Saturday, April 1

“Not Quite a Disaster after All”: Buku Sarkar’s novel presents a nuanced narrative of depth and power

  • The book “Not Quite a Disaster after All” by Buku Sarkar is about how our expectations from life shift and change, how they can be pushed in the most unpredictable ways.

  • In six connected, haunting vignettes that span two continents and two decades, we follow Anjali, misfit, the expensively educated daughter of a wealthy family, from her childhood in Calcutta to her coming of age in New York City, claiming the grimy dive bars of the East Village as her own. We also see her childhood friend Anita, who struggles with the quieter life, marriage and motherhood she has chosen, in a suburb of Ohio.

  • These are women who muster all their grit and resolve to make their way in the world, seeking their identity.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Anjali’s building was on the Upper West Side. You walked out and turned left and came up to the chaos of Broadway. There was an organic market at the corner—yellow, green, orange fruits and buckets of lilies, roses, tulips, daisies and carnations lay heaving outside in voluptuous bins. In front, the din of traffic criss-crossed the two-way avenue; further ahead, the heavy artillery of construction.

One block over, Amsterdam Avenue was lined with restaurants with foreign names and outdoor seating and umbrellas over which the evening sun scattered.

A little boutique on the corner of 82nd Street caught Anita’s attention—the window dressed in pink wallpaper, lined with mannequins in multicoloured hair wearing black clothes and platform boots. It stood out from the other shops that sold khaki coats and tapered pants and lace-trimmed children’s wear. She stopped in front of it. Not the sort of clothes she typically wore. But window-shopping wasn’t about looking at what you had in mind. It was looking for what you could never imagine yourself in.

There was one dress, though, that she thought she could potentially wear. The skirt was ordinary and long, ending just below the knee of the mannequin. It would come farther down on her smaller frame. It opened out into a wide A-line that would hide her gradually expanding hips at all stages of life. What gave the dress an edge, the right to be displayed up there, along with the leather pants and corsets, was its top—a tight halter-necked bodice showing off a large portion of the back and a thin vinyl strap with a gold buckle.

She was tempted to go into the store but stopped. She reminded herself that all these clothes were made somewhere in Bangladesh or South America—produced in bulk, shipped in hordes. They didn’t hold the intrigue of time and memory that cleaved the racks of vintage stores. Besides, that dipping neckline was too low.

She walked on. She walked three more blocks and came up to the burgundy awning of a restaurant. Through its tinted windows, votives flickered above white linen and behind them, the dancing shadows of sinewy bodies. It was Friday evening. The weekend had begun.

Anita looked down in dismay at her own attire—light-blue jeans of a nondescript origin; a plain, purple T-shirt; a brown bag picked up after much haggling with a street vendor. She might as well have worn an ‘I LOVE NY’ cap to go with it. Somewhere along Amsterdam, there must be a pizza place, a Chinese take-out. They were usually in every corner, like the foliage of New York City.

She walked in what must have been circles––through the side streets that tunnelled endlessly, shadowed by the spread of honeylocusts and willows that gave the fleeting impression of something green and serene, then out again into the grey, concrete discord of the avenue. Windows lit up. Restaurants glowed under candles. The sky turned pink but a different sort of light took over the city. Soon, she was back in front of the shop with pink wallpaper. She had walked for almost an hour. Her feet were heavy and hot. Now, in the dusk, the neckline of the dress didn’t look so bad after all.

She lightly pushed the door open. The bell rang. The woman behind the register looked up, tentatively, as though she didn’t want to unsettle the bright-blue wig and the silver tiara that balanced on her head.

‘Hey there,’ she said. Her voice, like her hair, was coloured—first husky, then ending on a high note––a voice that had been resting for quite some time. Anita thought she must have walked into a Halloween shop. But it was too late. The woman had looked up. She felt she had to stay for a while and look.

The shop was larger than it had appeared from the outside. It was narrow but ran deep and was divided into two sections—the front for a large assortment of dark clothes and the back for sparkled shoes and bright wigs and fake eyelashes—accessories necessitated by morbid clothing, she imagined.

She browsed the racks and ran her fingers lightly over every item, making it known that she was considering each of the black dresses and lace tops and vinyl corsets, which she had no idea how to put on because there was too much of criss-crossing of lace at the back. The blue-haired woman was sitting at the register. Every time Anita looked at her, she quickly put her head down and proceeded to untangle the heap of price tags in her hand.

Between the meshed nylons, she finally found the black dress she had seen earlier in the window. It looked much narrower than it did on the mannequin but Anita couldn’t help herself from searching for the price.

‘We’re having a sale,’ the woman said. ‘That whole rack is fifty per cent off.’ Her voice had finally found its happy medium.

Anita nodded. Another minute and it would be okay to leave.

‘Why don’t you try it on?’

‘Oh no, that’s okay. I was just looking.’

‘Really. Just try it.’

‘No, that’s fine. Thank you.’

The blue-haired woman came out from behind the register. She wore leopard-printed leggings under a short black skirt. Her legs were thick, like tree trunks.

‘Darling. There’s nothing wrong with just trying. Really. What size are you? A medium?’

Anita wanted to say ‘small’, which was her original size, but the truth was, she hadn’t fit into anything small since Maya was born.

‘Let me see. Look. That’s a medium,’ the woman said. She held out the dress over her own body and twirled gaily, as if all day long she’d wanted to do just that.

‘No really, that’s okay.’

‘Tsk,’ the woman shook her head. ‘You see what’s written on my shirt? Read it. Come on, now. Read it. Don’t be shy.’

‘It’s all about me,’ Anita read out loud.

‘Now read the back.’

‘I forgot about you.’

‘You see that?’ the woman flipped her hand. ‘It’s all about you, girl. When’s the last time you said that? Now I know you like that dress. I can see it in your eyes.’

The dress was even tighter than Anita had expected, especially around the hip. But that, in fact, made the fabric cling around her butt, which she knew was her asset (Mark used to say so back in the day). From the front, it was demure and simple. Only when she turned around was the open back fully exposed and could one see the vinyl strap with the little gold buckle, which nestled behind her neck like a secret. She imagined what Mark would say. He wouldn’t make her return it, of course, or say anything openly negative. He wasn’t that sort of a man. But she knew he’d silently judge her, in the same way as Hollywood movies or her friend Anjali.

‘So? What do you think?’ the blue-haired woman asked from behind the curtain of the changing room. ‘It’s fifty per cent off, so it’s only eighty-five.’

Over the next two weeks, Anjali and she would do all the things they’d done together in the past––go to restaurants serving fusion cuisine, to bars with blue lights and cocktails in martini glasses, perhaps even to a party that Anjali was invited to.

‘There’s tax, of course, but it’s still an incredible bargain.’

She could wear this dress out one night. She could keep the tag on and return it afterwards. They could both dress up as they used to. Right up to their hair. Yes. Wouldn’t that be something? Sometimes, Anita felt there was an actress in a sequined brassier and hips that swayed like a snake hiding inside her, dying to be let out when Mark wasn’t looking.

The blue-haired woman folded the dress in pink tissue. First one side laid carefully and flat, then the other—pulled snug, the way Anita pulled at Maya’s coat over a thick sweater in the winter. Finally, a little pink sticker on the top. She threw in a box of blue eye shadow and winked. ‘That’s for you, honey, for helping me reach the day’s target. Now I can close the store early.’

The sun had slipped behind the tall buildings. Darkness fell, as it does—gradually, then all at once. People were heading out for dinner—in pairs, in groups, arm-in-arm, footstep-to-footstep, conversations churned the air. A girl stopped outside the shop. She was talking loudly into her phone.

‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘He went for more booze of course…three vodkas so far. And a pretzel…God! It’s way steamy out here. I’m a bit drunk.’ She giggled. ‘Just one but you know how I get with just a glass of wine…yes, he is… yes, I hope so too…his place, we’re right here…I hope he makes a pretzel out of me.’

Anita stopped the blue-haired woman, as she was about to put the dress in a shopping bag. ‘You know what? I’d like to wear that dress right now, if that’s okay.’

Leave a reply