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Arresting god in kathman.., p.11

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 11

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  Aunt Shakuntala shook her head.

  Nandini looked left and right and said in a low voice, “They took her to India to get rid of the baby.”

  “I didn’t know she was pregnant,” Aunt Shakuntala said, a cold fear clenching her stomach.

  “Oh, yes, everyone knows. It was a bus driver. You know how that Bijaya was, sashaying her hips for every low-life in town. I used to tell her mother: Watch your daughter. Now I say they deserve it. But to kill the bastard baby? Chee, chee. Whole family name down the drain. Who’d marry her now?”

  Nandini continued with the town gossip until Aunt Shakuntala feigned a headache.

  That evening she sat in the kitchen, watching the water from the white rice run down the side of the pot on the stove. She thought about her dreams for her children, how they would grow and become educated and establish names for themselves. They were not like her, she acknowledged. They knew so much, much more than she did at their age. Now Shanti had crushed her dreams.

  Her husband came home early the next morning, with Shanti at his side.

  Aunt Shakuntala forced herself to look at her daughter, her belly. There seemed to be a slight protrusion, but it was hard to tell, because Shanti was wearing a white shawl. Soon, she would start to show. The skin above Shanti’s eyes was chapped, and her lips had a bluish tinge. Her eyes were pale and sunken, almost like Nandini’s.

  Shanti stayed by the door, as if she were a new servant. Aunt Shakuntala turned to face the window, not knowing what words would come out of her mouth should she attempt to speak.

  “Come, no use standing there,” Mohandas said to Shanti, not unkindly. “Go to your room.” And the daughter, swathed in shame, made her way to the room she and her mother used to share. With that single act, she left no choice for her mother but to sleep in her husband’s bed, the man she had not slept with for years.

  In bed that night, Mohandas’s figure, tall and angular, lay so close to Aunt Shakuntala that she felt strange. While she knew his mind inside out, his body was unfamiliar to her.

  After he fell asleep, Aunt Shakuntala set her feet down on the cold floor and walked to the next room. Through the door, halfway open, she saw that her daughter was not sleeping. Barely visible in the dark, she was sitting on the bed, her head between her knees, which were pulled up tight. Sensing someone’s presence at the door, Shanti looked up, her eyes wide and dry.

  Her daughter’s eyes reminded Aunt Shakuntala of a frightened animal’s. She went back to her room.

  The next morning she woke earlier than usual and bathed beside the well in the backyard. Her neighbor from the adjacent house greeted her. “Such a nice morning, isn’t it, Aunt Shakuntala. Such clear skies and sharp air.” Aunt Shakuntala did not share the enthusiasm; she had hardly slept last night.

  After her bath, she went to the prayer room and conducted puja half-heartedly. Even the statue of Lord Ganesh, with his long elephant trunk, appeared dull and lethargic today. Shanti was awake; Aunt Shakuntala had peeked into the room before going to the backyard. She heard Mohandas whistling in his room, and she went to him without completing the puja ceremony.

  “We’ll have to make preparations,” she said, as he put on his trousers. Seeing her husband get dressed was a rare sight these days.

  “Preparations?” he asked.

  “For Shanti,” she whispered. “She should not go out. The neighbors should not see.”

  “Oh.” Mohandas looked thoughtful for a moment but then started whistling again.

  “We will have to get a midwife from another town,” she said.

  He stopped whistling. “Do you think it will be a boy or a girl?”

  “What does it matter? It won’t stay with us,” she said, slamming the door shut so that Shanti wouldn’t hear.

  “It won’t?” Mohandas said, combing his hair.

  “Do you know what you’re saying?”

  “I am not saying anything,” he said calmly, ignoring the rise in her voice. He pointed toward Shanti’s room. “What is she saying?”

  Aunt Shakuntala went to the kitchen, where, as she prepared the morning meal, she made no attempt to quiet the banging of the dishes.

  As the weeks turned into months, Aunt Shakuntala forbade Shanti to step out of the house. Shanti responded by sulking, but, to Aunt Shakuntala’s surprise, she complied.

  “You can’t hide it,” Mohandas told Aunt Shakuntala. “What’s the use?”

  Sometimes Aunt Shakuntala found Shanti standing in the kitchen, her hands resting on her belly, a faraway smile on her lips.

  Nandini came sniffing about, as usual. “Where’s my young sister? How’s her health?” But Aunt Shakuntala wouldn’t let her see Shanti, who, she made sure, remained in her room when anyone came to the house.

  “Is something wrong?” Nandini asked, her eyes filled with mock concern. “I’ve been hearing things.”

  “What things?” Aunt Shakuntala said, hands on her hips.

  “Oh, this and that,” Nandini said vaguely and sighed. “You know how people talk.” She was about to say more when Aunt Shakuntala interrupted. “I have work to do,” she said and went out to the garden to pull some weeds.

  A few weeks later, Ram Charan’s wife came to the door and said, “How come I haven’t seen Shanti around? Is she ill?”

  “Yes, she’s very ill,” Aunt Shakuntala said and didn’t let her in the house.

  Whenever Aunt Shakuntala walked through the neighborhood, she felt that people on balconies and at windows were watching her, laughing.

  “People know,” she told Mohandas at night.

  “I told you,” Mohandas said. “You can’t hide such a thing. What’s done is done. You may as well accept it.”

  As she watched her husband sleep soundly that night, she had the urge to kick him on the back, to shout, “Do something, for God’s sake!”

  On her next visit, Nandini said, with a hurt expression, “Everyone knows, Auntie. At least you could have told me. I am family.” Then, without Aunt Shakuntala’s permission, she barged into Shanti’s room. Shanti was sitting on the chair, staring at the wall, her stomach swollen. Nandini said, “How are you, bahini?” And Shanti turned her head away.

  “What month?” Nandini asked Aunt Shakuntala.

  “Eighth.”

  Nandini’s lips twitched. “We’ll have to make preparations.”

  Aunt Shakuntala pushed her out of the room, shut Shanti’s door, and said, “Everyone knows? How?”

  “People suspect, Auntie. They’ve been asking me.”

  “What did you tell them?”

  “What do you think I told them?” Nandini said with a look of martyrdom. “I said it was all nonsense.”

  One frosty morning Shanti went into labor. Lying in bed, she writhed in pain and clamped her teeth on a towel. Aunt Shakuntala sent Lamfu to fetch the midwife. The man had become a permanent fixture on the veranda by now, smoking his bidi and slurping his tea.

  The baby was born, a big, dark boy with a mark on his left cheek. Without touching him, Aunt Shakuntala ordered the midwife to take him to the next room before his mother could see him. Then she gave the old woman an extra fifteen rupees and demanded that she not tell anyone of the delivery. After the midwife left, Aunt Shakuntala sat on the veranda. Although it was cold, she could feel sweat in her armpits. She didn’t want to get up, but the baby had to be fed.

  In the kitchen, Aunt Shakuntala warmed some milk and poured it into a plastic nursing bottle she’d secretly purchased a few days ago. She went to her room and stood beside him as he lay swaddled in old clothes. It was hard to say whether the newborn was ugly or beautiful. He was dark, which led Aunt Shakuntala to wonder whether his father was a madhisey from the flatlands down south. As she looked closer, however, the baby appeared charming, with large brown eyes and long eyelashes and dimples in his cheeks. It perplexed her that she had the absurd desire to define his beauty. It did not matter, she had to remind herself. He was going to go to an orphanage. She picke
d up the baby and, holding him in her arms, inserted the bottle nipple into his mouth. The baby sucked rapidly, his eyes shut tight.

  That afternoon, when she was taking tea to Lamfu, she found him peering inside the door.

  “What do you want?” she asked.

  “Beautiful, beautiful,” the man said, pointing toward the room where the baby was sleeping.

  “No,” she said.

  “Beautiful, beautiful,” he said again, shaking his head in admiration. “Lord Krishna,” he said, taking the glass of tea. Aunt Shakuntala looked at him in distaste. He did not know what a calamity the child had brought to the house. Lord Krishna! No one should speak of the Lord in vain!

  When she went to Shanti’s room, she found her awake, her face as pale as a bedsheet. The girl looked pleadingly at her mother. Aunt Shakuntala had told Mohandas that she would not let Shanti see the baby, but now, at the sight of her daughter’s face, she thought, Well, the baby isn’t going to remain in the house much longer. Let her see the baby; let her see the shame she has brought on this home. She picked up the baby from the other room and brought him to his mother. Shanti held the child in her arms, and, after gazing into his eyes and running her finger across his face, burst into tears. Aunt Shakuntala snatched the child away and took him to her room, where, after holding him at arm’s length and inspecting him, she was once again filled with the curious desire to define his beauty. She and the baby stared at each other for a long time. Reaching out with a finger to touch his lips, she realized what she was doing and drew back. She wanted the baby whisked away as soon as possible, before any of the neighbors visited.

  When Mohandas came home that evening, she pulled him out to the veranda so that Shanti could not hear them.

  “I don’t know, woman,” he said, after listening to her tirade about the urgency of sending the baby to an orphanage.

  “What do you not know?”

  “It is her child, after all.”

  “Her child? Have you lost your mind? What will the neighbors say when they see that baby running around the street? Will they think he’s from the same Bhandari family that ruled this town?”

  “You are foolish,” her husband said in a matter-of-fact tone.

  They heard sobbing noises, and Aunt Shakuntala rushed back inside. Shanti was holding the child tightly in her arms.

  “I will not let him go,” Shanti said. “You just try.”

  “This matter is not for discussion,” her mother replied.

  Mohandas appeared behind her. “Maybe we need to find Shanti a husband.”

  “Who do you think will marry her, you imbecile?” Aunt Shakuntala said.

  “Him,” said her husband, pointing toward the veranda and Lamfu, his cheeks sagging in the evening light, his teeth yellow and stained from years of smoking bidi.

  Now that Shanti had smelled and touched her son, she threatened to leave the house if he were sent to an orphanage.

  Aunt Shakuntala had challenged her daughter: “Go, go, leave. We’ll see how long you survive in that world out there, carrying the shame hidden underneath your shawl.” But when Shanti started to bundle up her clothes in a small plastic bag, Aunt Shakuntala gripped her daughter’s arm, forbidding her to leave.

  Shanti said, in a cold voice, “Mother, my baby’s presence only brings you shame, so it is best for both of us to leave.”

  Mohandas stayed to the side, not offering any assistance, leaning his angular body against the wall, a half-smile on his face.

  No matter how hard she tried, Aunt Shakuntala, a mother, could not let Shanti go out into the world to depend upon other people’s mercy. Taking care of that bastard baby would eat away at Shanti, she knew. The baby was cursed and would suck the blood of those who fed him.

  So she yielded. She gave Shanti the nursing bottle filled with warm milk and said, “Here, I’ll say nothing more in this house. You do whatever you want.”

  When Shanti learned that she was to marry Lamfu, she did not protest, although a shadow lingered on her face. Yet she seemed determined to keep the child at any cost.

  So it happened. Shanti was married to Lamfu. It was a small ceremony, but to Aunt Shakuntala the four hours seemed to stretch for days.

  The priest chanted mantras and threw rice on the pyre, his bald head bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the Sanskrit chants. Aunt Shakuntala looked at her soon-to-be son-in-law. She was sure that Lamfu, with his idiotic smile and half a brain, barely understood what was happening in his life.

  After the ceremony, the guests flocked to the buffet table on the lawn. They attacked the rice pilaf, chicken and goat curry, and steaming containers of spinach and cauliflower. They heaped their plates and talked with their mouths full. These people, thought Aunt Shakuntala; they will gorge themselves on our food and talk behind our backs. The baby was in Aunt Shakuntala’s room, watched over by the midwife who helped it out of Shanti’s womb, but there was no doubt that everyone at the wedding knew that Shanti had already given birth to a bastard. The baby couldn’t be hidden forever, but right now, Aunt Shakuntala couldn’t bear the thought of people looking at the child and making sly comments.

  Nandini walked around with a faint smile and arched eyebrows, frequently whispering to small groups of women. Aunt Shakuntala missed Sanu, who’d wanted to come but had been held back by final exams. Had Sanu been here, she could at least have drawn some comfort from him.

  “The groom is a good man,” Aunt Shakuntala heard her husband tell some guests. They nodded, their eyes flickering toward Lamfu, who sat on a couch next to Shanti near the buffet table. Shanti’s head was lowered, her bright red sari over her forehead so that her face was hidden.

  A neighbor woman came up to Aunt Shakuntala and said, “Now you’ll have little ones running in this yard. Don’t forget to invite us for the bhoj. Such delicious food.”

  Aunt Shakuntala couldn’t tell whether the woman was laughing at her.

  After the guests left, Shanti and Lamfu moved into their room, the very room where Aunt Shakuntala had slept only a few months ago. In the hallway, she sat on the floor, exhausted, and complained to Mohandas in a weepy voice that she would not be able to bear seeing them together every day.

  Mohandas answered, “The problem is solved. She’s your daughter, and that child is your grandson.” His eyes softened. “Shakuntala, what is written in fate always happens. Why do you fight it so hard?”

  She was silent for a moment. Then she said, slowly, “What did I do to deserve this?” The softness in his eyes vanished. “It’s always about you, isn’t it?” And he left the house. Her mind, slow and tired, told her that he thought she was a silly old woman.

  Lamfu seemed content with his new role. Most of the time he stayed with the baby, carrying him around the house, talking to him in some incomprehensible language probably he himself did not understand. He did all the housework willingly, as if he were a servant. To Aunt Shakuntala’s horror, one day she even found him washing her clothes in the yard. She quickly snatched away her underwear, disgusted that he had touched it. He stared at her in confusion.

  Whenever he looked at Shanti, he smiled, and his yellow teeth showed. Aunt Shakuntala tried to see, from her daughter’s face, how Shanti felt about him. But Shanti seemed to have no opinion of his looks and treated him as she might an old and respectful servant; she watched him when he talked to and comforted the baby, and she maintained her distance.

  What she did with Lamfu at night puzzled Aunt Shakuntala. Did she sleep dose to him, or did she turn the other way so as not to see his face?

  The child was healthy and strong, and he was seemed to grow by the hour. He was already three months old. Sometimes, when Aunt Shakuntala peeked into the other room, she found Shanti looking at him adoringly or telling him a story as if he could understand. Aunt Shakuntala found herself studying his face, how his cheeks dimpled when he smiled. But then she told herself she’d have no part of it. She never offered to hold him or to change his soiled clothes, even
though she did, at times, have an urge to touch him, some soft part of him, as if to verify his existence.

  Sometimes when Aunt Shakuntala’s eyes met Shanti’s, she would try to peer inside her daughter, to learn what she was thinking, to see whether she was suffering. But to her amazement Aunt Shakuntala saw in her daughter’s eyes not pain but fortitude and a slowly growing sense of satisfaction.

  In Nandini, surprisingly, Aunt Shakuntala finally found some solace. As a woman, she understood Aunt Shakuntala’s emotions and the shame brought by her daughter. “I know how you feel, Aunt Shakuntala,” Nandini said in the kitchen, where they were sitting. She placed her hand on Aunt Shakuntala’s. “You never got what you deserve.”

  Aunt Shakuntala knew Nandini was referring to Mohandas, and she felt toward her a warmth she’d believed she could feel only for her children. They talked about Sanu, and how tall and handsome he was. Sanu had visited after his final exams and held the baby in his arms. The baby had soiled himself, and Sanu had laughed. He had even joked with Lamfu. Aunt Shakuntala had been irritated by the comfortable manner in which Sanu interacted with the couple, but she didn’t say anything.

  After Nandini left, Aunt Shakuntala prayed for a long time in the puja room, asking Lord Krishna that her son become a great man. She also wanted to say something to Krishna about Shanti and her baby, but the proper words did not come. As she was leaving the puja room, she bumped into Shanti, whose cheeks were rosy with rouge and whose lips were covered with lipstick. Aunt Shakuntala was startled; Shanti looked like a grown woman.

  “What are you doing?” Aunt Shakuntala asked harshly.

  “Asking for God’s blessing,” Shanti said, and shoved past her mother.

  All through the evening, Aunt Shakuntala was troubled, unable to understand her daughter’s appearance. When Mohandas came home, she suggested they build a small hut behind the house for Lamfu and Shanti. Her husband, humming his religious tunes, listened to her and, when she finished talking, said, “We’ll have to wait. We don’t have the money.” And he went to sleep.

 
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