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Arresting god in kathman.., p.17

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 17


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  The other servants nodded.

  “I don’t want to come here anymore,” Laxmi said.

  One of my master’s cousins, an enormous woman with a swinging walk, came into the kitchen and said, “What’s happening in this house, huh, Ram Mohan? What’s going on?”—as if I’d invited Nani Memsaheb to join us each weekend. “Just because someone new comes in, does that mean we are to be ignored?” She said this loudly, and everyone knew that she meant my master and Nani Memsaheb to hear. My master hadn’t exactly been ignoring his relatives, but in Nani Memsaheb’s presence he often seemed to forget that others were around. I shrugged my shoulders and kept washing the dishes. In a few minutes Nani Memsaheb came in and asked me to peel the fruit for the evening guests. Everyone was quiet. “Did you hear, Ram Mohan?” Nani Memsaheb asked, and I wiped my hands on a towel and took the fruit from the refrigerator. My master’s cousin fingered Nani Memsaheb’s earrings and said, “Where did you buy these? I want to get some for myself.”

  Day by day, I watched Nani Memsaheb move around the house as if she had lived here a long time. She spent time in the kitchen, helping me or giving me instructions. She sat on the living room floor and, with her small, square glasses perched on her nose, read from my master’s collection of books. In the hallway, she rearranged and replaced the black-and-white photographs of temples. One night, she did not go home after spending the day. She went into my master’s bedroom, bolted the door, and stayed all night. That night I did not go to the small outhouse in the garden assigned to me but used my master’s bathroom. Although I listened intently, I couldn’t hear any noise coming from his bedroom. Soon I was ashamed and hurried back to my room.

  From then on, my master and Nani Memsaheb were inseparable. Whenever he looked at her, he seemed to forget who was where and what was what. She began to call him “my old man,” but in a sweet voice. She even accompanied him to the hotel, and soon she was named the general manager, much to the dismay of many relatives, who had been after my master for years to get them jobs there. Since I never went to the hotel, I don’t know what the staff thought of her, but I heard from the relatives, who now came to me regularly to complain about her, that she was not popular, that the hotel was falling apart because of her bad management. I knew, of course, that there could be no truth to these accusations. First, my master would never have allowed such a thing to happen, and second, she had made several improvements in the house. She’d had the walls painted white, hired two gardeners to make the garden bloom with flowers and leaves, extended the kitchen so that I would have more space to work, and built a balcony upstairs that afforded a tremendous view of the Pashupatinath Temple and the Shivapuri Mountain. After a while, I became accustomed to her authority, and went to her instead of to my master if I had a question. Sometimes I resented how quickly she had established power in such a great man’s house, but most often I admired the way she’d done it.

  “I know what she wants,” my master’s cousin whispered to me one Saturday afternoon. “She will eventually have the hotel and this house put under her own name, throw him, and you, out of her life, and then marry a young stud.” She leaned closer to me so that I got a whiff of her stale-radish breath, that mouth into which she stuffed food all day. “This old man-young woman thing never works. And she, she has all kinds of plans for herself.”

  I kept quiet, for I didn’t feel comfortable talking about Nani Memsaheb with jealous relatives. But I did recall the premonition I had had when Nani Memsaheb first visited the house, and later that night I wondered whether she had attached herself to my master for money.

  On the evening of their marriage, red, green, and yellow lights blinking on the roof made the house look joyous. A large tent was set up on the lawn, under which a buffet of twenty-two dishes was laid out. An army band played popular songs in a corner, and some children danced, drawing laughter from everyone. Relatives of my master, many from the village where he was born, came to celebrate. The relatives who knew Nani Memsaheb sighed and looked at one another as if to say, “What can we do?” But in the presence of the couple, they too acted happy. “You are a lucky man, hajur,” his cousin told him, gobbling a large piece of cake. “Such a beautiful wife, one who loves you so much.” The rest of the relatives nodded, their faces beaming.

  During the wedding ceremony, I got such painful stomach cramps that I had to leave the lawn many times. Nani Memsaheb’s mother teased me about gorging myself on the food, but I told her I hadn’t eaten much, that it was something else.

  After everyone left, I watched my master and Nani Memsaheb retreat to their bedroom. Sitting on the veranda, I listened to the noises of the night, the frogs, the occasional blare of a horn in the distance, people shouting one another’s names. I tried to concentrate on these noises and block out the muffled voices coming from my master’s bedroom. My stomach cramps had subsided, and I could more easily focus on the sounds of the neighborhood. I tried not to think about anything else, and before long I realized that I was actually attempting to meditate. For the first time, meditation came to me, perhaps because of the tremendous sadness in me, sadness for myself for having reached an old age with nothing to show but my service to my master, who now was in the arms of a woman half his age, a woman who would, I was convinced, bring pain and suffering to the house.

  After the marriage, Nani Memsaheb started calling me Ramey, a nickname I disliked. It did not have the dignity of Ram Mohan. My master smiled when he saw me wince at the nickname. “It’s her affectionate name for you, Ram Mohan,” he said. “She has made you her own with that name.”

  That night, in my room, my mind kept repeating the words “made you her own.” I whispered them aloud, and, oddly, began to like the sound of them. Before long, I realized that I was getting aroused. An incredible feeling of shame washed over me, and I quickly got up from my bed and went outside. The Ghantaghar clock tower in the city’s center announced midnight. A full moon was shining. I reached my arms behind my back and strolled through the garden, trying to calm myself. I was troubled by this excitement and the shame that accompanied it.

  I heard the balcony door creak open, and I looked up to see Nani Memsaheb, wearing only a petticoat and a bra, leaning against the railing and gazing up at the moon. Her long hair ran down her shoulders and her back. I couldn’t help staring. When she took her eyes from the moon and saw me there in the garden, she froze for a moment, then quickly went inside.

  The next morning when I brought tea to their bedroom at the usual time, Nani Memsaheb and my master were still asleep, her arm on his chest and her thigh beneath her petticoat over his legs. I set the tea by the bedside, my legs shaking slightly, my eyes riveted on Nani Memsaheb’s thigh. My master opened his eyes and said, “Isn’t it early for tea, Ram Mohan?”

  “It’s already eight o’clock, hajur,” I said.

  My master patted her thigh and said, “Nani, tea.”

  She yawned and said, “Was that you last night in the garden, Ramey?”

  I shook my head, trying to show surprise.

  “It wasn’t you?” She was watching my face closely.

  “I was in bed all night.”

  “I could have sworn it was you,” she said. “Or someone who looked like you.”

  “You have a twin brother, Ram Mohan?” my master said and laughed.

  I forced a smile and left the room.

  A few weeks after the wedding, my master’s weekly meetings resumed, and Nani Memsaheb joined the older men, as she had done before. As usual, my master spoke at length, and the others interrupted only to ask for clarifications or make brief observations. During one session, about two months after the wedding, while I was serving tea to the guests, Nani Memsaheb interrupted my master while he was speaking. My master had been talking about the nature of the mind, how it moves from one place to another like a monkey, and how in order to reach a higher level, one has to control that monkey. Put it on a leash, my master had said, so that it cannot run around. Then the mi
nd will become one with the Brahman.

  “But when once we have the monkey on a leash,” she said, smiling faintly, “then we too are tethered to the leash, aren’t we?”

  My master smiled, affectionately, understandingly, as one smiles at a child. “Yes, we are. The trick is to be tethered to that leash while also controlling it.”

  “But how is that possible?” she asked. “It seems to me that the trick is not to have the monkey on a leash at all. Let the monkey do whatever it wants. Why become attached to it?”

  An old gentlemen with a mustache, a high government official, said, “Let’s listen to him fully before we offer comments.”

  My master was still smiling, and he didn’t speak for a short while, until the old gentleman said, “Please go on.”

  Throughout the rest of the session, Nani Memsaheb said nothing. A deep crease had appeared on her forehead. My master glanced at her a few times while he spoke, but she didn’t look back at him; her eyes roamed the faces of the men who were listening to her husband.

  After they left, the two sat down to dinner as if no disagreement had occurred. She kept offering him more food, and he kept thanking her graciously.

  From then on, Nani Memsaheb continually interrupted my master during the sessions. Once she even muttered, “Rubbish,” in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. My master lost track of what he was saying, and his eyes turned cloudy. The other men frowned at her, and one guest coughed. Another time she let out a giggle, which she tried to a disguise as a hiccup. My master paused, a concerned look on his face, and said, “Why don’t you drink some water, Nani?”

  I was disturbed by the way she challenged his authority, the vast knowledge he had acquired through years of reading and contemplating. I despised the strident manner in which she offered her opinions, and the crease, now permanent, on her forehead. But late at night, when I lay in bed, when my mind quieted and I could hear my own breathing, it seemed to me absurd that in a group of learned men, it was a much younger woman who didn’t buy the high-minded thoughts of my master’s. Even stranger, once the guests left, Nani Memsaheb and my master would joke and laugh, talk about the hotel, as if nothing had happened. They never discussed spiritual matters, as if some unwritten rule forbade them from such debates outside those sessions. Now I think that, had they talked about their disagreements in the privacy of their bedroom, some of the resentment and the tension would have cleared.

  Not long after, Nani Memsaheb started questioning my master’s judgment about matters in the house and the hotel. We were in the kitchen, and they were discussing the poor performance of the hotel’s restaurant manager, a woman my master had hired a few years before. My master was saying that he wanted to transfer her to the laundry room, because she had developed a hostile attitude toward the restaurant staff, in particular the assistant manager, who was known for his hard work and efficiency.

  “That’s ridiculous,” Nani Memsaheb said abruptly.

  My master didn’t say anything for a while. With a vague smile on his face, he said softly, “Nani, the staff have been complaining to me for months now. Something must be done.”

  “She’s fine the way she is,” she said. “Where she is.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Because.” Nani Memsaheb sipped her tea and looked out the window. “You think I don’t know what goes on in there? They don’t like her because she’s a woman and she tells them what to do.”

  “It’s not like that at all, Nani. She’s having a bad effect on their morale. She screams at them, insults them. The assistant manager told me that she even threw water on him the other day for some small mistake he had made.”

  She replied, “She threw water on him because he laughed when she asked him to rearrange the south room tables.”

  “Still,” my master said cautiously, as if something were stuck in his throat, “the chef told me that she dumped his perfectly fine chicken chili in the garbage.”

  “She dumped it in the garbage because it tasted like garbage.” She pointed at me. “Even our Ramey here cooks better than that chef.”

  I tried not to appear insulted.

  My master looked at me, then down at his fingers.

  That night I prayed to Lord Ganesh, whose small framed picture hangs on my wall, that he make everything better in the house, the way it was before. But even as I prayed, my eyes closed, my palms joined in supplication, I knew that would not happen. In fact, at that point I had a vision. With my eyes closed, I saw a young man with Nani Memsaheb, and she was laughing with him. At first the man was a stranger. Then slowly his face became mine—me, with a smooth, youthful face—and I quickly opened my eyes, my heart pounding, and stared at the picture of Lord Ganesh, with his long snout and his doelike eyes, which at that moment were mocking me.

  One Saturday during the winter month of Meen Pachas, a time so cold that even the fish are said to be frozen, I was taking my early morning bath by the water pump in the garden. I find the cold water and the smell of the earth just as light breaks in the sky invigorating. Normally I have this time to myself, so I was surprised and slightly irritated at Nani Memsaheb’s appearance. She couldn’t see me, because the pump is hidden behind bushes. I quietly turned off the water. Through an opening, I saw that she was crying, her arms tightly hugging her chest. Occasionally she looked up at the sky, as if searching for an answer in the heavens. I kept watching her, mesmerized. She paced in the garden for a while, then wiped her face and went inside.

  For a long time, I stood by the pump, shivering, but ignoring the cold, wearing only my dhoti, which clung to my skin.

  Some of the older men stopped coming to the evening sessions. One said to me, at the end of his last session, “Ram Mohan, this house is not the same anymore.”

  He had come to the kitchen to get a glass of water, although there was always a carafe full of water on the balcony. He took some pills from his pocket and swallowed them, leaned against the counter, and sighed. “Amazing what a woman can do.”

  I didn’t voice my opinion.

  “Well, this is it. I have decided.” And he walked down the stairs and out of the house.

  One by one, the others stopped coming. Soon, there were only four who attended, then two.

  One evening a big argument erupted between Nani Memsaheb and the high government official with the mustache. As usual, she had interrupted my master. “No, I don’t think you are anywhere dose to the truth. It’s very easy for you to sit up there on that cushion and preach on the illusions that our desires create. But the truth is this, that most ordinary people like me want to learn how to live and fulfill our desires, not treat them as if they were stepchildren. For us—”

  “Quiet!” the mustached man shouted.

  There was silence.

  Nani Memsaheb looked at him contemptuously and said, “And why should I be quiet?”

  His voice quivered. “Because you don’t know anything.”

  “And you do?”

  “Nani,” my master warned.

  “I know a lot more than you do,” the man said.

  “I have yet to see evidence of that.”

  The other man, small, with a bulbous nose, said to Nani Memsahib, “What is this? Aren’t you ashamed to be doing this?”

  “Leave it be,” my master said.

  “She’s a woman,” the small man said, “and she doesn’t know her place.” To my master, he said, “Sorry, Kailash-ji, I didn’t want to say anything. But this has become unbearable.”

  “Get out,” Nani Memsaheb said.

  Both men watched her, and my master said, “Peace, everyone. It’s a small thing.”

  “Get out of my house,” Nani Memsaheb told the two men. She stood. “Now. Quickly. You come to my house and you want to put me in my place. Go home, and do that to your mothers and wives.” Before anyone knew what she was doing, she picked up one of my slippers near the door and started to beat the two men.

  “Nani!” my master shouted.
It was the first time he had raised his voice in a long time.

  But Nani Memsaheb kept hitting the two men with my slipper (my slipper!), and they hastily stood and put on their shoes. She backed away and watched them, a thick strand of hair falling down her forehead, her face flushed. My master moved toward the men and tried to pat their arms, but they brushed his hand away. “We didn’t come here to be insulted like this,” they said. “Kailash-ji, you’d better control your woman. Otherwise she will destroy you.”

  They left, muttering, their faces red.

  My master hit her. He slapped her so hard that she fell back a couple of steps.

  She put her hand to her cheek and said, “All right.”

  He immediately apologized, but Nani Memsaheb kept repeating, “All right,” and she went to their bedroom. We heard the door being locked.

  My master sat down weakly. I poured him a glass of water, which he seemed to swallow in one gulp. He started to sob. I didn’t know what to do.

  I went to the kitchen and finished the dishes. As I was about to go to my room, I heard murmurs coming from their room. I stood next to their door and, judging from the words “my old man” and “Nanu,” it was obvious that they had made up.

  A few days later they had another argument, and my master had a heart attack. They were sitting at the dining room table, waiting for me to serve dinner. I don’t recall what Nani Memsaheb said, but my master responded, in a sharp, hurt tone, “Of course, my thoughts don’t matter, my feelings don’t matter.” His face flushed, then turned gray, and he started to rub his chest and groan. I was holding a bowl of chickpeas, so I could only watch as his chair tipped and he fell to the floor. Nani Memsaheb rushed to him, shouting his name.

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