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Mad country, p.16

Mad Country, page 16

 

Mad Country
 


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  “Mind,” he addressed his mind in exasperation. “Just stop.”

  One afternoon it occurred to him that thus far he’d assumed Rahul and Ghana were in the city. What was the basis for that assumption? Couldn’t Rahul have taken her out of here, perhaps to Jhapa, where his family owned big properties? Aakash could picture the two of them, in the heat of the south, on their porch chewing on corn and slurping on mango while a coterie of servants catered to their needs, brought them cushions and soft drinks and little stray puppies to play with.

  Or—and this possibility made him numb—Rahul could have flown her out of the country. He could have taken her to Bombay. Rahul frequently talked about Bombay. “I’d like to live in a house by Juhu Beach,” he’d told Aakash. “Hire a couple of actresses to be my concubines. Maybe I’ll get a role in a movie, huh, Aakash? Maybe old man Amitabh Bachchan himself will take a liking to me and plead with me to join him in a buddy movie, like a sequel to Sholay. Maybe I can get you a small role, as a joker with a two-second appearance, you know, the type who makes a clown face in the background?”

  “Yes, you and Amitabh Bachchan,” Aakash had said. “I can see the two of you riding trains without tickets, jumping into hay with buxom village girls.”

  “Or I’ll get a flat by Marine Drive and eat kulfi on Chowpatty Beach.”

  Rahul could have taken Ghana even farther away, like Hong Kong. Aakash visualized his parents running into Rahul with a dark African girl on Hong Kong streets. Rahul could have taken her all the way to America—he had that kind of money—and they could be in a hotel in New York City’s Times Square, gazing at the neon signs.

  But she was here, she was here—he could feel it in his bones.

  The Supreme Commander appeared on television. “My enemies are after me,” he said. “They want to chop my body to pieces; they want to feed me to the vultures.” In the background flashed images of various beheadings, not just of Nepali workers in Iraq: a cat’s head severed as it continued to meow; a bull being slaughtered during Dashain in Hanuman Dhoka, a giant khukuri coming down swiftly on its neck and the head bouncing off toward the alarmed spectators.

  One morning instead of entering his office building, Aakash crossed the street to the peepal tree and loitered there, remembering that day he’d met Ghana. The phlegm-shooting newspaper man now also sold tea, which he boiled in a supersized kettle, and Aakash crouched next to him until five o’clock, drinking tea. This became his ritual: convince himself that he was going to work, then veer at the last moment to cross the street. At five his colleagues left the building across the street, filing out one by one, laughing and talking. It wouldn’t be too long before he’d be terminated. Already the associate editor had left him several messages, demanding to know why he was missing work.

  One day in Thamel, Aakash spotted the long-haired painter. For some reason Aakash became immensely happy at running into him. The artist was, after all, Aakash’s only connection to Ghana. The painter was the one who’d introduced him to her. Wait! What was he saying? It was Aakash who’d found Ghana on the street, ready to be mauled by a mob. The painter merely allowed him access to his dreams. But this painter knew something about Ghana—of this Aakash was convinced. He couldn’t remember the painter’s name as he lurched after him, so he cried out, “Painter sahib, painter sahib.”

  The painter turned around just as Aakash reached him, breathless. “Do you recognize me?” Aakash asked.

  He didn’t. He wouldn’t have recognized a dapper, clean-shaven Aakash, and here was a filthy-looking young man with manic eyes.

  “No, I don’t,” the painter said. “Where have we met?” He tossed his head to throw back his hair like a woman.

  Aakash launched into a description of the day at Haawa, then quickly realized how absurd he sounded.

  “Do you need some money to eat?” the painter said. “Is that what you want?” He patted his pockets and extracted a wallet.

  “Do you know a girl from Africa?”

  The painter paused. “Who?”

  “An African girl.”

  The painter observed him. “What’s your name, young man?”

  “Aakash.”

  “Do you know an African girl?” the painter asked.

  “I used to. But she’s flown the coop.”

  “Come with me,” the painter said, and led him into a nearby shop, which, Aakash realized, was his gallery, filled with his paintings. The painter led him to the back corner, where a small painting hung. It was an African girl. Ghana. “She came to me in a dream a few weeks ago,” the painter said.

  Ghana’s eyes were slightly lowered, as though she was contemplating a decision.

  “I need to find her,” Aakash said.

  “Where are you going to find her? She is a product of my imagination.” The painter bunched his hair in his palms, then let it fall down again in a beautiful cascade.

  “She exists. I have met her.”

  “Certainly you’re not suggesting that our dreams are real? If that were the case, then all of these would have to become real, too, wouldn’t they?” The painter gestured toward his paintings. Covering an entire wall, one piece illustrated the decapitation of a Nepali migrant worker by an Iraqi insurgent. The hooded insurgent was holding the head aloft by its hair. In a garish manner blood spurted from the neck like fireworks, with extra large drops threatening to leap off the canvas. The eyes on the head were closed, and a smile adorned its lips, as though a prank were being pulled on the viewers.

  Riots had broken out in the city when the Nepali workers had been executed in Iraq, Aakash remembered now. Muslim establishments had been attacked; people had scorched tires on the streets and smashed shop windows. Rumors had floated that gangs of men were about to be unleashed on the Muslim population in the city, with instructions to capture them and behead them in public with khukuris, symbols of Gorkha warrior pride. When he’d first heard the rumor, Aakash was in Haawa, smoking a joint with Rahul. He’d felt a cold breeze on his Adam’s apple, as though someone was indeed brandishing a khukuri close to his throat.

  There were other paintings: a fly-ridden body decomposing on the sidewalk, a woman carving out an eye from a monkey’s face in the Swayambhunath temple, vultures eating a child alive on a mountaintop. There was no subtlety here; everything was glaring and blaring. How did this man become so famous through his art? Even his depictions of the gods and goddesses were tasteless: Lord Ganesh fornicating with his conduit rat; Goddess Kali in a dance bar, twirling around a pole; Shiva drunk and vomiting in a gutter. A thought cruised through Aakash’s mind: a man who lived by the sword died by the sword. He turned toward the painting of Ghana, an oasis of calm in this assault of images.

  “Do you want her?” the painter asked.

  “I need to find her.”

  “The painting, I mean.”

  “What will I do with it? It’ll make my heart ache even more.”

  “Take it. You can have it. It has no monetary value for me. This is where my bread and butter is.” He pointed toward his other paintings.

  Aakash hung the painting in the living room, right in between the solemn portraits of his parents, and was pleased at giving Ghana a place of such prominence. His parents’ expressions seemed to turn even more somber at finding the dark African girl separating them.

  The day before his parents were scheduled to leave, his mother had asked whether he wanted to go to the airport to see them off, and he said, “It doesn’t matter to me.” She took that as a further sign of his uncaring attitude and spent the next half an hour crying and complaining to her husband, who came to Aakash’s room, stood in the doorway, and said, “Can’t you show enough character in these final days to at least pretend to be a son to us?”

  “What do you want me to do?”

  “Be nice to her!”

  “Do you want me to tell her that I’ll go to
the airport to see you two off?”

  “That is the least you can do.”

  “What else do you want me to do, Father?” Aakash asked with no malice. “What else can I do that’ll make you and Mother happy?”

  His father glared at him from the doorway. “Figure it out for yourself.”

  Aakash went to the kitchen, where his mother, sad faced, was flipping through a magazine, and he told her, “Mother, I’ll go to the airport with you tomorrow.”

  “Good,” she said in a clipped voice.

  “And tonight why don’t I cook a nice dinner for you two?”

  His mother looked at him sharply, then smiled. “That’ll certainly give me happy memories on my journey.”

  So Aakash went to the market and bought all the groceries he thought he needed. On the way back to the house, he imagined, cruelly and briefly, what’d happen if he were to put some rat poison in what he was about to cook. He could see the headlines tomorrow: “young son murders his parents for trying to abandon him.”

  That evening he cooked. He chopped the meat, he sliced the vegetables; he poured oil into pans, he transferred oil from one pan to another; he rummaged in the cupboard for spices; he opened the window to let the smoke out and heard the neighbors quarrel; he threw a piece of meat to the stray dog that stood outside the window; he hung a towel over his shoulder like a real cook and dipped his index finger into the gravies and the sauces to ascertain their tastes and textures; he talked to himself in the course of the cooking: “Maybe not enough salt in this one. Hmm, I wonder if the jackfruit needs five more minutes. This must be the best-tasting spinach in the country.” All the while his parents sat in the living room, now and then commenting favorably on the ruckus he was making, and the extraordinary aromas that had filled the house.

  “We should take him with us,” his father said. “He’d make a good cook for us in the strange lands.”

  “We should buy him a chef’s hat,” his mother said, “and pretend we’re royalty.”

  It took him three hours to get everything ready. He overwhelmed himself with everything he’d concocted: apart from chicken and mutton dishes, he’d cooked four vegetables and prepared two achars. Like a true chef, he’d tasted his fares as he’d cooked, but he didn’t know whether they’d be up to the standard of his parents, who were now standing slack jawed at the entrance to the kitchen. His father came and embraced him. “Even if this meal tastes horrible, you have proven yourself to us, son.” And his mother cried. Then they sat down and ate like hungry animals.

  “Who knows whether we’d be able to eat like this again, or ever?” they wondered loudly. Uncle Subhash had a Chinese wife, they said, and the Chinese were all about noodles or pigs’ ears or frogs’ legs. “How will we survive?” Aakash’s father asked, and his mother said that she’d have to do all the cooking herself. “But won’t Subhash’s wife get offended?” his father countered.

  “She most likely will,” Aakash’s mother admitted, and for a while they pondered this problem.

  The next day they flew out of the country.

  Aakash woke up with a jolt. He had dozed while the evening had descended. It was dark in the room now, and he could no longer see the painting, but he felt its presence. A neighbor’s radio was on full blast, and he heard the chirpy voice of a radio deejay speaking in a mishmash of English and Nepali: “Ani tyo Radisson Hotelko beauty contest ke, dai, it was a well-attended affair, hoina? Ani tyo radical Maoistharu le protest program hotel kai lobby-ma gareta pani, the beauty contest chanhi successful consider garnu parchha. Ani hamro listeners harubatapani hamilay nikkai feedback paisakyaun, there is no room for old-fashioned thinking in Nepal anymore, bhanera. Understand garnubho, dai?”

  I have to find her, Aakash thought. I have to find Ghana.

  At moments he was certain he’d come upon her, somewhere unexpected, just like that time when he’d chanced upon her cowering before a mob under the peepal tree. As he wandered through alleys and lanes, Aakash suspected that Rahul, being Rahul, had already abandoned her. She must be lost and bewildered again, like she was before. He hoped he would reach her in time for her rescue.

  His foolishness made him smile. Ghana herself was surely not the same person anymore. Rahul could have even taught her some Nepali by now—the boy was good at these things. In fact, Rahul was magical in many ways. He’d been the smartest one in school, stunning the teachers with the carelessness with which he solved the toughest of math problems, wrote the most inspiring of essays. One time he’d given such a stirring performance of Mark Antony’s soliloquy during Caesar’s funeral that the principal had contacted a well-known filmmaker, an alumnus of the school, to come and speak to Rahul about career possibilities. But Rahul had sniggered through the meeting, and the filmmaker had left in frustration.

  A vision flashed across Aakash’s mind, forcing him to pause along the banks of the Bishnumati River that was now a shantytown: Ghana in a bright red bridal sari, bejeweled, circling the groom, Rahul, who was sitting in front of the wedding pyre, the priest reciting his Sanskrit chants. Surely not? Aakash thought. Surely, surely not? In all likelihood Rahul abused her for a night or two and then left her in the streets.

  But this made Aakash pause: He recalled a conversation he’d had with Rahul. Aakash had joked that he could see Rahul in his old age, like the Playboy magnate Hefner, with two dozen sex kittens about him. Rahul had laughed, pleased by the projection, then said, “You underestimate me, Aakash. Deep inside I’m a one-woman man. I’m waiting for the right one to come along. All of what you see about me is only a play, an illusion.” When Aakash had asked him how Rahul would know when his right woman had appeared, Rahul had snapped his fingers and said, “Like this. I’ll recognize her instantly.”

  The possibility of Rahul and Ghana tied in matrimony turned Aakash into a heavy smoker, a pack-a-day man, his fingers constantly fumbling with the pack, lighting up, taking deep drags. His room reeked of smoke, and the smell crept to the other parts of the house—his parents’ abandoned bedroom, the kitchen, the downstairs bathroom with its bidet.

  On the street, whenever he caught his reflection in the mirror inside a shop, he surprised himself by how unfamiliar he looked. If observed from a certain angle, he thought he resembled a renunciate who had given up all of his worldly concerns. But that was far from the truth. If anything, he was now immersed in a sadness that had collected like a deep pool inside him. He had no hopes of finding Ghana, yet once in a while in a courtyard deep in the innards of the city he couldn’t help but glance up at one of the crumbling houses, hoping that he’d see her sticking her head out to watch the street.

  Once, when he was climbing the three hundred sixty-five steps to the Swayambhunath temple, he spotted a dark woman descending, and he froze. A monkey circled him, looking at him expectantly. But when the woman came closer, he saw that she was a tourist.

  The dream returned, this time with a vengeance. Aakash was fully inside the dream, experiencing Hamad’s life. He was in a teahouse, sipping mint tea. His fingers went up to his face to touch the bruises he received from thugs in a dark alley the night before. The young men had beaten him, then taken off with his money, laughing as they called him a country bumpkin.

  Luckily he had kept some cash in the side pocket of his tunic. It would be just enough for him to survive for the next two or three days. He had to find his daughter soon. He looked around the tea shop, which was filled with men drinking tea, smoking hookahs, or talking quietly. Some of them were laborers—he could tell by their stained and worn-out garbs. He was not like them, he told himself, not poor like them. He had property in the village; he’d never have to migrate to the city to work as a laborer like these people. But he wasn’t sure anymore. Anything could happen in a person’s life. People’s fortunes changed. Tomorrow he could lose his house and his land, and he’d be on the streets. Then he’d have to find a job, and he might even be forced
to migrate to the city.

  Family. First he had to make sure that he had a family. His thoughts returned to his daughter. He hoped the city hadn’t forced her into prostitution. Girls from his village had ended up in the city brothels. If indeed his daughter had joined a brothel here and word reached his village, he wouldn’t be able to hold his head up again. His wife wouldn’t forgive him.

  Hamad finished his tea and ambled back to the lodge where he was staying. She’s not that kind of girl, he told himself. But what if some shyster had managed to seduce her, then sell her to a madame? Hamad paused under a street lamp, weary. Moths frolicked around his head. Two beggars crouching in a darkened corner heckled him.

  In the lodge he lay in bed, listening to the evening noises outside, his cheeks still smarting from the bruises. His stomach was growling, and he knew he ought to go out to eat, but he didn’t have the energy. He closed his eyes and slowly drifted to sleep, his dreams frequented by his daughter.

  At home Aakash’s mother had left a series of messages for him on the answering machine. Her voice was chirpy, young, filled with laughter and possibilities. She said that they were in Hong Kong, had visited many tourist sights, and were so impressed with everything they saw—the cleanliness, the orderliness, the skyscrapers—that they had decided to settle right there instead of moving on to America. Uncle Subhash was in the process of finding Aakash’s father a job, any job, possibly even a job as a rifle-toting guard at a bank. “Don’t laugh now, Aakash,” his mother said. “Here it’s not like in Nepal. There is nothing shameful about working as a guard—here, no one insults you as a paaley. As for me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I need to find a job, too, although I don’t know what. This is an expensive place. A Nepali woman I met has opened a hair salon, and she was saying she would be willing to train me without pay for a few weeks. She says that cutting hair is easy, and you get to meet interesting people. You know how social I am. I like talking and mingling with everyone. So I am seriously considering it.”

 
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