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Mad country, p.11

Mad Country, page 11

 

Mad Country
 


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  But Ghana? What did he know about Ghana? Nothing. To him one African country was the same as another, except for South Africa, which he knew to be at the southern tip of the continent and also as the country that had imprisoned Nelson Mandela for twenty-seven years. But Aakash didn’t know where Ghana was, in the south close to Mandela country, or in the middle, where he imagined the Sahara desert was (or was it Kalahari?), or to the north, near the Arab countries (he knew the north was more Arab; he wasn’t a complete dunce when it came to geography). There was a map somewhere on his bookshelf, buried under a stack of books, or folded inside a news magazine, that showed a rough sketch of the world, and he’d probably be able to discover Ghana in there. But what good would that do?

  Every morning he lazed around in bed, drinking the steady cups of tea brought to his room by Danny, who lived in the neighborhood and came every morning to help his mother. Then it was time for the morning meal. Even as he ate downstairs in the dining room, he wrapped his mammoth blanket around himself and endured cold stares from his father and mild chastisement from his mother, who said that a young man like him ought to be up at dawn, exercise, take a shower, be energetic and fresh. His mother repeated the word: fresh. Aakash ate hurriedly, then went up to his room, which had an attached bathroom, and showered (or not, depending upon his mood), changed, and left for the office.

  He worked for a tourist magazine, Travelite, in the heart of the city, in New Road, writing articles describing the sightseeing spots in the country. The magazine was handed out to the tourists at the airport as soon as they emerged from baggage claim. Its pages extolled the cold lakes up in the mountains; the airplane ride that took passengers so close to the Everest that they could glimpse their faces on its icy surface, sometimes even observe a tight line of mountaineers on their way to the summit; the lakhey dance that had drunken men wearing colorful masks prancing and cavorting through the city’s lanes; the opulent hotel from where one could see spectacular sunrises that painted pink the white mountain summits, which looked like blushing brides. Aakash was sick of working at the magazine—the exaggerations, the fantasies, sometimes the outright false information—all in the name of tourism.

  Just the day before, he’d written about a jungle lodge camp that used elephants rescued from the circus. Tourists rode the elephants to venture deep into the forests, where they spotted tigers, warthogs, the many-antlered deer, the lazy rhino, the crocodile, and such. All of it was true, except for the part about the elephants being rescued from the circus. Why he thought of inserting that bit of lie, Aakash didn’t know. He wasn’t instructed by anyone to do so—not by the chief editor, who mostly sat in his office and drank tea, and certainly not by the associate editor, who had a goatee and foul breath. Did Aakash conceive that falsehood because he figured it’d attract the bleeding-heart tourists? He didn’t recall consciously thinking along those lines, but then, his job was to entice the tourists into visiting these places.

  I’m an unconscious liar, Aakash thought, at once humored and ashamed by this realization. When he’d showed the article on the jungle lodge to his associate editor, he’d hoped that the man would mildly rebuke him for the falsity. But the editor’s eyes briefly lingered on the word circus before he moved on to read the rest. “It’s all right,” the associate editor said, breathing foully at Aakash.

  After work Aakash went to restaurants in Durbar Marg or Thamel to spend time with his friend Rahul. Rahul came from a rich family and didn’t work; he smoked Marlboro cigarettes all day and drank his Black Label whiskey, sometimes all day.

  When Aakash told his friend about his Ghana dreams, Rahul said, “Maybe you were an African in your past life.”

  That day they were in Haawa, on the upstairs terrace that overlooked Durbar Marg with its overpriced shops.

  Aakash laughed. “Yes, I can see myself in the jungles, carrying a spear and chasing after an elephant.”

  “What? You think all Africans are junglees? There are cities in Africa. Nairobi. Johannesburg. Mogadishu. Harare.” Rahul had raised his voice, probably to impress a group of girls, English speaking and silky haired, at the next table.

  Aakash felt slightly ashamed at what he’d said, so he told Rahul, “I know there are cities. I was only joking. And what about past lives? You believe in that nonsense?”

  “Of course I do,” Rahul said, and stubbed his cigarette into the ashtray. He stood and went to the other table and asked one of the girls, who was smoking, whether he could use her light. Then in the next moment, Rahul was sitting with them and relating to them a story about when he lost close to ten lakh rupees in the casino, which, as outlandish as it sounded, was true. Rahul gambled as though he didn’t have another day to live. He lived recklessly, driving his car at a high speed through the crowded streets, bungee jumping hundreds of feet over the swirling, raging Bhote Kosi River, getting into fights in dance bars. Aakash was milder in temperament.

  The Ghana of Aakash’s dreams was always a desert, always with tents; often a furious wind blew across it. Men rode about on camels, their movements slow and deliberate. When Aakash woke up, there was a cold feeling in his chest, as though one of the unsmiling men on the camels had fixed his gaze there. After waking up, Aakash lay in bed, wrapped up in his heavy blanket, his mind sluggish. He wondered if he ought to get up and check out that map that was hidden on the bookshelf. Then he’d know for sure whether there was even a desert in Ghana. He suspected there wasn’t; even his dream was a lie, like the circus elephants.

  Until now, Aakash hadn’t seen himself in his dreams about Ghana. But the day after Rahul’s comment about his past life, there he was, riding nonchalantly on the back of a camel that moved its mouth slowly as though chewing cud, a smirk lurking at the corners of its lips. For a night or two Aakash could only observe himself, as one does through a video camera—now he was inside the tent, now he was taking off his turban and shaking out the dust. A woman hovered in the background, and there was a flurry of bright-colored clothes, a shuffling of feet. But Aakash wasn’t inside his own skin. He wasn’t experiencing what was happening, merely witnessing. Even as he dreamed, Aakash thought to himself, I want access. This word came to him: password. Then he understood: a password was what he needed. He was required to have a password to become a participant in his own dream, to actually become the person who sat in the tent with a glass of mint tea in his hand.

  In Haawa, Aakash asked Rahul for suggestions on a password that could unlock his Ghana dreams.

  “Have you tried swapping the letters?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Swapping letters of the word Ghana.”

  Aakash thought. “Like ‘anahg’?”

  “That’s a good one. And of course anahg sounds like a naag, a serpent in Nepali, so that makes sense. Are there any serpents in your dreams?”

  Aakash shook his head. “I don’t think that’s right. It doesn’t sound right.”

  “What about ‘aangh’?” Rahul asked. He shouted, “Aangh!” which had the waiter scurrying to their table. Rahul ordered some mint tea, and the waiter said the café didn’t have it. Rahul dismissed the waiter. “Aangh sounds like a cry for help. Do you feel like you are pleading for help in your dreams?”

  “No, but it does feel like I’m about to start on a journey. A very important one.”

  “To where?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “See, that’s where your answer might lie. Think more about that journey, and see whether that prompts something.”

  Aakash thought about the journey, but no image came to his mind.

  “Nothing?”

  “I’ll do it at home, where it’s a bit quiet. Not in this ruckus.”

  And indeed it was noisy and crowded in Haawa, more so in the last few minutes since a well-known painter had arrived. The painter had long hair flowing down to his shoulders. He was middle-aged, with a smooth, clean
face, almost like a brushed-up photograph. He was famous for painting violent images of decapitation and dismemberment that critics praised as extraordinary. A group of young people had already run up to him for his autograph, and the painter obliged them with a deprecatory smile. Aakash and Rahul watched the clamor. Rahul asked Aakash what the painter’s name was, and Aakash said, “Sambhavana.”

  “What kind of an asinine name is that?” Rahul asked.

  “That’s his name.”

  “Were his parents crazy? Who in their right minds would name their child ‘possibility’? If he’s born, he’s no longer a possibility—he’s a reality.”

  “It’s his nom de plume. He adopted this name after he became a famous painter. Something to do with the infinite possibilities in art.”

  “Oho.” Rahul nodded in an exaggerated manner. “A nom de plume. A meaningful nom de plume. Yes, Aakash? He thought it was significant? No, Aakash? Poetic, eh, Aakash?”

  Aakash knew where this was going: Rahul was revving his engines. Let the tamasha begin, thought Aakash.

  The painter sat two tables away from them. He was dressed in white kurta suruwal, and Aakash had to admit, with his long hair and his smooth, fair face he looked quite handsome. No wonder the autograph seekers, most of them girls, were beside themselves. If the painter wanted to, he could probably pick up one of these girls, take her home, and fuck her, with his paintings scattered around them.

  Rahul ambled over to the painter. Without asking for his permission, Rahul sat in the chair in front of him, and said loudly in English, “Mr. Possibility, how are you?”

  “I’m fine,” the painter said with a soft smile.

  “How much money do you make from your paintings?”

  Aakash held his head in his hands, unable to look, but he could picture Rahul leering at the painter.

  “Enough to get by.”

  “Oh, you don’t want to tell? Are you making a killing?”

  The painter laughed humbly, as though he were welcoming Rahul’s sense of humor.

  Aakash looked up. Some of the people around them were staring at the painter and Rahul.

  “You think it’s funny, Mr. Possibility?”

  The painter merely smiled.

  “You see this?” Rahul made a fist and rubbed the fingers of his other hand on his knuckles.

  Once Rahul got going like this, it was impossible to control him. Aakash wondered if Rahul was going to hit the painter. All Aakash wanted to do was to go home and think about Ghana, then enter swiftly into his dream.

  “Oh, I see, you are the Mahatma Gandhi type,” Rahul said. “Nonviolence, my friend?”

  By this time, as people sensed that something was afoot, much of the clamor from the other tables had died.

  The painter continued his sweet, disarming smile. “Could I buy you a cup of tea?” he asked.

  “Tea?”

  Rahul stared at the painter for a while, then stood and returned to his own table. The room seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief. The painter, a smile still sketched on his lips, was inspecting his fingers. He looked as unruffled as before. Aakash tried to remember one of his paintings, something he’d once seen in a glossy magazine, and an image slowly pieced itself together in his mind. It showed a field with yellow flowers, and on the surface it appeared peaceful and lovely, a Monet-type impressionistic meadow. One could imagine walking across it, like a new carpet whose softness massaged your feet. But there was something running through the meadow, a streak of something, and if you looked closer, you could see that a red line slashed through the flowers. It took you a moment to notice the red line, but once you did it was impossible to continue to view the flowers as beautiful and soothing. If you gazed at it longer, then the red line seemed to penetrate your own body. Creepy.

  “What happened?” Aakash asked, unable to stop the condescension in his voice, once Rahul rejoined him. “He gutted you?”

  “I’ll get him,” Rahul said. His voice was filled with venom.

  “How? When?”

  “You just wait.”

  The password came to Aakash just as he’d finished rinsing his mouth after dinner and was on his way up to his room. The marble floors felt cold on his feet, and he was looking forward to crawling into his blanket when the word popped into his mind. It carried a heft that signaled it was the right one: Sambhavana. How odd, he thought as he turned off the lights, that the password to his Ghanaian dream life was a Nepali word. Shouldn’t it be an African-sounding word, like buhitoo, or gunusti, or even aangh? But sambhavana! As he drifted off to sleep, Aakash wondered if the painter was somehow in charge of his dreams.

  The password worked. As soon as he entered the landscape of the desert and the whistling winds and the sand getting into his mouth and his nose (what did he think, that it was going to be fun?), Aakash realized that he was a country bumpkin about to leave for the city to search for his daughter, who had run away. His wife—the fluttering, wavering presence inside the tent—was traumatized by the daughter’s departure, so she grumbled and complained. Aakash understood the language they spoke in the dream. The daughter, Hamad’s daughter—yes, that was his name, Hamad—had frequently fought with her father, so a part of Hamad didn’t mind that she was gone. Another part of him resented her because now he had to go look for her, whereas all he wanted to do was herd camels and come back home and drink his mint tea and smoke his hookah. But when he pictured his daughter floundering in the city, perhaps resorting to prostitution to survive, his heart ached. He made plans to leave as soon as a friend paid him back a loan. He needed money for the trip, and he didn’t know how long he’d have to stay in the city looking for her.

  Aakash found Hamad’s problem awfully dreary, and in the dream he recoiled when he discovered that as Hamad he’d have to ride for days on the back of a smirking camel through the sand and the wind. Although he felt sorry for Hamad, it wasn’t enough for Aakash to want to stay in the dream. When he tried to wake up, however, he couldn’t; he was pinned to the dream.

  Hamad’s wife suddenly transformed from a muttering shadow to a haranguing presence. She gave Hamad an avalanche of instructions: how to conduct himself during the trip, where to stay, who to seek help from once he reached the city. “Shut up, woman!” Hamad said to his wife, who thrust her index finger close to Hamad’s nose.

  “I’ll never forget how you sided with your brother and his wife against me ten years ago,” she said. “That moment is seared into my memory.” She jabbed her finger at her temple. “I pleaded with you, I begged you, I told you how it was not my fault, but did you listen? No. Your brother was too dear to you, and his wife, even dearer. I know what you were up to.”

  And Hamad didn’t have an answer for her. Most of what she said was true. He had treated his wife unfairly at that time. He had accused her of lacking civility and decorum toward his brother and his wife, who lived together with them. Later, it became abundantly clear that it was his brother and wife who were uncivil, who vanished one morning without repaying the large sum of money they owed Hamad. But Hamad’s wife wasn’t right when she insinuated that he had designs on his brother’s wife. His wife’s insinuations did amplify his guilt now, and more and more he wondered if he did have feelings for his sister-in-law that he’d refused to acknowledge, and more and more he wondered if his daughter had left because he had failed her as a father? Or be because he’d scolded her too often over small things? These questions troubled Hamad.

  At the office the next day, Aakash remained depressed. He played chess on his computer, losing repeatedly at the novice level. He tried out a new chase-and-mutilate animated game that was so brutal he half-expected blood to splatter from the screen onto his face. Disgusted, he went to the window and watched the city, riveted by the newspaper vendor under the peepal tree across the street. The vendor coughed and snorted, then ejected his phlegm to the side, where a stray
dog lingered, sniffing. The honk of the cars and motorcycles, which Aakash previously didn’t mind, got on his nerves today, and he thought, I should migrate to Ghana.

  The notion surprised him, and suppressing a laugh, he looked back quickly at his colleagues, who were all busy at their computers. Ghana. He had finally looked it up on the map, and had been disappointed to note what a small country it was. And it wasn’t remotely close to any desert.

  Something was happening below. An agitated crowd had gathered around the peepal tree, right next to the vendor. Loud, angry bursts flew into the air. More people stopped to look. Aakash’s colleagues also came to the window. “Is there a procession scheduled today?” one of them asked. The crowd below became larger.

  The goateed associate editor appeared in the doorway (his office was in another part of the floor), and said, “Hmmm, don’t we have deadlines to keep?” and everyone scampered to their desk, except Aakash, who waited until the editor left, then went down the stairs to the pavement. Even crossing the street was hard because the mass of people had already spread to the main street, now immobilizing the traffic.

  He pushed his way to the front of the crowd, and was aghast to see a dark child crouched on the ground at the spot near where the newspaper vendor had shot his phlegm. Naked. Her palms feebly covered her crotch. But, Aakash realized with a start, she was not a dark-skinned Nepali child. She was a child darker than any he’d seen on city streets, so dark that the whites of her frightened eyes shone in her black face. Then Aakash noticed that she was not a child, not thirteen or fourteen as he’d originally thought, but close to eighteen or nineteen. She was a small-boned young woman, looking younger than she actually was because she didn’t have on a strip of clothing. Her breasts were the size of small oranges. At first Aakash didn’t understand why the group of men around her were so enraged. Then, catching the invectives hurled at her, he understood: they thought she was a witch.

 
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