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Mad country, p.19

Mad Country, page 19


Mad Country

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  “Everything all right, Mrs. Gurung?”

  “Everything is perfect. Now let’s talk about the contract.”

  “There’s no bad news, is there? You look a bit frazzled.”

  “It’s just the wrong time for it, but apparently my son is in some kind of trouble at school.”

  “Then you should go.”

  “Let’s finish our talk.”

  “Well, we’re obviously not going to conclude it right now. There are still some financial points we need to get clarity on.”

  “I was hoping that provisionally if you gave your assent, we’d be set.”

  “If I wasn’t provisionally committed, would I be here? But at this moment you need to take care of your son, and I’d like our discussion to be full and complete.”

  “Perhaps Mr. Sapkota here can take over for me, so you are completely satisfied before you leave?”

  “Mrs. Gurung, what’s the hurry? Go take care of your son. Family takes priority over business.”

  I had no choice but to let the matter drop. I cursed my son as I headed toward his school. The imbecile! Didn’t he realize that his mother was an important woman? Did he think that I was at his beck and call every time he got into trouble? But as my car neared the school, I hoped the police hadn’t already taken him away. I worried how he’d do if he had to spend a night or two in jail. They most likely wouldn’t feed him well. They might slap him around—for what? For threatening his principal? I was being paranoid; the recent political arrests and tortures had corrupted my mind. In all likelihood, the most that would happen to him was that he’d be behind bars for a few hours, harassed and bullied by cops, then let go.

  There was also a traffic jam in Kupondole that held me hostage for about half an hour, during which any remaining molecules of anger had evaporated, replaced by motherly concern and anxiety and indignation at the actions of the school.

  By the time I reached the school, the police had him in handcuffs and were on their way out of the principal’s office to a waiting van in the driveway. God almighty, I thought. That teacher who had called me, and who now was accompanying the police as though he himself had orchestrated the arrest, was right about how serious this was. But I knew how the system worked: the louder you raised your voice, the more righteous you sounded and the more legitimate your grievances became.

  “Arre, arre, arre,” I shouted, barring their way. I was not a big woman, but I was slightly heavy, and I could project a thunderous voice when I wanted to, a voice I occasionally used on my office staff. “Who do you think you are? And where do you think you’re taking this child?”

  At the sight of me, a small smile appeared on my son’s face. Mama had come to his rescue, as usual. I could see the principal in his room, through the open door, standing next to his desk, his arms folded, watching. The sun was behind him, so his face was somewhat in the shadows.

  “Please move out of the way,” said a policeman who was escorting my son. “This is a police matter.”

  “Police matter, my foot!” I said, my arms stretched wide. The teacher who had phoned was looking at me placidly. “What did the child do so you have to handcuff him in front of the entire school and haul him off like this?” I asked.

  “We don’t have to answer you,” the policeman said. “If you don’t get out of the way, we’ll take you to the station.”

  “On what grounds?” I asked. “What reason would you have to arrest me when all I’m doing is asking a simple question as a mother, as a citizen?”

  “Hire a lawyer, who can ask all the questions in court. Now move!”

  I was not used to this type of treatment. Usually men with small powers, like these police here, learned quickly who I was—a businesswoman with considerable capital and clout—and I’d start getting “Hajur,” and “Yes, madam,” and “Of course, Gurung madam.” Things were smoothed, doors opened, and I was offered tea by deferential hands; conveniences magically appeared, and inconveniences disappeared. With upper echelon male figures, I would adopt a gentler approach, my voice becoming more naram, saturated with sugar. With Mr. Pathak today, for example, I had sweetly inquired after his wife and three daughters, and offered my heartfelt condolences on the passing away of his mother (a factoid I had mentally noted when the news of his mother’s death had appeared in the papers). I was also not averse to using my feminine charms with these higher-level men (although I didn’t do this with Mr. Pathak). I threw them coquettish smiles and asked them how come the more they aged, the more youthful they appeared? I fingered their suits and made appreciative noises, or I adjusted their ties.

  I was, however, always very careful: I never gave the impression that there was anything more than mild flirting. One time there was this Indian industrialist with whom I was sitting in the lounge of a luxury resort in another city. We’d each had a martini or two. “So what are you doing tonight, Mrs. Gurung?” he asked.

  “I’m heading to bed after this,” I said, lifting my glass.

  “How about you and I go disco dancing?” he said, and wiggled his hips on the sofa. He had rings on all of his fingers—and I mean all—and he was slow to smile, but when he did, his brilliant white teeth gleamed. I had complimented him earlier on these white teeth, saying he could easily model for a Colgate commercial.

  “Disco?” I said. “Didn’t disco stop with Saturday Night Fever?”

  He gave me a befuddled look, not catching my reference. “There’s a band playing in the hotel tonight.”

  “I have an early flight tomorrow.” I also had to call my dear husband, who I knew would be waiting.

  “Come on,” he said. “Just a dance or two, after which I’ll let you go.”

  I pointed out that it was already ten, past my bedtime, but he grabbed me by the hand and insisted. “Okay, okay,” I said. “Just one dance.” He didn’t let go of my hand as we made our way across the labyrinthine lobby of the hotel. I had to pry myself away with the excuse that I needed to dig into my bag for a tissue.

  The dance hall was dark because they were playing a slow number—“How Deep Is Your Love?” by the Bee Gees, a song I had taken pleasure in when I was a teenager—and a few couples were close-dancing. There was no way in hell I was going to close-dance with this man, but before I could say anything, he had pulled me to the floor, and there I was, holding hands with him, smelling his booze breath. “You should come to Calcutta,” he said. “I’ll show you around.”

  “Calcutta is hot.”

  “Not in winter. It’s perfect in winter.”

  “In winter I’m busy with my family.”

  He had moved closer to me, and I could feel his bulge poking me. I gently pushed him away.

  “You are a beautiful woman.”

  “Thank you.” I was barely audible.

  “No, I mean it. You are gorgeous.” He slurred on “gorgeous,” and I realized that he was drunker than he looked. He must have had a few even before he had joined me tonight.

  When was this song going to end? The high-pitched voice of the singer, a Gibb, I vaguely recalled, grated on my nerves. The song’s title should have been “How Long Is Our Song?”

  “A gorgeous woman like you needs to be treated better,” he said. “I will show you around India. We will travel the world.”

  “I travel plenty on my own.”

  His right arm, which was around my waist, pulled me against him. “What I mean is you shouldn’t be shackled to . . . chained . . . you know what I’m saying? What kind of a life is this? Having to take care of an ailing partner day in and out?”

  “Are you married, Mr. Chatterji?”

  “Yes, but my wife doesn’t mind what I do outside of home. She’s not an educated woman.”

  The song ended, and I disengaged myself from him, quickly grabbed my bag from the table, bade him good night, and left. He followed me until the lobby, then r
ealized that it was no good and gave up.

  In my room I dialed Kathmandu. After the fourth ring, my husband’s sleepy voice answered.

  “Kailash, already asleep?” I asked.

  “I waited and waited.”

  “I couldn’t get away. How is your stomach?”

  “I still have the runs.”

  “Ramesh asleep?”

  “He hasn’t come home yet.”

  “Oh, that boy!”

  “And you? How was the meeting?”

  “It went well.” I didn’t want to tell him about Chatterji. Normally I didn’t hide anything from Kailash, he being my beloved and all, but I didn’t want his feelings hurt by what the businessman had said about me being shackled to him.

  “You shouldn’t have to do this,” Kailash often told me when I gave him a towel bath, or when I changed his soiled underclothes. “No woman should have to do such demeaning things,” he said. “This is humiliating for you, offensive, I know it.” When I told him that I didn’t consider caring for him humiliating at all, he didn’t believe me. When he became depressed, he said he wished he were dead, and I had to stroke his chin and smooth his hair to calm him.

  Those nights I was away on business trips were hard for him because he missed me in bed. I had hired a nurse to look after him when I traveled. She was a reliable worker, a woman from the hills who had fallen on hard times (her husband and children had been killed by the rebels during the civil war). She slept on the floor in our bedroom when I was not at home.

  “Where is Narbada?” I asked.

  “She went downstairs to eat.”

  “I can’t wait to get home.”

  “One more day,” he said.

  “Do you miss me?”

  “Is that a question to ask?”

  We had always been like this, very lovey-dovey, ever since we had fallen for each other decades ago. I had fought with my parents to marry him; he had disowned his parents because they had disapproved of me. In the end, we went to court, got our marriage certificate, and invited a few friends over for a party. We drank and danced all night long. We grooved to Donna Summer and mouthed “hot stuff” to each other. We crashed a bar where we smoked hash and got drunk on milky-white tongba that we sipped through bamboo pipes.

  In the school’s driveway, I dropped my arm and used my naram voice. “Look, bhai, he is my son, what do you expect me to do?”

  The policeman shoved me aside and pushed Ramesh into the van. The boy appeared to be enjoying himself. He wore a pained, yet laughing expression. “Ma,” he cried, and I cried back, “Don’t worry, son. I’ll come and get you.”

  The van sped away, and I went into the principal’s office and chewed him out. He was defiant, told me that I had no idea what a troublemaker my son was, that I was living in a cocoon. I told him he should return to where he came from—he was from Darjeeling, or Bhutan or someplace like that. “The nerve of you foreigners,” I told him through gritted teeth, “coming to my country to lecture me. I will drag you to court,” I said, and left.

  I thought that they’d take Ramesh down to the station, knock some sense into him, and then let him go. Even in the most autocratic of societies, how would threatening a principal warrant more than a couple of hours in jail? But when he didn’t return home by seven o’clock, I worried. I made some phone calls, found out that he was being held in Hanuman Dhoka. The man who answered the phone couldn’t tell me when my son would be released. “I just have the name in the register in front of me.”

  I employed my authoritative voice that wasn’t going to brook any nonsense. “What kind of a wahiyat talk is this? How can you not know? You must have a system.”


  “A system that lets people know when they can expect their loved ones back. Is that too much to ask?”

  Did I hear a soft chuckle at the other end? “I don’t have any such system.”

  “Then find me someone who has.”

  “I’m not allowed to leave my desk, madam.”

  “Then give me your name and rank. In a loktantric society, your answer is not acceptable. I intend to report you.”

  “Bhagirath Lamichhane is my name. Police constable.”

  I switched to my honeyed voice. “Bhai, I’m just talking. There will be no reporting, you know that. I’m well aware you are just doing your job, and I know that people like you are slogging your butt off for the good of this country. I salute you. I am just a poor mother trying to ascertain the well-being of my son. Is that too much to ask?”

  He hung up the phone.

  I would have gone to Hanuman Dhoka that evening, but then I heard Kailash’s cries. I hurried upstairs to our room. He had fallen off the bed. My immediate worry was that he’d broken a bone, for his bones were weak and brittle. “Any place hurting?” I asked as I lifted him by his arms and put him back on the bed. Until a few years ago, such an act on my part would have been impossible, because Kailash, I swear, had weighed twice as much as I, and had been, despite his age, muscular and brawny. My handsome Kailash. He was a wrestling champion when he was growing up in the terai, and a swimming marvel in Roorki where he went to college. There is a photo of him standing on a bridge, ready to plunge into a raging river, biceps gleaming, his face sculpted like a Roman statue’s.

  Now his arms resembled bamboo sticks, and the skin on his body had become translucent—if I gently pressed my thumb against his cheek, its imprint remained on it for a minute or so. His cheeks had sunken so much that they looked as though he was deliberately sucking on them. Now I could no longer gaze into his eyes for long without something clogging my throat and me thinking how unfair this world was. His eyes had sunken in, too, floating in their own liquid. “You should leave me,” Kailash had started saying recently. “I’m becoming too much of a burden for you.”

  When he said this, I put my finger on his lips and said, “Hush!”

  After I put Kailash back on the bed, he began coughing, so I stayed and rubbed some ointment on his chest, his throat, thinking that I should go down to Hanuman Dhoka, then hoping that soon I’d hear the door creak and it’d be Ramesh, announcing his entry like he always did. I hadn’t yet told Kailash about Ramesh’s arrest. He was fond of Ramesh, thought of his son’s troublesome ways as youthful peccadilloes. “He’s only a boy,” Kailash liked to say. I didn’t argue with him, didn’t tell him that I was the one who had to deal with our son’s “youthful peccadilloes” and that I was beginning to get tired of it. The boy had brought nothing but trouble to us. Even at an early age, say eight or nine, he used to get into ugly fights at school, then come home grinning with a black eye or a chipped tooth.

  In eighth grade, he got into what he called “a gang fight” in the neighborhood and ended up with a broken arm that required surgery. He flunked ninth grade, then accumulated so many absences the second time around that he was in danger of flunking again. He’d have failed again, had I not made a reasoned and fervent appeal on his behalf to the principal (the previous one, not the buffoon I had to deal with today). Basically, I asked for a third chance, and in a shameless moment, I even brought up my husband’s deteriorating condition as a reason for Ramesh’s performance.

  • • •

  I awoke at 11 p.m., my palm still on Kailash’s chest, the light on in the room. I had fallen asleep! Kailash was snoring softly. He had been sleeping well at night since he’d started taking pills for his depression. Briefly, I contemplated going down to Hanuman Dhoka to check on Ramesh. But that would be madness. I’d have to drive the car myself, and I didn’t see well at night. If I got into a car accident, what would Kailash do? Even if I were to make it to Hanuman Dhoka, where would I park? New Road? Indrachowk?

  Since the Hanuman Dhoka police station was in a prime tourist spot because of the ancient temples nearby, I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to drive all the way to the jail. I’d probably
have to do some walking, and who knew what kinds of characters lurked after darkness? Besides, I wasn’t sure that the jail would be open to visitors at this hour. It was not some five-star hotel where a well-groomed receptionist would check me in no matter what time I arrived. That Bhagirath Lamichhane, the police constable I’d spoken to in the evening, had a home to go to, I was sure, possibly to a wife and children. Right now he might be sound asleep, cuddled against his family.

  I didn’t sleep for a couple of hours, entangled in my thoughts. At one point, in a semidreamy state I had the distinct impression that Anamika Gurung—I had retained my maiden surname, just to aggravate my conservative in-laws—was someone else, that I was looking at her objectively, and that her life, as significant and important as it was to her, was indeed quite pathetic. An educated, smart, married woman who got propositioned by lewd, hairy businessmen in the lounges of lavish hotels; whose husband, once the envy of her friends for his good looks, was wasting away; whose son, at the age of sixteen, was already a jailbird.

  Ramesh was not in Hanuman Dhoka when I went to see him the next morning.

  “Well, has he been released?” I asked the men in the front room. Its walls were damaged; there was an odor of a drain—sewage?—coming through the windows.

  “We’ll have to check,” they said, but then they all got busy talking.

  I waited patiently. They continued talking. I waited some more. Nothing. Something surged inside me. I banged the table around which they were seated. “I am asking a simple question. A citizen of a democratic country that you men have vowed to serve. Have you not vowed? Am I not a citizen? My question is simple: Where is my son?”

  There was silence, then two of them stood and grabbed hold of me. One handcuffed me, and another one slapped me, not very hard but enough to leave a sting. Before I could say anything, I was frog-marched to a cell, where there were other women prisoners, and shoved in.

  “Arre, arre, arre!” I said. But the men had already returned to the front.

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