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Arresting god in kathman.., p.18

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 18


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  “We must take him to the hospital,” I said, and ran to the neighbor’s house to look for Krishna, who could drive, because my master’s regular driver had already gone home.

  In the car, Nani Memsaheb cradled my master’s head in her lap. His eyes were closed. “Don’t leave me,” she said, and repeated the words, rocking her head above his ashen face till we reached the hospital.

  It turned out that my master had had a minor heart attack, and after he spent a couple of days in the hospital, the doctors let him leave, with detailed instructions to Nani Memsaheb about his care. For a few days, she didn’t leave his side.

  “I’ll resume yoga again, soon,” he told her. “Not to worry.” He had lost a great deal of weight; his cheeks were caved in, and his eyes were dim and hesitant.

  “No yoga until you get better.”

  “But yoga helps—”

  “No arguments,” she said. It was obvious from her appearance that she had done her share of crying in the past days.

  He smiled feebly and repeated, “No arguments.”

  Although they did not argue for a few weeks, my master’s body was going through an argument of its own. His fifty-second birthday was approaching, but he looked sixty, with new lines on his face and his breathing erratic and raspy. Twice he had to be taken to the hospital because he had difficulty breathing. Each time he came back, he looked worse.

  “The doctor told me to keep him relaxed,” Nani Memsaheb said, and as she noticed that I was looking at her strangely, she added, her expression slightly guilty, “We’ll have to be careful not to upset him.” I have done nothing, I thought.

  During those weeks, Nani Memsaheb stayed with him in their bedroom. He even had difficulty walking to the bathroom, but that didn’t stop him from worrying that the hotel would fall apart without their supervision.

  “The hotel can go to hell,” Nani Memsaheb said. “Your health is more important.”

  When some of my master’s friends came to see him, they didn’t speak to Nani Memsaheb. The mustached gentleman curtly nodded at her and smiled at my master. “Kailash-ji, we like to see you healthy and happy,” he said, and my master responded that he was healthy and happy, that this was just a cosmic test to challenge his resolve. They exchanged a few spiritual jokes about swamis.

  The small man with the big nose came the next day and would not look at Nani Memsaheb as she ushered him to my master’s bedside. The man spoke at length about some Ayurvedic treatment for the heart, which had cured one of his friends.

  But over time my master’s health did not improve, and Nani Memsaheb became absent-minded, often forgetting and losing things. Once she went to the market and came back empty-handed. “I forgot,” she said. “I tried, but I couldn’t remember what I went for.”

  I gave her a glass of water.

  “It was as if my thoughts had become breathless, Ramey, as if someone were choking them.” She was ready to cry, I could tell, but she left before she did so in my presence.

  When she cooked for my master, which she now sometimes insisted on doing, she would forget to turn off the gas in the stove, and in about an hour, the entire house smelled of rotten eggs. In the afternoons she retreated to the living room, and when I took tea to her, I would find her on the sofa, holding her head as if someone had hit her. “Tea, Nani,” I said, and she would look up with dull, dry eyes.

  Finally, Nani Memsaheb asked her mother to come live with us, an idea I didn’t like, because I partly blamed her mother for bringing Nani Memsaheb into this house. But it was clear that taking care of my master had exhausted Nani Memsaheb, so I reconciled myself to the idea of her mother’s moving in.

  Nani Memsaheb’s mother turned out to be an excellent nurse to my master, who now was being taken to a doctor every week. She also proved to be an agreeable person, and I didn’t mind her help in the kitchen. After she came to live with us, Nani Memsaheb began to spend less time with my master. She’d stay at the hotel all day, sometimes until late at night. I couldn’t believe the hotel needed such constant supervision, but she finally gained back some of her color and started to smile more often. It was also clear that she looked forward to getting out of the house every morning.

  What startled me was how my master had been transformed from a healthy, robust person to a coughing, wheezing, sputtering old man. All those years of yoga and meditation and all that high-minded talk. I conceded that maybe Nani Memsaheb was right. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about tethering the monkey to the leash; maybe we should forget about the monkey and, instead of constantly toying to achieve higher levels of existence, live our lives like ordinary human beings. But when I tried to imagine what the situation might have been had Nani Memsaheb not entered the picture, I could see my master still surrounded by his adoring relatives, conducting the spiritual sessions, and me massaging his feet each night. I felt nostalgic and couldn’t help being critical of Nani Memsaheb.

  My master appeared relieved that it was his wife’s mother, and not his wife, who tended to his needs day and night. Only occasionally did he reveal any anguish. One night he simply refused to drink the soup Nani Memsaheb’s mother was trying to feed him with a spoon. “Come, Kailash-ji,” she coaxed. “It’ll help you sleep properly.”

  But he crossed his arms and pressed his lips together like a child.

  “What’s the matter?” she said.

  I was standing in the doorway, watching with sadness.

  My master looked at me and said, “Where is she?”

  “She’s at the hotel, hajur.”

  “This late?” He winced in pain, shook his head.

  Nani Memsaheb’s mother held the spoon close to his mouth. “Eat,” she said.

  “I want Nani to feed me,” he said.

  “But she’s not here.”

  “I don’t care,” he said. “I want her.”

  We had to plead with him for nearly half an hour before he finally drank the soup.

  Rumors started circulating that Nani Memsaheb was spending time with men in the hotel and around the city, mostly older, well-off men like my master. His cousin came to visit one day and whispered to me in the kitchen, “She’s behaving like a prostitute, Ram Mohan. He should never have married her.”

  I put her ridiculous talk out of my mind until the evening Nani Memsaheb brought home a gray-haired man in a suit. I heard her tell her mother that he was a casino manager at the largest hotel in the city, and that he was offering advice on how to start a casino in my master’s hotel. Her mother was quiet throughout dinner as Nani Memsaheb and the man laughed with a disturbing familiarity. She didn’t even introduce him to my master, and after the man left, she and her mother argued behind closed doors in the living room. Their voices were loud, so I heard everything, and I shut the door to my master’s room. Her mother demanded to know about her relationship with that man, and Nani Memsaheb retorted that she didn’t need to answer to anyone in this world, and that if it wasn’t for her, her mother would be out in the streets, begging. I believed that my master, even though he was asleep in his room, had an idea of what was going on.

  In the following months, Nani Memsaheb brought all sorts of men to the house. They were much older than she, almost my master’s age. There was the chief accountant of a travel agency, a thin man who said almost nothing. The next man was a kuirey journalist, a white foreigner with body odor, who spoke to Nani Memsaheb in English. There was a businessman, the owner of a fan-manufacturing company. There were others; I don’t remember all of them.

  What I do remember is the big fight Nani Memsaheb had with her mother that took place the night the kuirey journalist came for dinner. As soon as Nani Memsaheb closed the door behind him, still smiling at something he had said, her mother grabbed her hand and led her into the living room, where, once again behind closed doors, they argued. This time, I heard them throw things at each other. Her mother called her a whore, and Nani Memsaheb retorted that her mother was the one who had made her that way.

bsp; “What’s the matter?” my master called out in his weak voice.

  When they opened the door and came out, Nani Memsaheb’s mother was crying. The next morning, she packed her clothes and left in a taxi. Nani Memsaheb didn’t even say goodbye to her.

  For a few days Nani Memsaheb stayed home, tending to my master. She took care of him with a diligence that made me optimistic. I thought that perhaps she wasn’t such a terrible person after all, and that the argument with her mother had made her realize the error of her ways. But soon she grew restless, and reverted to the routine of staying out late. She also started to drink. I was surprised when she came home one night, swaying on her feet. I asked whether she was all right, and she said, her tongue thick, “Of course I’m all right, Ramey. Why wouldn’t I be?” And she tripped on the staircase.

  My master is in constant pain these days, and all that is left of him are gray skin and thinning bones. He can hardly get out of bed, and beside him on the night table are enough tablets, capsules, and syrups to make a healthy man ill. When he has to take care of his needs, he calls me, and I bring him a basin, which I then empty in the bathroom. Even though the stench is often overwhelming, I look at his face, the way pain has made his eyes pale and dull, and I don’t mind. He was a great man once, and he’s still a great man as far as I am concerned. As he used to say, the body is only a vehicle for the soul, and the soul has no physical form.

  Right now as I stand in the kitchen waiting for my master or Nani Memsaheb to call me, all I can think of is how she shouted at me last night, and I am covered with anger and shame.

  She came home late from the hotel, smelling of alcohol. I was about to serve her dinner when she drunkenly waved her hand and said, “No food, Ramey, no food.” She lingered at the door of my master’s room, her forehead resting against the wood frame, and after a while she staggered upstairs to her room.

  I finished the dishes, turned off all the lights, and stood in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the night. Then I walked upstairs to make sure that her lights were off and her windows dosed. The house was very quiet, and as I headed down the hallway, the only sound was of a dog barking in the distance. Her door was ajar, and light filtered into the hall. I pushed open the door softly and walked inside. She was lying in bed in the black sari with red-flower patterns she’d worn that evening. Her breathing was heavy, and the end of the sari had slid down, exposing her navel and the rise and fall of her breasts. Even in sleep, the deep crease cut across her forehead, and her left eyelid was fluttering. I watched her for some time. Then I closed the windows and picked up the blanket folded at the end of her bed. I was about to drape it over her when a tightness in my throat and chest made my legs tremble. As I lowered the blanket over her breasts, she abruptly opened her eyes and said, “Ramey.” Her eyes moved to my hand, and she shouted, “You old pervert!” I swallowed and left the room.

  Why was I overcome with that strange feeling? Why, at this age, did my legs shake at the sight of her navel? Since last night I have tried to calm my frantic thoughts by chanting Om, but my thoughts have a life of their own and refuse to obey me.

  My master probably won’t live more than a few months. What will Nani Memsaheb do then? Will she wear a widow’s white dhoti, leave off her makeup, and devote her thoughts to her departed husband? Highly unlikely. What will happen to me? Will she continue to use my services? Or will she let me go? Thinking that far ahead worries me. I must keep my thoughts focused on the present: the cauliflower frying in the hot oil; the sound of our neighbors, a gambler husband and a rancorous wife, arguing; a child playing outside in the dark, mumbling about ghosts and demons; my hands, through years of washing and cooking, now veined, old, tired.

  About the Author

  SAMRAT UPADHYAY is the author of Arresting God in Kathmandu, a Whiting Award winner, The Royal Ghosts, and The Guru of Love, a New York Times Notable Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He has written for the New York Times and has appeared on BBC Radio and National Public Radio. Upadhyay directs the creative writing program at Indiana University.



  Samrat Upadhyay, Arresting God in Kathmandu



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