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Arresting god in kathman.., p.10

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 10


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  He was tired, as if he’d been walking for a long time. He woke up his wife.

  “What?” she said, her eyes bleary, sweat like dew above her upper lip.

  “I’m not sure,” he said.

  “About what?”

  “Whether I can kill a goat today.”

  She searched his face. “What’s the matter? You’ve never complained before.”

  The hens once again rose in the air and sprayed them with feathers.

  “Look,” he said. He lifted his hands. They were shaking.

  She picked a feather from his head and ruffled his hair. Then she dabbed the sweat on his cheeks with the end of her sari. “You don’t have to kill a goat if you don’t want to.”

  Her hand on his face felt good. “But what will everyone say? They will laugh at me.”

  “Who cares?” she said. “What can it do to us?” His eyes dosed; he felt her lips brush against his cheek. “My mama’s boy,” she whispered. “My sweet, sweet mama’s boy.” Now her lips were nibbling at his ear, and he opened his eyes. The man with the hens was staring at them, and he felt embarrassed, but he didn’t stop her; her words were soothing.

  The bus came to a stop. They got out, dutching the bundles of rice and fruit they had brought to offer the gods. In front of them was a large field filled with cars and trucks, and, in the distance, the temple’s pagoda.

  As they joined the crowd moving toward the temple, some of Ganesh’s fatigue vanished. He stopped to take off his shoes; the grass felt good beneath his feet. He shifted the bundle of rice he was carrying, and as they walked on, he touched his wife’s hand with his free hand. She looked at his face quizzically, then took his hand in hers. The sky was bright blue, and the sun shone on their faces. The temple bells sounded, a dear ding-dong that reverberated inside his body, then expanded into their surroundings.

  As the crowd around them chanted songs praising the Mother Goddess, he briefly thought of his wife’s lover, but in this crowd, with its fervent devotion, the man had become inconsequential, faceless, dissolving into the crowd in which Ganesh was moving.

  The Room Next Door

  THE MAN had been squatting for hours on her front veranda, a besotted smile on his face as he squinted at the sun, but Mohandas, Aunt Shakuntala’s husband, had not yet turned up. Aunt Shakuntala had told the man, “Come back some other time. My husband is not here.” The man merely looked at her, smiled, and did not budge an inch. What kind of a husband was she married to, Aunt Shakuntala thought, who asks people to come, for whatever reason on earth, and vanishes for hours, leaving her with the burden of taking care of them, especially on a Saturday, when everyone else is relaxing? God knows she didn’t have time for this.

  Aunt Shakuntala had been raised by parents who doted on her, told her repeatedly that the man she’d marry would be the luckiest husband on earth. Yet here she was, stuck with Mohandas, who was not only indolent but didn’t appreciate her. Hadn’t she given him two fine children, a son and a daughter who were bright, hardworking, and obedient? Didn’t she keep an immaculate house? Hadn’t she gained tremendous respect from neighbors and relatives for the way she handled the household and the way she reared their children? To everyone, old and young alike, she was Aunt Shakuntala.

  She brought the man a glass of tea. By this time, his head was in his hands, and he was dozing. “Here.” She set down the glass. “You may as well drink this.” He woke up. She hoped her tone had made it clear that catering to strangers was not exactly what she’d been born to do. The man smiled obsequiously, an ugly mole on his upper lip stretching with his mouth, and raised a hand in gratitude. She told him, “After drinking the tea, you leave.” He beamed.

  Mohandas was an irresponsible man. He was lazy, absent-minded, obstinate—an idiot. Yes, he is an idiot, repeated Aunt Shakuntala to herself. A few days ago, he brought home a sadhu, a Shiva devotee, whom he’d found wandering around, and put him up in the living room for a week. The sadhu, smelling of old clothes and ashes, lay sprawled on the sofa all day, stroking his long black beard. He asked Aunt Shakuntala for tea and sweets, and when she confronted Mohandas, all he said was: “The holy man has no place to live. What’s the harm in giving him a roof for a while?” She replied that she wasn’t born to cater to strangers, and he told her, “You need some compassion in your heart.” Last year, when it was announced that three clerks in the government bank where Mohandas worked were to be promoted, he did not go to the local district officer, a distant cousin of hers, who could have exerted influence in the matter. He kept putting it off, making excuses like “Today I have a headache” or “I think he’ll be very busy today.” When the final announcement was made, and Mohandas wasn’t one of those promoted, he merely commented, “Oh, well, my time will come,” stretched, yawned, and went to the local tea shop to talk with the idlers who stayed there all day, smoking their cigarettes.

  This man on the veranda had shown up at her house a few days ago, speaking very little but smiling profusely, and Mohandas had given him a few rupees. In answer to Aunt Shakuntala, Mohandas explained that the man came from a few towns over, that he was one of those fixed features of the street you find in every small town. His nickname was Lamfu, which meant stupid, a name someone had cruelly thrown at him in childhood because he showed signs of being retarded.

  Lamfu was one of the numerous jobless men her husband befriended on the streets, invited to the house, and tried to find a job for, as if all he had to do was raise a finger and work would appear. His own job as a clerk in the government office did not carry prestige (it would have, Aunt Shakuntala thought, had he hustled to get that promotion), but his name, bestowed on him by his ancestors, did. The famous Bhandari Brahmins had owned land all over town only twenty years before, until the government decided to change the laws. Now they had only a tiny strip of land on the east side of town, where some farmers made their living. For Aunt Shakuntala, however, her husband’s family name was one of his few virtues.

  Mohandas was different when they’d first married, or that’s how it seemed to her now. He had been hardworking and ambitious, and he’d listened to her advice. But gradually a change had come over him, like a disease. He mocked her words, her attitude, and told her that she was too controlling, that she cared too much about what society thought. By the third year of their marriage, after both the children were born, he had stopped talking to her softly in bed at night about the events of the day. He would read a book and then fell asleep, his back to her. It hurt her, this indifference, and she grew bitter. She took to sleeping in another room. Sometimes she did wonder whether something in her character had caused this change; she asked herself whether she tried too hard to control everything around her. But she believed that unless she did so, things would become worse, and Mohandas, who was casual about many aspects of life, would let their lives slide. As for caring too much about what society thought, Aunt Shakuntala reasoned that she lived among other people, not in an isolated world, the way Mohandas did, and in order to gain respect, she had to care about what relatives and neighbors thought of her.

  The August afternoon, with its still air and heat, made Aunt Shakuntala lazy. This was the time for her daily nap, but with Lamfu sitting on her veranda, it was out of the question. And when Aunt Shakuntala didn’t get her nap, she became irritable.

  She took several deep breaths and decided she would wait for the mailman to see whether there were any letters from her children. Sanu and Shanti were attending separate colleges in Kathmandu city, which was a day’s bus ride from the village, near Pokhara, where Aunt Shakuntala and Mohandas lived. Three weeks earlier, Aunt Shakuntala had received a letter from Sanu telling her about his seventeenth birthday, how he and his friends had gone to Bhrikuti Mandap amusement park, where they rode carousels and ate pistachio ice cream. It was the longest letter he’d written—a full two pages. Her daughter, Shanti, had not written for nearly two months. At night, Aunt Shakuntala lay awake, unable to sleep, worrying. When she did
manage to sleep, she dreamed about ugly things happening to her daughter. Three nights ago, she dreamed that Shanti had fallen into a well and was shouting for help.

  Lamfu had finished his tea and was dozing again, this time with his head against the wall and his mouth open. Aunt Shakuntala leaned in the doorway and watched him. He seemed not to have a care in the world. She envied the man, his lack of worries.

  Someone passing by outside shouted, “Namaste, namaste.” She opened the gate and recognized her neighbor, Mister Pandey, as he was called by everyone in the neighborhood, because he always wore suits and ties. He was a first-class officer at the Agricultural Development Bank. “Namaste, Mister Pandey,” she said.

  “All’s well, Aunt Shakuntala?” he asked. “How is Mohandas-ji?”

  “Who knows?” she said.

  Mister Pandey chuckled and shook his head. “I just passed him at the tea shop.” He seemed about to say something more but changed his mind. “And how are the children?”

  She told him they were fine. After some more pleasantries, Mister Pandey left, and Aunt Shakuntala watched him go down the street. What a gentleman he was, and how quickly he had risen through the ranks in his office. He hobnobbed with all the powerful people in the area. For a brief moment Aunt Shakuntala wondered how her life would have been had she married Mister Pandey instead of Mohandas. The thought made her feel guilty, and she quickly dismissed it. Mohandas was her husband, and that was that.

  The mailman, a thin man with whiskers, appeared, but he passed by, giving her an almost mournful look.

  “Postman-ji,” she said loudly, and Lamfu jerked his head up. “You haven’t delivered any letters for five weeks.”

  The postman turned and said, in a sad voice, “If there were letters, I would have given them to you. What should I do, hajoor? Set up a letter-manufacturing company?” For a man with a sad face, she thought, he had a cruel manner.

  Lamfu was studying her intently, as though trying to figure out what she was really like. She grew self-conscious and could not resist saying, loudly, “I told you, my husband is not here. Now leave!” She pointed toward the road.

  Lamfu gave her a reproachful look and, placing his hands on his knees, stood. As he left, he said, “Tomorrow.”

  She went in and lay down on her bed, thinking of various reasons for Shanti’s not writing to her—she had flu; she was in the midst of her final exams—but an ominous feeling swept over her. It was unlike Shanti not to write. Ever since leaving for the capital, Shanti had written every two weeks. Her letters were full of details about her life in the bigger city, unlike Sanu’s letters, which described the weather and his classes. It was as if Shanti relished those moments of writing to her mother about her friends, the restaurants in the city, the movies she had seen, and, sometimes, about a boy who had teased her or wanted to take her to a restaurant. Whenever Shanti wrote about boys, Aunt Shakuntala became anxious. She knew Kathmandu girls were modern and did not think twice about associating with many boys. Shanti was very pretty, with a long oval face and large eyes, and before she left for Kathmandu the neighborhood boys used to follow her on her way to school. What if Shanti had become involved with a big-city boy? Every time this thought occurred to her, Aunt Shakuntala had to calm herself. Her daughter had always spoken disparagingly of the boys who hung around her like fleas. And she revealed everything to her mother, didn’t she?

  Her husband came home that evening, whistling some religious tune and looked at her mockingly when he found her in bed. She had slept, she realized to her shame, for three and a half hours. She told him in anger, “Who do you think you are? Some kind of king, with servants at his disposal to take care of any lunatic you deem worthy of worship? What do you think this house is—made a home by my blood and sweat? A hotel where I am the cleaning woman?”

  Her husband continued to regard her with half a smile. When she finished, he muttered under his breath, “Silly woman,” and walked into the kitchen, looking for something to drink. Aunt Shakuntala fell back on the bed.

  Later, she went to sit beside him on the veranda and watch the sunset. He was staring into the horizon and did not even acknowledge her presence. She pretended to ignore him for some time, adjusting her hair and prying out dirt from under her fingernails. When it seemed as though he was not going to pay her any attention, she cleared her throat and said, “The postman did not bring any letters today.” She waited for his reaction, but when he said nothing, she added, “I haven’t heard from Shanti for months.”

  “Don’t exaggerate,” he said, his voice barely audible.

  “I think something has happened to her.”

  “Sanu would let us know if something had happened, wouldn’t he? Now stop this nonsense.”

  She felt helpless, vulnerable. She needed to talk to him about the children. After all, he was their father.

  “We should call Rabindra and ask him to check on her,” she said. Rabindra, a distant relative, lived in Kathmandu and had agreed to keep an eye on Sanu and Shanti.

  “Shakuntala, don’t fret. Your children are grown up now. Don’t treat them as if they’re suckling babies.”

  “I am a mother,” she said, a lump rising in her throat. “If I don’t worry about my children, who will I worry about?” She hoped that her trembling voice would have some effect on him.

  He continued to assess the sunset, but suddenly he said, “All right. I will talk to Rabindra.” Then, in a voice that was almost tender, he added, “You worry too much.”

  She discovered, three days after her husband talked to Rabindra, what was wrong.

  Early in the morning, the daughter of their neighbor Ram Charan came to get Mohandas. Somebody from Kathmandu was on the phone for him at her father’s house, the only one in the area with a telephone. Right then, Aunt Shakuntala knew that something terrible had happened. She woke Mohandas, who hurriedly put on his trousers and ran to Ram Charan’s house. Aunt Shakuntala waited on the veranda, pacing, praying that he’d come back to tell her that everything was all right. When Mohandas did return, after what seemed like hours, he stood in front of her, hesitating, and then said that Shanti was pregnant. By some boy at the college, whose whereabouts were now unknown. Shanti had broken down in front of Rabindra in her small room in the dormitory. She was already in her fourth month. She had stopped writing home because she was scared. She did not know, she had said, that doing it once could make her pregnant. The boy had promised to marry her, but he’d gone away.

  Aunt Shakuntala’s knees felt weak, and she sat down on the cold veranda. Had the neighbor, Ram Charan, heard the conversation? she wanted to ask, but the words became stuck in her throat. The sun had moved up the horizon, and in the distance a truck rumbled on the highway. Mohandas stood beside her, his hand on the railing. She wished she could go back to bed and wake up a different person.

  An hour later, Mohandas left for Kathmandu to bring Shanti home.

  Aunt Shakuntala stayed on the veranda, watching schoolchildren with their heavy backpacks walk past the house. What was to be done now? They would have to make sure that no one, not a single soul outside the family, learned about Shanti’s condition. The thought of her daughter’s figure swollen and deformed brought the taste of vomit to Aunt Shakuntala’s throat. Of course the baby would have to go; there was no question about that. They would find an orphanage. She certainly did not expect any resistance from her daughter, but if Shanti wanted to keep the baby, Aunt Shakuntala would give her such a thorough beating that the girl would never mention it again.

  During the next two days, Aunt Shakuntala kept to herself. When Ram Charan came to inquire if everything was all right, she told him that Shanti was having some health problems and Mohandas had gone to fetch her. On the streets, she avoided people’s eyes, her shame causing her to assume that people knew the secret.

  Lamfu came by every morning, even though Aunt Shakuntala had told him that Mohandas had left town. It was as if Lamfu hadn’t heard; he seemed content to jus
t sit on the veranda. Every two hours or so he would smoke a bidi, and the pungent smell would drift into the bedroom and sting Aunt Shakuntala’s nostrils. She would tell him to stop, and he’d obliged, smiling as he put out the bidi. Then he would lie against the wall and doze. There was something so innocent about his face, his being so oblivious of what people thought of him, that Aunt Shakuntala was envious. She gave him tea every morning, and he drank it eagerly, with loud smacking noises. The gratitude on his face touched her, and once or twice she even offered him slices of bread.

  The afternoon before her husband was to return, Nandini, Aunt Shakuntala’s niece who lived down the road, came for a visit. She was a thin woman with dark circles under her pleading, sunken eyes.

  “Where’s Mohandas, Mama?” Nandini asked after slowly looking around the house. She had a penchant for family drama, and Aunt Shakuntala was apprehensive.

  “Oh, he has gone to Kathmandu,” she said. “How’s the baby?”

  “He was coughing all night. I took him to the doctor, but he’s not any better.”

  In the kitchen, Nandini helped herself to an orange Aunt Shakuntala had been saving for herself and then asked, “Have you gotten a letter from Shanti yet?”

  Aunt Shakuntala had forgotten that she’d told Nandini, in a moment of frustration, that Shanti had not written lately. “Yes,” she said.

  “There must be many boys at her college,” Nandini said, concentrating on the orange. Aunt Shakuntala knew Nandini was baiting her.

  “She spends all her time with her books,” Aunt Shakuntala said casually as she poured water in the kettle for tea. “She wants to be an engineer.”

  Nandini came close to her and whispered, “Did you hear about Jayaram’s daughter Bijaya?”

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