microphone and podium

Summer 2007, Volume 3

by Shome Dasgupta

I left Landmark Bookstore and walked lazily along Lord Sinha Road. The street was crowded with cars and pedestrians on the Saturday afternoon. I thought about buying some peanuts, but then decided to purchase a container on the way back, for the store looked extremely busy with customers. I realized that in any store in Kolkata, the customers always took a long time to buy the things they wanted, and sometimes, they would take a long time and then not buy anything. From the smallest of stores, like a peanut store, to large clothing companies, the customers would occupy the employers, multiple employees helping them. Once I waited for about twenty minutes to buy a couple of pastries, because the customer ahead of me kept asking the merchant questions, and he would talk to the group of friends that surrounded him. He finally bought one small sweet and left. Back in America, I normally would have been agitated. Sometimes, I would walk out the store and go to a different one, or I would pout and sigh loudly. My tolerance to wait was not too great in America. For some reason, in Kolkata, my length of patience increased. I was glad to observe this of myself, and hoped that it would remain with me when I went back to America.

The pollution was thick on that Saturday afternoon. The small huts had already begun to make their foods for dinner, and this caused even more smoke to appear, as the clouds from the primitive ovens and stoves drifted onto the street. Several children ran around and played, and several adults stood on the sidewalk and talked and laughed loudly. Others briskly walked towards their destination. I had become accustomed to the honking and other loud traffic noises, such as the vehicles without the catalyst converters, and I barely noticed their sounds anymore. On the other side of the road was a long wall or barrier, which I guessed separated the city traffic from a neighborhood. Peering over the wall were huge, fulsome trees. I walked over and stood underneath the shade and rested from the heat of the sun before I made my way back to the peanut store.

As I wiped the sweat off my face with the sleeve of my shirt, I felt a hard knock against the back of my head. It stung, and I flinched in reaction. I looked to the ground to see what hit me and saw a dead blackbird on the sidewalk. It was bloody and half chewed or mangled. I immediately panicked and rubbed the back of my head as I made moaning noises. I looked at my hand and saw blood, but I was not sure whether the blood came from the dead bird or my head. I looked around and no one else seemed to have noticed what happened. Pacing back and forth, I did not know what to do. All kinds of illnesses could occur from such a cut. As I felt around my head, I could not feel any kind of open wound, and realized that the blood came from the blackbird. I sighed loudly and stared at it. The beak was half gone, its eyes were pecked, and most of its feathers were lost. I assumed it had been in a fight with some kind of other animal— most probably a Kolkatan cat.

As I turned around, a man dressed in a black suit stood before me. He wore a maroon scarf and a cricketer’s hat. He had a thin and neatly trimmed mustache and very dark skin, which made the whites of his eyes stare directly at me.

“Hello,” I said.

The man spoke in Bengali, and I could not understand most of the words he said.

“English,” I said.

He smiled and played with the scarf around his neck. His teeth were bright white and perfect.

“Yes,” he said. “You were hit by the blackbird.”

“You saw that?” I asked. “It really scared me.”

He laughed loudly and placed his hands in his pockets.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I live in America, but my family is from here,” I replied.

“Yes,” he said. “You were hit by the blackbird. I saw it.”

“Yes,” I said. “It really scared me. I just need to wash my head, and I think everything should be okay.”

The man laughed and placed each of his hands on each end of the scarf as someone would do to choke a person.

“Come,” the man said. “Wash your hair at my place. Nearby.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’ll just wait until I go home. I should be getting back actually. We’ll be eating dinner soon.”

“Yes,” the man said. “Come. Come. Follow me.”

He tugged my arm and motioned me to follow him. He was a few inches taller than me and very thin. He wore white tennis shoes, and his footsteps gently tapped the ground as he walked. I did not know what compelled me to follow him, but I did. I really wanted to wash the blood from my hair before I went back to the flat for dinner. Just the thought of a dead bird’s blood in my hair made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted to go home and be in my bed, and forget that any of this had ever happened.

I noticed that as we walked along Lord Sinha Road, the other people on the street looked at us, or to be more specific, they stared at me. The pedestrians who stood on the same side of the street as us, moved aside as we walked, which was something I had never seen while walking the streets of Kolkata. Normally, no one would move aside to let other walkers pass. They looked at me, they looked at my clothes, and they appeared to be afraid. No one made eye contact with the man I followed, but they stared into the ground or glanced at me. I looked at them and noticed that they all had small indentions or some kind of mark imprinted on their foreheads. They looked like three or four small lines in the shape of a paw or some kind of animal’s foot. I began to have doubts about the whole situation, and started to think that I should go back to the driver and go to the flat. I stopped walking.

“Hey,” I said.

The man stopped and turned around. He motioned me to follow him.

“I think I’ll just go home,” I said.

A small crowd of people surrounded us.

“Come,” he said. “Wash your hair here.”

He pointed to a gate, which led to a large courtyard and a house. Now the crowd was completely silent. I smiled at some of them and said hello, but everyone stood expressionless. The man in the black suit tugged my arm and walked towards the gate. I followed him, and the people began to walk away slowly. Some walked backwards and continued to look at me, while others kept turning around to see what was happening. The man opened the gate and smile. He lifted his arm to let me in first.

“Come,” he said. “The blackbird’s blood.”

The floor of the courtyard consisted of granite or marble. There were a few wrought iron tables and chairs. The furniture surrounded a small pond where fish swam. On the outer edges of the courtyard were large bushes that came to about my chin. The house was huge. The patio consisted of more marble or granite flooring, and there were two pillars that held up the porch’s roof. The façade was dark red and looked about two stories high. I had never seen such a big house before for most of my friends and relatives lived in flats or smaller houses. An old lady dressed in a red and black sari sat on a rocking chair on the patio. She rocked back and forth and watched us as we towards the door of the house.

“Hello,” I said.

She smiled and continued to rock the chair. She wore bright white tennis shoes. The man did not say a word to her, nor did she say anything to the man. Her hair was black and gray and tightly parted in the middle. She smiled and all I saw was black gums.

“Play,” she mumbled. “Play. Play. And don’t run away.”

The man opened the door and told me to follow him.

“Come,” he said. “The washroom is on the right.”

I followed him into the washroom, which again, consisted of marble or granite. He handed me a towel and left the washroom. I closed the door, rinsed my hair, and saw tiny streams of blood flowing into the drain. I rubbed some soap on the back of my head and then rinsed it again until I was sure all the blood was gone. I looked through the washroom window and saw in a yard, a badminton net and a line of clothes that were hung to dry. The man’s face appeared directly in front of the window, just like a head shot would be shown on a television commercial. He smiled.

“Come,” he said. “Play badminton.”

He held up a wooden racket. The frame was pretty thick, and it looked like an old tennis racket. I walked outside to the side of the house where the man stood. He handed me a racket similar to his and smiled.

“I really should be going,” I said.

“One game,” the man replied.

“I should be going.”

“One game.”

He walked to one side of the net where a large wooden bucket rested on a small table. I walked to the other side of the net. I had only played the game a few times, and I assumed that the man in the black suit was a good badminton player. He turned around, with the smile still woven into his face, and placed the birdie behind his back.

“Ready,” he said.

I nodded. He quickly served the birdie, which was black, and it barely made it over the net. I quickly ran to the net and hit the birdie over the net. I had never seen such a birdie before, but I guessed that since he probably played a lot that he used a special brand. The man sprinted to the edge of the yard and hit it over the net. I was able to return it, but I had it too high, and this gave the man the time to prepare for his hit and he used all his might. I could barely see the thing because he hit it too quickly, and it smacked me right in my forehead. Stunned by the hit, I stumbled and fell, which caused the man to laugh. I could also hear the old lady who sat on the porch laugh as well. I stood and brushed the dirt off my pants and checked my elbows for any blood or scrapes. The man continued to laugh as I rubbed my forehead to lessen the stinging sensation. Angry and frustrated, I wanted to hit him in the face with the birdie as well, so I decided to play another point. I looked for the birdie, and saw it a few steps ahead of me. As I walked towards it, I screamed and rubbed my forehead again. We were playing badminton with a dead blackbird, similar to the one that hit me on the back of the head. The man continued to laugh. I ran to the washroom and cleaned my face and hands. I began to cry. I ran back into the yard where the man stood next to the large wooden bucket.

“You’re sick,” I shouted. “What do you think you’re doing? Are you crazy?”

The happy expression on his face quickly dissolved to a worried look.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked.

The man did not say anything, but he stuck out his hand to shake mine, but I refused to respond. Then he tried to place his hand on my shoulder but I pushed it away. He looked sad.

“Badminton,” he said. “1-0.”

“Shut up,” I replied.

I walked passed the porch, where the old lady ate mango on her rocking chair, to the gates at the front of the courtyard. Outside were a small group of people. They seemed to have been waiting for me. The crowd looked at me curiously and kept staring at my forehead. They all had some kind of scar or imprint on their forehead, and as I felt the top of my face, I realized that I had one as well. I ran back to the Landmark Bookstore, where the driver waited for me. I entered into the backseat and told him to go back to the flat. He looked at me in the rearview mirror, smiled and then laughed.

“Badminton,” he said.

BIO: Shome Dasgupta is currently enrolled at Antioch University-Los Angeles, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Meadow, Magma Poetry, The Quiet Feather, The Fifth Di..., Si Señor, and The Chickasaw Plum. He will have a poem included in a poetry anthology entitled Poetic Voices Without Borders 2.

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