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Mad country, p.10

Mad Country, page 10


Mad Country

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  “He still has a fever. If he doesn’t get better by evening, I’ll go fetch the compounder.”

  Manandhar didn’t get better by evening, and Ma, muttering, went to get the compounder. Throughout the time that the compounder and Ma were upstairs, Sukumari stayed below. She’d wanted to go up with them, but had received a warning glance from Ma. Her arms wrapped around herself, Sukumari waited anxiously for them to come down. She didn’t understand her emotions. As Sofi she had known enough men in her life, slept with several of them at Oberlin, then throughout her travels, and now she was acting like a truly Nepali girl, untouched, with a tender heart.

  “No need for you to go upstairs now,” Ma told her after the compounder left with his medicine bag. The compounder had given Manandhar, who was diagnosed as having caught the flu, an injection and some medicines. “He’ll be fine now, so no need to administer to him.” There was a hint of warning in her voice. Did Ma have sensors? Did she know the pleasurable thoughts that were cruising through Sukumari’s mind when she focused on Manandhar?

  The next morning when Ma wasn’t home, Sukumari sneaked upstairs, her heart thudding. His eyes were closed, but he opened them when he heard her enter. “Sukumari,” he whispered when she went to him. Her name sounded good on his lips—the lips she’d kissed. His eyes, she thought, conveyed to her that he knew what she’d done.

  “Come, sit here,” he said, patting the floor beside him.

  “I came to check how you were.”

  “I’ll be better once you sit here with me.”

  She sat next to him, and his hand searched for hers, found it, and clasped it. “I was sure I was dying.”

  “You shouldn’t say such things.”

  “Are you from America?”

  “Ma Nepali keti.”

  He observed her. He was not afraid to simply keep looking, and she couldn’t counter his gaze, so she looked down. When she glanced up again, she noticed how full and rosy his lips were. “Yes, you are a Nepali,” he said. “So beautiful. So . . .” His finger reached her face and stroked it. “So—fair and angel-like.” He fingered her hair. “Like gold.”

  Whenever an opportunity presented itself, Sukumari crept upstairs to be with Manandhar. It took him another week to recover fully, but by the end of that week they had already made love. It had startled her, the quickness with which she’d allowed it. She’d never experienced anything this intense. It was as if all the light of this world had gathered to bathe them together. With Manandhar she couldn’t separate her body from her emotions, couldn’t separate their limb-to-limb entanglements from the cry that seemed to emanate from her depth. Sukumari was reminded of the city temples that showed carvings of couples in various carnal positions, in a union that was both physical and spiritual, a spiritual merging. She understood this art now, further convincing her that she was indeed Sukumari who belonged to this culture, this thinking, this worldview.

  One day as she was tiptoeing down the stairs from Manandhar’s room, she was alarmed to find Ma at the bottom, glaring at her. It was inevitable: she was actually surprised at how she’d been able to hide her liaison with Manandhar from Ma for weeks. She’d tried to be very discreet, had even acted dismissively when Manandhar’s name had come up, as though she shared Ma’s disapproval of him.

  A big argument ensued, her first fight with Ma and her first fight entirely in the Nepali language. Luckily the quarrel took place behind closed doors in the sleeping quarters below, so Manandhar couldn’t hear what was being said. Ma demanded to know what Sukumari was doing in Manandhar’s room. At first Sukumari denied anything was happening. “I was only checking on him to see if he needed anything,” she repeatedly said, her face red with shame. Had her American mother in Coshocton confronted her like this, Sofi would have lashed out, told her to fuck off.

  “I know all about it,” Ma said. “Rajesh saw you two.” Ma was the only one who refused to call her son Rajesh Khanna. He didn’t need to be anyone else, movie star or sweeper, she said.

  Gradually, in tears, Sukumari admitted that she and Manandhar were in love. She used the Nepali word prem, which was slightly formal.

  “Prem?” Ma asked. “How can you be in love with someone in two weeks?”

  “I know what I feel, Ma.”

  “That bastard! I knew he’d pull a stunt like this.”

  “Ma, he didn’t do anything!”

  But Ma was already out of the room and bounding up the stairs.

  Sukumari sat in the sleeping quarters. Rajesh Khanna approached her fearfully. “I didn’t want to tell Ma anything, didi, but she slapped me.”

  “You scoundrel!” Sukumari twisted his ear, then, seeing that he was in tears, embraced him. “What did you see?” she whispered.

  “You and Manandhar dai, in bed, kissing.”

  “Okay, okay.”

  Ma came down in about fifteen minutes, but she refused to speak to Sukumari and began sweeping the eatery. Sukumari addressed her a couple of times, but Ma didn’t look at her, and with a helpless sigh, Sukumari sat in front of the stove to cook. That evening the shop was especially busy, and Sukumari kept hoping that Manandhar would come down to eat. But he didn’t. After the shop closed, she considered going up, but it was too risky. Ma’s anger hadn’t subsided; she still refused to look at Sukumari.

  That night, squeezed between Ma’s broad back and Rajesh Khanna’s scrawny body, Sukumari wondered whether Manandhar, who was right above the ceiling, was pining for her like she was for him. She recalled their sweat-filled lovemaking—it was hot upstairs in his room—and felt an arousal that was clearly inappropriate with Ma and Rajesh Khanna next to her. Yet her hand danced down to her belly. She remembered Manandhar’s breath in her ear. “Mero gori Sukumari,” he called her. My fair virgin.

  She kept her hand on her belly. There was something growing inside her, a seed of some sort, deep in her stomach. Manandhar’s seed, she was sure of it.

  The next morning when she went up, Manandhar’s room was empty. Panicked, she informed Ma, who refused to meet her gaze. Tears came to Sukumari’s eyes. “Why did you do it?” she asked. “Don’t you love me anymore?”

  Ma finally stopped sweeping to look at her. “I love you more than a girl born out of my own womb.”

  “I bet you if I was your real daughter, you wouldn’t have betrayed me.”

  A flicker of something passed through Ma’s eyes, a wounding, which was exactly what Sukumari wanted. She couldn’t help what came out of her mouth next: “You did this because you are not my real mother.”

  Ma dropped the broom on the floor and walked out of the restaurant into the alley. Rajesh Khanna, who had been watching the entire exchange, asked, “Where is Ma going? Now who is going to open the shop?” He turned to Sukumari for answers, but Sukumari silently went in to fetch her purse. Baba was sitting on the bed, his shawl wrapped around him even though it wasn’t cold, and he waved Sukumari over. He was usually bedridden, and his speech had slowed down the past month or so. “Ke bhayo?” he asked. “Ama chhori kina jhagada gareko? Jhagada garnu hunna.”

  She found herself unable to speak to Baba, so she picked up her bag, which had her sunglasses, some money, a lipstick, and a comb, and she left the house.

  • • •

  She needed to find Manandhar. Where could he be? She knew he didn’t have any friends in the city—he had told her so. All of his friends had scattered, he’d said, to different parts of the country or even abroad. “You’re my only friend here, my kuiriney.” She had liked the idea of being his only friend. She, too, didn’t have any friends anymore.

  She remembered a name Manandhar had mentioned, Ramesh Khatry, a contractor he knew from the east who had invited him to live with him. “He has a big house in Baneswor,” Manandhar had said, “but now I have my kuiriney here, and I don’t want to leave her.”

  In Baneswor it was not hard to loca
te Ramesh Khatry’s house. He was a well-known figure, “moneyed,” as a man at the nearby shop where she inquired told her in a tone of disapproval. The house was gated, with a guard who asked her what her business was. She told him she was looking for Manandhar. The guard spoke on the phone, and shortly Manandhar appeared at the balcony, looking sleepy. When he saw her, he told the guard to send her up.

  A large, shaggy dog came sniffing as she entered the front door, frightening her, but she squelched her fear and climbed the stairs. Manandhar was lying on a sheetless mattress on the floor upstairs. The room was bare except for the mattress and a Bruce Lee poster on the wall, the one with finger scratches on the actor’s tummy. The entire house felt kind of big and . . . empty. “Hello, my love,” Manandhar said in English, smiling at her as she stood in the doorway. A bottle of vodka was next to the bed.

  “I am sorry for what Ma said to you.” Sukumari went and sat with him in the bed, leaning against him.

  “Poor Auntie. She’s so wrapped up in her tiny world.” He was slurring. The vodka bottle was nearly empty. “Her little shop, her small family, her little Jhonchhe. I can only wish the best for her.”

  She lay her head on his lap. “I will persuade Ma. Once her anger dies down, she’ll listen to me.”

  He stroked her head. “And what will my kuiriney hippie say to her ma?”

  “I’ll tell her that you and I are meant to be together, that we want to—” She regarded his face, his glassy eyes, the trace of a smile on his luscious lips. He was waiting for her to complete her sentence. “I’ll tell her that we want to be together, that I want you back in Jhonchhe, in that room upstairs.”

  He continued to smile.

  “I’ll persuade her to allow me to live with you upstairs.”

  “And we can pretend we’re in America. In Coshi . . . Cosho . . . in Kashikoton.” He chuckled.

  “I no longer think about America.”

  “Why don’t you think about America?” Manandhar asked. “Everyone thinks about America. New York, ‘Hotel California,’ Robert Redford, Saturday Night Fever.” He finished drinking the remainder of the vodka, then said, “You really think your ma will allow you to live with me?”

  “Maybe not immediately, but given time, I can persuade her. She has a soft heart when it comes to me.”

  A look of mischief passed over his face.

  “Manandhar!” she said. “It’s true. She loves me. I am her chhori!”

  “Do you really believe that? Do you really, really, really believe that you are her daughter?”

  “My name is Sukumari. I am born and raised in Jhonchhe. I am Ma’s daughter. I have a brother named Rajesh Khanna.”

  “You must be a white pari who’s dropped down from heaven.” He extracted a cigarette from its pack and lit it. He blew the smoke to the ceiling and said, “There can’t be any talk of me returning to Jhonchhe now.”

  “Why not?”

  “Khatry wants me to live here. I had been planning on moving anyway, even before Auntie discovered our little thing.”

  For a moment she couldn’t speak. Then she said softly, “You never said that you were thinking about leaving. You said we were meant to be together.”

  He smoked.

  “So,” she said. Her throat had filled up, and she eyed the vodka bottle, wishing there was a mouthful left for her to swallow, even though she’d never been too fond of alcohol, especially hard liquor.

  “Stay with me here,” Manandhar said, waving his arm to indicate the large room.

  Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Then, a loud voice boomed in English, “So the guard tells me we have a special American guest.” Khatry appeared at the door, carrying a briefcase. He was a short, stocky man in a safari suit. He took off his shoes at the door, placed them neatly to the side, and entered. He sat next to Sukumari and Manandhar with an ease that suggested that he’d known both of them for ages. “Sukumari,” he said. “Beautiful name, beautiful name. The delicate virgin.”

  “Ramesh is an old friend of mine,” Manandhar said, waving this cigarette.

  “You said you had no friends in the city,” Sukumari said.

  “I’m his friend, but only when he needs me,” Khatry said. “Otherwise, I’m his servant—no, no, what’s the word? A butler.”

  “No, he’s Richie Rich, and I’m his butler Cadbury,” Manandhar said.

  Khatry opened his briefcase and removed a plastic bag filled with chunks of hash. “Now this is a friend that’ll never betray you.” He took out a few cigarettes from Manandhar’s pack and with expert fingers emptied them of their tobacco. Quickly he began stuffing them with the hash. Its smell was sharp, dangerous. “Sukumari, are you here to live with us?”

  “I will return to Jhonchhe shortly.”

  Khatry spread his arms wide. “Why? I have plenty of space here.” He paused stuffing the cigarettes and flung open his suitcase. “And plenty of bread.” The suitcase was filled with cash. “Isn’t that what you hippies call money? Bread? Pauroti.”

  Manandhar laughed. Khatry finished rolling, and handed a cigarette to Manandhar, who took it, and another to Sukumari, who refused.

  “Arre!” Khatry said. “What’s wrong? This is the best stuff around. From the mountains of Pakistan.”

  “I don’t smoke.”

  “I thought all hippies smoked.”

  “I am not a hippie.”

  Khatry smiled a kind, repentant smile, then stroked her bare arms and said, “Of course, you are our delicate Nepali virgin girl. Sukumari.”

  Smoke filled the room, occupying every available space, reminding her so much of Yin Yang, where the music on the stereo always sounded like it was part of her own consciousness—Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Janis Joplin. Something was beginning to vibrate inside her, as though a bone in her chest was on its way to becoming loose. She closed her eyes. The hash smelled good, really good. But I won’t, I won’t, she told herself.

  She felt Manandhar’s face near hers, and, her eyes still closed as she parted her lips to receive his kiss, he injected her with a dollop of smoke he’d been holding in his mouth. Before she knew what was happening, she’d swallowed more than half of it. The sweetish taste of the hashish seeped into her throat, her gullet, and sputtering, she was about to protest when his lips sealed hers. And she just let him, just let him kiss because it seemed to her that this was what she’d been missing all along.

  Manandhar placed the joint to her lips, and she sucked on it, thinking, Only this time, it won’t hurt, just once, just today, then once I return to Jhonchhe, everything will be all right. Ma, I miss you, Ma, I swear I won’t do it again, Ma, I’m sorry, Ma. And she sucked on the joint deeply so it went straight to her belly, to her solar plexus, her chakra. I’ll have James, poor, sweet hippie, do chakra work on me so that I am perfectly aligned, so I am clearheaded, so I won’t fall into this trap again. A trap! A trap! Yes, this was a trap. Some of the earlier hurt had now dissolved, but there was still something, a pit of melancholy into which she’d fallen.

  “So fair, isn’t she?” It was Ramesh Khatry’s voice. He was lying next to her, running his finger gently on the surface of her arm. “Like cream, like milk. Dudh jasto gori.”

  Her throat was parched, so when Manandhar lifted her head a bit and put a bottle to her mouth, she thought it was water and drank, but it was vodka. Where did it come from? Did Khatry’s briefcase have more surprises?

  Khatry was speaking to her, in a soft voice from far away. “Delicate virgin, delicate virgin, where are you? Are you with me, angel? Are you here on this earth?”

  Someone laughed. It could have been Manandhar, or it could have been her. The lap on which her head rested now was smaller: Khatry’s lap. She forced her eyes open. Manandhar wasn’t in the room. But he was in her mind, wasn’t he? He was in her soul. Her soul.

  Ramesh Khatry didn’t have any shirt
on. His chest was like a jungle, and she could see each hair and thought she could even detect each hair follicle. It’s a jungle out there—this thought, in the shape of a grinning monkey, floated by lazily through her consciousness.

  Ramesh Khatry leaned over her, his moving mouth inches above hers. “I have never tasted a kuiriney before,” he was saying.

  Sukumari sat in Cosmopolitan restaurant, watching the Basantapur chowk. Her mind was still dull from last night’s smoking and drinking. She didn’t recall how she got to Basantapur; she remembered an altercation with the guard at Khatry’s place because he was trying to prevent her from leaving. Then the next thing she knew, she was in Freak Street in the early hours of the morning, even before the sun was out. A fog had enveloped the area. She must have vomited once or twice by the side of the road, but she didn’t return to Ma. She wandered around the Durbar Square area, took a small nap in the Kasthamandap temple, where an old man was playing the harmonium and singing some hymns.

  Around eight o’clock, she trudged back toward Jhonchhe, but she was too weepy to return home, so she walked up to the Cosmopolitan. She was aware of how she must have appeared to the man who had just opened the restaurant: smelling of pot, her hair uncombed, her face unwashed, wandering through life in a daze, like any other hippie who passed through Freak Street on a journey from somewhere to somewhere.

  Dreaming of Ghana

  Part I

  He’d begun to dream about Ghana, of all places. When awake, he rarely thought about Africa, and the only time the continent intruded upon his consciousness was when, wrapped inside his large, unwieldy blanket, he watched television in the evening and pushed the buttons on the remote. There was always someone on the screen, often a white person, often with a beard and in khaki clothes, who crouched next to a dark child with a distended stomach and spoke urgently about nourishment and schooling.

  Aakash changed the channel to something more palatable, often a Bollywood dance with men and women in bright clothes thrusting their hips at the camera. He watched with fascination, not particularly enjoying the performance—they were all the same, the hero at the front with a grin, the heroine’s eyes kohl rimmed and yearning—but finding in the gyrations and the pivots and the synchronized movements a dumb pleasure. He didn’t have to think when he watched these movie routines, whereas the plea for Africa got his mind spinning about inequalities and poverty and child labor and colonialism and whatnot.

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