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Arresting god in kathman.., p.16

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 16

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  At the airport Kanti smiled and talked to her relatives, telling them she would be back as soon as she finished her Ph.D. Her mother would not even look at her.

  When the time came to go to her gate, Kanti faced her mother, who was now examining a poster advertising Thai Airlines.

  “Talk with your daughter, Nirmala,” one of the uncles said. “Who knows when you will see her again?”

  “Mother, I will go now.”

  Her mother didn’t turn.

  “Mother.”

  Then she did turn, and Kanti saw that her eyes were filled with tears. Her mother took out a handkerchief, dabbed her eyes, and said, “All right.”

  As the plane lifted from the ground, with a thundering noise, Kanti noticed that the man across the aisle looked like Jaya—the black hair curling at the neck, the broad sulky forehead.

  Clasping the arms of her seat as the plane tilted at a giddy angle, Kanti closed her eyes, and for a brief moment an image flitted across her mind: another man, perhaps darker than Jaya, someone at Duke or in New York or in another American city. The man had bright eyes and spoke gently. And then she saw herself, studying late at night in her room close to the university, or cupping snow in her palm and crunching it to feel its texture, or walking across the campus with new friends and professors, or looking into a mirror and seeing new shadows on her face.

  Kanti opened her eyes and saw an elderly woman in the adjacent seat smiling at her. “Good, you’re awake,” the woman said. “Someone to talk to.”

  A Great Man’s House

  I STAYED because I could not bear the thought of abandoning a great man like my master. Last night, after she called me an “old pervert,” I had thought about packing my meager belongings and finding another household where I could get a job as a cook. I tried to think of people in the city, mostly my master’s friends, for whom I could work. When I realized that many wouldn’t hire me because of my age, nearly sixty, I considered going back to my village near Dharan and opening a tea stall. I have fifteen thousand rupees locked inside the tin trunk in my room, the money I have saved during my eight years as a servant in this household. I thought about all these things, and in the end knew I could not leave my master to the mercy of his young wife, Nani Memsaheb. My master suffers from heart problems, severe back pains, and other ailments that keep him bedridden. Had I left, no one would have given my master his daily baths, cooked vegetarian food for him, washed his clothes, and cleaned his bed when he soiled it at night. Even as I make the evening dinner now, I hear him groaning in his room, the constant ahhh and hummm that have been his refrain for the past two years.

  Earlier this afternoon, when I was boiling tea in the kitchen for Nani Memsaheb and her new lover, my master called my name. I went to his room, which is sparsely furnished, with one bed and with a straight-back chair where he used to sit and read before he became bedridden. He was lying on his back on the floor to ease the pain in his spine. The front of his shirt was soaked with sweat, and his eyelids were blue, sickly. Looking at him, I had to push away the memory that before Nani Memsaheb entered his life, he was a robust man, with shining eyes and a brisk walk.

  “Ram Mohan, is my hot water bottle ready?” he asked me, his voice hoarse.

  “Hajur, I was making tea for Nani Memsaheb. But I’ll fix some hot water for you.”

  “Who is it this time?”

  “He owns a hotel in Singapore,” I told him. “I’ll heat the water, hajur,” and I quickly left the room. So far as I knew, the elderly man with Nani Memsaheb didn’t own a hotel in Singapore. I had no idea of his occupation, but I mentioned the word “hotel” because my master and Nani Memsaheb own a well-known hotel in this city, and perhaps we could pretend that the man was here on business. In truth, this elderly man is a new member in her collection of lovers, most of whom don’t last for a long time. But I also lied because I wanted to end the conversation. I did not want to know what my master was feeling at that moment.

  I am still reeling from her insult yesterday. All I was trying to do was cover Nani Memsaheb with a blanket after she came home drunk and slumped on her bed without changing her sari. But as I was about to do so she opened her eyes and shouted at me.

  Now, as I walked back to the kitchen from my master’s room, I heard laughter from the balcony upstairs. The men Nani Memsaheb brings to the house are invariably old, mostly my master’s age, fifty or slightly younger. A few months ago there was one man in his late twenties, but he didn’t last more than a week.

  When I took the tea upstairs to the balcony, Nani Memsaheb was on a reclining chair, her eyes closed. The elderly man was singing to her. A long, slim cigarette burned in his fingers. I recognized the words from a Hindi song: “In this burning desire, I fall more deeply into a mire,” and so on.

  A smile was spread across her face, as if she were relishing every word coming out of his lips, and I wanted to laugh, because his voice was not that good.

  When the man saw me standing behind him, he stopped singing, and a sour look came to his face. Her eyes still closed, Nani Memsaheb clasped his hand and said, “Don’t stop, please.”

  He patted her hand and said, “Tea, Nani.”

  Then she saw me, and motioned with her finger that I was to put the tray down.

  Nani Memsaheb has long, shining hair, and her eyes are dark and almost tearful, giving the impression that she is suffering, which, strangely, adds to her charm. She has delicate lips, which I imagine she frequently rubs with oil, because they are always glistening. When she smiles, it is as if she has granted you permission to be happy. Her only physical flaw is her slightly crooked nose; it leans to the left. But her face is so arresting that the nose seems only to be a sign of character.

  She asked me to pour the tea. While I did, I tried to see whether she was still angry with me. But her face was calm, and she was focused on the man. He started his song again, stroking her chin as he sang. I finished pouring the tea and went downstairs.

  My master was calling me again, so I hurried to the kitchen to heat water for him. As I turned on the gas, I was saddened, thinking of him in so much pain while his wife was entertaining another man in the house.

  She was a different person when she used to visit my master before their marriage. It has been nearly five years since she first came to this house to see him, but I still remember the black sari she wore. She was twenty-five years old then. On that sultry day, I served omelettes to my master and Nani Memsaheb and her mother in the living room, and I somehow knew that a strong bond was already forming between my master and Nani Memsaheb, even though they’d met only moments before. Her mother, who was an acquaintance of my master, wore an ingratiating smile and was saying something to him, something about how much her daughter could learn from his spiritual guidance. My master kept nodding, but his eyes were glued to Nani Memsaheb, who only occasionally returned his look.

  “I want you to come to our meetings,” my master told Nani Memsaheb, even as her mother was talking to him. At that moment I was pouring tea for the mother, and I nearly spilled it on her lap. My master never invited young people to his weekly gatherings; he believed they had to experience the turbulence of life before they could turn their gaze inward. And for him to invite her right after they had met was even more unusual. I knew then that something strange was happening—and that it would turn out badly. But, of course, I say this after knowing everything that came to happen.

  “I will happily come to your meetings,” Nani Memsaheb said, in that small, demure voice she used during the early years.

  On hearing her words, my master gave a slow, besotted smile.

  At the time, my master had been a widower for nearly two years. His wife, whom I had never met, died in a motor car accident. A large framed picture of her still hangs in his room; she was a plain-looking woman with a broad face and horizontal strokes of sandalwood paste on her forehead, denoting her devotion to Shiva. She did not bear him any children. After her death, my master tur
ned to religion, as if he were acknowledging his wife’s heritage. He meditated regularly and practiced yoga. Sometimes when I entered his room, I found him performing the headstand, his legs stretched up toward the ceiling, one deformed big toe curved like a crescent moon. Initially I was amused that my master was trying so hard to look at the world upside down. Then I wondered how his head could carry the burden of his body, and why he didn’t topple over. If I asked whether he wanted tea or anything to eat, he would not answer me. Later, he explained that he was doing Shirsasan, called the king of all poses because it reinvigorated the entire body. And he advised me not to speak to him when he did meditation or yoga, for that would interrupt the flow of energy. Of course, I did not completely understand what he was talking about, but I knew that the great saints of the past had devised these techniques to raise one’s soul to a higher level.

  Even I tried to perform Shirsasan a few times in my room. I did not tell my master I was doing so, but I placed my pillow on the floor, then leaned forward to rest my head on it, just as I had seen my master do. Slowly I attempted to lift my legs. But they wouldn’t go up. Frustrated, I tried to jerk them up, but suddenly my back was on the floor, and the room was reeling. I gave up. Then I tried to meditate. I sat in the cross-legged position and tried to chant Om in my mind. But Om vanished as many other things demanded my attention: all the household details I had to take care of—washing my master’s clothes, sweeping the veranda, going to the market to buy cauliflower and squash. Or, if I was in a melancholy or nostalgic mood, I would think of my village, of the gurgling stream that ran near the village square, of the surrounding small hills dotted with mud houses. Or I would question the details of my relatives’ and neighbors’ lives. Had Ghanshyam settled his land dispute with his brother? Had Kalidas married the woman he was lusting after? Had my old aunt, who was nearing ninety, lost all her vision yet? Often I would think of my wife, who had died of pneumonia years ago. After her death I had vowed I would never remarry. I am not sure why I made that vow, but at the time it seemed the proper thing to do. She was a loving, devoted woman, as religious as my master’s dead wife, and I could not imagine trying to start life all over again with another woman. The images of my wife and questions about my relatives would become so insistent that eventually I sighed and gave up. I decided that meditation was for someone of a higher mind, like my master.

  After he delved deeper into meditation and yoga, my master gained a reputation as a spiritual leader. Everyone spoke of him with reverence, even behind his back, which is rare in this city, where people search for others’ character flaws. “Kailash-ji is a saint,” some said. “A truly benevolent man.” They pointed to his generosity, the temples he built, the money he donated to schools. Others praised him as an enlightened being, someone who understood the true nature of our universe and could help others reach a higher level of experience. They spoke of him as if he’d already achieved moksha, liberation from material cravings, even though he ran one of the most prosperous hotels in the city. People began to flock to him for advice, to hear him talk about the nature of the mind and the spirit. One admirer suggested that everyone would benefit if he delivered his talks on a regular basis, and thus was born the weekly spiritual session. It was indeed surprising that my master acquired, quickly and effortlessly, the reputation of a spiritual leader, given that he had barely started his journey on the spiritual path in a country teeming with gurus and religious leaders, who often earned their status only after years of study and reflection. But my master had something in him that the others didn’t have, a natural energy that made troubled souls want to talk to him, tell him their life stories, an aura that made people feel that their merely being in his presence would attain peace for their minds.

  Before Nani Memsaheb started visiting regularly, my master and I spent long periods of time alone, except for the weekends, when his relatives visited, and the evenings when the guests came for the spiritual sessions. On weekdays, he would come back late from the hotel, not the least bit tired after a full day’s work. I would cook for him—beans and peas and spinach—while he immersed himself in his yoga and meditation, and then we would eat. Some evenings I would massage his feet by the bed when he wasn’t reading from his collection of great religious and philosophical texts—the Bhagavad Gita, the Patanjali Yoga Pradipa, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, and Buddhist sutras. I remember these, because whenever I dusted my master’s bookshelves, I would finger the spines of these books and wonder whether I’d ever be able to understand their marvelous secrets. On the other hand, I was always glad when my master chose not to read in the evenings. Never did I feel as satisfied and peaceful as when I massaged my master’s feet in the quiet of the evening and watched his face as he fell asleep. Then I forgot my own concerns: the bones that seemed to be rotting inside me from age, the distance I had drifted from my village, the thoughts of my dead wife. I felt I was once again a child.

  We were not alone in the house all the time. Every Saturday afternoon, many of my master’s relatives came, and brought along their servants to help me cook. Although I never liked so many servants running around my kitchen and misplacing my things, I did not complain, because my master seemed to enjoy the noise and the conversation. One of the servants was Laxmi, a seventeen-year-old Tamang girl who worked in my master’s uncle’s house. I could not help noticing that Laxmi had an open face and a lithe body. She was a bit of a tease, and I used to enjoy it when our bodies brushed against each other in that crowded kitchen, even though I knew I was too old to be thinking about her that way. “This Ram Mohan dai,” Laxmi used to say, loudly, so that everyone could hear, “his teeth are falling out, and his hands are everywhere.”

  At first the servants laughed, but after a few weeks I noticed a strained look on her face every time I came near her. She no longer teased me, and the other servants no longer laughed when I cracked a joke about her. One day after they left, before the evening guests arrived, my master came into the kitchen and said, “Ram Mohan, why don’t you go back to your village for a few days? See your relatives. Maybe even get married again. Now that you have some money, I’m sure you’ll be able to find a suitable bride.” When I said that I didn’t want to, he said, “Our physical needs are important. We can’t deny them, no matter how old we get.” I washed again some dishes the other servants had left with food particles clotted on the surface. “Think about it,” my master said. “You can bring her here, and she can live with us.” He was chewing an apple. “One always needs to be aware of what one’s body wants. Our body is our soul.”

  I knew what my master was saying. When Laxmi’s body touched mine, I had become aroused, and this was wrong, especially for an old man like me. Often in bed at night, I worried that my impulses sometimes got the better of me, but just thinking about my impulses aroused me even more. I had never felt this way when my wife was alive or before I came to work in my master’s house, and was perplexed that my desires grew as I got older. What could I now say to my master? So I said, “Shall I make you some tea, hajur?”

  My master shook his head and left. His words did open up a possibility I had not allowed myself to consider, but I knew that going back to the village and searching for a wife would be too great an effort. It didn’t, however, prevent me from imagining what a new wife might look like (if, indeed, I were to marry, which I knew I would not), but every time I tried to visualize her, I saw the face of Nani Memsaheb, who had, at this time, visited the house only a couple of times. I found this disturbing, so much so that once, while I was standing in the kitchen, a saucer slipped out of my hand and shattered on the floor.

  On Saturday afternoons, when the relatives left at around four, I would set up comfortable chairs on the big balcony upstairs and a wooden platform with cushions for my master to sit on. I would clean the house and prepare it for the arrival of the evening guests. The guests were invariably men, often as old as my master. Once in a while I’d spot an elderly woman in the group, but no woman
ever came on a regular basis.

  Nani Memsaheb started coming by herself to these evening talks. She would sit quietly in a corner, with that shy look on her face, while my master spoke. I served the guests tea and remained as much in the background as possible. Every now and then, a guest would politely ask a question or make a comment, but mostly my master talked, his voice clear, soothing in the evening air. The first evening she came, all the men looked puzzled, and some raised their eyebrows. But my master offered no explanation; he didn’t even introduce her to the rest of the group. He continued his talk as if nothing unusual had happened, as if the beautiful woman who just sat down, dressed in a black sari, with long, heavy silver earrings glinting through her hair, her face glowing like a full moon, was not a distraction. I wondered whether she wore black clothes to hold my master’s attention.

  Those who attended these sessions were men whose minds surely constantly dwelled on deep philosophical subjects; they listened attentively as my master spoke, interrupting only to ask questions. I watched Nani Memsaheb as she gazed at my master’s face. When their eyes met occasionally, she quickly looked down, crimson spreading across her cheeks. Once, her eyes filled with tears, and I remember thinking—the thought came from nowhere and disappeared instantly—she is going to be the death of him. My master often talked about the impermanence of thought, and how meditation could make us aware of this. That’s what happened to me: my thought came and vanished. But, as I remember to this day what I thought then, perhaps thoughts are not fragile and fleeting after all. Perhaps they are solid, rooting themselves in our brain even while giving the impression that they are no longer there.

  Soon, Nani Memsaheb became a regular part of the household. She helped me cook food and prepare for the Saturday afternoon gatherings, which annoyed my master’s relatives, because they saw that as a sign of her increasing authority in the house. “Ram Mohan dai,” Laxmi said in the kitchen one day while Nani Memsaheb was using the phone, “this house is not the same as it used to be.”

 
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