Excerpt from Not Quite a Disaster by Buku Sarkar

At 9:15 the following morning, Anjali was dressed—her bun secured with several pins—waiting outside her hotel for a taxi. By 9:45, she was at the venue in Tribeca. Jenny wasn’t there yet, of course. The main dining area was closed off, as it was still early, but the lobby door was open and she let herself in. She didn’t see anyone. Nothing about the restaurant made it apparent that a major event would be held there later in the evening. But she knew how such things worked. Within an hour, the flowers would arrive, the waitstaff would appear, the tables get dragged around, the manager would shout orders and soon, piece-by-piece, the restaurant would transform. This pause was necessary before the night’s celebrations—like springtime, which needed the bareness of winter.

She considered waiting in the lobby till someone found her or till Jenny came rushing in. But seeing the sign for the toilets, leading o through a corridor, she decided to make a quick inspection. It was an important detail many overlooked. A filthy bathroom, however, was more than a casual oversight. Anjali had learned this from her mother who hated using public toilets. Those bathrooms in India had a peculiar odor—a smell of strong cleaning fluid that made their cleanliness all the more dubious. Something happened to women in their forties, she thought in alarm. They all started turning into their mothers.

By the time she went back to the lobby, Jenny had arrived and so had the manager of the restaurant. He wrung his hands together as he told Anjali how he loved her books, that he brought every single one of them, that he always watched her television shows, and it was such an honor to host this event for her.

He led them into the main dining area. The walls were painted an innocuous orange-mustard. Or, as Anjali thought, perhaps it was saffron gone terribly wrong.

A swinging door led out from the far end of the room and there was a small bar area in one corner. On one side of the bar were a podium and a microphone waiting to be set up. On the other, a heap of exposed wires hung from the wall down to the floor and disappeared behind the podium. No bones, Anjali shook her head. The room just had no bones. Everything else was salvageable but it was impossible to work with something that was structurally poor. At least the restaurant was large. Far better than some venues she had worked in. To think that her apartment in New York had been less than a quarter this size—a twelve-by-twelve studio on the Lower East Side, where the bed took up most of the floor space. Shane and she had moved in there shortly after they met. They ate on it, slept on it, watched movies on it, and if anyone came to visit, all she had to do was stand up and reach for the doorknob.

The manager of the restaurant waved his hands busily as he took Anjali around the room. “We’ll remove all the tables from the middle. We’ll keep those small square ones on the side and set up the buffet on the left.”

Anjali nodded thoughtfully.

“You approve then?”

“Yes, although I have a small suggestion,” she looked at the manager. “If I may, that is.”

“Of course, madam.” He wore a jacket too big for his thin frame. It hung over his shoulders, halfway down to his knees.

“Why not keep the buffet towards the back, over there, you see? So it is away from view.” She cocked her head to one side and fisted her hand beneath her chin. She liked being methodical. It left little room for errors.

“Of course, madam.” He rubbed his hands together, as a child might gesture—with feigned importance.

“And move those wires,” she said, waving her hand at the mass of black cables that left its trail along the wall like a scar.

“But, madam, those are for the sound.”

“Put them somewhere else. We can’t have them hanging down the wall like that.”

“But there aren’t any other outlets.”

“Then just move the goddamned podium.”

The manager wrung his hands more furiously.

“Oh fine, just leave it,” Anjali snapped. Perhaps it was only emptiness that drew attention to the flaws, and in the evening, once the room filled with decorations and guests and music, no one would notice. “And you know, of course, that the lamb is coming in specially from those butchers in Astoria?”

“Yes, absolutely, madam.”

“And the spices?”

“Madam, just as you say in your emailed instructions.”

“Grind it right before.”

“Not one second earlier,” he said.




When Shane and she had moved into the studio, just months after she had met him, Anjali didn’t tell her parents. She told them instead, that she had found a roommate and that renting an apartment together, instead of university housing, was more cost-effective. She remembered how, in the thrill of domesticity, they had recorded their first voicemail together, and in the middle of the night, she had gotten up in alarm, at the possibility of her parents calling.

They had debated over the message. She had wanted to keep it short and traditional. He had wanted something more indiscreet, a rather long message that went something like: “You’ve reached Anjali and Shane. We’re kind of busy right now and can’t come to the phone. Shane prefers to do it up and down while Anjali likes it side to side. So (there was a purposeful pause here), when we’re done brushing our teeth, we’ll call you right back.”

He had found it on a website and thought it was funny.

“That’s just tacky,” Anjali had said.

“Come on, it’s hilarious,” Shane insisted but soon gave in because he hated to argue.

This win had felt somewhat deflating to Anjali. Shane was rather placid. He lacked passion and fierceness, qualities she was made of. She had told him this once—when they fought one night after he had stayed out too long—that he was weak and easily swayed by others. She had stood before him with her hands folded across her chest and said it was the only thing about him that worried her. “I know,” he had replied, drawing her between his vinyl-covered knees, the cheap plastic chapping against her skin like his noisy kisses. “That’s why I need you, girl.” It had warmed her then—those sweet words—uttered with such sincerity, in a manner so easy and uncomplicated.




Before she left, Anjali turned around to take one last look at the room but all she saw were the wires, hanging from the middle of the wall. The harder she tried to ignore them, the stronger they drew her attention, like Shane’s habit of picking at the crusty residues of white from his nose.

“Don’t you have a tapestry or something that we can hang over them?” she asked the manager.

He shook his head.

“A painting of some sort? Can’t we paint over them? Do something, for God’s sake!”

The manager continued to stare at her.

“Well, I know just the thing,” she said after some time. “We’ll put a small table against the wall with a oral arrangement on it. A big arrangement with colourful flowers—orange tulips, perhaps with a combination of freesias and soft ruscus. We can use a long vase and, if needed, combine two or three together.” Yes. She loved it when things came together so seamlessly.

She looked for Jenny. “Call the florist and tell them we need more flowers. Actually, just call them and come get me. I’ll speak to them directly.”

“I’m not sure they’re open yet,” Jenny said.

“Why don’t you give them a call and see?”

“It’s still half past ten. I’m sure they’ll be closed.”

Anjali was about to follow the manager into the kitchen, but on Jenny’s comment, turned around. The girl stood triumphantly, as if she had miraculously produced the flowers from somewhere inside her bush of vagabond hair. At least she had tied her hair in a neat ponytail today and stopped tucking it behind her ears.

For a second, Anjali almost felt sorry for her. She wanted to grab the girl by her shoulders and tell her that everything was okay. People did exactly the opposite of what they meant to do. They always did such things.

“Mistakes are okay as long as you don’t regret. Regret is for those who don’t believe in their own actions.”

“I’m sorry?” Jenny looked confused.

Anjali remembered her hair. She had forgotten she had a hair appointment at two. “I said, I think you should give them a call anyway. Ten seems a perfectly reasonable opening hour.”




The restaurant kitchen was large and fairly well kept. Anjali noted some food lying uncovered on the counter and a few scrapings that had fallen on the floor. However, by ordinary standards, it was acceptable. This was hardly a Michelin-starred restaurant, after all.

When Shane and she used to come back home on a Sunday morning, having been out since Friday night, their kitchen floor would always be sticky. It would scratch beneath his feet as he fixed himself a glass of Coca-Cola. She couldn’t remember him ever drinking water. The only thing she could picture on his nightstand was a tall tumbler filled two-thirds with ice and soda. She was not accustomed to this habit of his.

The radiator in their apartment leaked as well. When she reached for the blinking phone next to it, Anjali always stepped into a puddle of water. To think she never cleaned it up, allowing it to stay there and evaporate on its own. In the dark, she would fumble for the erase button on the side. She would hold it down without listening to the messages. They were from her parents and she was never in the mood to hear their voices, come up with explanations of her whereabouts, answer questions about her coursework. Shane and she always took a shower together before collapsing into bed, although the sun would be well out. He kept the shades drawn at all times so the only light came from the two halogen lamps. The television continually ran 24-hour news because he couldn’t sleep without its steady sound. Their apartment, like their lives, became a cave where time lost all meaning. Anjali couldn’t bear the thought of covering windows now. She had specifically chosen her at in London with eastern exposures so she could wake in the morning with the sun on her face. Her backyard was filled with pots of lavender, rosemary, and jasmine, which gave off a heavenly fragrance in the warmer months.

Anjali could have just as easily asked her parents for more money, a better apartment. They would have given her anything—the way they gave her jewelry for every birthday, and loose cash when they came to New York. But that would involve a lengthy conversation, a plea on their part for her to come home that year. Besides, this had felt necessary, some sort of a struggle that was essential to prove herself and move forward.




From somewhere in the distance, something rang, like an alarm in a dream. The sound followed Anjali as she wandered out of the kitchen and found herself back in the dining area. Eventually she realized it was coming from her own purse. Her mother.

“Anju,” she shouted on the phone. She always spoke in that manner, as though a higher volume compensated for the distance between them. “I saw the new episode of your show on the Internet.”

“How did you do that, Ma? It just aired in the U.K.”

“Oh, I don’t know such things. Mitu came over yesterday and showed it to me on the computer.”

“Oh, I see,” Anjali said. Mitu was one of her cousins. Ever since she had started hosting the home and lifestyle show on television, Mitu sent her an email every other week, telling her that she should have explained where kantha embroidery originated from, or that the onions and tomatoes in the Recipe of the Week had been undercooked. She thought by adding her own insights, she was as much a part of the show as Anjali was.

“Fine. Can I call you later tonight when the launch is over? There’s a lot of work to be done here.”

“I sent you his email.”



“Wonderful, Ma.”

“He’s a banker, you know.”

“Perfect. Now I really must go.”

Bankers, lawyers, doctors. Those were the sort of men her mother still hunted for her, foolishly holding on to the belief that a steady wallet signified lifelong harmony. Perhaps she had been with Shane to spite them. He had wanted to be a photographer, a noble ambition in Anjali’s eyes, although he had never taken any photography courses, or gone to college, saying he didn’t have the money.

“What about loans?” Anjali had asked him.

“Who’d give me loans?”

“The bank.”

She had wanted to inspire him, change his life, but Shane had just grunted.

“They wouldn’t give me loans,” he said, although he had never tried, never researched online or inquired at colleges or called banks to ask what sort of interest rates student loans carried and if he qualified for any.

Anjali had never met any of his family. His father had died when Shane was still a child, and he had been estranged from his mother for many years. She was shocked when he told her this, shrugging as if he’d only misplaced a favorite shirt. “But she’s your mother. Don’t you want to see her?”

“We have issues,” he’d replied.

The idea of severing ties with her own family had occurred to her now and then. Yet, no matter how many messages she deleted and how many calls she never returned, they were done in the certainty that more phone calls always followed. Perhaps that was why she didn’t mention Shane to anyone back home for the first two years. Something between them had remained disconnected, impermanent. As if she’d always known that this was her other life, and, one day, she would wake up and move on. Yet it was also this uncertainty that held them together. On days that she stayed at home and cooked for him, laboriously pasting ginger and garlic in a mortar, she felt she gave him something he’d never had.

In the distance, Jenny’s voice called out and Anjali heard the assistant’s heels rasp across the floor.

“I called the florist but they said they couldn’t do it on such short notice.”

“Then call someone else.”

“Oh, I did. I did. I called three other florists and none picked up. Guess they’re all closed on Sundays, huh?”

There was a plate in front of Anjali, a large, porcelain-white serving platter, possibly for passing out the evening’s hors d’oeuvres. Her immediate instinct was to pick it up and hurl it at the assistant. But she saw the manager looking at them and caught herself in time. She took a few deep inhalations as her yoga instructor had taught her. Incompetence she was used to—it was everywhere, especially when dealing with people back in India—but it was stupidity that she found intolerable. Although what did she expect? People didn’t fundamentally change. She should know that by now.

“I suppose I’ll just have to take care of it myself,” Anjali sighed.

She grabbed her purse from the bar counter and checked for the time. “I bet the Chelsea Market is open,” she said. “It still exists, doesn’t it? Unless of course you have other ideas. No? No, I didn’t think so.” Anjali glared at the girl who stood twitching her lips. “You’ll wait till they have everything ready and then you’ll put them in a cab and bring them back here, do you understand? You think you can manage to find a cab by yourself without having to call me and say that you’re running late because there weren’t any free on Ninth Avenue at two in the afternoon, or that you accidentally dropped one of the arrangements in front of a bus? Yes? Fine then, let’s go.”

It took the taxi quite some time to reach Chelsea Market—a school-race or some such thing that caused a congestion of cars in front. There was something unbearable about pausing in New York—a delayed flight, a dull, drawn-out dinner, a late visitor, a stalled 6 train heading downtown when City Hall would close in a few hours.

Shane and she had gone to the municipal building in Lower Manhattan on a Friday. Anjali remembered this specifically because she had been paranoid that had they been delayed, they would have had to return the following Monday. It was her idea to get married. She had brought it up over dinner one night, when a prospective job at a design firm fell through because they didn’t want to sponsor her work-visa. The first semester of senior year had almost ended. Her parents were already discussing possibilities of her return to Calcutta after the summer.

“This is just bullshit,” she had said to Shane.

“This whole system is bullshit,” he replied, a fact he kept repeating since they had met.

“So then, let’s just get married. Let’s fuck the system. You’ll get on my medical plan and I won’t have to worry about the whole H-1 visa nonsense. Marriage schmarriage. What’s a document mean when we’ve been living together for over a year anyway?” She had said this flippantly, as if discussing what to eat for dinner, but secretly, she’d also hoped that he would gradually slip into a role—that he would quit the bar, go to college, and finally think of pursuing a real career.

It hadn’t taken much to convince Shane, who never gave much thought to anything. When they had first met, he didn’t even have his own bank account.

They smoked an entire Phillie before heading down to City Hall. In honor of the occasion, Shane had bought a cigar and rolled it with great artistry. It had been raining, and she clung to the railing when going down the subway steps. On the train downtown, as it stalled between Bleecker and Spring, Anjali kept singing, “Mrs. Murr-rray. Mrs. Ray-Murray. Hurray Mrs. Murray.” A woman with a shopping cart stared at her and Shane covered her mouth to keep her from talking.

“Why don’t you take my name too? Then we’ll both be Mr. and Mrs. Murray-Ray.”

Afterwards, they went out for dinner—one of the few times she could remember him taking her out. They celebrated with frozen margaritas and blackened catfish at a small restaurant in the East Village. It was a quaint little place, Anjali remembered, decorated with Christmas lights, holding no more than eight tables that were wedged together.

If her parents had had their way, the celebration would be at a restaurant uptown. Her father would have called the sommelier ahead of time to have the red wine decanted. She would have sat away from Shane because couples couldn’t be seated beside each other, and from across the table, with subtle gestures, reprimand him for using the wrong fork or laughing too loudly, which he was prone to do after his second drink.

Shane didn’t care about such grandness. He was just as happy with potato hash browns from McDonald’s. He never read labels on wine bottles or consulted guides for a new restaurant or wished he could afford a holiday to Brazil. Once, in the heat of an argument, she had told him that were it not for him, she might’ve been somewhere in Europe—studying design or traveling the world. “But you didn’t,” he had said, confused, “You didn’t do any of those things, baby.” In Shane’s world, there were no aspirations and hence no failures and, in a way, that set him free. Perhaps that’s why she’d stayed as long as she had.

No one knew of their legal union. She didn’t even tell her closest friends. To say something would mean to confirm it. Besides, there was something rather exciting about duplicity—when she met with old classmates for a weekend brunch, or with her father on one of his business trips—only she knew the words she had repeated after the judge: love, honor, respect—something like that, a string of meaningless words that felt like a joke but also a secret promise.


Read the rest of “Not Quite a Disaster” in the ninth print issue of aptavailable now.



Buku Sarkar is a writer and photographer from Calcutta. Her work has appeared in n+1 and Threepenny Review; and her photographs in The New York Times and Documentum. She received her MA in Creative Writing from The University of East Anglia.



(Front page image via)

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