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Mad country, p.17

Mad Country, page 17


Mad Country

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  She continued on in the next message: “How are you, Son? How come you’re never home to pick up the phone? You haven’t changed a bit, have you? Always roaming around like a lafanga, hanging out with your no-good friends.” Her voice cracked. “That’s why we left you, Aakash. That’s why we’re here in this foreign land, listening constantly to the chatter of these Chinese people going ching-chung-chang-fung all day long.”

  Next message: “I miss you, Son. I wish you could join us. You’d like it here. But I don’t think your father would approve of the idea. He’s very disappointed in you. Whenever I mention your name, he puts up his hand and says, ‘Enough.’ That’s what he says, Aakash: ‘Enough.’ And how can I convince him otherwise? You’ve broken our confidence. You’ve broken my heart.”

  In the following message, his mother launched into a detailed description of how to cook the cauliflower that was growing in the garden. She asked, “And how is Danny doing? Is he making you happy with his work?” Little did she know that the very first morning that Danny had appeared for work, Aakash had paid him a month’s wages and asked him not to come by anymore. The boy had looked at him, aghast, and Aakash had said, “This is not a good place to work. You won’t like it here.” When the boy didn’t look convinced, Aakash added, “You won’t like me. I am not a good man. I don’t like young boys. When I see them, I feel like smacking their heads inside out, like this.” He lifted his hand as though ready to strike the boy, and Danny ran out the door.

  “Aakash! Aakash!” his mother’s plaintive cry from the answering machine rang through the house.

  What prompted Aakash to try out Rahul’s house in Balaju, he didn’t know. Surely Rahul would not be brazen enough to take Ghana home? Rahul’s relationship with his parents was even stranger than Aakash’s was with his. At least Aakash could claim that his parents showed affection every now and then, and that they displayed awareness that disappointments and accusations weren’t the only way parents and children could relate to one other. But Rahul’s parents barely spoke to him. And that was how it always had been, as far as Aakash could remember. The first time he went to Rahul’s house—the boys must have been in fifth grade then—Aakash saw his parents in the living room, playing cards, and they didn’t look up when the boys went in. Rahul took him upstairs to his room, where shortly a servant brought them some snacks and milk. The servant stood around, watching with soft eyes, asking them whether they needed anything, asking Rahul about school, until Rahul forcefully pushed him out.

  Whenever Aakash asked Rahul about his parents, he merely grunted, or he seemed to be thinking about something else. The few other times Aakash visited Rahul, his parents barely acknowledged his presence. It had occurred to Aakash that for Rahul’s parents, their son simply wasn’t a major factor in their lives. It was the servant who had raised him.

  Today, the same servant, now with wrinkles on his face, opened the door. “Is Rahul in?” Aakash asked, more curtly than he had intended.

  “Oho, Aakash babu!” the servant said. “I didn’t even recognize you with your beard.” His gaze fell on Aakash’s grimy feet. “You look like you’re sick. Everything okay?”

  “Everything is okay. Is Rahul in?”

  The servant shook his head.

  A female voice from inside asked who it was, and when the servant said that it was Rahul’s friend, the woman, who sounded like Rahul’s mother, asked, “What does he want?”

  “Auntie, I was just wondering if Rahul was in.”

  Rahul’s mother asked him to come in. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs that Aakash had climbed in the past to reach Rahul’s room. It was slightly dark there, so her face was in the shadows, but immediately he could tell that she was an alcoholic. There was a smell, something minty that was an attempt to cover the smell of liquor.

  One of her arms was holding on to the balustrade, as though she were afraid of falling. “What’s your name?” she asked him.


  She was silent for a while, then said, “He’s not been home for the past couple of weeks.”

  “Three weeks,” the servant said from the doorway.

  “I was just wondering whether Auntie knew where he was.” He felt awkward standing a few feet apart from her, unable to see her face.

  “My son never gave me a chance to know him,” Rahul’s mother said. “But I heard that he’s somewhere in Bouddha, living with a girl.”

  Aakash’s heart skipped a beat. “What kind of a girl, Auntie?”

  “Who knows? One of my relatives told me this the other day. Isn’t it true, Harka?”

  The servant said, “That relative also has a penchant for gossip.”

  “Is the girl dark, a habsi?”

  Rahul’s mother went silent. He asked again, and when she didn’t respond, he knew that she had drifted into her own world now. He said goodbye and turned. At the doorway, he asked Harka, “Where in Bouddha is he? Did the relative say?”

  Harka shook his head.

  Aakash knew he was being impudent, but he couldn’t help asking, “Auntie is always like this?”

  The servant didn’t seem to mind Aakash’s question. “It’s gotten worse since Rahul’s father passed away. Before, always together they used to—” He signaled drinking with his hand.

  “When did Uncle pass away?”

  “About six months ago.”

  Aakash thanked the servant and left. So Rahul’s father had died not too long ago, but Rahul hadn’t told Aakash. Nor had he shaved his head and worn white, as was required of a grieving son. Was Rahul’s mother also wearing white? He couldn’t even tell.

  Aakash hadn’t been in Bouddha in years—he’d been to the opulent Hyatt, a mere stone’s throw away from that neighborhood, a few times with Rahul, but hadn’t visited Bouddha itself—and was surprised to see how much the area had grown. Previously the entrance to the temple was discernible even from a distance, but now so many houses had cropped up around it, with so many shop signs obscuring what used to be the gate’s distinctive sign, that Aakash had to keep his eyes wide open to locate it. But as he was about to enter the temple, it occurred to him that Rahul’s mother had simply said Bouddha, which could have meant the entire neighborhood, and not just the enclosed temple area. He thought he’d try out the neighborhood first, so he walked about the main street, looking about him alertly. But it was a hopeless venture. The street was packed with people, and the likelihood of him spotting Rahul or Ghana, if she indeed had taken to strolling the streets, was far-fetched. He asked a few shopkeepers whether they knew anyone named Rahul. When the shopkeepers shook their heads, Aakash said, “He may be living with a very dark girl, a habsi.”

  When they heard that, the shopkeepers’ eyes gleamed with curiosity. “A habsi?” they asked. “You mean like a habsi from America, or Africa?”


  “A Nepali boy living with a habsi?”


  At this point some of the shopkeepers laughed, and others shook their heads in disbelief. Aakash walked on. Once again he was outside the temple entrance, and he decided to go in, even though the likelihood of Rahul and Ghana being in there was slim. The temple compound was a small community in itself, with a side temple that held a large Buddha statue in it, and many shops and restaurants that catered to tourists. Buddhist nuns in wine-colored robes were circumambulating the giant stupa, and small children were running around it, chasing one another.

  For a while Aakash just walked about, peering into shops, fingering some beads here, inspecting a mask there. One shopkeeper asked him, after seeing that he had been holding a brass Tara in his hand for a long time, “Are you only going to look or are you also going to buy?” Aakash put the Tara down, then continued.

  From the upper platform of the stupa, tourists were taking pictures of the surrounding houses, of the mountains visible between rooftops.
Aakash, too, climbed up the stupa, dodging a couple of beggar children as he did so. He sat on the platform. The sun was on its way down, and the evening air had amplified the noises of the neighborhood, and he felt like he could, apart from the conversations and laughter and prayers and haggling around him, also hear distant voices, sounds from houses far away. Near him a couple of tourists, an elderly couple, were pointing to the pink hue the setting sun had thrown at the houses surrounding the temple. He watched the excitement on their faces, and for a moment he was also transfixed. Then the corner of his eye caught a movement to the right, in the third floor window of a house near the stupa. It was the figure of a dhoti-clad woman, bent down to do something—sweeping, he determined. He couldn’t see the face of the woman because she was bent over, and the lighting inside the room was dim. When the woman straightened up to adjust her dhoti, a groan escaped Aakash’s throat, causing the foreigners to look at him and nod approvingly because they thought that he, too, had been awestruck by the sunset. The woman in the window, apparently done with her work, turned off the light and left the room.

  Aakash stood and went down the steps to the street level. On the first floor of the house was a tourist shop selling masks; on the second floor was a restaurant. He opened the door on the side of the house and went in. Behind the stairs was a motorcycle, which resembled Rahul’s, but it was too dark for him to be certain. He climbed the stairs, pausing briefly outside the second floor, where a sign saying “peace restaurant” hung outside the door. Aakash went up to the third floor. Perhaps because of the sound of his steps on the stairs, someone was already opening the door.

  Hamad packed his belongings from the lodge, paid the lodge owner money for the remainder of the week, then went about town to say goodbye to the few friends he’d made in the past months. He laughed, smoked a few cigarettes with them, and didn’t decline when they offered him wine. After a few drinks, his mind turned toward his daughter again. He’d always had a strong connection with her, even since she was a child. It was only once she’d turned into a teenager that father and daughter had drifted apart. He couldn’t talk to her without adopting a stern voice, and she either avoided him around the house, or even when she obeyed him, she did so with her shoulders tight, and sometimes an openly defiant look in her eyes that brought a reprimand from her mother. Daughter, Hamad addressed her in his mind, may you be happy wherever you are, if you are indeed alive.

  Hamad went to the bus station. The bus journey would take him about six hours to a large village, where he’d fetch his camel from a distant relative and begin his two-day journey back home.

  “Dai?” she said. She was wearing a red dhoti. There was a bright tika on her forehead. Her wrists were covered with colorful bangles.

  “Ghana?” he said softly.

  “Dai, it’s so good to see you. Just the other day I was telling him that we should invite you home.”

  It didn’t surprise him that she was speaking to him in Nepali, albeit with an accent. In fact, apart from her very dark skin, she looked like a regular Nepali hill girl—large, beautiful eyes; a slim nose; a narrow face. With a sharp stab to his heart, he saw the red vermilion powder that adorned the parting in her hair—the sign of a married woman.

  “Won’t you come in?”

  Gingerly he stepped inside.

  “I’ll make some tea,” she said as she motioned to him to sit on a small sofa.

  “No need,” he said, unable to mask his disappointment.

  “It won’t take a moment.” She disappeared into a side room, where he imagined the kitchen was.

  He lit a cigarette and took deep drags. This room was the one where he’d seen her earlier; now through the window he could see the stupa and the tourists who were lingering on its upper platform. The elderly couple was still there, now only as silhouettes because the sun had already gone down. He looked around the room. On the wall opposite was a large photograph of the late King Mahendra and his wife, and next to it a photo of Satya Sai Baba. He was struck by all these photos: Rahul was never one to pay respect to the king, especially an old one. And Sai Baba? Who would have thought that Rahul would even tolerate the image of a self-declared demigod like him in the house? Or were the photographs there because of Ghana, who’d latched on to them as the symbols of a dutiful Nepali middle-class wife?

  Ghana entered, carrying a tray with two cups of tea. “Dai,” she said. “You’ve started smoking.”


  “It’s not good for your health, you know,” she said, but after she sat down, she passed a saucer for him to use as an ashtray. He accepted it gratefully, his eyes again traveling to the Sai Baba photo. She noticed his gaze and said with what he perceived was a hint of embarrassment in her voice, “I don’t know why, but these days I have developed a great shraddha for Sai Baba. He is truly a divine being, an incarnation of Shiva. He can work miracles.”

  Aakash wanted to ask her whether Sai Baba was behind her fluent Nepali, her demure housewifey demeanor, but all he said was, “So you two are married now?”

  If she was aware of the sensitive nature of his question, she didn’t reveal it. Instead, she answered shyly, “Yes, we went to the Manakama temple to get married.”


  “Soon after we left your house.”

  “How long have you been living here?”

  “Right after our wedding. He knew someone in the area who helped us find this place. I love it here. All day long we get to see devotees circling the stupa. We get to see the tourists. I feel like I have been given my own personal god.”

  “Don’t you miss . . . home?” Aakash sighed because he himself didn’t know what home was for her.

  She studied her hands. “Home feels very far away now. Even when I remember, it feels like it happened to someone else, not me.”

  “Where is Rahul?”

  “He’s at work.”

  “He’s working now?”

  She nodded. “He found a teaching job at the Stellar School.”

  The Stellar School was an elite, expensive school. Both old-time aristocrats and the nouveau riche vied to get their children admitted to Stellar. It was no surprise that Rahul got a job there—his family name had pull, and he was very smart. What was surprising was the idea that Rahul had been transformed enough to want to go get a job (and a teaching job at that), where all day he’d have to deal with mouthy brats—youngsters exactly like him when he was in school! I have to see this new Rahul, Aakash thought.

  “Shouldn’t he be home by now?” he asked. “Schools have been out for a couple hours.”

  “There’s a football tournament at the school today. He’s coaching a team, so he has to stay.”

  Aakash fell silent.

  “The students love him, dai,” she said. “He’s so good with them. So patient.”


  “Yes. I know you probably don’t believe me, but he has changed.” She smiled. “He’s told me stories of what he was like before he met me. How did you two even remain friends for so long?”

  He drank his tea. It had turned lukewarm during the conversation. “I have to go now,” he said.

  “You can’t go now!” she said, alarmed. “You have to wait for him. Otherwise he’ll never forgive me. You have to stay for dinner.”

  “I have to be somewhere else.”

  “Dai, please don’t.” The disappointment on her face was clear, but he couldn’t stay. He couldn’t face Rahul, observe his transformation, then try to decide whether any of it was real, whether this was just a phase that’d pass in no time and then he’d abandon Ghana.

  “We will meet again,” he said at the door and waved.

  Aakash went back to the upper platform of the stupa and sat in a corner, half-hidden, so that she couldn’t spot him from the window, but he could see what went on in there. She had turned off the light i
n the living room again, and had presumably returned to the kitchen to cook dinner.

  He waited. After nearly an hour, the light in the living room came on again, and he saw Ghana at the door, welcoming Rahul. Yes, it was him. Even from the distance, Rahul’s lanky frame was unmistakable. What was different was that he had grown a beard and was wearing a kurta, like an intellectual and a poet. Rahul embraced Ghana, and after a quick glance toward the window, kissed her. Yes, he kissed her, even with the living room light on and with this city fully able to see them, and in the compound of their “personal god.” The kiss wasn’t long, but it was full of feeling, which Aakash could discern even from that distance.

  • • •

  A couple of days later in Durbar Marg, Aakash sat in a street-side café and ordered an Americano. He had shaved, and wore decent enough clothes, but hadn’t returned to work, and had acquired the habit of mumbling and chuckling to himself. Teenage girls and boys in designer clothes sauntered past him. The Ghantaghar clocktower sounded its discordant ding-dong, as though a goblin up there was banging away haphazardly. Droppings from birds flying above him landed on his table.

  In about an hour, a demonstration was supposed to pass through Durbar Marg, and the Supreme Commander, who now lived in the palace where the ousted king used to live, had said that he was personally going to use his shotgun on those who dared to move toward the palace beyond what had now come to be known as the Laxman Rekha, that invisible line running across the street, from between the chic clothing shop and the police station. Aakash was fairly certain that the Supreme Commander himself was responsible for the term Laxman Rekha. The man had invoked a well-known Hindu legend, one that spoke of do-or-die loyalty, of chastity, to protect his newly confiscated asset, the palace. In the ancient story, Laxman drew a line on the ground for Sita, his brother’s wife, asking her not to go beyond it so she’d remain protected. But she ended up violating his dictum, and in the end an entire war, filled with monkeys and giants, was launched.

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