed Arnab Kaku rubbing his thick, hairy knuckles over his potbelly, bits of his protruding stomach visible from between the straining shirt buttons. His fingers adorned with gemstone rings, looked like a grotesque rainbow.
I threw up a bit inside my mouth when he stuffed his face with the jaggery sondesh and spoke with his mouth full, “Girls these days are getting too much freedom and that’s getting into their heads,” unlike his wife, he didn’t pretend to whisper, “I keep telling Neela how lucky we are to have a son.”
I chucked the paperback with a splat on the coffee table and stood up.
My breathing slowed down only after I reached my childhood bedroom upstairs. My parents hadn’t changed it much since Didi and I left—the walls were adorned with our artwork in crayons, the door of the steel almirah was studded with stickers from popular nineties cartoons—Powerpuff Girls, TaleSpin, Duck Tales. On top of the study table sat a picture frame that held a photo of Didi and me squinting at the camera, wearing identical batik printed frocks.
The soft, pudgy body squashing against my back, smelling of apple shampoo and cocoa butter, woke me up from my fitful slumber.
“Rinki!” I sat in a puddle of sleep induced daze mixed with the affection that I reserved only for my six-year-old niece. She crawled into my lap screaming, “Mashiiii”, I dipped my face into her curly hair wishing I could bottle her earthy scent of childhood and take it back with me when I left Kolkata.
“I hate to break the aunt niece reunion but I have to,” my elder sister stepped into the room smiling affectionately, “Rinki, go down for lunch, I’ll come with Mashi in a minute.”
Didi didn’t ask me why I was sitting on my own in this dark room when there were guests downstairs, instead she took me in her arms. I rested my head on her shoulders just like I used to on nights when I was certain the monster was calling me from atop the palm tree outside the window. My visits to Kolkata wouldn’t have been so frequent if it weren’t for my sister and my niece.
At the lunch table, Didi tried veering the conversation into neutral territories.
“Congratulations, on your admission to the MIT, Riju!” Didi put on a big smile and looked expectantly at the young man who was grinning at his crotch while typing furiously on his phone under the table.
Neela Kakima nudged her son and muttered something, perhaps reminding him that my parents hosted this lunch to honor his “grand success”.
“Thanks,” he shrugged.
Didi gave me a sideways glance, I shook my head and put a little bit of rice mixed with chicken curry into Rinki’s open mouth.
“From the moment he ranked twentieth in the IIT entrance exam, I was certain that my boy is going to make it to the MIT,” Arnab Kaku beamed while his son was once again lost into the fascinating world inside his phone.
“Yes, Riju has always been a gem of a boy! From topping his classes to representing his school in quizzes and cricket matches. You guys have been extremely lucky!” Ma cooed while serving Riju the juiciest pieces of mutton, maybe, as a reward for his hard work.
Post lunch, Didi and I lay stretched on our childhood bed, our legs sticking out, our heads huddled in a single pillow, as we traded news of our lives. My parents had taken Rinki to their room for an afternoon nap. The three guests were in the guestroom, probably gearing up for their next meal.
After a while, I got up to make our favorite masala tea. On my way to the kitchen, I noticed my parents watching a Bengali soap on TV.
“Where’s Rinki?” I leaned into their darkened room searching for her small body lying curled up next to my mother.
“Riju took her to the terrace.”
I sprinted down the corridor and climbed two stairs at a time, my parents called out after me, but I didn’t stop.
When I pushed open the terrace door with a creak, there was no sign of anyone except for a few sparrows perched on the bird feeder pecking at the rice Ma had left for them.
The voice came from behind the water tank, a smooth, seductive whisper, so familiar sounding, like a silk scarf tightening around my throat. I instinctively grew quieter, tiptoeing to the place from where the sound came.
Rinki’s purple frilly frock was hitched up while Riju tickled her thighs, his fingers crawling upward, “I’m coming now, hau mau khau, manusher gondho pau…” those words that scared me as a child, the words of a monster who could smell human blood.
I shoved him so hard that he lost his balance and fell flat on his back. I could hear footsteps behind me.
Looking at the faces surrounding me, I let out a wail that I’d been holding inside for the last thirty-five years.
When I could finally breathe, I told them, “Arnab Kaku is indeed lucky to have a son who is just like his father.”
Kasturi Patra is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Jaggery Lit Mag, Litbreak Magazine, Bengal Write Ahead, Escape Velocity, 50-Word Stories, and Women’s Web. Her fiction is forthcoming in Lakeview International Journal and in TMYS Review. She is a reader for Voyage: A Young Adult Literary Journal. She recently won a novel pitch competition and her novel is forthcoming next year from Half Baked Beans Publishers. She is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Writers' Village University. She lives in New Delhi, India, with her husband and four adopted animals.