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Arresting god in kathman.., p.14

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 14


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  A few yards from the house he called her. “I thought we were lovers.”

  “But you abandoned me,” she said.

  He came closer. “Never again,” he said, then brought his mouth so close to hers that she thought he was about to kiss her. If he had, she didn’t know what she’d have done.

  He gave her a ride to her apartment in his Volkswagen, his arm waving near her cheeks as he talked. He was born in Nepal, he said, but grew up in Boston, then moved to New York when his parents returned to Kathmandu a few years ago. “But tell me,” he asked her, “what’s so great about Nepal except for the fact that it’s our home country?” He visited Kathmandu every year, hung out with his cousins and friends. “I don’t even like the place that much.” He smiled at her. “But I love to party there.” The word “party” came out of his mouth like a celebration itself. She told him that she was going to Kathmandu that coming summer because her mother was insisting. Occasionally the car drifted to the side of the highway, and in the Lincoln Tunnel he nearly rammed into a truck coming down the other side.

  Outside her apartment he took her hand, and her heart thumped. She thought he was going to make a move, but she didn’t want to sleep with him, not yet. She found the American sexual mores a bit intimidating. She’d had only two boyfriends during her years here, a German guy she liked but who soon lost interest in her, and a Midwesterner from Ohio, who said he loved her “exotic” eyes. She had had sex with both of them, but not with sufficient passion. In fact, she had a feeling her German boyfriend got bored because she didn’t show enough excitement while making love.

  But Jaya merely said, “Call me when you reach Kathmandu—I am also going there in May. We’ll party together. My father is Somnath Rana.” She recognized the name, as he’d meant her to: a minister who’d been involved in a bribery scandal during the Panchayat era, had absconded to the United States, and was now back in Nepal, working for a human rights group. He wrote down his New York phone number. “For rainy days.”

  The next morning she couldn’t find the slip of paper. She looked for his name in the phonebook, but it wasn’t listed. She got in touch with a few acquaintances from the party, but none knew him, and the bride and groom were already honeymooning in Hawaii. Gradually, she began to see his face in the subway in the faces of other young men who were also fair and lanky—and arrogant. Once a young Italian, who saw her staring at him, swaggered up to her and said, “Hey, you’re cute. You Indian?”

  In May she got her master’s degree in economics and made preparations to go to Nepal. She left most of her belongings in the apartment with her roommate. “I don’t think I can stay there too long,” Kanti said. When her roommate asked how she was going to get a new visa, she said, “I’m applying to Duke. Let’s see what happens.”

  When her feet touched the tarmac of Tribhuvan International Airport, in Kathmandu, the wind, coupled with the sight of her mother waving frantically from the terminal, brought back memories of how lonely she’d been the last time she was here, two years earlier. As soon as she and her mother reached the house in Paknajol, she looked up Jaya’s father’s name in the directory. There it was: Somnath Rana, Jawalakhel. Her finger lingered on the name. Her mother, who had set something to cook in the kitchen and come back, asked whom she was looking for.

  “Just a friend,” Kanti answered.

  Her mother talked incessantly, as if she had been holding her breath until her daughter came home. Kanti noticed new lines in her face and the way her eyes seemed smaller.

  They agreed to meet at a bar in a hotel.

  She found him at a table, drinking Jack Daniel’s. “I hate this country,” he said. “I don’t know why I came.” Because he laughed as he said this, she heard no bitterness in the comment. “Look at them; just look at them. Pathetic.” He shook his head as he surveyed the bar, full of Nepali men in business suits and young men and women in jeans. Later, on the dance floor, he kissed her impulsively, his wet lips nearly suffocating her, and she wondered whether she should have come to the bar to meet him. But he danced wildly, and soon she found herself matching his movements, laughing, enjoying the way the colorful revolving lights cast patterns on his face.

  He didn’t drink anymore that evening, and they left the hotel in his Suzuki to roam the city. They drove toward Ring Road, and he parked the jeep in a secluded spot. “I knew you would call me,” he said. When she asked how he knew, he replied, “You’re a lonely soul.” And when he embraced her and kissed her again, she didn’t resist; when he started caressing her breasts, she let him. They made love in the back seat, giggling when the headlight of an occasional car shone on them.

  They spent long afternoons in expensive hotel rooms in the city. He had money—his father owned land all over the country—so she didn’t worry about how often he opened his wallet.

  In a hotel one drowsy afternoon, lying next to Jaya, Kanti played with a long gray strand of hair among the thicket on his chest. She twisted it, tugged at it, resisting the temptation to break it off. “Ouch!” he said, and it struck her that he didn’t say “Aiya,” as a Nepali would. “You want to bring me bad luck, Kanti?” he said, laughing. “Who knows what could happen in this godforsaken country.” He climbed on top of her and unabashedly told her about his fantasies: standing by the door, watching her make love to another man; coming home to find her seducing another woman. She did not find these fantasies particularly exciting, but she willingly responded when she felt him inside her.

  Often, he fell asleep soon after they made love. She would stand by the window, figuring it must be cold outside, because the beggars were bundled up on the pavement. She could imagine the city of Kathmandu like New York, covered with snow, cars coming to a standstill, the Queen Pond frozen, the ice on top reflecting the light that burned at its periphery all night.

  Her mother appeared perplexed. She’d heard rumors, Kanti was sure, that her daughter had had relationships with boys in America. But perhaps she didn’t think that she’d see someone so openly here. “What has happened to you?” she asked Kanti one afternoon, her eyes filled with resentment. “You were not like this before. Mrs. Sharma from the neighborhood was asking me if having a boyfriend was all you learned in America.”

  “Jaya is different,” Kanti said.

  “He is too much like those Americans.”

  Kanti smiled. Mother’s knowledge of Americans was limited to the tourists she saw on the streets of the city.

  The neighbors and relatives stared at Jaya when they saw him and Kanti together, as if he were indeed a kuirey, an American. Kanti assumed that was because he walked with a swagger, his chest challenging the world. And he went for days without shaving. Sometimes his jeans looked as if they had not been washed in weeks.

  Jaya’s friends in the city were richer than Kanti’s friends. His cousins and best friends, Sunil and Vikas, copied Jaya’s nonchalance, his accent, and the dreamy way he talked about himself and America. Unlike his cousins, his other friends were not from the fallen Rana aristocracy. One was the son of the owner of a big hotel; another, the son of a man who owned major sugar factories and a Honda dealership. Often, when sitting in an expensive restaurant in the Soaltee Hotel or Yak & Yeti Hotel, or when watching Jaya and his friends play cricket in the enormous compound of Jaya’s house, Kanti could scarcely believe the world into which she’d stumbled—the world of upper-class Nepalis. She liked the ease with which they moved in their surroundings, with which they traveled back and forth between America and Nepal, between Europe and Nepal. At parties in Jaya’s house, she heard them talk about building new hotels in the city, about the new BMWs they’d bought, or how they’d just come back from a shopping spree in London.

  Jaya’s parents barely spoke to her, not because they disliked her but because they seemed unaware of her presence. Sometimes Kanti felt inadequate, as if she were a poor cousin, and she clung to Jaya.

  At a party one evening, while the monsoon rain sounded like a riot outside, she wa
s standing alone in a corner, watching Jaya talk to his friends across the room, when a middle-aged woman she recognized as Jaya’s cousin came over and spoke to her. “You take him seriously, don’t you?” the woman asked, and before Kanti could respond, she warned, “Be careful, Kanti. You don’t know these people. Don’t get attached to Jaya.”

  Kanti wanted her to say more, but the woman gave her a knowing look and moved away.

  Kanti thought of her early years in America, how, away from the scrutinizing eyes of her mother and her relatives, she’d initially felt she’d broken free. She went to parties all the time, even smoked pot. She told her American friends how, when she was seventeen, her uncle had seen her walking the streets of Kathmandu holding a boy’s hand. Her friends laughed as she mimicked the way he looked her up and down, then did the same to the poor boy. And when she added that her mother hadn’t spoken to her for three days, they said, “You’re kidding!”

  By her fourth year in college, though, she began to pine for home, for the smell of garlic on her mother, the gossip with childhood friends with whom she’d already lost touch, the taste of hot-hot momos, spicy Nepali dumplings. Her American friends didn’t understand why she stopped trudging across the campus to go to classes, why she stayed in her room all day with the curtains drawn, why she stopped answering the phone unless the call was from her mother. On the day a friend, Susan, brought her a carrot cake, Kanti said, “I don’t feel like eating.”

  “What’s happened to you?”

  Kanti couldn’t tell her that she hated this country—the way people smiled too much, how everything was always “wonderful,” how she didn’t feel close to anyone. All she said was that she had a mild bout of homesickness.

  “But you’ve been like this for months now.”

  Kanti took a small piece of the cake and told Susan she had a headache and needed to sleep.

  The day she finished her last exam, she flew back to Nepal not even waiting to get her diploma. But two weeks after she arrived, she wished she were back in America. She couldn’t understand why everything in Kathmandu had changed. So much dust, so many houses with their ugly television antennas shooting into the sky, the way people spat on the streets, phlegm shooting out of their mouths, the way they bragged about how much money they had, the way her relatives constantly asked when she was getting married, the way her mother arranged for her to be “viewed” by dull-looking men, the way old men and women stared at her when she walked down the street wearing pants, the way her married friends carried babies in their arms, the way their husbands wore expensive but ill-fitting suits and ordered their wives about in sweet voices. She felt eyes following her everywhere, watching her every move, ready to pounce if she made a false step, didn’t speak properly, or addressed someone the wrong way. She became convinced that she couldn’t live here, and she despised herself for this, for her consistently critical attitude toward her own people. I live in two worlds, she thought, perched halfway between them. In her restlessness she applied for the master’s program at New York University and was accepted.

  And now Jaya. He and his friends were playing cricket, and he was giving instructions to one of them who was ready to bat. She caught his eye, and he winked at her, just as he had in New York. She imagined them touring around Europe, or going back to New York to visit old friends, and then, later, back in Nepal with a couple of kids. She wondered where they would live in their old age. In Nepal? It didn’t matter. With him, the city had become pleasant. The only thing that worried her was Jaya’s drinking. He always had a glass of something in his hand. He was indiscriminate when it came to alcohol: wine, beer, whiskey, rum, even the strong local liquor. Right now he had a glass of gin on the table where she sat.

  Jaya and Kanti often went on excursions to the countryside. On his Kawasaki motorbike, he’d come by her house, sometimes deliberately having taken out the muffler so that the noise of the engine shook her quiet neighborhood. As the raucous motorbike stopped outside, Kanti held her breath, a faint throbbing in her throat, and opened the gate. Initially she’d wished Jaya wouldn’t do that, but when she saw her neighbors watching from their windows, she gained a sense of satisfaction. Frowning, her mother came to the porch and nodded at Jaya, who gave her an exaggerated greeting, hands held high above his head in namaste. On the next day, her mother would inevitably mutter to her: “These Ranas. The way they flash their money, you’d think they still rule the country. Someone needs to tell them that the Rana rule was over when the people revolted centuries ago.”

  One afternoon Kanti and Jaya went to Gokarna with a picnic basket. They sat to eat under a large tree. Jaya drank beer and, after two bottles, stroked her face and said, “I haven’t felt like this with anyone else.”

  She called him a liar.

  “Seriously,” he said.

  “So what does it mean?”

  He shrugged. “It just means what it means. What are you looking for?”

  She shook her head. She already felt too vulnerable.

  “I have thought about a life with you,” he said.

  She waited.

  “Don’t you have anything to say?” he said.

  “It’s a serious matter.” She swallowed so that her voice wouldn’t break.

  He reached over and touched her breast.

  A voice said, “What is this?” Three men stood a few yards away.

  “What do you think this is? Your bedroom?” one of them said.

  “What do you want?” Jaya said.

  “Who is this?” the man said, pointing to Kanti. “Your sister?”

  The other two laughed. One of them said, “Sister fucker.”

  Jaya got up, enraged.

  “Jaya, please,” Kanti said.

  “We like your sister, donkey,” another man said. “She’s sexy.”

  Jaya lunged at him. The three men pummeled Jaya, who was trying to protect himself and strike back at the same time. A car appeared in the distance, on the unpaved road that led to the gate. The three men ran off, laughing, shouting, “Your sister is sexy!”

  Jaya’s mouth was bleeding, and his lower lip and right eye were swollen.

  They went to the park’s office, where an official took out a first-aid kit and applied iodine to Jaya’s wounds. “Those hoodlums,” the man said. “Uncontrollable. Two months ago someone was murdered here.”

  “I remember their faces,” Jaya said. “I’ll take care of them.”

  Later, as they walked to the motorcycle, Kanti’s heart was still thumping. “We’re lucky that car came when it did. Why did you have to fight? And what was that about taking care of them?”

  “Hey, I have to protect my sister, don’t I?” he said. “My sexy sister.”

  As summer drew to an end, Jaya brought up the idea of not returning to America for another year or so. He had one more year before completing his graduate degree in business, but, as he said, “I am absolutely in no mood to go back to the books now, Kanti.” He wanted to stay in Kathmandu for another three or four months and then maybe go to Europe or even Africa before heading back to the United States. But Kanti had just received word from Duke that she was to be granted an assistantship while working for her Ph.D. in economics. So when Jaya told her he’d decided to stay, Kanti became depressed. She really didn’t want to live in Kathmandu any longer. Her mother was becoming more and more critical of her relationship with Jaya. Kanti knew that her mother had in mind another boy, a Brahmin from the city who had just come back from England with a degree in medicine. “You two can get married, then go to America for your Ph.D,” her mother said. “Just have one look. You’ll like him. I don’t know what you see in that hoodlum.” The word hoodlum touched a nerve in Kanti, and she shouted back at her mother, “He’s not a hoodlum. His life is more interesting than yours, you with your ‘what will the neighbors say, what will the neighbors think.’” After several minutes of silence, she said, “I want to marry only Jaya, Mother. I won’t look at anyone else.”

Her mother didn’t speak to her for the rest of the day. In the evening, they ate in separate rooms, and Kanti felt a pang of guilt. She had never before shouted at her mother. She went to her mother’s room and found her reading the Bhagavad Gita. She gently took the book from her mother’s hands and put it aside. “I will see your man,” Kanti said, “but you have to give me the option of refusing.”

  “I know you won’t refuse,” her mother said. “He’s very attractive. Here, let me show you his photograph.”

  The man had a faint mustache that ran all the way down to his chin. His eyes had a serious quality that she immediately liked, and she had to admit he was not bad looking. “He’s okay,” she said.

  Her mother squeezed her shoulder, saying that she knew her daughter would come around.

  “Mother,” Kanti warned, “I told you—I might refuse.”

  “All right, all right,” her mother said. “Just a look. After that, it’s your decision.”

  Kanti told her then that she was thinking about taking a year off before starting school again, and staying in Nepal. Her mother said this was a good idea, for she thought that Jaya would be leaving soon to resume his studies. “Once you get married to Prakash—” her mother started, then corrected herself. “If you get married to Prakash, then maybe both of you can go to America.”

  Kanti walked into a bar in the tourist district of Thamel one afternoon to find Jaya kissing a woman wearing gaudy makeup and a skirt that revealed her thighs. The woman’s hand cradled Jaya’s neck while Jaya’s right hand fondled her breast; their lips were glued together. There was no one else at the bar except the bartender, who was a friend of Jaya’s and also knew Kanti. He was polishing a glass, and when he saw Kanti, he froze. Kanti’s eyes focused on Jaya’s hand, the very hand that she had held, inspected, kissed, and traced with her finger. Dumbfounded, she walked out. She expected to feel angry, but she didn’t. She walked the streets of the city for the rest of the afternoon, her body light with shock.

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