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Mad country, p.15

Mad Country, page 15


Mad Country

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  “Mother, leave him alone,” Aakash’s mother said, her cheeks wet with tears.

  “They told me I was too old,” Bajae said, addressing Aakash. “They said I was losing my mind. They belittled me every moment they got. They told me that I was a bad mother and a dreadful mother-in-law.”

  Aakash’s father mumbled from the shadows that on her deathbed, the old woman had turned into a candidate for an insane asylum.

  “Grandma,” Aakash said, “I have a friend waiting for me at home. I really have to go.”

  Bajae loosened her fingers on Aakash’s arm and said, “Of course, you, too. What was I expecting? After all, what am I to you?”

  The left side of her face was twisted, as though a bone or a sinew inside had slid down. He remembered a photo of Bajae from her younger days, a young, fair-faced woman standing next to her husband and her daughter. Her fingers were entwined with her daughter’s.

  “Grandma,” Aakash said, “you are everything to me.” He sounded like an actor in a third-rate Nepali movie. Still, he couldn’t help himself, and he said again, “You mean so much to me, Grandma. Seriously.”

  “Do you mean that, Grandson?” Bajae asked.


  “Then don’t let me die in this purgatory. Take me somewhere, Grandson, where I can exhale my last breath in peace.”

  From the shadows, Aakash’s father: “Now you want to burden your grandson with your old, rickety bones?”

  Trembling, Bajae attempted to sit up on the bed. “I have a right to die in dignity, do you hear?”

  “Dignity,” her roommate said, nodding at her needle and thread.

  “Grandma, I can’t look after you,” Aakash said. “I can barely take care of myself.”

  “I don’t want to die here!”

  Helplessly, Aakash looked at his mother, who chided Bajae, “What are you doing? After so long your grandson comes to visit you, and all you do is add to his worries?”

  “Her grandson can wipe her arse when she loses control over her bowel movements,” Aakash’s father said. “He can feed her soup and wipe her chin. He can give her a bubble bath.”

  “Hush,” Aakash’s mother said.

  Bajae had now curled up in the fetal position, her leathery feet pulled close to her behind, her eyes clenched tightly shut. Aakash placed his hand on her arm and said, “Grandma,” but Bajae had turned into a shy turtle, impenetrable.

  “It takes ages for me to coax her back out when she gets like that,” the roommate said.

  “You should’ve kept your mouth shut,” Aakash’s mother said to her husband.

  “What do we do now?” Aakash asked.

  His mother sat on the bed, jiggled Bajae’s arm, and said, “Come on, Mother. Give up such childishness. We came here to say goodbye to you, and I don’t see why you can’t nicely bid us goodbye. Who knows when we’re going to be back next—it’ll certainly not be while you’re alive.”

  “She’s going to play corpse until you take her away from here,” the roommate said.

  And Bajae did. Aakash called her a few times, but she remained curled up. Aakash’s father began to harangue his wife and son, saying that it was useless with this old hussy, that they’d so much to get done before they left the country. Aakash thought about Ghana, whether Rahul had already made licentious advances on her.

  Yet there was something heartbreaking about his old grandmother coiled up like this. He had to make things right. After all, it wasn’t to her daughter and son-in-law that Bajae had appealed; it was to Aakash, her grandson. He couldn’t simply walk away from her! But he didn’t know how to appease her. He wasn’t used to dealing with old people, and he was certainly not skilled in the art of mollification. “Bajae,” he tried again. Then, thinking of something, he turned to his parents and said, “You two leave now. I’ll handle her. Can’t you see that she’s traumatized?” He addressed the roommate, “You, too. Go now, please. Leave us two alone for a while.”

  “But this is my house,” the roommate said. “Where will I go?”

  “Take her to that shop down the street,” Aakash instructed his parents. “Feed her some sweets, some tea. Then you can leave to finish your packing.”

  “You think we have money flowing out of our pockets?” his father said. “If we spend money on toothless old ladies in Nepal, how will we survive in Hong Kong? Or in America, if it comes to that?”

  “Here,” said Aakash, and handed a five-hundred-rupee bill to his mother from his wallet. “Please leave now.”

  “All right, Bajae, we’re going,” Aakash’s mother said, but Bajae remained motionless. Her roommate finally set down the needle and the thread by the window and stood, her spine bent. She was even smaller than he’d thought—she barely came up to his mother’s waist as she exited the room with her palm on her hip.

  Aakash sat on the bed and massaged his grandmother’s back, gently rubbing his fingers along her spine. The movement soothed him, but he was uncertain it was doing her any good. Still, he continued to rub her curved spine with his fingers until it straightened a bit. Finally, she stirred, opened her eyes, and turned toward him. “Why are you still around?” she asked. “Why don’t you, too, leave me to my fate?”

  “Grandma, I don’t want you to think badly of me.”

  “After I croak, no one will have to worry about me anymore. Your mother may even dance in the streets.”

  “You know she won’t.”

  “And your father will celebrate with a goat sacrifice.”

  “They’re leaving the country, and there are no goats in Hong Kong.”

  Bajae sighed, then took his hand. “You need to look after yourself, my grandson.”

  “I will, but I can’t look after you, Grandma. I wouldn’t know what to do with you, and I’m afraid that you’ll suffer even more with me than you will here with your roommate.”

  She watched him for a while, then smiled. “Then will you do one thing for me?”


  “Take me to the Pashupatinath temple and leave me there. Someone I know lives in a house inside the temple complex, and I’d rather spend my last days there than in this room.”

  “Who is this person?”

  “It’s someone from my past. A man who I once thought I was going to marry. When I didn’t, he became celibate.”

  “Have you been in touch with him all these years?”

  “No, but he’ll take me in. I know him well.”

  Aakash looked at his watch.

  “It’s my death wish, Aavash. Other people ask for water. This is what I am requesting.”

  He helped her pack a few things in a bag—nothing more than a dhoti or two, a few photos of gods and goddesses, and a couple of necklaces. But when it came time for her to walk, she couldn’t. She stood up, then sat right back down again; her legs couldn’t hold up her body. He had no choice but to hoist her on his back. She was light like bamboo, and he carried her down the stairs with no effort, although he had to ask her to watch her head as the ceiling was quite low. The bright sunlight outside dazzled his eyes. He paused for a moment, getting his bearings as people walking by the busy alley looked at them curiously. It was not a common sight in the city; in the hills and mountains people still carried the sick and the old on their backs to health posts miles away. He had to find a taxi, and he had to find it before his parents and the roommate returned. He found a taxi idling in the chowk, and he helped Bajae into the backseat and slid in next to her. As the taxi pulled away, he looked back and spotted his father and mother and the roommate emerge from a tea shop, not too far from the mouth of the courtyard where he and Bajae were only a moment ago.

  As they approached the Pashupatinath area, Aakash realized that if his parents decided to return home before he did, it was quite likely that his mother would go up to his room with tea for Rahul, and she’d disc
over Ghana, unless Rahul didn’t open the door for her. Aakash had to move: he had to find Bajae’s celibate friend quickly, deposit her there quickly, then head on back home quickly. The taxi stopped near the temple and they got out. With Bajae on his back, he loped toward the big gate of the temple, he in Calvin Klein jeans, she in a tattered dhoti. People stared, some laughed, some gestured in awe. His arms were numb by the time they passed through the gate and came upon the giant buttocks of Shiva’s bull, Nandi, who was gazing tenderly at her lord in the main shrine.

  Aakash swiveled left, where on raised platforms some sadhus and monk types were reciting prayers. He asked Bajae what the name of her monk was, and she could come up with only his first name, Gopal. With her on his now-throbbing back, he asked around. Some said there was no monk named Gopal living in the complex; others said complainingly that there were too many monks named Gopal.

  His arms aching, Aakash exited the main temple area and crossed the footbridge across the Bagmati River to the east. As a college student, he’d smoked hash here during Shivaratri, when ash-smeared naked sadhus from all over flooded the temple to pray to Shiva. A few tourists, making awed sounds, were snapping photos of burning corpses on the funeral pyre across the river to the left. An old sadhu, his eyes red, sat in a pavilion and smoked a chillum, and it was to him that Aakash turned with his query.

  “Gopal Shivakoti?” the sadhu asked. A small cry escaped Bajae’s mouth, and the sadhu said that Gopal had shifted to the Guheswori temple, a short walking distance to the north.

  Aakash observed the steps up the hill that he’d have to climb to take her to Guheswori. He looked around to see if he could hire someone, perhaps an idling laborer, to carry Bajae, but was overcome by the notion that it was his filial duty to transport his grandmother on his back. This was the least he could do for her. He recalled the Hindu myth of a young man who carried, in two baskets balanced by a wooden bar on his shoulders, his feeble, blind parents for a pilgrimage across the Gangetic plains. But the myth’s high-mindedness soon dissipated, as after only a few steps up the hill he was breathless, and his calves burned. “You can rest for a while,” Bajae said, but he continued, now each step weightier. At one point he did stop, and they both sat on a step. Bajae used her dhoti to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Poor grandson,” she said. “You never thought you’d end up doing this for your grandmother, did you? Don’t worry. Lord Shiva above is watching all of this. He’ll remember when it comes time for you to get to heaven.”

  “Grandma,” Aakash said, “I’m not doing this so I can get to heaven.”

  A few temple monkeys gathered around them. Aakash shooed them away.

  “Hanumanji,” Bajae said.

  “Filthy, disease-carrying monkeys, Grandma,” Aakash said. “Don’t be fooled into thinking that they represent your monkey god.”

  “Hanumanji carried an entire mountain on his palm because he was so devoted to Lord Ram, did you know that?”

  “Yes, yes,” Aakash said impatiently, all too familiar with that story. An hour had passed since they left Bajae’s room, and he doubted whether his parents were going to wait for much longer, if they hadn’t left already. And he shuddered to think what might have happened in his room between Rahul and Ghana. When he reached the top of the hill, his whole body was burning with exhaustion.

  Once more they rested, then proceeded again, passing by a group of youngsters in yoga postures. Fortunately, the ground was level here, and a bit farther up, the stairs descended to Guheswori. “You know what guhe means, Grandson?” Bajae asked. “It means a woman’s private parts. So Guheswori is a temple of a woman’s private parts.”

  Since the temple of the goddess was in a fairly small courtyard, it didn’t take them long to find out that a sadhu named Gopal lived in one of the houses surrounding the main shrine. Bajae, suddenly energized, stood on her own two feet and repeatedly shouted the man’s name. Children gathered around them.

  A man appeared at a window. He was bearded, with grayish hair tied at the top of his head. It was hard to discern his age; he didn’t look as old as Bajae. “Anuradha?” the man asked in disbelief.

  “Recognize me, Gopal?” Bajae cried. “Did you ever think you’d set your sight on these old bones?”

  The man withdrew from the window, and Aakash thought that the man, the celibate sadhu that he was, wanted nothing to do with this woman from his past. But there he was, at the door. Aakash saw that he was indeed older than how he’d appeared. His head was big, but his body was small and his back slightly bent. He leaned against the doorframe and smiled at Bajae. “Anuradha, you are as beautiful as ever.”

  Bajae’s cheeks were moist. “And you have completely changed. Look at you. You’ve turned into a sadhu-santa, renouncing the world.”

  “What else could I do? You . . . life dealt me such a blow that I had no choice but to retreat.”

  “Well, we can’t change what we’ve done, can we? But here we are, after so many years.”

  “Won’t you come in, Anuradha? I don’t have much, but I can offer you tea.”

  Bajae turned to Aakash. “Grandson, you can go now.”

  “Are you sure, Grandma?”

  “Yes. Now I’ve found Gopal.”

  Aakash embraced her and kissed her forehead. “Call me if you need me.”

  But her full attention was already on Gopal, who was also gazing at her rapturously.

  As Aakash exited through the northern entrance, where he’d be sure to find a taxi, he glanced back. Both of them stooping, Bajae and Gopal were entering the house, and Bajae was holding Gopal’s arm for support.

  Everything looked normal as he approached his house—the front gate was shut, all the windows were shut, as they always were, in fear of daylight robbers. He opened the main gate and slipped in quietly. Rahul’s motorcycle wasn’t there. Aakash knew that an empty room awaited him upstairs. With a breaking heart, he trudged up and opened it. He thought he could detect a faint smell of romance, a crushing kind of infatuation.

  He lay down on the bed. Within minutes he heard his parents come in, and suddenly wondering whether he’d been mistaken, whether Rahul had left by himself, Aakash jumped up and rushed to the balcony. But Ghana wasn’t there.

  “Aakash,” his mother yelled as she climbed up the stairs. “Where did Bajae go? Where did you take her? We waited and waited, but neither you nor Bajae returned. What did she have you do?”

  Aakash lay down on the bed again. His mother spoke to him from the doorway. “Where did you take her, Aakash?”

  “I took her to meet her old lover.”

  “What shameless talk! Why are you speaking about your grandmother that way?” his mother said. “I don’t know what has happened to you these days. It seems like you are bent on hurting us, even in our last minutes here.”

  Aakash turned away from her.

  Part III

  There were moments when Aakash thought he didn’t know anyone in the city. And in one sense it was true: with his beard and his uncombed hair—he was beginning to resemble the lead singer of Jethro Tull, one of his favorite bands when he was a teenager—he himself had become unrecognizable. He hadn’t shaved since the day Ghana went missing, and now nursed a filthy, unkempt beard. On the streets where he meandered all day, acquaintances passed by without recognizing him, or they scrunched their noses, thinking he was a beggar. Some of them did double takes, exclaimed, “Aakash! Is that you?” They tried to carry a normal conversation, asking about his parents, his work, as if it weren’t abnormal for them to find Aakash in crumpled clothes, his body reeking, a semimaniacal expression on his face.

  One relative was aghast when she came upon him. “Just because your parents have left, does that mean that you simply let go of all of your faculties like that?” She pointed to the dirt caked on Aakash’s feet (he was wearing slippers). “No, no,” she said. “I won’t let it happen.” She
dragged him by the hand and took him to her house, where she fed him. He ate rapidly and hungrily, slurping and licking his palms; he ate so much that his stomach became distended. She pushed him out to the yard, where he crouched in his underwear as she angrily scrubbed his skin. As she bathed him with water spurting out of a pipe, she continued to rebuke him for his self-neglect, and briefly he wondered if she’d now commence to beat him with the pipe. She forced him to wear her husband’s clothes and threw his smelly clothes in a basket for the washerwoman. “You’re staying with me for a few days,” she said, but he managed to sneak out when she visited the bathroom.

  Since Ghana left, he’d been experiencing a stabbing kind of pain in his stomach. These days he didn’t go to work and meandered all over, from Badikhel to Budhanilkantha, peering into alleys, knocking on people’s doors. Occasionally in the middle of the street he bent over with stomach pain, especially when he imagined what Rahul was doing to Ghana. He likened himself to the figure in a painting he’d seen in a book once, titled The Scream, or was it The Silent Scream? A baldheaded person—a man or a woman?—stood on a bridge, holding its head, its mouth open wide in a scream. It was an image Aakash’s mind had summoned for more self-pity. Wait. He was talking as though his mind was a separate entity from him: there was Mind and there was Him, and the two were involved in a complicated, vexing relationship.

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