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Arresting god in kathman.., p.12

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 12


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  Aunt Shakuntala woke late that night to the sound of laughter from the other room. First it was Shanti’s voice, squealing, followed by a slow heh, heh, heh from Lamfu. Then, after a short silence, Aunt Shakuntala heard a shuffling noise. She glanced at the clock beside her bed; it was two o’clock.

  “I can’t sleep,” she said loudly, hoping Mohandas would hear, but he was sound asleep, his face close to her shoulder. She got up, put on her slippers, and quietly shuffled down the hallway. Their door was shut. Aunt Shakuntala stood outside, listening to the squeals and grunts. She softly pushed the door open about two inches. Shanti and Lamfu were intertwined in bed, the outlines of their bodies merging into each other’s. Shanti moaned, and Lamfu said something to comfort her.

  Aunt Shakuntala returned to her bed, her knees weak. Mohandas was sleeping in the same position. She lay next to him, then moved closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. His nose twitched and, mumbling something, he turned to face the wall. She tugged at his hip, hoping he’d turn back toward her. He didn’t move. Aunt Shakuntala took her hand away. Suddenly pressure rose in her throat, and in her attempt to stifle it, she let out a cry.

  Mohandas woke. “What’s the matter?”

  Aunt Shakuntala’s eyes welled up with tears.

  “Are you not feeling well?” he asked and put his hand on her forehead. Aunt Shakuntala kept looking at him. Then she closed her eyes.

  The Man with Long Hair

  THE MAN with long hair appeared around the street corner, his self-confidence apparent even from a distance. And that long, jet-black hair—obviously he combed and oiled it every day. It remained unruffled even in the monsoon wind that had started that morning. Everyone on the street—housewives shopping for fresh vegetables, elderly men taking their walk, teenagers with their dogs, street vendors heating the first oil of the day—made way for him almost instinctively. He was tall and slender, somewhat effeminate.

  The man passed beneath Aditya’s apartment and disappeared at the next corner, toward Kesar Mahal. Aditya knew the man was heading toward the National Dance House for his morning rehearsals—Aditya had seen him in the play Malati Madan the week before. Aditya moved from the window to his worn-out sofa, which he had purchased from a relative. It creaked as he sat down.

  He knew his wife, Shobha, was watching him. She was sweeping the floor of the kitchen, an extension of the bedroom, but she had been eyeing him when he stood by the window. She pushed aside the old bedsheet that separated the bedroom from the tiny bathroom and swept the dust into a neat little mound and deftly shoveled it onto a sheet of newspaper. After she folded the paper into a small package, she threw it out the kitchen window, where the morning light was seeping in. A week ago, a pedestrian had knocked on their door, a crumpled newspaper in his hand, his right shoulder sprinkled with dust. Aditya had tried to calm the man, but he walked away, warning, “The next time, the police will come.” Aditya had scolded Shobha, but she said, “There’s no other place to throw. Everyone does it.”

  Now she came toward him, avoiding his eyes. “Will you drink some tea?” she asked in her soft voice.

  She was shy by nature, and although he hadn’t minded that when his mother was alive, now her shyness frequently irritated him. “Tea, tea. That’s all you can think of,” he said. “So many things are happening in this world. Governments falling. People dying of cholera and other diseases. Wild animals roaming the cities. And all you can come up with is tea.” He knew his diatribe was unreasonable, but he didn’t like the way she had watched him when he stood by the window.

  She twisted a corner of her dhoti in her fingers. The pockmarks on her face became more noticeable as she blushed.

  He felt sorry, and motioned with his hand for her to bring the tea.

  Aditya had been thinking about the man with long hair ever since seeing him in Malati Madan. The man lived in a guest house, along with the rest of the cast members, on the adjacent street. Aditya knew this because he saw the man every morning, at seven, walking alone to the theater for rehearsals and returning to the guest house at noon. The other actors walked as a group, talking and laughing. It appeared that the man wanted nothing to do with them.

  After bringing his tea, Shobha went into the bathroom with a pile of dirty clothes in her arms. Aditya sat on the bed and sipped, trying to understand why his mind was dwelling on the man with long hair. It was not a sexual feeling; he knew that. It was more like an obsession, a gnawing obsession. It seemed as if he’d known the man somewhere, but he couldn’t tell where. Had the man featured in Aditya’s past life? Aditya didn’t believe in such nonsense, so he dismissed the thought.

  He had been shaving in the bathroom that Saturday morning last week when his wife said, “Did you hear?’’ Her voice, as always, was barely audible. He pretended not to hear. She spoke again, a bit louder. “There’s a new theater group in town. They’re playing Malati Madan at the National Dance House this month. I was thinking, if you . . .”

  He glanced at her reflection in the portable mirror on the glass counter above the sink, but all he could see was her forehead and her left eye. She had just come back from Pashupatinath Temple, and a large tika was etched on her forehead. Only two weeks ago, she had asked him for two rupees to go see the film Taangewali, which starred her favorite actor, Jitendra. She knew it was a lot; he made little money as a teacher at the local school, which had shut down for summer holidays.

  He was about to say no when he nicked himself. Cursing, he shoved his hand into his trouser pocket and tossed a fifty-rupee note at her. She knelt and picked up the money, looking with concern at the trickle of blood running down his neck. Then, before he could stop himself, he said, “I’ll go with you.” His reflection in the mirror registered surprise. He didn’t like theater, nor did he like films. He never understood how people could sit through three hours of nonsense, wasting their time and money.

  Later, he realized he may have felt sorry for her, having to go to those silly films by herself. Occasionally, he did feel guilty about neglecting his wife; even the old woman in the apartment downstairs had pointed this out to him. “Ever since your mother died,” the old woman said, one hand on her hip while they stood on the landing, “you have been treating her as if she doesn’t exist. Aditya, I’m telling you, your mother is very unhappy up there.” She pointed toward the heavens. Soon after Aditya and Shobha’s wedding, Aditya’s mother had passed away, after which Aditya started losing interest in Shobha. He reasoned to himself that it wasn’t his fault. He had married only because his mother had forced him to. He had kept putting off marriage until his mother, in protest, refused to get up from her bed. Raising her sad eyes to the ceiling, as if she were carrying on a private conversation with God, she declared, “I will die without the pleasure of a daughter-in-law.”

  He finally relented, and after Shobha came into the house, he found that, despite himself, he liked her soft voice and the way her hair smelled like a garden after rain. But something held him back. He made love to her only occasionally, and then out of a sense of duty. He kept his conversations with her to a minimum. This was easy when his mother was alive, because his mother kept Shobha busy with household chores. At night in bed she had an expectant look on her face, as if she wished he’d talk to her, recount the day’s events, complain about someone. Even when they made love, all he did was grunt and groan.

  After his mother died, Aditya found that he did not even want to look at Shobha’s face when he got up in the morning, and he hated being seen with her in public. Whenever they did go out, she piled on too much makeup and stayed close to him, her sticky hand grasping his. He talked to her only when crossing streets (“Watch out for that car”) or when deciding whether to eat potato patties or water crunches from street stalls. If he tried to talk to her, the conversation was inevitably superficial—some comment about politics (gleaned through his assiduous reading of the daily newspaper) or about something in which she was not interested—and he would grow even more
irritated. Once in a while, she would look longingly at a child playing on the streets and back at him. He’d stopped making love to her because he couldn’t arouse himself. At times she tried to stimulate him with her hand, but the more she tried, the more the whole thing disgusted him, and he pushed her away. She’d turn the other way and sigh heavily before falling asleep.

  “Two years already, Aditya, and no child,” the old woman downstairs had said. “Is something wrong? With you? With her?”

  That Saturday evening, after the lights dimmed in the theater and the curtains opened, Aditya regretted having come. Every seat in the theater was filled, and body odor hovered in the air. A child in the row behind kicked Aditya’s seat, and a woman close by talked in a whiny voice to her husband. Aditya’s back became stiff.

  Malati Madan was one of the oldest and the most popular Nepali musicals; it was performed in the local theaters at least four or five times a year, and he could not remember how many times his mother had taken him to see it. His wife had probably seen it even more often, but the way her gleaming eyes were fixed on the stage, one would think this was the first time she had been to theater. Even as the play opened, Aditya contemplated making some excuse and going outside for a smoke, but then he saw the man who was playing the part of Madan. He lay prostrate on the stage floor, mourning the loss of his dead Malati. A solitary, dim light barely illuminated his body. Aditya, to his surprise, was moved.

  The music started, and the actor stood, gradually turning his face toward the audience as the spotlight brightened and the harmonium grew louder. Finally, the music reached a erescendo, filling the large auditorium with the plaintive wail of the harmonium and sitar. He sang:

  Alas, my beloved Malati,

  Alas, my missing heart.

  What have you done to me?

  You were the soul of my past season.

  This season my soul is lost among the trees.

  But it was not his singing that made Aditya breathless. It was the man’s presence: his mournful eyes, aristocratic nose, slender hands gesticulating in sadness. It was his broad royal forehead, his long shining hair, which fell down his back. Aditya had an almost uncontrollable desire to rush up to the stage and touch the man, say something to him—he didn’t know what. He clutched the armrest. Intent on watching the stage, Shobha didn’t notice his tension.

  For the rest of the play, it was as if the actor were speaking directly to him, as if Aditya were the lost beloved Malati, abandoned in a world devoid of color and charm.

  The play ended with Madan drinking poison, singing to Malati until his tongue could no longer move:

  Alas, my beloved,

  Alas, my missing heart.

  Why did you even think I could

  live without you?

  Could a flower survive without

  its lover bee?

  Would a moth want to live

  without its killer light?

  So I am coming to you, beloved Malati.

  Wait, I am coming to reclaim my soul.

  Aditya’s wife was quietly sniffling when the curtains closed. For a moment, Aditya sat there, wanting to laugh at himself. But before he had a chance to think too much, he said, “Let’s go.” He took Shobha’s hand and rushed her out of the auditorium, bumping and shoving people in his way. “Idiot,” shouted an old man with a cane. “Such a beautiful play, and he can’t wait to leave.”

  Once they reached the apartment, Aditya asked his wife to make herself dinner and to leave him alone.

  She looked at him searchingly. “You didn’t like the play?”

  He made a vague gesture and reached in his pocket for a cigarette.

  Around ten o’clock, Shobha finished the dishes and came to bed. She had a wounded expression and wouldn’t look at him as she slid under the blanket.

  As she began softly snoring in her sleep, Aditya noticed beads of perspiration on her upper lip. The pockmarks were obscured by the dim lamp, and her hair was strewn on the pillow and on her breasts, moving up and down as she breathed.

  His hand hovered over her. He had an urge to touch her, but he didn’t want to wake her, lest she think he was initiating something and expect more. Suddenly the room felt hot, and he reached for the fan. As the cool air brushed his face, he looked at her again. A strand of hair rustled on her forehead. He leaned over, planning to kiss her so lightly that she wouldn’t know, but she abruptly opened her eyes. His heart pounding, he brushed something imaginary from her cheeks. “A fly,” he said.

  She reached for her face, momentarily alarmed; then she smiled. “I was dreaming about the play,” she whispered. “You were Madan, and I was Malati, and you sang to me.”

  “It’s just a play,” he said, but he couldn’t help smiling.

  They made love, a surprise to both of them. It had been so long that Aditya felt like a novice. As he clumsily entered her, grunting, she made sounds like a cat in distress. He clutched her hair, sometimes tugging at it so hard that she cried out in pain.

  Later, after she had fallen asleep, he went to the window and watched the rain storming down in a torrent. A street light flickered, illuminating the pavement briefly. A drunk crossed the street, the light charting his path in such a zigzag way that he appeared to move in jerks. A young woman in a bright red sari and heavy makeup briefly glanced at Aditya and smiled before turning the corner.

  That was a week ago, and since then he had been following the movements of the actor from his window.

  He finished his tea and stretched. It was ten o’clock, and the sun was shining directly through the window. Shobha was beating clothes against the bathroom floor, the heavy thump, thump ringing throughout the building.

  When his mother had first brought up the idea of marriage, Aditya said no, he’d never marry. She had ruffled his hair and laughed. Her dear Adi shouldn’t talk such nonsense. He had the responsibility of carrying on the name of his father, who had died when Aditya was only eight. And on top of that, she did not know when Lord Shiva was going to call on her to leave this world, and she wanted to see her son with a wife and children before she left. Aditya had few memories of his father: the protective feel of his big palm as they held hands on the street, his whistling every morning while he tied his shoelaces, the strands of black hair sticking out of his nose. As a child, when Aditya saw his friends with their fathers, he felt as if he’d been deprived, and later, when his mother reminded him of his responsibility to the family name, a part of him thought, I hardly knew the man.

  Each time his mother showed him photographs of a prospective bride, he feigned interest for her sake. Some of the women were indeed beautiful and came from respectable families; some even came from quite well-to-do families. But none intrigued him. Finally, he said yes to the photograph of Shobha, despite the pockmarks on her face. The only reason he had picked her, he later understood, was the sight of her shy, timid eyes and soft chin; she didn’t appear the type to ask too much of anyone.

  He often wondered why she had agreed to the marriage. Aditya himself was not an attractive man. He was short and thin, almost emaciated. He had a crooked nose—for which he had been taunted as a child—set off with thick eyebrows and cloudy eyes. He had always been conscious of being unattractive, and now he wondered whether this was the reason he found himself obsessed by, even envious of, the beautiful man with the long hair. But it was more than envy, Aditya knew. The man had surfaced because he had something to pass on to Aditya, something that had to do with how Aditya was living his life.

  Aditya went to the National Dance House early the next morning to buy a ticket for another show, this time just for himself. The woman behind the counter was reading a cheap Hindi novel, and he had to tap twice on the counter to get her attention. She slowly removed her eyes from the book and looked at him.

  “One for tonight,” he said, pushing twenty rupees across the counter.

  “It’s twenty-five,” she said. “The price went up.”

  He gave her the money and
pocketed the ticket, but hesitated for a moment.

  “What now?”

  “What’s his name?” he blurted. “The one with the long hair?”

  “All actors have long hair these days,” she said. “Which one?”

  “Madan,” Aditya said, looking around to make sure no one heard him. A couple had entered the lobby.

  “Oh, that one,” she said with a smile. “Can’t you read? Right there.” She pointed to a handwritten poster behind his back.

  Nirmal Kumar. Aditya read the name slowly.

  Just then some men came into the lobby through a side door marked NO ENTRY, arguing about some lighting problem during last night’s show. They threw him a glance and resumed their discussion. One of them lit a cigarette and went to talk with the woman behind the counter.

  Making sure no one was watching him, Aditya opened the side door and found himself in a narrow, dimly lit corridor. He walked through and ended up backstage, facing a couple of doors. Makeup rooms, he imagined. At first he considered turning back, but when he saw no one in the area, he became curious. To his right was the stage, lit by a bright spotlight on the ceiling. As he went through a small side opening, the spotlight threw the shadow of the seats across the side walls, making them look like tall people appraising him, with his arms dangling awkwardly by his sides.

  He paced the stage for a few moments. Then he lay down on the floor, propped up on one elbow, and gesturing with his hand. He whispered, trying not to laugh:

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