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Mad country, p.14

Mad Country, page 14

 

Mad Country
 


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  “Now let it be,” his mother said. “We’ve discussed this enough. No need to mention it anymore. We’re leaving.” She cried a little more. She was being forced into exile, her tears suggested.

  When Aakash went upstairs, he found Ghana asleep on the bed. He took out the samosa and placed it on the bedside table, then sat watching her. The afternoon turned into evening, and after making sure that his mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner, he went up to the roof. To the south stood the big hills he didn’t know the names of, to the east the Phulchoki hill, and on the northern horizon, glistening under the slanted rays of dusk, the snowcapped mountains: Ganesh, Manaslu, Langtang, and his favorite, Dorje Lakpa. Birds flew overhead, chirping and cawing.

  The sky appeared to be humming, a sound of its own that had nothing to do with the earth; it had a little bit to do with the sun, which was now in the process of slipping away in the west; and a little bit to do with the mountains which would, once the sun left, retreat into darkness. He’d never come up here at night to see what shapes these mountains assumed once night fell. He recalled what Rahul had shown him on the computer the last time he’d been at his friend’s house: an image of the earth at night taken from satellites. How brightly lit were the Western countries! America and Britain glittered with small, dotted lights. Even India, to Aakash’s surprise, sparkled. But Nepal was bereft of any shimmer—only darkness. So was Africa.

  When he returned to his room, the samosa was gone, but Ghana wasn’t in the room. Panicked, he looked down to the foyer. The kitchen sounds were normal, and his father was most likely in the living room, playing solitaire with his cards. Then Aakash noticed that the door to the balcony next to his room was slightly open. He rushed into his room and out to the balcony, where Ghana was leaning against the railing. Startled by his sudden entry, she seemed about to fall, but he reached out and grabbed her by the arm. He looked down. His father was by the side of the house, tending to a narrow bed of roses in the dim light of the evening. His father didn’t look up. Aakash put his finger to his lips, but the situation now appeared comical, and thrilling. The two of them watched his father pull out the weeds from around the rosebushes, caress the petals of the roses. He seemed to be in some kind of a trance, for he was completely engrossed in his roses, patting them and whispering to them, seemingly bidding them goodbye.

  Ghana slept cuddled next to Aakash under that large sirak of his. Her body’s warmth made him feel protected, which was odd, as he had fancied himself as her protector. He woke up sometime in the night, startled by something. He thought that maybe she had cried out in her sleep, but she was snoring softly, her mouth slightly open. He listened carefully for sounds, but there was nothing except for the occasional barking of the neighborhood dogs. What had awoken him was his own subconscious fear about being discovered in bed with Ghana by that mob from New Road.

  In the morning, he went down for a cup of tea, which he drank quickly in the kitchen as he listened to his mother talk. Then he asked her for another cup, which he carried to his room for Ghana.

  They lounged in bed all morning. Later, Aakash pulled the phone toward him and, placing it on his chest, dialed Rahul’s number. Rahul answered in his usual gruff manner.

  “You’re not going to believe who I have with me,” Aakash said. He put his hand on Ghana’s forehead, as though checking to see if she had fever.

  “Who?” Rahul said. “The Supreme Commander?”

  “Someone better. And that someone better is right here on my bed, and my parents are right down there, and they don’t know.”

  The silence at the other end was long and tense. “A prostitute?” Rahul’s voice was almost hoarse.

  “Come and find out.”

  “Really? You with a whore? Let me speak to her.”

  “She’s mute.”

  “A mute whore?”

  “Are you coming or not?”

  Rahul said that he’d get on his motorcycle and reach there in about half an hour. Aakash’s mother was calling him for lunch, and he had no choice but to go down. His mother had laid out a virtual feast on the dining room table. Pulao, curried mutton, eggplant and tofu, aloo sandeko, bhatmas bhuteko, and some sweet curd from Bhaktapur. “What’s the occasion?” Aakash asked, and his mother got teary eyed again while his father shook his head at him in contempt.

  “Okay, okay, I’ll no longer ask,” Aakash said. “Can you also put some food on another plate? Rahul will be coming here in about twenty minutes, and I’m sure he’ll be hungry. I’ll take it to my room.”

  “Who’s Rahul?” his father asked.

  “He’s been here before,” Aakash’s mother said. “That rich boy.”

  “How rich?”

  “Very rich. His family owns hotels in the city.”

  Aakash’s father ate the sumptuous lunch in a sullen mood, barely talking. Aakash tried to enjoy the feast that his mother had prepared, but with the impending arrival of Rahul, he couldn’t focus on eating. He chewed his food halfheartedly and replied in monosyllables to his mother, who once again cried and said that nothing she did pleased her son anymore, and that was all the more reason that she should get out of the country, go away forever. “You don’t need me after all,” she said.

  “I need you,” Aakash said, stuffing pulao and meat exaggeratedly into his mouth.

  “Well, we don’t need you, that’s for sure,” his father said. “You’re useless.”

  This worsened Aakash’s mother’s crying. Aakash, too, experienced a sting at his father’s “useless” comment, but he neither had time to dwell on it nor to come up with a repartee because Rahul’s motorcycle vroomed loudly outside. Hurriedly Aakash gargled in the sink, wiped his mouth, and, grabbing the extra plate his mother had made, went to the front door.

  Rahul came into the foyer but didn’t take off his helmet, which meant that he’d been drinking and didn’t want Aakash’s parents to smell him. “Where is she?” Rahul whispered. “In your room?”

  Aakash signaled to him to follow him up the stairs. From the kitchen his mother shouted out a greeting to Rahul, who responded with, “Hello, Auntie.”

  Outside his door, Aakash whispered to Rahul, “Okay, I want you to really behave. Be gentle with her.”

  “Gentle with a prostitute? Because she’s mute? Come on, man.”

  “She’s not a prostitute. I’ll tell you later. Oh, and also remember, this food is for her, and later when you leave, I want you to thank my mother for the delicious meal.”

  Rahul finally took off his helmet, and the air reeked of alcohol. His eyes were red and bleary: he was thoroughly drunk. “What?” Rahul said. “I was at an afternoon party.”

  “Remember”—Aakash wagged his finger next to Rahul’s nose—“if you do or say anything bad, I’ll make your life miserable.”

  “Where is all this hatred coming from? Chant Ommmm, my friend. Life is good.”

  “Maybe for you. But not for everyone. And especially not for her.” Aakash pointed to his door.

  Part II

  Bajae’s flat was in Indrachowk, and so they had to fight through massive crowds that thronged the narrow alleys of this area before they could reach her house. The taxi had to be stopped at the mouth of Asan, which meant that it was about half a kilometer to Bajae’s flat, a walk during which Aakash’s mother lost one of her slippers and his father lost his temper twice, once with a poor rickshaw puller whose wheel came awfully close to the old man’s shoes, and the other time with a small girl who was insistent on selling him oranges.

  Bajae’s flat overlooked an inner courtyard, one of those smelly, garbage-strewn places that only camera-toting foreigners found charming. Aakash vaguely recalled the reason why in her old age his grandmother lived here and not with her daughter in her spacious house; it had something to do with her inability to get along with Aakash’s father. He had made her life so miserable that she h
ad abandoned the comfort of a two-story brick building with a garden and cool breezes in the morning and the evening and had come to live here in this dump, rooming with another old woman who was also in conflict with her own family.

  As they climbed the rickety stairs up to Bajae’s flat on the second floor, Aakash wondered about Ghana, what Rahul might be doing to her. No, Aakash was going to think positively, so he tried to recall Rahul’s good traits. But he could not think of any, and he cursed himself for his suspicion, his relentlessly critical mind. Finally he came up with something: Rahul was fun, and that was the reason the two had remained friends from their school days. Aakash found Rahul dangerous and exciting—therefore fun. “Yes, fun,” he muttered as he and his father and mother stood in front of Bajae’s door. And Rahul would entertain Ghana until Aakash got home, which would be soon, Aakash assured himself. He’d stay with Bajae only for a few minutes, then return.

  Bajae’s room was dark, with only a small, lopsided wooden window to invite sunlight. Her roommate was sitting by the window, trying to insert a thread into a needle, but it was obvious her eyes were poor. “All day long she has been asking me for some Coca-Cola,” the roommate said. “Now where would an old woman like me go to get Coca-Cola?”

  “You can find Coca-Cola right out there,” Aakash’s mother said. “In that shop in the courtyard.”

  “And who’s going to give me money?” the roommate addressed her needle.

  Bajae was sleeping in her bed, a cot, really, with a lumpy mattress that gave out a smell.

  “My mother, look at her!” Aakash’s mother said, seemingly choked up.

  “Old mother!” Bajae’s roommate yelled at her needle. “Wake up! Your daughter and her husband are here.”

  Bajae opened her eyes, and after they adjusted to the figures in the room, she asked, “Did you bring my grandson?”

  Aakash’s mother yanked him closer toward the bed.

  “Sit here, Aavash,” Bajae said.

  “It’s Aakash,” his mother said.

  “The old hag is completely gone,” Aakash’s father said.

  “You haven’t heard what the old mother says about you,” the roommate informed Aakash’s father. It was quite possible, Aakash thought with abrupt clarity, that the roommate had been engaged with the needle and thread business all day, perhaps every day for the past few days. Or perhaps she’d been doing it for years. It took him some effort to pry his eyes away from the roommate, who had licked the end of her thread anew, and sat on on his grandmother’s bed.

  His grandmother’s hand was old and arthritic as it stroked his chin, commiserating with him about his parents leaving. She said that she had never abandoned any of her children—neither Aakash’s mother nor her other daughter who died in an accident—so she didn’t understand where this daughter inherited this newfangled idea. Bajae proceeded to lay all the blame on Aakash’s father, even after his mother reminded her that her husband was right there. “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” Bajae asked Aakash, who said, “I’ll be fine, Bajae. Can I go now?”

  Aakash’s father, stung by Bajae’s indictment, retreated to the shadows, but Bajae, smelling his presence, launched a series of invectives against him that stunned everyone except the roommate, whose gnarled fingers trembled in the dim light as they held the thread.

  With strength Bajae clasped Aakash’s arm and said, “How can people do this to their own blood is beyond me. How can a mother do this to her own child is beyond me. How can a daughter do this”—she tilted her head down a bit to indicate herself—“to her own mother is beyond me. Do you know how long I have been living in this foul-smelling place now? For five years. Five years, and my daughter has come to visit me here only seven times. Yes, I’ve kept a tally. What else do I have to do in my old age? If it weren’t for this budhi”—she gestured toward her roommate—“I would have died within a month after I was forced into this place. Does that surprise you, my grandson? I don’t know what story they’ve told you about me, but are you interested in listening? Are you?”

  Aakash was only half-listening. He should have never left Ghana’s side. But what could he have done? The pressure of the moment was enormous, and he’d found himself caving in before he could think properly. The instant that he and Rahul had entered his room, Aakash’s mother had shouted at him in panic from below, “Son, I completely forgot that we were supposed to visit Bajae today. She’s called us because we are leaving the country.”

  Aakash yelled back at her, “So you two go. She’s invited you and Father, not me. I’m not needed.”

  “No, no, she repeatedly said that she hasn’t seen you in ages, that she doesn’t know when she’s going to die.”

  “I’m not going!”

  Rahul was sitting on the bed, his eyes locked with Ghana’s. Her facial expression also indicated that she was in awe of him. Rahul hadn’t uttered a word since he entered the room and sat on the bed, but now he said, without taking his eyes off Ghana, “Who’s Bajae?”

  “She’s my mother’s mother.”

  “I didn’t know you had a grandmother.”

  “You don’t know much about me.”

  “You should go.”

  “Why?”

  “Family relations are important.”

  “You saying that? You?”

  “I’ve always been a family man.”

  “You will sell your mother for a bottle of Jack Daniels.” Aakash shouldn’t have uttered such harsh words about Rahul’s mother, but Rahul was getting on his nerves. Was he saying these things to impress Ghana? Did he not realize that she couldn’t understand what he was saying?

  “You should go,” Rahul said. He reached out to grab the plate of food Aakash had set on the side table and placed it in between them on the bed. Ghana dug her right hand into the rice and vegetables, scooped them up, and—lo and behold!—lifted them to Rahul’s face. Rahul opened his mouth wide and lovingly took the food in.

  “What are you doing?” Aakash asked him. “That food is for her.”

  “Aakash!” his mother shouted from below. “I can’t go to Bajae without you. As it is, she is not happy that we’re going to Hong Kong by ourselves.”

  “Go, Aakash,” Rahul said, his mouth full. “We’ll be fine here.” Now it was his turn to scoop up the dal-bhat and feed it to Ghana.

  “I’m not going,” Aakash said. He’d reached out to snatch the plate away from between them when there was a loud rap on the door. “Aakash.” It was his father. “You might not ever see your mother again, and your Bajae—who knows when she’s going to croak.”

  Aakash moved closer to the door and said, “Father, I have a headache.”

  “Then take Citamol.”

  “Go, Aakash,” Rahul said. “I’ll make sure that she’s okay. I’ll make sure that . . . no one touches her.”

  “What is your rich friend saying?” his father shouted from the other side.

  “Nothing.”

  “Are you two smoking ganja in there?”

  Rahul smiled at Aakash as though to say, Well, we could, but then he said, “Go, Aakash, what’s the worry? It’s just a matter of an hour or so, isn’t it? I’ll stay with her, make sure she’s well fed, try to talk to her, and you’ll be back.”

  “Why don’t you come with me, Rahul? I could use some company. You’re a charmer with old women, and Bajae will love you.”

  “It’s a private family matter,” Rahul said, his eyes on Ghana. “I don’t want to intrude.

  “Aakash,” his father said, “smoking ganja, are you?”

  Frustrated, Aakash flipped open the latch and cracked open the door. “Okay, I’m coming.”

  His father slid a foot in, preventing Aakash from closing it again. “Is that ganja smell?” His father was strong, and Aakash had to push hard to keep the door from opening farther. He threw all his weig
ht on the door as his father attempted to widen the gap to slide in. Aakash made frenetic hand signals to Rahul, who clasped Ghana’s hand and took her over to the balcony, making her crouch behind the balcony door. Aakash motioned to him to leave her and return to the room, and after he did, Aakash slowly let go of the door. His father was panting as he stepped in. He looked past Aakash and Rahul, saw nothing, smelled nothing—except perhaps the whiff of booze on Rahul’s breath—and Aakash challenged him, “Satisfied? Anything else you need to see?”

  “If you’re not smoking, then why this hush-fush? What do you have to hide?”

  Rahul put his arm around Aakash’s father as though the two were friends, and led him out of the room, saying, “Nothing, Dad. You are becoming suspicious for no reason.”

  Strangely, Rahul’s touch mollified Aakash’s father, and he grumbled, “If you had a son like mine, you, too, would be suspicious.”

  All three were on the landing now. Rahul said, “Aakash, why don’t you go and visit your poor, ailing grandmother? I’ll wait for you here.”

  “I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

  “No worries. I’m free today and don’t have any other place to go.”

  “What do you need now?” Aakash’s father addressed his son. “A medal for going to visit your grandmother?”

  Everything became too much for Aakash, and he told his father, “All right, give me a minute, and I’ll be right out.”

  Leaving Rahul’s arm still around his father, Aakash retreated to his room, slamming the door shut behind him so his father couldn’t see. Ghana was still crouched on the balcony, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered to her. “Rahul will take care of you. I’ll be back soon.” The softness of his voice seemed to soothe her, and she looked pleadingly into his eyes. He kissed her on her forehead before he left.

  Bajae’s voice became softer. “You know when I was young, when your mother was still a child, I used to go to the movies. Ashok Cinema Hall—that was my favorite theater. We lived in Baghbazar then, your grandfather and I, and on some Saturdays we walked over to Ratna Park and caught the bus to Patan Dhoka. I used to link my fingers with his, with your mother walking in between us. There were no minibuses then, nor any three-wheelers, only those big buses, and while we waited, my husband bought some amla from a nanglo shop, and we sucked on them. The bus ride was my favorite part. I sat by the window, watching the city pass me by. The bus ride seemed so long—from Ratna Park to Shahidgate, turning around, then onto Singha Durbar, through the wide expanse of Thapathali, crossing the Bagmati Bridge, then the steep climb in Pulchowk toward Patan. By the time the bus stopped at the Patan Dhoka, I would be flushed with excitement at what lay ahead: the walk from the Dhoka to the cinema hall, the small temple on the side of the road that you half-circled before moving deeper into the alley, and—voilà!—there it was, Ashok Cinema Hall. You know, in those days, Ashok Kumar the actor was really famous, and I’d watch his movies in that very cinema hall. For the longest time I thought that Ashok Kumar the actor owned our Ashok Cinema Hall, that he was behind the curtains, observing us watching his movies. Ha, ha, ha! How silly I was. But those were the happiest days for me, before your mother began to throw her teenage tantrums and before your dear grandfather passed away and I was left at the mercy of your mother and this man.” She thrust her finger at Aakash’s father, who was so deep in the shadows that it was hard to tell he was in the room.

 
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