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Arresting god in kathman.., p.1

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 1


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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Arresting God in Kathmandu

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Table of Contents




  The Good Shopkeeper

  The Cooking Poet

  Deepak Misra’s Secretary

  The Limping Bride

  During the Festival

  The Room Next Door

  The Man with Long Hair

  This World

  A Great Man’s House

  About the Author

  Copyright © 2001 by Samrat Upadhyay

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

  Upadhyay, Samrat.

  Arresting God in Kathmandu / Samrat Upadhyay.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 0-618-04371-3

  1. Kathmandu (Nepal)—Fiction. I. Title.

  PR9570.N43 U63 2001

  823'.92—dc21 00-061328

  eISBN 978-0-547-52621-8


  To Ammi, Buwa, Babita, and Shahzadi

  I want to thank the following people for their generosity of time and spirit, which shaped this book: my editor, Heidi Pitlor; my wife, Babita; and my teachers and friends Paul Lyons, Robbie Shapard, Ian MacMillan, and Mitsy Takahasi.

  The Good Shopkeeper

  RADHIKA was making the evening meal when Pramod gave her the news. The steam rising off the rotis she was cooking burned his nostrils, so he backed out of the kitchen and into the narrow hallway. When she turned off the gas and joined him, he put his arms behind his back and leaned against the wall.

  “What should we do?” she whispered. Their seven-month-old baby was asleep in the next room.

  “I don’t know,” he answered. “Who could have foreseen this?”

  “Hare Shiva,” she said. “How are we going to pay the next month’s rent?” Her eyes filled with tears.

  “What’s the use of crying now? That’s why I never tell you anything. Instead of thinking with a cool mind, you start crying.”

  “What should I do other than cry? You’ve worked there for three years, and they let you go, just like that? These people don’t have any heart.”

  “It’s not their fault.” He tried to sound reasonable. “The company doesn’t have enough money.”

  “So only you should suffer? Why not one of the new accountants? What about Suresh?”

  “He knows computers,” Pramod said.

  “He also knows influential people.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, then opened the bedroom door to check on the baby.

  “Okay, don’t cry. We’ll think of something. I’ll go and see Shambhu-da tomorrow.” Shambhu-da, though only a distant cousin of Radhika’s, was very fond of her and referred to her as his favorite sister. He was friends with a number of bureaucrats and had helped several relatives find jobs. Pramod knew Shambhu-da’s business was shady; he was involved in building contracts throughout the city that were the source of numerous under-the-table handouts. But if anyone could help him find a job, it would be Shambhu-da. “Something’s bound to happen,” Pramod told Radhika. “We will find a solution.”

  Yet despite those spoken assurances, Pramod did not sleep well that night.

  The next morning, while it was still dark, he went to the Pashupatinath Temple, made a slow round of the temple complex, and stood in line to get tika from the priest in the main shrine. After putting the paste on his forehead with his third finger, he prayed that Lord Shiva’s blessing would help him. When he was young, Pramod loved to visit this famous temple of Lord Shiva, who had protected the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley since ancient times. He used to walk through the large complex, making his way among the other worshipers to touch the feet of the gods scattered throughout. But he hadn’t been here in months, and he briefly wondered whether he had neglected Shiva. By the time he stepped out of the temple’s main gate, the sky was tinged with gray, and he remembered that he would not have to go home to eat and change his clothes for work.

  Yesterday afternoon, his director had called him into his office. “Pramod-ji, what can I say? Not everything is in my power.” Power, thought Pramod. Of course the director had the power!

  On his way from the temple, Pramod saw pilgrims going to pay homage to Lord Shiva. The beggars who slept around the temple complex lined the side of the street, clanking their tin containers. When people threw money and food in their direction, the beggars would eye one another’s containers to see who’d got a better deal. The monkeys that roamed the area were also alert, ready to snatch bags and packets from people who looked timid. The smells of deep-fried jilebies, vegetable curry, and hot tea wafted from stalls.

  Pramod noticed Homraj slowly walking toward the temple, his cane hanging from his arm. A few years ago Pramod had worked with him in the accounts department of the Education Ministry. Although Pramod turned his face as he passed, Homraj saw him. “Pramod-ji, I didn’t know you were such a religious man!” he shouted. Then, coming closer, he added, “What is the matter, Pramod-ji? Is everything all right?”

  Pramod hesitated, then told him about the loss of his job.

  “Tch, tch,” said Homraj, shaking his head. “I’d heard their profits weren’t so good, but I didn’t imagine they’d let go a diligent worker like you.”

  The temple bells rang in the background as they stood in the middle of the street. Pramod remembered that he had to catch Shambhu-da before he left for work, so he excused himself.

  At Shambhu-da’s house, he found two other men waiting in the living room. An old servant told Pramod that Shambhu-da was still doing puja, praying and chanting to the gods, but would join him after half an hour. Pramod sat down on the sofa, and the two men looked at him suspiciously as he gazed at the pictures of religious figures on the wall. He ignored the men and concentrated on the framed picture of Lord Shiva with the snake god, Nag, around his blue neck. After a few minutes, one of the men asked, “Aren’t you Prakash-ji?’’

  Pramod gave him an irritated look and said, “No. My name is Pramod.”

  “Oh, yes, yes, Pramod-ji. Why did I say Prakash? I know you. You’re Shambhu-da’s brother-in-law, aren’t you?” He was a small, ill-dressed man with a pointed nose and a pinched mouth.

  Pramod nodded.

  “I met you here a year ago. Don’t you remember me?”

  Pramod shook his head.

  “Kamalkanth; that’s my name.” The man looked at him expectantly. The other man, who had a broad, dull face, nodded.

  “So what brings you here this morning?” Kamalkanth asked.

  “Oh, nothing.” Pramod wished the man would stop asking questions.

  But he didn’t. “You work for Better Finance, don’t you?”

  Pramod was about to say something when the servant appeared with three glasses of tea and announced that Shambhu-da was coming out. Now all three men concentrated on the doorway, where Shambhu-da shortly appeared.

  He was wearing only a dhoti, his hairy stomach and his ample breasts bulging above it, and was singing a hymn, one from the puja he performed every morning. After solemnly distributing fruit offerings from the gods to his guests, he asked the servant to bring him juice.

  “What brings you here today, brother-in-law?” Shambhu-da asked Pramod.

  “Oh, it’s been quite a few days, so I just came to see about your health. Radhika sends her regards.”

  Shambhu-da nodded and turned toward the other men.

took a sheaf of paper from his briefcase and said, “I have arranged everything here in order, Shambhu-da. All the figures are accurate—I checked them again and again.”

  “All right,” said Shambhu-da. “Why don’t you two come back next week? Then we can sit down and talk about your commission.”

  The two men left, smiling obsequiously, and Shambhu-da turned his attention to Pramod.

  “Everything is finished, Shambhu-da,” Pramod said. “I’m finished.”

  Shambhu-da took a sip of juice.

  “I’ve lost my job.”

  “Why?” Shambhu-da didn’t look the least bit perturbed.

  “They say the company doesn’t have any money.”

  “Do they have other accountants?”

  “Yes, there’s a young man who knows computers.”

  “Ah, yes, computers. They’re very fashionable these days, aren’t they?” Shambhu-da smiled, then became serious again. “This is no good. No good. Hmmmmm. How is my favorite sister taking all this? How is the baby?” When the baby was born, Shambhu-da had declared that he would be her godfather. Pramod hadn’t liked the idea, but Radhika assured him that if something were to happen to them, Shambhu-da would see to it that their baby didn’t suffer.

  “I’ll see what I can do,” Shambhu-da said. “We’ll come up with a solution. Not to worry.” He asked Pramod about the director and jotted down his name. Then he stretched and yawned. The telephone rang and Shambhu-da became engrossed in a conversation, mumbling hmmm and eh every so often. Pramod looked at all the paintings of the religious figures on the walls—Kali, Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva—and wondered whether they had anything to do with Shambhu-da’s prosperity and quiet confidence. When he realized that the telephone conversation was not going to end soon, he got up to leave, and Shambhu-da, covering the mouthpiece with his palm, said, “I will see what I can do.”

  Everyone came to know about Pramod, and everywhere he went, friends and relatives gave him sympathetic looks. He was sure that some, those who saw his work at the finance company as lucrative and of high status, were inwardly gloating over his misery. But he tried to act cheerful, telling his friends and relatives these things happen to everyone and that he would certainly find another job. After all, his years of experience as an accountant had to count for something.

  He hated his voice when he said this. He hated his smile, which painfully stretched the skin around his mouth; he hated having to explain to everyone why he had lost his job; he hated their commiseration; and he hated Radhika’s forlorn look, especially when they were with her relatives, who were more well-off than those on his side.

  Every morning before sunrise, he walked to the Pashupatinath Temple. The fresh air cleared his mind, and he found solace in the temple lights before they were switched off at dawn. A couple of times he came across Homraj, who always asked anxiously, “Anything yet?” Eventually Pramod timed his walks so that he would not run into Homraj again.

  And every day, after his trip to the temple, Pramod visited people of influence, those who had the power to maneuver him into a job without his undergoing the rigors of an examination or an interview. He tried to maintain faith that something would indeed turn up, that one day he would find himself in an office of his own, seated behind a desk, with a boy to bring him tea every couple of hours. He missed the ritual of going to the office, greeting his colleagues, settling down for the day’s work, even though he had been doing the same job for years. He delighted in juggling numbers, calculating percentages, making entries in his neat handwriting. He loved solving math problems in his head, and saw it as a challenge to refrain from using a calculator until the last moment, or only as a means of verification. He loved the midday lull, when everyone in the office ordered snacks and tea, and a feeling of camaraderie came over the workplace: people laughing and eating, talking about mundane things that happened at home, teasing one another, commenting on politics.

  Pramod kept up his visits to Shambhu-da’s residence, showing his face every week or so, asking whether anything had come up, reminding Shambhu-da of his predicament, playing on the sense of family by mentioning, every so often, that Radhika was his favorite sister. On every visit, Shambhu-da assured Pramod that a job prospect appeared likely and would be certain within a few days. But even though Shambhu-da nodded gravely when Pramod described his strained financial situation, Pramod realized that he had to wait longer and longer to see Shambhu-da. Kamalkanth snickered whenever they happened to be there at the same time. Sometimes when he and his companion looked at Pramod and murmured to each other, Pramod felt like leaving and forgetting about Shambhu-da once and for all.

  When two months had passed with no job offer, Pramod’s stomach churned. He and Radhika managed to pay both months’ rent from their savings, but they had none for the coming month. Although Radhika borrowed some money from her parents, Pramod did not like that at all; it made him appear small. “Don’t worry,” Radhika said, “we’ll pay them back as soon as you get your first salary.” She was still trying to be optimistic, he knew, but he no longer shared that attitude.

  A few nights later, she brought up the idea of selling their land in the south to finance a shop of their own, perhaps a general store or a stationery outlet. Pramod disliked the idea. “I’m not going to become a shopkeeper at this stage in my life,” he said. “I am an accountant, do you understand? I have worked for many big people.” Later, while she slept, he regretted having snapped at her. For one thing, he doubted whether the land would fetch much money, because it was getting swampier every year and was far from the major roads. More important, he could never imagine himself as a shopkeeper. How humiliated he would feel if he opened a shop and someone like Homraj came in to buy something. What would he say? Or would he be able to say anything? What if someone like Kamalkanth came in? Could Pramod refuse to sell him goods and tell him never to enter the shop again? If he did, what would happen to the reputation of his shop?

  Each night, these thoughts kept Pramod awake for hours. He slunk into bed, faced the wall, and let his imagination run wild. Radhika put the baby to sleep, got into bed beside him, and rested her hand on his back, but he did not turn. Soon she would mutter something, turn off the light, and go to sleep.

  Often Pramod imagined himself as a feudal landlord, like one of the men who used to run the farmlands of the country only twenty years earlier. He would have a large royal mustache that curled up at the ends and pointed toward the sky, the kind he could oil and stroke as a sign of power. He saw himself walking through a small village, a servant shielding him from the southern sun with a big black umbrella, while all the villagers greeted him deferentially. He saw himself plump and well cared for. Then he saw himself as an executive officer in a multinational company where Shambhu-da worked as an office boy. Shambhu-da was knocking on the door of Pramod’s spacious, air-conditioned office, where he sat behind a large desk in a clean white shirt and tie, his glasses hanging from his neck, a cigarette smoldering on the ashtray. Shambhu-da would walk in, his cheeks hollow, wearing clothes that were clearly secondhand, and plead for an advance on his wages, which Pramod would refuse. Shambhu-da would weep, and Pramod, irritated, would tell him the company had no place for a whiner.

  Pramod giggled at this little scene. Then when he realized what he was doing, a moan escaped his lips. Radhika sat up, turned on the light, and asked, “What’s the matter? Having a bad dream?”

  One morning Pramod was sitting on a bench in the city park, smoking a cigarette, after having made his humiliating morning round, when a small, plump young woman sat next to him and started shelling peanuts that were bundled at the end of her dhoti. The cracking of the shells was getting on his nerves, and he was just about to leave when the woman said, “Do you want some peanuts?”

  Pramod shook his head.

  “They’re very good,” she said. “Nicely roasted and salty.” She looked like a laborer, or perhaps a village woman working in the city as a servant.

don’t eat peanuts in the morning,” said Pramod.

  “Oh, really? I can eat them all day long. Morning, noon, night.”

  Pramod watched a couple of men in suits and ties, carrying briefcases, enter an office building across the street.

  “The mornings here are so beautiful, no?” he heard the woman say. “I come here every day.” She popped more peanuts into her mouth. “Where do you work?”

  The gall of this woman, clearly of a class much below his. “In an office,” he replied.

  “It’s nearly ten o’clock. Don’t you have to go to your office? It’s not a holiday today, is it?”

  “No, it’s not a holiday.”

  “I just finished my work. Holiday or no holiday, I have to work.”

  “Where?” asked Pramod.

  “In Putalisadak,” she said. “I wash clothes, clean the house. But only in the mornings. They have another servant, but she goes to school in the morning. My mistress is very generous.”

  “Where’s your husband?” asked Pramod. He felt himself smile; talking to a servant girl in the park was an indication, he thought, of just how low he had fallen.

  “He’s back in the village, near Pokhara. He’s a carpenter, building this and that. But the money is never enough. That’s why I had to come here.”

  “You don’t have any children?”

  She shook her head and blushed.

  They sat in silence for a moment. She said, “You know, my husband says one shouldn’t think too much.” There was a note of pity in her voice.

  “Why does he say that? Does he say it to you?”

  “Not me. I don’t think all that much. What’s there to think about? Life is what God gives us. My husband says it to any of our relatives who is unhappy and comes to him for advice. In this city I see so many worried people. They walk around not looking at anyone, always thinking, always fretting. This problem, that problem. Sometimes I think if I stay here too long, I’ll become like them.”

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