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Arresting god in kathman.., p.13

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 13

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  Could a flower survive without

  its lover bee?

  Would a moth want to live

  without its killer light?

  He stood up just as the door from the lobby opened, bringing in a shaft of light and a human figure. Aditya wanted to run and hide backstage, but that might have given the impression that he was stealing something. So he stayed where he was, in the middle of the stage, his hands in his pockets, and watched the figure approach.

  It was the man with long hair. Today, his hair was untied and waved slightly as he walked. He came to a stop in front of the stage and looked at Aditya. “You’re the new actor? Where’s your script?” His voice was high and feminine.

  “Script?” Aditya said.

  The man stroked his nose and said, “They didn’t give you a script yet? Maybe that moron took it with him. Imagine, quitting right in the middle of our tour. And he wasn’t that good either. Where did they find you?”

  Aditya jumped off the stage and stood in front of him. “I’m sorry,” he said.

  “What are you sorry for?” Nirmal said. He leaned against the stage and lit a cigarette. “It’s not your fault they dragged you into this.” He sighed and looked up at the ceiling, then back at Aditya. “Go get a script from the so-called director,” Nirmal said. “He’s probably boozing it up in that bar across the street. I’ll show you what needs to be done.”

  “I have to leave,” Aditya said, and quickly made his way up the aisle.

  “Don’t worry,” the long-haired man shouted. “It’s an easy part.”

  Aditya stood outside the theater, his heart pounding. For a moment, the sights and sounds around him became strangely lucid: the blaring horns, cries of vendors, pestering beggars, the unruly children and their concerned mothers, the movement of the cars, the sunlight flickering on Queen’s Pond a hundred yards away.

  He walked home, unable to understand what was happening. Now he seriously considered what had occurred to him before: that he may have had some connection with the actor in a past life. Nothing else could explain his obsession, the incredible energy he felt in his body at this moment.

  At home, he found his photo album and looked at the pictures of his childhood. Aditya was a timid-looking child, always holding the hand of either his father or his mother. His mother was a chubby, matronly woman. His father was tall and thin, with a heavy mustache and laughing eyes. Aditya scrutinized his father’s face, noting that he himself didn’t have his father’s strong chin and laughing manner.

  Before the performance that evening, Aditya set out his best trousers and shirt.

  “Where are you going?” Shobha asked.

  “To visit some friends,” he said, ignoring her quizzical look.

  He ironed the shirt and trousers while she watched him from the kitchen. Once dressed, he combed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror. Her face appeared behind him in the mirror. “Dinner?” she said. “Will you eat?”

  “I’m not hungry right now,” he said. “You can go ahead and eat.

  On the landing downstairs he saw the old lady, who immediately blocked his way and said, “Where to?”

  “A friend’s house,” he said.

  “Hmmmm,” she said but didn’t step aside. “When does your school start?”

  “In about two weeks.”

  He tried to move past her, but she wouldn’t budge. “You have too much free time on your hands,” she said.

  Aditya glanced at his watch. The show was to start in ten minutes. “Old witch,” he muttered under his breath.

  “What was that?” She looked him up and down. “Aditya, I’m telling you. Take that wife of yours out with you. Otherwise one day she’ll go crazy.”

  “Get out of my way, Sharda-Ma.”

  “You should be having a child, but here you are, gallivanting around town by yourself—”

  “Old woman, will you get out of my way?”

  Because he was late, he had to sit at the back of the theater. Right in front of him sat a man with a neck as thick as a bull’s. As the light dimmed, Aditya tilted his head to the side and heard a woman behind him mutter, “What is he? A camel?” When Nirmal came onstage, Aditya held his breath. Nirmal was beautiful, his eyes outlined in kohl, his lips reddened with lipstick.

  As he started to sing, someone in the audience shouted, “Madan is a faggot,” eliciting both laughter and demands for quiet. Nirmal glanced in the direction of the voice and continued his song. The brief distraction didn’t affect the beauty of his singing, and, again, Aditya felt a stirring within him.

  “Madan likes men,” the same voice rang out, this time louder, more menacing.

  “Be quiet,” a woman shouted.

  “Madan is a faggot.” This time there were two, three voices. The singing began to falter. “Madan is a faggot.”

  The activities on the stage stopped. Nirmal glared in the direction of the noise.

  Aditya stood up and, bumping past other people’s knees, made his way toward the voices, a slow anger filling him. The lights came on, and there was a collective groan from the audience. A couple of elderly men argued with the young men, who were now seated but laughing.

  “What kind of behavior is this?” one of the old men said. Aditya recognized him as the man with the cane who had shouted at him when he’d rushed out of the theater with his wife.

  “What’s the problem?” Aditya said, his heart pounding.

  Sensing trouble, some people had started to leave.

  “There’s no problem,” replied one of the young men, a tall lanky fellow with a hooked nose. “Who said there’s a problem?”

  “What is the problem?” A rotund man wearing a tie approached.

  “Who are you?” the young man asked.

  “The manager,” the man said. More people hovered around the scene while many stood near the exit, watching. The harmonium player must have accidentally touched the keys; there was, for one brief moment, a soft wail.

  The young men looked at each other in mock surprise. “What happened? Is there a problem? What’s the problem?”

  “Please,” the manager said. “Let the show continue. If you don’t like the show, please leave.”

  “Madan is a faggot!” one of the young men shouted.

  Aditya looked at the stage, where Nirmal was whispering to another actor. Some people in the audience laughed.

  “You,” Aditya said loudly to the young man, his voice shaking. “Come outside and settle this with me. You want to insult a great actor?” He had no idea where his bravery had come from. He had never in his life initiated a fight.

  The three young men jumped up. “Why outside?” one said. “We’ll settle you right here.” He landed a solid blow on the side of Aditya’s neck, making him reel and fall on the lap of a woman who screamed and pushed him away. He landed on the floor, twisting his right knee, and was pummeled by blows and kicks. First, he felt sharp, suffocating pain in his abdomen, then an excruciating seizure in his throat, as if someone were ripping it open. “Motherfucker,” “pig,” “ass.” Words floated around him, disembodied voices that came from near and far at once. He could tell that some people were coming to his rescue, and the manager’s voice rang out, “These hoodlums!” For an instant his head cleared, and he saw pandemonium in the hall: people pushing and shoving one another to get out. One of the young men, his shirttail hanging out, was tussling with the manager. Someone aimed another kick at Aditya’s head, but this time he blocked it with his hands. His face was wet, but when he touched his lips and his nose, he couldn’t feel them. A black boot loomed above his face, and a stark, white light flashed in front of him. His nose bubbled.

  When he came to, Nirmal was holding him. “It’s okay; don’t worry,” Nirmal said. A white object like a butterfly floated before Aditya’s face, and he realized that Nirmal was offering him a handkerchief. Clutching it, Aditya struggled to his feet. “Where are they?” he asked, the words coming out of him in a gurgle.

  “Th
ey ran away.”

  “We’d better take him to the hospital,” the manager said.

  Aditya shook his head. His knee hurt, and his face felt as if it were being pressed by a bulldozer. He dabbed his nose with the handkerchief and said, “No need for the hospital. I’ll just go home.”

  “In this state?” Nirmal said. “Why did you do that? You’re obviously not made for fights.”

  Aditya laughed. “And you are?”

  “I know karate,” Nirmal said.

  Most of the audience had already left, but some people still milled around, talking in excited voices, analyzing the incident.

  “What happened to the show?” Aditya said.

  “It’s over,” Nirmal said. “Where do you live?”

  “Paknajol.”

  “I live in Samakhusi. Come, I’ll walk you home.” He paused. “In case those men are waiting for you outside.”

  Nirmal arranged Aditya’s arm over his shoulders and led him out. He asked Aditya again whether he wanted to go to the hospital, and Aditya said no. “You are stubborn,” Nirmal said. They started toward Paknajol, Aditya limping and leaning on Nirmal. When they passed under a streetlight, Aditya noticed that Nirmal still wore his makeup. His hair was tied behind with a rubber band. “You’re a good actor,” Aditya told him.

  Nirmal shrugged.

  For a moment, Aditya couldn’t believe he was walking home with this man. Although his body hurt, he felt pleasure and relief.

  As they neared his apartment, Aditya said, “I need a drink.”

  “I don’t drink.”

  “Then keep me company.”

  Nirmal hesitated, then said, laughing, “Okay, but don’t get drunk in this state.”

  They entered a small bar in Thamel. When the waiter brought Aditya a glass of the local whiskey, Aditya told Nirmal, “I feel as if I know you from somewhere else.”

  “You saw me this morning,” Nirmal said with a wry smile. “I thought you were the substitute. And you didn’t correct me.”

  “No, no,” Aditya said. “That’s not what I meant.” But he couldn’t explain it. What could he say? That he knew Nirmal from their past lives?

  The whiskey made his cheeks warm, and he wanted to order another, but Nirmal said, with some authority, “Enough. You need rest.”

  When they stepped outside, the sky grumbled and roared. Large drops of rain fell on their heads and clattered on the surrounding roofs. They ran, Aditya limping and holding on to Nirmal’s arm. The apartment was only two blocks away, so they stayed under the awnings of the shops, dashing in and out of the rain.

  By the time they reached the apartment, both were soaked and laughing. Aditya asked Nirmal to come inside until the rain calmed down. “I’m already wet,” Nirmal said, but he followed Aditya upstairs.

  When Shobha opened the door and saw Aditya’s condition, she gasped. “What happened? Who did this to you?”

  Aditya placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “It’s no big deal. Look who’s come for a visit.” But Shobha ran to the bathroom, paying no attention to the actor. Aditya looked at Nirmal sheepishly. Shobha came back with a towel and a bottle of iodine, and forced Aditya to sit on the sofa. She dabbed the iodine on his face, making him wince. “You’ve been drinking,” she said.

  “Not much,” Nirmal said. “Just a glass.”

  She went to the bathroom and brought back another towel for Nirmal. Now she looked at him more closely. “Oh, it’s you,” she said, finally recognizing him. She glanced at Aditya with some irritation, then asked Nirmal where he had found her husband. When Nirmal explained what had happened, she scolded Aditya. “Who asked you to be the hero? And why did you go to see the play again?”

  Aditya was surprised by her tone of authority. “We have such a great actor in our house,” Aditya said with a laugh, “and all you can do is harass me.”

  “I don’t care.” She turned to Nirmal. “I guess I should thank you. Do you want tea?”

  Nirmal said that he ought to get going and pack for the next day, as the theater company was moving to a different town. Aditya placed his hand on the actor’s and said, “Please, just one cup. There’s time.”

  When his wife went to the kitchen, Nirmal whispered, “You’ve got a nice wife.”

  Aditya smiled. “Usually she’s very shy.”

  “You never can tell with women,” Nirmal said.

  “Are you married?”

  “No,” Nirmal said with a mischievous smile. “I can’t stay with one woman. I tend to like all of them.”

  “Why can’t you stay with one?”

  “Who knows? Maybe it’s just my nature.” He loosened his hair from the rubber band, deftly combed it with his long slim fingers, then tied it back again.

  Aditya wanted to talk to Nirmal about his own self-consciousness, but didn’t know how to broach the topic. Instead, he went to the cupboard and took out the family album. He sat down and flipped through the pages. The pain in his knee and face began to fade. “See,” he said, pointing to a family picture that showed him in the city park, holding his parents’ hands.

  “Is that you?” Nirmal said, laughing.

  “Who else?” Aditya said.

  Shobha came back with tea and said, “What’s this? Looking at pictures at this hour?”

  Nirmal said to her, “Tell me something. Would you have married him had you seen these pictures before your wedding?”

  For a moment she blushed, but when she spoke, her voice was firm. “What kind of a question is that? Of course I would have married him. It was written in our fate.”

  Aditya was surprised at Shobha’s confidence in front of a stranger.

  The rain was letting up, and they could hear conversations on the street.

  Nirmal drank his tea in quick gulps and got up. “Well, you should still have a doctor check you out in the morning.”

  “Are you coining back to the city again?” Aditya asked.

  “Not for a while,” Nirmal said and, bidding them good night, left.

  The next morning Aditya sat by the window. The cast and the crew of the play appeared on the street corner, laughing and joking. Nirmal was last, walking alone, carrying a suitcase. When he passed Aditya’s apartment building, he glanced up at the window. Aditya waved at him, then shouted, “The next time you’re here, come for tea in my house.”

  Nirmal nodded and moved on.

  Aditya’s wife came and stood next to him. “Who is it?” she asked. When she saw Nirmal walking away, she said, “Good riddance.” She had just come out of the bath, and he could smell mustard oil in her hair. He moved closer and breathed her in. Then he licked her ear, and she jerked away from the window with a giggle. She blushed. “People will see. What has come over you this early in the morning?”

  This World

  THEY MET in New Jersey at a wedding party. Jaya knew the bride, a young Brahmin woman of twenty-four from Kathmandu, and Kanti was taking a course in economics at New York University with the bridegroom, a Nepali professor twenty years older than the bride. It was an arranged marriage, and Kanti had heard that the bride’s parents had given away their daughter to the older professor in order to get their green cards.

  On the professor’s lawn, Kanti was in line at the buffet table, wondering whether she could slip away soon after eating, when she noticed the man in front of her. He was tall, with an appealing face, and he was fair, so fair that she thought he was European. He had bushy eyebrows, with two strands of white hair growing out of each in perfect symmetry. He saw her looking at him and said, in Nepali, “Yes, yes, I am a Nepali.” The words tumbled out thickly, as if he didn’t speak the language often. “Did you come here with someone?” he asked, with a familiarity that made it seem he already knew her. When she answered, “By myself,” he said, “Then we should eat together. Over there.” He pointed to a secluded corner. Their bodies touched as they scooped up the food.

  She joined him in the corner, and they ate, standing. After some silence, he sa
id, again in English, “Well, aren’t you going to tell me about yourself? I thought that’s what this is all about.”

  “This?” she asked.

  “Yes, you and I are going to be lovers.”

  She laughed. “You are very arrogant.”

  “You’ll come to like that about me.”

  She realized that they were conversing entirely in English, but it didn’t seem odd, as it often did when she talked in English with other Nepalis in America. It was as if he thought in English.

  He brought her a glass of wine, then another, then another. Each time, she told herself this was the last one, that she’d leave his company and go talk to someone else, or leave the party, as she’d originally planned. But as the evening progressed his face became even more arresting, and the conversation unlike conversations she had at Nepali gatherings, which she dreaded attending because they were laden with nostalgia, incessant political chatter, and one-upmanship, with people vying to talk about how much land they owned back home. Talking with Jaya, Kanti could laugh and not worry about how loud it sounded, or whether some senior Nepali gentleman, a professor at a university or a consultant at a firm, would frown at her, or whether the women, with their dark, critical eyes, would talk about how she acted like a loose woman. She couldn’t remember how many glasses of wine she’d had, but it didn’t matter. She told him how alienated she felt in Kathmandu; how, when she went there two years before, she was like a stranger. She liked the sound of the words and repeated them: “I was a restless ghost in my own country.” He put his arm around her and said, “Poor baby,” and she thought—her mind floating with wine—He is like me.

  She saw him several times that evening in different groups, his long arm visible in the brightness of the fluorescent lamps placed strategically throughout the lawn, his white shirt shining. Once, he winked at her and rolled his eyes at the Nepalis around him, as if in exasperation. She kept wishing he’d come back, talk to her more, but he was laughing with some people he obviously knew. She went to the bride and groom, seated on a couch inside the house, and said goodbye.

 
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