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Mad country, p.13

Mad Country, page 13

 

Mad Country
 


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  The girl grabbed his arm, her eyes showing panic, obviously urging him not to go.

  “Everything will be fine,” he said, patting her. “I will be here at the top of the morning.” He gently freed himself, then left.

  At home he went straight up to his room and sat on the bed. He wondered if the black girl would be foolish enough to go down to the lobby, or venture out into the streets. Now that she was clothed, she was obviously safer than before, but her absurdly dark skin would still draw people’s attention, especially at this time in the evening when teenage boys would be on the prowl. He should have forbidden her to leave the hotel, told her if she felt bored, to turn on the television. He couldn’t remember whether the room had television, and wasn’t sure whether she’d know what television was, or how to operate it.

  He clicked the TV remote in his room. On the screen was the bandaged face of a well-known politician who had suffered attacks from men hired by his rival. The injured politician said, “Bring it on!” He said he knew where his opponent’s children went to school. Aakash changed the channel, but today the dancing girls didn’t provide the usual relief, so he turned off the television and lay down in bed.

  “Is this all you can do in life?”

  It was his father, standing in the doorway. Aakash sat up and hung his head, ready for the lecture.

  “What has happened to you?” his father said. “Look at you.”

  Aakash remained silent. When he glanced up, his father was shaking his head at him. A truck blared past their house.

  “Your mother and I,” his father said. “How to say this? We are going away for a while.”

  “Travel?”

  His father crossed his arms at his chest. “You could say that. But it’s not for days, it’s for longer than that. For months. At least.”

  “Where?”

  “To Hong Kong first. Then who knows? Maybe to America. Everyone is going there these days.”

  “Hong Kong? Uncle Subhash’s house?”

  His father nodded.

  “When did this come about?” Aakash asked, not liking that he sounded querulous. “Why wasn’t I told about this?”

  His father let out a big sigh. “Son, what can I say? Your mother and I—we have given up on you.”

  Aakash rose from the bed. “What do you mean? What reason do you have to treat me like this? What have I done?”

  His father kept his arms crossed. “Are we going to cover the same territory again? Look at your life. Look at you. Doesn’t that answer your question?”

  Something was rising in Aakash’s throat, and he fought hard to squelch it. “When are you leaving?”

  “In a few days,” his father said. Then, “Come down for dinner. It’s ready.”

  But Aakash remained in his room, door closed, even after his mother repeatedly knocked. “I’m not feeling well,” he said.

  In the morning, he quietly got dressed and left the house just as the sun hit the white mountains to the north. The beauty of these mountains always surprised him, particularly during sunrise and sunset, when a pinkish rouge lingered on their tips. He’d written about them dozens of times for Travelite, and had used the same combinations of words over and over: “the abode of the snows,” “the stunning white peaks,” “the looming Himalayas.” Yet when the skies cleared and the mountains emerged, it was clear that those words were woefully inadequate to describe their magnificence. Today from the microbus, he watched the mountains all the way into town, his stomach a bit hollow because he hadn’t eaten anything last night.

  As he entered the lobby of Hotel Evergreen, the stench from Tukucha River momentarily made him dizzy.

  Upstairs, the girl opened the door with sleep in her eyes. She returned to bed, and he sat next to her and stroked her hair. Then, he, too, lay down next to her. After a while, she put her right arm on his chest, and they slept. They were jolted awake by the sound of an argument below. He peeked out of the window, worried. But it was only kids squabbling amidst the garbage, hitting one another with plastic bottles, occasionally letting out monkey screams. For a while he watched them, attempting to recall the joys of his own childhood. Once again, he couldn’t identify with his own memories. Could it be that he was not who he thought he was? And after his parents left, would he then grow alienated even more from his own childhood?

  He’d soon have to find a solution for this girl. He couldn’t keep her in the hotel for too long—people would find out. Word would get around. Once he found out where she was from, perhaps he could put her on a bus, or a plane if he could scrounge the money. And if he failed in ascertaining where she needed to go, then he’d have no choice but to take her home, no matter what his parents thought.

  Then he remembered that his parents were going to leave for Hong Kong, or America, or wherever they were thinking about going, and he pictured himself ushering this girl into the house as soon as he waved goodbye to his parents at the airport. Yes, ushering, as one ushered a bride. He saw himself walking his neighborhood hand in hand with the girl, whom he’d name Ghana. A perfect name for her. He knew, instinctively, that the Ghana of his dreams and this girl were connected, but he didn’t know how. He and Ghana would stroll his neighborhood together, and people would stare. Some would spit on the ground, others would make nasty comments about her dark skin, about the deathly dark skin of the potential baby of this union. They’d wonder why an educated Nepali man who wore a tie to work every day, who spoke English smoothly like a khairey would prefer to court a darkie over a fair Nepali beauty, someone who could cook him aromatic Nepali food and bear him fair Nepali children.

  The more he thought about it, the more Aakash didn’t know why he would have to wait until his parents left in order to take Ghana home with him. After all, his parents hadn’t bothered to consult him before they decided to take off. So why shouldn’t he also do as he pleased?

  “What do you think about it?” he asked Ghana. “How about I move you into my house and hide you like contraband?” She didn’t respond, of course, merely gazed at him dreamily. “I’m a smuggler,” he said. “Like Haji Mastan.” He stroked her nose. “Do you know Haji Mastan? Are there any Haji Mastans where you come from?”

  Of course she couldn’t respond to him.

  “Come, let’s go,” he said to her. “Enough of this sitting in stinky hotel rooms running scared. I’m going to take you to my house, smuggle you in.” It’d be the kind of thing Rahul would approve of. Maybe once Aakash got Ghana into his house, he’d give Rahul a call and see if he wanted to come over and meet her. It had been ages since Rahul had visited Aakash at home (“I don’t think your parents like me,” Rahul had said), but the mention of a dark African girl in Aakash’s room was sure to galvanize him into coming over. Aakash’s earlier fear of the girl falling for Rahul had disappeared, and now it was replaced by a mounting excitement at the thought of Ghana in his room, with Rahul inspecting her, as Aakash’s parents readied for their trip below.

  He and Ghana walked hand in hand down the stairs to the lobby, where the receptionist was listening to the radio. The Supreme Commander spoke about uplifting the country through capitalist economic maneuvers of Deng rather than the isolationist economic policies of Mao. “But we must distribute the wealth,” the Supreme Commander said. “The poor must become rich, and the rich must become middle class.” The Supreme Commander was a portly man with a thick mustache and deep-set eyes. People had by now forgotten that he had killed hundreds of people only a few years ago during the insurgency. How people had hated him then, called him a mass murderer, a Hitler, a title that the Supreme Commander had welcomed. But now all those memories had been replaced by the media images of the Supreme Commander in military gear saluting groups of soldiers in army fatigues, or in a dhoti with a tika smeared on his forehead, performing some puja or yagya in the front yard of the palace, throwing rice into a fire burning in front of him. The twin
images of a militarist and a religionist had been carefully developed, and now they’d merged and had become inseparable. These days it seemed like the Supreme Commander had always been like this. But Aakash remembered that at the start of his insurgency the Supreme Commander had been rabidly anti-God. He’d railed against the state religion, calling it the “charas of the masses”; his soldiers had dragged out priests from village temples and beat them senseless; he’d banned Sanskrit education in the small region of the country that he’d declared autonomous.

  The intersection between Baghbazar and Putalisadak was suffocating. Had the whole goddamn city congregated in this juncture? People gabbled and gesticulated, sweated and farted, walked with aggression on their shoulders, yelled at one another across the traffic. Aakash briefly recalled a time from his childhood, long before his parents built their home away from the city center, when he’d stood at this very spot waiting for his school bus. How spacious this street was then, how sparse the traffic.

  He held Ghana’s hand and pulled her along, hoping to find a taxi, which they did once they crossed the street. As the taxi inched and crawled through the thicket of cars and trucks and motorcycles, Aakash slid down farther on his seat. His heart was beating rapidly in anticipation of what was to come. There was no way he’d be able to get Ghana past the front door of his house. The kitchen was steps away from the foyer, and his mother was always in there, cooking, cleaning. The kitchen was her “central command,” as Aakash’s father liked to call it. “Her fort. From where she fires her missiles.” When she was home, his mother kept the front door locked for fear of daylight robbers, and although Aakash carried a key, his mother was sure to come to the door if she heard him unlock it.

  The only other way he could try to get this girl into the house was through the window. But his room was on the second floor, a good ten feet up from the ground. There were no ladders lying around that he could use. Aakash thought hard: perhaps he could buy some rope and throw it up, like a lasso in a cowboy movie, and hope that it’d fasten itself around one of the two metal hooks that were used to keep the windows open. Even if that were to be successful, it’d take time, and a neighbor could spot them and, mistaking them for daylight robbers, raise an alarm.

  When the taxi slowed outside his house, Aakash nearly told the driver to keep going. But the driver had already killed his engine and had taken out a cigarette, which he held between his lips. Aakash paid him and signaled to Ghana to get out.

  He opened the large gate to the house, wincing at the ostentatious clang it made. The glass of the window in the foyer was misty, so Aakash couldn’t see his mother, but he was sure she was there, alerted by the sound. He let go of Ghana’s hand and walked down the driveway, aware that a neighbor woman, the one who got drunk at night and argued with her mother-in-law, was watching from her balcony. Any moment now Aakash’s mother was going to emerge, her forehead crunched in a frown. He waited outside the main door, going over his explanations.

  After a minute when no one opened the door, Aakash used his key to get in. They stopped in the foyer and listened. The kitchen faucet dripped; Aakesh’s mother had been pestering his father to fix that faucet for weeks, and now it looked like it would remain leaky even after they were gone. Had his parents already left? Without even saying goodbye to him? Then he saw, as he looked into the living room, a half-packed suitcase on the floor. It was rare for both his father and mother to be gone together at this time of the day. Usually one of them stayed home to guard the house against daylight robbers.

  Aakash went into the kitchen and set the water to boil for tea. He gave Ghana a tour of the house, feeling expansive and loquacious as he took her into his parents’ bedroom on the main floor, which had a large painting of his grandfather gazing somberly at them. Aakash had her sit on the bed, from where they could see the neighbor woman who was still watching the house. But Aakash knew that the dirty screen on the window prevented her from seeing into the room, or even figuring out that someone was inside. Perhaps she could make out the shadows.

  Aakash returned to the kitchen, where the mixture inside the kettle was frothing at the lid and the spout, the tea making smart sizzling sounds as it spilled over the fire. He turned off the gas and poured the tea into cups, which he then took to Ghana. He and Ghana sipped their tea. Then they left his parents’ bedroom to go into his, where they fell on his bed and took a nap.

  His parents were entering the house. Ghana had opened her eyes, but he hushed her by putting his finger to her lips. He quietly opened the door and went out, gently shutting it behind as he stepped on the landing.

  Below, plastic bags in hand, his mother was telling his father that it’d be foolhardy of them to expect to get the visa in a day or two, that they ought to be prepared to change their airline tickets to a later date. She looked up, spotted Aakash, and told him that if he wanted tea, he ought to come down. Then, realizing that her son was home from work early, asked, “What’s the matter? You not feeling well?”

  “Just a headache,” he said.

  His father, too, looked up at him and said, “No exercise, no fresh air, always sitting in front of the computer—what do you expect?”

  His mother, after she put her bags in her bedroom, returned to the foyer, looked up, and asked, “Did you have a friend over? There are two cups in our room.”

  “Why does he need to go to our room to drink his tea?” his father said.

  “Ask your son. He’s right there.”

  Before his father could come up the stairs, Aakash went down. “My friend’s ankle was sprained, and so he couldn’t climb the stairs, and we decided to sit in your room.” The lie took on an aura of truth before it had even completely left his mouth.

  “Who’s this friend?” his father asked as they both headed to the kitchen, where his mother had already put the tea on to boil and had samosas on plates for the father and son.

  “You wouldn’t know,” Aakash said, sitting on a chair.

  “Enlighten me,” his father said, sitting next to him and grabbing his samosa. “Who are your friends nowadays?”

  Aakash nervously glanced toward the staircase, which he could partially see from the kitchen. But Ghana seemed to be aware that this was a dangerous situation and hadn’t come out of the room.

  His mother poured tea and brought it to them. “I have arranged,” she said to her son, “for Danny to come every day and cook and clean and do your laundry after we leave, just like he does now. Because Danny has an aging mother at home, he can’t live here with you. But he’s a good boy. His mother used to work for us when you were small, before her arthritis made it impossible for her continue. You don’t remember her, but Danny was born when you were in fifth or sixth grade. Who knew that one day we’d end up doing this, leaving our own son so we could migrate to another country? But son, you have left us no choice.”

  “Stop apologizing to him,” Aakash’s father said, then delicately took a bite out of his samosa.

  “I’m not apologizing, but it breaks my heart that we’ve been forced into doing this.” She began to cry, and it was Aakash who had to console her, telling her that he was sorry for whatever he’d done.

  A thump sounded from above, and the three of them glanced up. “What was that?” his father said. “Is your friend still here?”

  Aakash shook his head. “Must be a cat on the roof or something. Perhaps a fiddler.” Aakash tried hard not to smirk.

  “A fiddler on the roof?” his father said, oblivious to the reference. “Our roof is made of concrete. Even if a leopard were to jump down, it wouldn’t sound like that.”

  His mother, her cheek glistening with tears, whispered, “It could be a daylight robber. He must have gotten in through your window. Did you leave it open this morning?”

  Aakash shook his head; his mind was thinking fast. Nothing else had sounded after the thump, and he imagined that Ghana had either dropped
something or fell off the bed. “It’s nothing,” he said. He waved his hand dismissively in the air. “These talks of daylight robbers are highly exaggerated. One robbery in six months, and for the whole year, all people do is whimper about daylight robbers.” He knew this was not true. Daylight robbers were striking more often, becoming more aggressive. Last month they’d tied up an old, blind couple in their home and robbed them . . . well, blind. In another case, they’d locked up an eleven-year-old boy in the bathroom for hours.

  “I’ll go check,” Aakash’s father said, looking nervous, and stood.

  “All right, all right, I’ll go,” Aakash said, feigning resignation. “Mother, could I have more tea?”

  Upstairs, Ghana was on the bed, flitting through a magazine. Her hair was combed back, and her face looked clean: the thump must have happened on her way to the bathroom that adjoined the room. Fortunately the sound of her turning on the bathroom tap hadn’t reached below. He went to her and kissed her on the forehead. “Are you hungry?” he asked. Then he made a sign of eating and rubbed his belly. Ghana nodded. “Okay, I’ll bring you food,” he said, “but you have to be very quiet.” He put his finger to his lips again.

  “No fiddler, no daylight robber,” he told his parents once he joined them. “How many samosas did you bring?” he asked his mother. “Any more left?” His mother brought out one samosa and gave it to him. He held it in his hand and jabbered with his father about small things, slipped the samosa into his pocket when his father wasn’t looking, then wiped his mouth with his fingers as though he’d just finished eating it. Perhaps encouraged by his talkativeness, his mother, too, sat at the table. She gave him further instructions about taking care of the house—what to do if the water heater stopped working; what the gardener needed to do before he got his wages; how and where to have Danny do the daily grocery shopping—while his father chewed his samosa slowly and kept shaking his head, as though he’d never understand his impossible son.

  “If we had another son, none of this would have come about,” Aakash’s father finally said.

 
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