Mad Country, page 1
Also by the author
The City Son
Copyright © 2017 by Samrat Upadhyay
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments,
organizations, or locales are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Upadhyay, Samrat, author.
Mad country : stories / Samrat Upadhyay.
PR9570.N43 U636 2017 823’.92—dc23 2016045127
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To my family
The meeting with the minister didn’t go well. He was adamant that unless Fast Forward printed a follow-up, a retraction of sorts, the magazine would face problems. “If you think you can publish anything you want,” Minister Gujrel said, “then you should also be ready to face the consequences.”
They sat in the spacious reception area outside the minister’s office at the Ministry of Information and Communications. Someone had brought in tea, which Shalini hadn’t touched, even though Minister Gujrel, in between threats, asked her in a gentle voice to drink it. Shalini thought that her drinking that tea would be acquiescing to the state’s overreach on this matter. “Freedom of the press is essential in the smooth functioning of a democracy,” she’d told the minster at the start of the meeting. “Look at how the press functions in Western democracies,” she’d said, and that had gotten the meeting off to a bad start.
“Speak less, okay, madam?” Urmila had cautioned her before Shalini left for the ministry. “Let him speak, and you pretend to listen. These old fogeys like it when others listen to them, especially women.”
It was possible, Shalini thought, that had she spoken less and been more polite in the beginning, the minister might not be as peeved as he was now. But then she was certain that this fucker had decided to punish Fast Forward before she even got here, and nothing she said would have changed that. I will take you to court, Shalini thought, if you do anything to my magazine. But she also knew that she wasn’t going to. A lawsuit would be protracted, with even more hurdles thrown her way, more money sunk in lawyers and whatnot, and she’d not be able to focus on what was important, which was to continue publishing her magazine.
“You think about it,” Minister Gujrel said. He was scrolling through his smartphone. “You live in a society, you have to live in harmony with all the elements involved.” He looked up. “What do they call it, this living in harmony? Yes, yin and yang. You simply can’t print falsities.” He pointed to the tea and biscuits. “Won’t you drink your tea?”
“Sir, the only falsity in that piece—an error, really—was the location of where the girl’s father was imprisoned before he was executed. The girl had heard from several sources that he’d been killed in the district, but now we know that he was brought here to the capital and shot. We have already posted a correction online, and we’ll also publish a correction in the next print issue.” Speak less, Shalini.
“All you have is the testimony of a distraught young girl who has been led to believe by sensationalist journalists like you that her father was killed by the security forces. It’s irrelevant whether he was killed in the district or here in the capital—we didn’t kill him. What do they say? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to witness it, is it still falling?”
“There are witnesses,” Shalini said. “We have other sources, sir, you know that, and we have detailed them in the article.”
The minister picked up the copy of Fast Forward next to his tea and waved it in the air. “Lies, all of them. Making the government look bad at a time when we should all be moving forward. Your magazine should be called Fast Backward, not Fast Forward.”
Shalini had heard that one before. “Moving forward also means ensuring justice for the victims,” she said. “Not hiding things, not whitewashing.” She said whitewashing in English, and wondered if he understood.
Of course he did. “We have neither whitewashed nor blackwashed. Besides, finding what really happened is the job of TRC, not you.”
Ah, the ever-convenient Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
The minister’s assistant peeked in and said, “We’re late for the program.”
Minister Gujrel let the magazine drop on the coffee table pointedly. “I’ve said all there is to say. If you need sources who can confirm that the victim was killed by the other side, by the terroristic forces, I can provide them for you. But this garbage won’t stand.”
• • •
The three women gathered at Hotel Shakti as they did every Friday. Drinking in the lobby of a popular five-star hotel in the heart of the city was a pointed gesture—they wanted people to see them. The hotel housed three restaurants and two bars, one of which was next to the lobby where the women got their liquor. During the weekends, the hotel saw a steady flow of who’s who in town.
“I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m smashed,” Alina said as she dragged on her thin cigarette. She’d always smoked, but more so since her divorce. There was desperation in her eyes, as if she couldn’t get enough of anything, including booze.
“They think you’re not only a drunk but a drunken whore, Alina,” Priya said softly. She was even-tempered, always calm, always together, married to a husband who encouraged her to go out with friends, a husband who didn’t mind caring for their teenage kids. “So what are you going to do?” Priya asked Shalini. “Are you going to print a retraction?”
“Like hell she is,” Alina said, then tried to make an O in the air with her smoke.
“As my friend says,” Shalini said, pointing at Alina, “like hell I am.”
Priya took a delicate sip of her wine (Shalini liked beer, Amstel, and Alina whiskey, lots of it) and said, “This minister has a reputation. You remember what he did to Radio Himal? He had the entire top-level staff fired.”
“I’ll sue him,” Shalini said.
“What can they do?” Alina said, stubbing out one cigarette, then lighting another. “They’re going to jail her? Shalini Malla? Editor extraordinaire? Can you imagine the publicity that would generate?”
“When have they cared about publicity, Alina?” Priyanka said. “You remember what our prime minister said to the UN chief.”
“They care about publicity,” Shalini said. “And this piece in Fast Forward is bad publicity for them.”
Priya’s mobile rang; it was her husband, who couldn’t find the scissors that their son needed for a school project. Alina was attempting to flag down a waiter to refill her whiskey. Shalini chided her in a low voice, “Haven’t you had enough?”
“Arre, let me, yaar. Life is short.”
“Control yourself, please, Alina.”
Alina sang a line about losing control and liking it.
“I’m serious,” Shalini said. “These days, every Friday I have to take you home totally drunk.”
Priyanka was now talking to her teenage daughter, who it seemed was experiencing a crisis. But Priyanka was cool and collected as she spoke on the phone.
“I get sloshed every day now, Sh
“I drink every day. In the afternoons. A quarter of whiskey. Half a bottle of wine. Whatever I can get my hands on. Sometimes in the mornings.”
Shalini stared at her, then understood: it was an admission, a confession, a cry for help. Shalini had thought on previous occasions that Alina’s mouth smelled when she arrived at the hotel, or sometimes when they ran into each other in town, but she’d assumed that her friend was chewing mint or pan paraag to mask her smoke breath.
“How long have you been like this?” Shalini asked.
Alina lit another cigarette, even though her previous one was still burning on the ashtray. “For about six months now.”
“Let’s talk outside.” Shalini signaled to Priyanka that they’d be back in a moment. Priyanka lifted her hand in inquiry but continued talking on the phone. From the snippets of that conversation, Shalini had gathered that her daughter hadn’t gotten the coveted acting part in school.
Outside the front entrance of the hotel, chattering because it was a bit cold, Alina said that she was getting worried about herself. “I’m slipping.”
“Why don’t you stop drinking?” Shalini asked. “Give yourself a break.”
“I start thinking about all the things that have happened to me. What Rasik did to me. What life used to be like before we married. Every day I think of how happy we—you, me, Priyanka—were in school. Remember? Smoking ganja, bunking class to go watch movies. Remember that porno we watched at Tuntun’s house?”
“Alina, we can’t always—”
“What the bloody fuck happened, Shal?”
Shalini put her arm around Alina. “Maybe you should get a job, Alina. Keep you occupied. Right now your mind is too idle.”
“He took everything from me. Everything. All the business, gone in his name. And he left me with that boutique shop, a pittance. I don’t even feel like looking at that shop anymore, let alone running it.”
“You’ve kept it closed?”
“What’s the point of opening? No one comes. But why would anyone come? It’s closed most of the time because I’m at home, drinking. It’s like that novel we read in school. What the fuck was the name? Catch something. It’s closed because no one comes, and no one comes because it’s closed.”
“Catch-22,” Shalini said. “Joseph Heller.”
“Yes, Heller. My life has become a Heller.”
A man walking by the driveway greeted Alina by name, and she gave him a bright, cheery hello.
Shalini was more worried about Alina than she was about Fast Forward. She knew what her stance on the article was, to what lengths she’d go to protect her magazine. Fast Forward was her baby, and there was no way she was going to let a pudgy-faced minister threaten her with shutdown. She didn’t know where all this bravery came from at age forty. She hadn’t been brave as a child and throughout her college years in America, she’d barely done anything adventurous or remarkable. The most daring thing she’d done then was attend a Neil Young concert in Cleveland, where she’d smoked dope with strangers and had slept in someone’s car.
The idea for a magazine had come about after she’d returned to Nepal and floundered for a few years, in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships. The magazine idea had surfaced while she was chatting with some friends over beer in a Jhamsikhel bar. For the first couple of years, she’d published a glossy magazine focused on celebrity gossip and movie and restaurant reviews. She’d never been interested in such topics to begin with but had been persuaded that there was a market for them, which turned out to be true, at least initially. Soon after the launch of Fast Times—that was the name of its glossy incarnation, an echo of the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which she’d seen in the dormitory at Denison University—a number of copycat magazines flooded the market: Fast Life, Freaky Times, CityMeet, Elite Lifestyle, The Socialite. One day at a friend’s retail wine shop in Babar Mahal, she saw a number of these magazines spread out on the coffee table and was struck by how remarkably similar they all looked. Inside, the articles also covered the similar topics of fashion, confidence boosters, grooming or weight tips, astrology delivered in hip language. It felt as if you could abandon reading an article in one magazine and open the next magazine and continue where you left off. This realization bothered her to no end, and later, when she was walking home, she saw an Indian magazine on display in the window of a bookstore, a monthly publication focused on investigative journalism she’d heard about but had not read. She bought a copy to take home, and Fast Forward was born.
Now in its fifth year, Fast Forward had already acquired a reputation as a tough, confrontational journal, and Shalini Malla had become somewhat of a household name. She appeared on TV, was featured on newspapers and style magazines (the kind Fast Forward used to be), sometimes with the label “celebrity editor,” a title she disliked. Fast Forward had by now conducted several high-profile investigations and exposés that had led to scandals and firings and resignations and, once, even imprisonment. There was the case of corruption at the airport: a disgruntled airport worker had come to the Fast Forward office one day, which had led to a story on high-level officials at the airport extorting and scamming scores of passengers who traveled to the Gulf countries for work. Another investigation had unearthed fraud and tax evasion schemes in major banks. Prostitution and sexual exploitation in the cinema industry. Nepotism in a premier medical university. It was as though the country could not stop providing her with fodder. The magazine sold so many copies that she was able to pilfer writers and editors from other publications, people with good noses to sniff out wrongdoing, people with sharp eyes and sharper words.
When Shalini took stock of how far she’d come, she was astonished. It almost seemed impossible, what she’d accomplished: she’d single-handedly changed the journalistic scene of the country.
The day after Alina’s confession, Shalini received a text from the minister’s office saying that Fast Forward should be ready for a tax audit. The fun begins, she thought. That afternoon she called for an editorial meeting. “Tough days ahead,” she said.
Prakash groaned. “Is there anything we can do in this country without these assholes breathing down our necks?”
Chitra was typing on her laptop. She was always working on a story, even during meetings. Shalini had asked her several times to focus on what was being said during the meetings, but it was as if Chitra was helpless. It’s an addiction with her, Shalini thought. Yet Chitra was the most talented of her reporters, the most stubborn. She appeared not to know the concept of defeat or even frustration. When she returned to the office after a failed attempt at gathering information in the field, she did so with a smile and a near-dismissive “It’ll get fixed tomorrow.”
Chitra was the one who’d broken the story that had pissed off Minister Gujrel. She’d tracked down the girl whose father had been killed by the security forces during the insurgency. The girl was traumatized, paranoid, and suspicious, but after patient coaxing from Chitra, she spilled everything. Chitra corroborated the girl’s information with several sources and wrote a story about the excesses of the government during the civil war that caused an immediate uproar. The article was tweeted and retweeted, and reprinted in several left-leaning newspapers and magazines internationally. At home, too, it had been widely read and commented upon (Shalini had had to order a second printing of the issue within days), but there had also been strong criticism from conservative and government sources.
That was expected with virtually anything that Fast Forward published, but the outcry against this article had been particularly strong. The government media called it an effort to derail the peace process. A prominent right-wing commentator wrote, “The article does nothing but open and aggravate the nation’s wounds from the civil war that we thought were beginning to heal.” There were calls for taking the magazine to court for treason; Shalini r
Now Shalini said, “Chitra, can you pay attention for a moment?”
Chitra looked up from her laptop. “Two minutes.”
“No,” Shalini said. “This is important enough that everyone should listen.”
Urmila came in from the other room. “The tax people are coming tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Shalini repeated.
“Yes, they called to say they’ll be here by eight o’clock in the morning.”
“We don’t open until nine,” Shalini said. “How will they come at eight?”
Urmila said, “Madam, please don’t joke.” She was nearly in tears. A nice girl, but fearful. When Shalini returned from Minister Gujrel’s office, Urmila had suggested that perhaps Shalini had spoken too boldly with him. “These politicians. All they want to do is bloviate. If you give them enough latitude to do that, then they calm down and are likely to treat you kindly.”
“I don’t want their kindness,” Shalini had said. Urmila was not even a reporter, merely an office assistant hired for her computer and website skills, and here she was, giving Shalini dos and don’ts. “Besides, if we can’t joke about these things, we’ll all go crazy in this country.”
“So what to do about tomorrow?” Prakash asked.
“We simply won’t open tomorrow,” Shalini said. “You all have laptops. Work from home.”
“They’ll be really pissed,” Chitra said, smiling.
“But doesn’t our avoidance signal our cowardice?” Prakash said. He had a fiery temper. He got frustrated easily, and his articles were messy and required much editing, but Shalini liked his sharp mind and his passion. Also his politics. For a young man who grew up in an orthodox Brahmin family, he was progressive and forward-thinking (“You’re very fast and forward, Prakash,” Chitra often told him). Last year he’d written a scathing piece on the routine discrimination and danger faced by the country’s homosexual and transgender population despite laws that seemed to protect them. Shalini suspected that he himself was gay.
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