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Arresting god in kathman.., p.15

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 15

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  The next day news spread among the people who knew them that Kanti had caught Jaya with another woman. In some versions of the rumor, the woman was a prostitute. Talk of the incident also reached Kanti’s mother, who pounded on Kanti’s door when she locked herself in her room, “Kanti, open the door. You need to be with someone.” Kanti ignored her.

  Jaya called later that evening, but she wouldn’t speak to him. He came by, this time silently on the motorbike, and her mother shouted at him from the gate. Kanti could see him from the window; his face was grim. What was he thinking? In a short while he left, rewing the engine and drowning out her mother’s voice.

  Kanti avoided everyone for a few days, stayed in her room, listening to music or reading novels she’d already read. She took out her old photo albums and went through the pictures, remembering friends she’d forgotten. One morning, she told her mother that she wanted to go away. Her mother understood. Her daughter needed time, some breathing space, to get over this unspeakable thing, and then she might agree to marry Prakash.

  Kanti spent two weeks in India. First, she went to Delhi, visited the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra. She thought of Emperor Shah Jehan, grief-stricken by the death of his beloved queen and wanting to create a grand tomb, which, legend said, engaged the skills of twenty thousand craftsmen for more than twenty years. Kanti sat in the garden by the oblong pool that reflected the tomb. But the dust and the dry, scratchy heat of Agra soon made her want to leave, so she took a train to Bombay. There, she met a high school friend, Sushma, in a girl’s hostel near Juhu. Sushma was surprised to see Kanti, especially when she learned that Kanti was traveling by herself. “What? You think you’re an American now?” Laughing, Sushma added, “You want to stay in an ashram here? Search for your spiritual self?” The next day, as Kanti was on a train to central Bombay, she saw a couple kissing passionately while the other passengers watched with amusement. A man standing near her prayed, his eyes closed, his chin lifted toward the ceiling. By the time she got off at the bedlam of Victoria Terminus, she was drenched in sweat. She spent the day by the oceanside in Marine Drive, smelling the ocean, and in the evening stopped to observe a street artist draw chalk portraits of gods and goddesses on the sidewalk. Watching the delicate movements of the artist’s fingers, the care with which he sharpened the curved trunk of Lord Ganesh, she understood that if she wanted clarity in her life, she’d have to force herself to move beyond Jaya.

  Back in Kathmandu, Kanti pushed herself to find a job. Eventually, through an uncle who was with an engineering firm, she found work in a dilapidated office right in the center of the city. The salary was not large, but at least she no longer had to ask her mother for spending money. She started mingling with people again, going to a party in a hotel or attending an afternoon tea on a friend’s balcony. Now her mother wanted her to marry as quickly as possible. One night, as Kanti was about to go to bed, her mother told her that Prakash was coming to the house the following week with his two uncles. Kanti didn’t protest.

  She did sometimes think of Jaya and his self-absorption, his sense of grandeur, and wondered what made him kiss that woman in the bar. How can you be sure, Kanti asked herself, that there isn’t something like that in every person, an ugly facet that will at some point reveal itself? How could she be sure, for that matter, that this doctor, this Prakash, did not also have a defect that would surface once they were married?

  She did see Jaya twice on social occasions, once at a party in a friend’s house, and once in the lobby of the Soaltee Hotel, the very hotel where they’d spent long afternoons. They smiled at each other, self-consciously. Each time it was a different, heavily made-up woman draped around him. Jaya had lost weight, and he looked haggard. She had heard that he was drinking more heavily. At the party, she found him looking at her forlornly from across the room when he probably thought she wouldn’t see him.

  On the morning Prakash was to arrive, her mother handed her a Banarasi sari she had expressly ordered from India for the occasion. It was beautiful, purple with a red border, embroidered with golden thread.

  “Do I really have to wear it?” Kanti said, but before her mother could answer, she got up to try it on, because she hadn’t worn a Banarasi in years. The sari suited her, made her face brighter.

  “Prakash will be hypnotized,” her mother said, her eyes shining.

  As the afternoon approached, her mother became nervous and kept scolding the servant for petty mistakes. Kanti was amused, and once she even joked, “Is he coming to see you, Mother?”

  Prakash and his two uncles showed up at precisely four o’clock. Both uncles were short, and, on looking closer, Kanti saw that they were twins, although only one had a mustache. Prakash was taller than he had appeared in the picture, with a stoop that made him seem deeply interested in whomever he was talking to. Her mother hurriedly invited them into the drawing room, where a tray of cut apples, bananas, and guavas sat on the table. “Why don’t you talk with them, Kanti, while I fetch something from the kitchen,” her mother said.

  There was silence after her mother left, everyone waiting for someone to initiate a conversation. Kanti knew that the burden was to fall on a man, so she smiled and kept her mouth shut. Finally, the mustached uncle said, “Nice house you have here, Kanti.”

  Before he could continue, Prakash said, “Is it a master’s in economics you have?” His voice was deep and guttural, like that of Amitabh Bacchan, the Hindi movie star.

  Kanti nodded.

  “Plenty of jobs here with that degree,” the mustached uncle said.

  They talked about her studies for a while, neither party broaching the crucial question of whether she would indeed go back to America for her Ph.D. if she were to marry Prakash, who had already opened a clinic in the city. Kanti knew that her mother hoped she would forget about the degree once she was married.

  Kanti found Prakash easy to talk to. There was a little glimmer in his eyes whenever he said something, as if he, too, found this whole bride-viewing ritual amusing. Soon, the uncles grew quiet and let Prakash and Kanti carry on the conversation. Prakash talked of his experiences in England, the craving for food from home, the loneliness in his dormitory in the evenings, and Kanti felt that he understood what it meant to live in two different worlds.

  When her mother brought hot puris and chana-tarkari from the kitchen, the uncles praised her culinary skills. “Our Kanti cooks even better than I do,” her mother said, and Kanti looked at her sharply, for she knew how to make only a few dishes, and even then had to ask her mother for help. When Kanti turned, she found Prakash looking at her with a smile to indicate that he could tell what she was thinking.

  After they left, her mother praised Prakash so much that Kanti had to tell her to stop. “Well, what did you think?” her mother said. “You liked him, didn’t you?”

  “He’s a nice man,” Kanti said. “But I can’t make such a momentous decision after just one meeting.”

  “How many meetings do you need?” Her mother’s tone was somewhat harsh. “This is not America, you know, where you sleep together before marriage.”

  “That’s not what I said. At least a few more meetings, alone, before I can make up my mind.”

  “You will come across as a very modern girl,” her mother said. “They might not like that—the girl saying that she needs to meet the boy more. This doesn’t happen here.”

  “If they don’t like it, then maybe I am not right for him.”

  “Kanti, why are you being so difficult? Here I am, trying and trying, and you never appreciate what I do.”

  Kanti went to her room, followed by her mother, whose voice had become louder. “You think you can do anything you like, come and go as you please, see as many boys as you want. And now, when such a good man is interested in you—”

  “I gave you my decision,” Kanti said.

  Prakash came to pick her up the next evening in a taxi. She wore a simple salwar-kameez, one of her older ones, from her school days in Ne
pal.

  At the Indian restaurant of the Annapurna Hotel, they sat near the window, from where they could see the main entrance of the hotel. The restaurant had very few people in it, which made Kanti slightly nervous. She would have preferred a crowded room so that their conversation would not be so intimate.

  Prakash drew a deep breath and said, “You know, I agree with you. People shouldn’t make hasty decisions about marriage. It’s good you said that we should meet a few times more. Although”—here he smiled and played with his napkin—“I’ve already made up my mind.”

  “You shouldn’t rush,” Kanti said, worried that she sounded like a schoolteacher.

  “You’re right,” he said. “You’re absolutely right.” He lowered his eyes. “It’s just that I’m a little lonely.”

  “All the more reason not to,” she said.

  As they ate, some men wearing traditional Indian tapered trousers and long, flowing shirts set up musical instruments in a corner of the restaurant and started singing ghazals, their voices floating through the room, quieting conversations and the clatter of forks and knives. Once or twice when she glanced at Prakash, she found him engrossed in the music, with a sadness in his eyes that startled her.

  The next morning she nearly bumped into Jaya turning a corner at Durbar Marg in front of the Royal Palace. He said, “Sorry” in a sulky tone.

  She adjusted her shirt and, without thinking, said, “Can’t you watch where you’re going?”

  He looked surprised, and they both burst out laughing. But he turned his back to her, leaned his arm against the building, and placed his forehead on it, convulsed with the hiccup-like laughter with which she was all too familiar.

  She stood there, on the middle of the sidewalk, aware that people were looking at them with curiosity. She could not make up her mind whether to stay until Jaya faced her or whether to stop laughing and move on.

  The next moment, Jaya turned around, his cheeks damp. He tried to frown and again broke into laughter.

  “Come on, don’t embarrass me,” she said, bouncing her fist on his arm. The words and gesture broke whatever intimacy they’d just established, and he composed himself, a shadow on his face.

  “How are you, Jaya?” she asked.

  “Life continues,” he said.

  Standing there in front of Jaya, she suddenly did not care whom he had kissed and how many women he had slept with since they parted. And she wanted to say something more to him, to comfort him, comfort herself, make plans to meet, but she swallowed the words and phrases that came to her.

  He looked at her expectantly, and when she didn’t speak, he said, “I have to go. I have to meet someone.”

  She nodded, and he left.

  At work that day Kanti was impatient with everyone and everything. “Are you ill, Kanti? Do you want to go home?” her supervisor asked, but she shook her head and pretended to be busy.

  When everyone left the office in the evening, she picked up the phone and dialed Jaya’s number. It came to her easily, ready on her fingertips. The phone rang for a long time. She wasn’t surprised that Jaya was out, and his parents must have been on one of their trips abroad. She could imagine the servants out in the garden, the setting sun bathing the jasmine and marigolds in pink, the large stone Buddha in the middle, almost smiling, the servants laughing and joking, taking advantage of the freedom, the phone by the stairs, the sound carrying to the corners of the big empty house.

  She and Prakash went out again a few days later, this time to a rooftop restaurant in the center of the city, where they sat under a colorful garden umbrella. Prakash ordered beer, which surprised Kanti, because she hadn’t seen him drink. Was he another Jaya? He said, with some embarrassment, “We should celebrate. You liked me enough to see me a second time.” He persuaded her to order wine, which she barely touched all evening. She hoped he didn’t think she was going to say yes just because she was with him again.

  But he didn’t broach the subject of marriage. They talked about his work, the problems he dealt with among his patients, his ambitions for the new clinic. She kept searching his face to see whether there were traces of the sadness she had seen last time. But this evening he was in a jovial mood, cracking jokes and asking her questions about America. Were Americans as wild as the Brits thought they were? Did she see Nelson Mandela in New York after his release? He kept ordering more beer, and she was worried that he might be drunk by the time dinner was over.

  When they finished, it was already dark, and a light drizzle was falling. With a bit of a slur to his words, Prakash said, “I find rain romantic, don’t you?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps we should go.”

  They stood under an awning, waiting for a taxi. The rain began to splatter on the asphalt, and people ran to whatever shelter they could find. All the taxis that whizzed by were occupied. Prakash went upstairs to the restaurant to call for a taxi, and when he came down, she could see that his movements were still not coordinated.

  The rain continued, and thunder rumbled overhead. Lightning streaked through the city, illuminating everything in sight. She caught a glimpse of Prakash’s face and saw that his eyes were far away.

  The cab he’d ordered appeared nearly twenty minutes later. When the driver asked where they were headed, Prakash, his hand casually on her arm, said, “Where are we going?”

  “I want to go home,” she said, surprised that he would think they would go anywhere else, in this rain, this late. She gave the driver her address.

  After a few hundred yards, the cab stalled. The driver cursed, got out, and, instantly drenched with rain, opened the hood and tinkered with something. The car started but stopped again after a few yards. This happened three or four times, and the taxi finally refused to budge. Kanti asked the driver whether he could summon another taxi from the company, and the driver said, “How? I don’t have a phone in here, and I don’t see any shops around.”

  “We can walk,” Prakash said. “It’s not too far.”

  They stepped out of the taxi and were pelted with rain. Prakash linked his arm in hers, and she let him. They half-ran, half-walked to the house. Just as she reached to open the front door, Prakash said, “Kanti, may I tell you something before you go?”

  “Here, in this rain? Why don’t you come inside?”

  “No, your mother is inside,” he said. “Besides, we’re already thoroughly soaked.”

  She waited.

  “I know how you feel,” he said.

  “I don’t understand.”

  “I mean, about that Rana boy.”

  It took a moment for Kanti to realize whom he was talking about; she never thought of Jaya as a Rana boy. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

  “I know how you feel,” Prakash repeated. “I feel the same way. I understand you.” His voice became strange, as if he were about to cry.

  She saw a boy staring at them from a neighbor’s house.

  “I had a girlfriend,” Prakash said. “In England.” He paused. “I think of her all the time.”

  She didn’t know what to say, so she remained quiet. A man walked by, holding a large umbrella.

  “Her name was Sandy. She was from Kenya,” he said. He touched her hand. “She was as beautiful as you are, Kanti. But she went to Kenya and never came back.”

  “Family obligations?” Her voice sounded cold to her.

  “No, no,” he said. “Her parents were dead. She had an elder brother who was already married. She left me. She just decided that she didn’t want me.”

  “Why wouldn’t she want you?”

  “Who knows? Maybe she didn’t love me. Maybe she realized the difficulty—I mean, getting intimate with someone from a different culture. Maybe she’s happily married now to a black man, has kids. I don’t know why she left me.” Prakash apparently realized that he sounded pathetic, for he straightened his shoulders and said, in a controlled voice, “I guess I wanted to tell you that I know the feeling.”

/>   “All relationships are not the same, Prakash-ji,” she said, hoping he’d notice the distance the ji brought.

  “I apologize,” he said. “I didn’t mean to probe.”

  “Good night.” She opened the door, went inside, and closed it firmly behind her.

  Inside, she leaned against the door and held still, water running down her legs and forming a pool around her feet. She looked toward her mother’s room, and saw, through the narrow gap under the door, that the lights were off. Kanti knew that her mother was lying awake in bed, listening to the sound of the rain and the creaking of the door. Kanti slid down and sat on the floor. She wondered where Jaya was right now—probably in bed with some awful woman in a hotel. But, then, Kanti herself had been such a woman for a while.

  Kanti got up and went to her room.

  “Kanti, is that you?” her mother’s voice rang faintly, but Kanti didn’t respond.

  The next morning Kanti gave her mother her decision about Prakash.

  “But what happened? What’s wrong with him?”

  “Nothing is wrong with him,” she said.

  “Then?”

  “I’m not ready, Mother.”

  “Not ready,” her mother said, nodding slowly. “I understand. You want to be an old maid.”

  Her mother remained cold after this, replying to Kanti in monosyllables.

  On the day she was to leave for North Carolina, Kanti tried calling Jaya. A servant told her that Jaya had left the country. No, the servant did not know where he had gone. “India perhaps? Maybe America?” He sounded as if the two countries were similar. Suddenly, fear gripped Kanti’s belly. The fight in Gokarna, the two men . . . Jaya had gone looking for them, and now his body was lying . . . She shook her head.

 
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