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Mad country, p.12

Mad Country, page 12

 

Mad Country
 


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  “She’s a symbol of our dark age, our kaliyug,” a priestly looking man with a toupee said.

  “Harey!” a woman said. “What is God thinking when he makes a creature like this one—darker than a buffalo!”

  People in the back of the crowd were pushing those in the front, and soon Aakash lost his footing and was hurled forward and down to the ground, right next to the girl. The girl’s white eyes bore into his. Then, something like relief seemed to pass through them. A smell, not entirely disagreeable, emanated from her body, a smell of wood and pine and mud. Her skin was immaculately smooth, without a hint of a wrinkle or a birthmark anywhere, like a black model one might see on the pages of GQ or Vanity Fair. Except her hair was uncombed, and wild. The crowd had tightened around them, casting a shadow over the two of them.

  “Who is this idiot?”

  “Her lover? Her accomplice?”

  “Her aider and abettor.”

  With the agility of a cat, the girl leaped on top of Aakash and wrapped her arms around him. She clung to him tightly, her breasts pressed against his, her raspy breath against his right ear, her hips straddling his waist, her pubic mound pressed against his navel.

  “Look! Look!”

  Something whizzed past Aakash’s ear and thudded to the ground. A shoe.

  “Go!” a woman at the front of the crowd said. “Carry your witch home and fuck her.”

  The word fuck from a woman’s throat turned the mob hysterical. They hooted and harrumphed and danced like primitives. Aakash took this moment to tighten his grip around the girl’s body like a mother monkey carrying a baby monkey, then dove into the multitude of legs surrounding him. He leaped forward on all fours, pushing and shoving his way through. By the time the crowd realized what had happened, Aakash was already a couple dozen yards away. He continued galloping on all fours, then gradually straightened to his full height. He ran, the girl clinging around his neck, bouncing up and down as he whooshed through the evening shoppers. Ten minutes ago he was playing a computer game in his office, and now here he was fleeing a murderous horde. He was giddy and breathless; the girl was tightly clasped against him.

  When they reached the New Road Gate, the girl unclasped herself and slid to the ground. Oh, no! Aakash thought; their persecutors were only a short distance away. But the girl grabbed his hand and pulled him across the street toward the Tundikhel parade ground. She was fast. He rocketed forward as though he were made of some light substance like feather or cotton. They ran so fast that the cars zooming and honking past them didn’t even need to swerve. Within seconds they were on the other side, sliding through the bars into the parade ground.

  Once inside the parade ground, they slowed down. The people in Tundikhel—young men playing football, old people out for fresh air, jobless villagers—stopped to watch them: a dark child-woman, pubic hair and all, traipsing across the historic parade ground holding a young man’s hand. The mob was still stuck on the other side, unable to cross because of the traffic.

  Once they reached the other end of the field, she stopped and faced him, clearly wanting to know what to do next.

  “Where’s your house?” he asked her.

  She continued to look at him.

  “Where is your house?” he asked, loudly as though speaking to someone deaf. “Where can I take you?”

  She had nothing to say.

  He glanced back but couldn’t see whether the mob was still waiting to cross. He and the girl had to keep on moving. Already a small group of curious young children were beginning to gather around them. Even kids were dangerous these days. Just last week, an eleven-year-old boy had slit the throats of his parents as they slept. Later, when the police took him away, he’d declared that his parents were traitors and that he’d killed them because the revolution demanded that he did. Which revolutionary group he belonged to—there were so many of them—no one knew.

  Not too long ago a band of children, dressed in rags and armed with hammers and iron rods, had roamed the city’s plush neighborhoods. They’d smashed windows, fought with maids and guards, and looted jewelry and food and electronics. A college girl on her way home had managed to take a photo of one of these small bandits on her mobile phone, and the photo was splashed over all the newspapers with headlines such as, “our children of tomorrow,” and “the child is the father of the criminal!”

  “Come,” Aakash said, and took the girl’s hand. They slid through the bars at the other end and emerged on Exhibition Road. They walked past Bhrikuti Mandap, where Aakash had come as a child during festivals and fairs, eaten ice cream, and rode the toy train. Those years seemed too far away to be of any importance to him now. When he recalled events from his childhood, he felt as though he were reviewing someone else’s life, not his own. There was no emotional tone to anything he recalled, just brief flashes of pictures that could have happened to any average child, anywhere. Why? he asked himself, but didn’t have an answer. He had been a happy child, hadn’t he? He had. And his parents had been good parents, hadn’t they? They had. So why did he feel so removed?

  Once or twice he’d deliberately recalled a childhood event and tried to inject some flavor into it. Lying in bed, he’d scrunched up his forehead and tried to remember, for example, the joy of playing hide-and-seek in the dug-up foundation of the new house his parents were building in Baluwatar. He recalled the texture of the mud he and his friends had flung at one another, the sonorous greeting of a neighbor as she passed by, the sprouty end of green onions peeking out from her plastic bag. He remembered the exhilarating feeling of being a part of a neighborhood where each house seemed to hold an element of interest, even mystery: an old, arthritic geezer, a former champion wrestler, who sat on the porch of his house, ogling at the schoolgirls who passed by; a young, mustached, skinny-legged man in another house who was rumored to be homosexual; the housewife in the corner who supposedly had healing powers. Aakash remembered everything in minute details. But the child he saw in his mind’s eye was not him. The experiences belonged to someone else.

  “What am I going to do with you?” he asked the girl. They were walking fast so that the other pedestrians, who did a double take when they saw a naked black girl, didn’t have time to harass them. The girl had linked her arm with his, and was watching his face. “You don’t speak English?” Aakash asked. Of course she didn’t. He wasn’t even sure she spoke at all. But there was no time to ponder her language skills; he had to take her somewhere, away from these prying eyes, find her some clothes, then hand her over to someone. But to whom? He didn’t even know which country she was from.

  Was there a general consulate who covered the entire continent of Africa somewhere in the city? Wait! Was she even African? Why did he jump to that conclusion? She could belong to an indigenous tribe from Nepal, and, judging from her dark complexion, her home could be in a hitherto-undiscovered pocket of the jungles in the south, where no one was aware of the modern world, like the bunch they found on a Philippine island some years ago.

  Putalisadak was teeming with pedestrians and traffic. If Aakash didn’t do something quickly, there would not only be a repeat of the earlier mob incident, but also he himself could get killed, bludgeoned to death on these streets. The message would then travel to his father and mother that he’d gotten himself murdered on a busy thoroughfare, his arms wrapped around a dark habsi, a dark boksi, a darkie-dark girl without a strip of clothing; that was how everyone would see it.

  He’d noticed the sign for Hotel Evergreen weeks ago when he’d passed through this area, and the only reason he remembered it now was because he’d laughed at its name then. Hotel Evergreen overlooked what had to be the filthiest river in the country, whose stench rippled to the surrounding neighborhoods. The river barely held any water, only a lazy trickle of such gloomy color that it resembled oil. Garbage had accumulated on its banks, mounds that rose high into the sky. Even now some ragamuffin childr
en were romping in and around the filth. A dead dog lay faceup amidst the dirt, its teeth bared as though grinning.

  Inside the hotel’s lobby, the river’s stench was so strong that Aakash gagged. Even the girl’s face blanched. A man stood behind the counter. His eyes briefly flitted over the naked girl, then rested on Aakash.

  “Euta room chahiyo,” Aakash said.

  The man nodded, then checked on his computer. “We have just one room available, overlooking the scenic Tukucha River.”

  Aakash watched his face, but there was no sign of irony or mirth. “Don’t you have a room on the other side of the river?” Aakash asked.

  “The hotel is fully booked except for this room. It’s our best, the most expensive.”

  “How much is it?”

  “One thousand two hundred.”

  “Okay.”

  The room indeed overlooked the river, but since it was on the top floor, it didn’t reek as badly up here as it did below. The bed was surprisingly clean, and there was even a fan by the table, which Aakash turned on. The girl sat on the bed and looked around. “You wait here,” Aakash said. “I’ll go out and get you some clothes.”

  He shopped quickly: a pair of fake Levi’s jeans, a white shirt, and, because he couldn’t find panties, male cotton Rhino underwear he hoped she wouldn’t mind wearing. Well, she doesn’t have a choice, he thought to himself as he paid for the items. As he hurried back to the hotel, he realized that she probably hadn’t eaten, and he hastily entered an eatery and asked them to pack a plate of steaming momos, wondering if they ate momos in Africa.

  She was standing by the window, looking at the river, at the children who were playing in the garbage, at the Kathmandu skyline filled with crisscrossed wires for phone and electricity and at tall, dreadful-looking houses clamoring for space. She was so black. At any moment he expected her to turn around and speak to him in Nepali, say something like Katti ber layako? or Khana-sana khayera ekchin ghumna jaunna, but of course she didn’t say that, and he knew that he wished for that to happen only because he felt so connected to her. The air, foul smelling as it was, had become charged, as though something was about to burst open, inside him or inside her or in the space that surrounded this city or this godforsaken country.

  But all that happened was that he stood by the door, the bag with hot momos wrapped in foil in one hand and her clothes in the other, and she continued to gaze out of the window, and he knew that she too felt alienated here, that her home was somewhere else. But where? And how did she get to his city without a single strip of clothing on her back? He was afraid that he’d never find the answer to these questions. Yet here she was, standing by the window, as real as the cries of the snot-filled children who were trampling in the muck below. “Momo,” he said limply, and she turned.

  First he had her eat. They sat on the bed, her mouth moving slowly to chomp on the meat, as she watched him with eyes that were tender and inquisitive. The achar that came with the momos was spicy, but she showed no signs of being bothered, and although she didn’t eat greedily, she did finish the plate and emitted a soft, pleasurable belch. The pants and the shirt fit her reasonably well, and she surveyed herself in her new clothes in front of the smudged hotel mirror, even turned to him like a girlfriend or a wife, seeking his approval. He nodded, gratified at her childlike trust in him but also slightly queasy now that she was fully clothed and looked different—more mature, womanly. “Everything looks good,” he said in English. He realized that he spoke to her in English when he remembered, sometimes with a jolting, painful awareness, that she was a black girl from someplace foreign, that he had to get her back to where she belonged. (A line by the Beatles came to him, about getting back to where one once belonged. And he spoke to her in Nepali when momentarily he forgot who she was and who even he was. Now that she sat next to him on the bed, he looked into her eyes and a string of words in Nepali ran through his mind: a lament on how screwed up this city was, a dog-eat-dog city, a city of innuendos and false charges and torch-wielding mobs. Where was love? Had people lost their minds?

  “You are such a drama queen,” Rahul usually said when Aakash complained like this. “You are a whiner, Aakash.”

  Rahul. The thought of his friend made Aakash’s heart skip a beat. How would Rahul react to this black girl? Aakash pictured his friend’s face, the astonishment, the suspicion, the mischief. What would Rahul think? He’d probably tease Aakash about this “girlfriend,” even after Aakash explained how the girl ended up with him. Rahul would probably circle the black girl, evaluating her, passing judgment on her. What would happen if Rahul wanted the girl for himself? Aakash pictured himself arguing with Rahul that the girl was his, that Rahul better not get any ideas. Aakash let out a small moan. The girl, sitting next to him, watched him, then placed her hand on his back. “Don’t worry,” he said to her. “I won’t let him touch you.”

  Another possibility formed a knot in Aakash’s heart, making it hard for him to breathe: Rahul could charm his way into the girl’s heart, and she’d willingly follow him. Aakash peered into the girl’s eyes and said, “You wouldn’t do that, would you? Would you leave me for Rahul?”

  The girl, seemingly understanding his question, tilted her head and continued to gaze at him, as though she couldn’t believe he’d hold her in such low regard. He reached out and touched her nose. Then, lest she become frightened, he quickly withdrew his finger. In the manner of returning someone’s greeting, she, too, reached with her index finger and touched his nose. He pinched her cheek, and so did she, and this went on for a while until they both were laughing. That they could converse in the language of laughter surprised him, for until now somehow his mind had been treating her as if she came from another planet, one in which people didn’t understand humor. But obviously the emotions she experienced were no different than his. Had he forgotten already the fear in her eyes when she was surrounded in New Road? How close was that fear to his own when, as he went to work in the heart of the city, he saw a mass demonstration taken out by religious fundamentalists, with the demonstrators wielding bamboos sticks, khukris, and nanchakus. One time he’d seen a large trishul in the hands of a teenage boy with a saffron turban. The boy’s eyes had met Aakash’s as he went by, and Aakash knew that the boy wouldn’t hesitate to use the weapon.

  Darkness was falling, and Aakash had a home to get to, even as increasingly his parents seemed resigned to the fact that their son often stayed out late, or arrived home smelling of booze. These days his father’s jaw was always tight, and he seemed to avoid Aakash’s eyes. Aakash’s mother constantly reprimanded her son; she couldn’t mask her disillusionment with him. But he couldn’t fully grasp why they were so dissatisfied with who he was. Yes, he slept late, until it was nearly time to go to work. Yes, he came home late, sometimes with alcohol on his breath. Yes, he didn’t show much enthusiasm in visiting relatives with his parents, and when he did he usually sat quietly in a corner. But he was also one of the few young men he knew, especially among his cousins, who not only had a job but who’d held on to it, and had already received one promotion. For a twenty-four-year-old Nepali man, Aakash made decent money, forty thousand rupees, nearly half of which he quietly handed over to his mother every month. Throughout school he’d never gotten into trouble, had never failed a subject, and even in college as his friends went wild, he’d always come home at a reasonable time and didn’t do drugs beyond an occasional hit of a joint. It perplexed him why his parents regarded him with such displeasure that bordered on hostility. Occasionally he wondered if the transformation in them had less to do with him and more to do with what was happening in the country—the turmoil, the daily savagery, the constant bickering, the fear, the casual violence, the ugly faces on the evening news. Perhaps their hopes for him had secretly included not only success and happiness for him but for the entire nation. This thought jolted him, made him laugh—what a terrible, and terribly large, burden to pla
ce on a young man’s shoulders. Here, the whole goddamn country’s well-being depends on you.

  He had to leave the girl overnight by herself in the hotel; there was no other choice. If he didn’t go home, his parents would worry and search for him. He considered calling to tell them that he’d be staying at a friend’s place, but he couldn’t think of convincing explanations for why he’d be spending the night elsewhere in a dangerous city when he had his own home to go to. For a brief, sadistic moment, he pictured taking the girl to his house, to meet his parents as though she were his girlfriend. He could see the shock on his father’s face, the distress on his mother’s. His father, who secretly considered himself modern and progressive, would barely be able to hide his contempt toward the black girl. His mother—God bless her soul—was someone for whom any dark-skinned girl, whether Nepali or foreign, could never be a possible partner for her son. She’d made this abundantly clear in the past. Once, when she’d expressed this conviction, one of her brothers jestingly pointed out that her face itself wasn’t the embodiment of radiant light, and she’d responded that just because the mother-in-law was a darkie didn’t mean that the daughter-in-law also had to be a darkie. She’d even managed what Aakash thought was a pretty good repartee. “If both women of the house are dark, then the men would also have to live in complete darkness, no?” she’d said.

  “I will come back tomorrow,” Aakash told the black girl. Then he pointed to her and made a hand gesture of sleep. Was that a universal sign for sleeping?

 
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