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Mad country, p.2

Mad Country, page 2


Mad Country

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  “It signals,” Shalini said, “that we aren’t going to operate on their timetable. They can’t simply barge in here and confiscate our documents.”

  “Yes, they can, madam,” Urmila said. “The law—”

  “Fuck this law,” Shalini said.

  That evening as Shalini drove home, she thought about stopping by to see Alina. She hadn’t been to Alina’s house since her divorce, she now realized. Shalini had always liked Rasik, who appeared to be a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and it was hard to believe that he’d end up being so unkind to a woman with whom he’d spent so many years. Alina wasn’t exactly easy to live with—she was impulsive and disordered—but she’d loved Rasik. She probably still did; that was why she’d taken it so hard.

  Shalini stopped in front of the gate and honked. A man peeked out from the guardhouse, then opened the gate for her. At least the house is still under Alina’s control, thought Shalini. And a palatial house it was, a rarity in the city, a remnant of the old Rana aristocracy, with spacious rooms and a large lawn with a small fountain that didn’t work but added allure. Rasik, who had royal blood, had inherited it. Shalini was surprised he’d let Alina have it, although it was clearly too big for a single person. They didn’t have children.

  She knocked on the door a few times, then called out Alina’s name. No answer. She pushed the door open and entered. The living room was a mess, with clothes and magazines scattered all over. The curtains were closed, and there was a musty smell in the air. Shalini called out Alina’s name again. She moved through the house, peeking into rooms.

  She found Alina in the bathtub with her eyes closed. The tub was filled to the brim, with water threatening to spill out. Alina had her headphones on, and they were hooked to her mobile, which dangled down by the side of the tub. Half a dozen empty mini alcohol bottles were also on the sink and the floor. Alina’s head leaned back on the wall, only her chin and nose above the water. Her eyes were closed, and for a moment Shalini thought she wasn’t breathing. But her chest moved.

  Then Shalini noticed the little red streaks in the water, at times gathering in little pools. Blood. “Alina!”

  Alina opened her eyes drowsily. “Shalini,” she whispered. “When did you come?”

  Shalini kneeled down to grab her. Alina laughed and asked what she was doing. Shalini lifted her friend up by her arms. “Alina, that’s blood, isn’t it? My god, what is going on?”

  “It’s nothing,” Alina slurred.

  “Are you hurt?”

  Alina was standing up now, leaning on Shalini. She was in her panties but no bra, and her small boobs looked pointed and hard.

  “Where is the blood coming from?” Shalini then noticed the thin, vertical cuts on Alina’s left wrist. Blood trickled down her fingers into the water.

  “Use that towel,” Alina said calmly, indicating the towel on the rack next to her head. Shalini wrapped it around Alina’s wrist. Alina looked at her in amusement. “Why are you panicking? Nothing happened.”

  Unable to speak, Shalini led her toward the bedroom. She had Alina sit on the bed, then fetched more towels from the bathroom and dried her off. “What would have happened had I not arrived?” she asked softly.

  “Well, you saved me, didn’t you?” Alina said, half-amused, half-ashamed, it seemed.

  “Do you have any bandages?”

  With Alina’s instructions, Shalini found them in the bathroom cupboard. Not bandages, really, but gauze, a strip of which she wrapped around Alina’s wrist. Although the cuts were thin, they were long, and the gauze quickly became soaked in blood. Alina laughed. Shalini replaced it with a fresh one, then for good measure, strengthened it with another wrap. The gauze turned pink, but the blood flow seemed to have stopped. She helped Alina get dressed, making sure she wore a long-sleeved kurta that covered her arms. Alina reeked so badly that Shalini, nearly gagging, turned away her face. “What have you eaten?”

  Alina looked at her blankly.

  “Where’s Devi?”

  “I sent her home. Can’t afford house help anymore.”

  “So you’ve been cooking for yourself?” Shalini didn’t wait for an answer but went to the kitchen. It was important that Alina get some food into her. But a quick look in the fridge told Shalini that there was nothing, no vegetables, no meat—not that Shalini would have had the patience to cook after a long day. She decided they’d go out to eat.

  Shalini had to help Alina get into the car. She kept the windows open so the outside air would help Alina sober up. On the way, Shalini asked, “You let Devi go, but you’ve kept the guard.”

  “He won’t leave—says Rasik will pay him.” Alina laughed.

  They went to the new Italian place in Naxal that everyone was raving about, Barolo. The restaurant was filled mostly with Nepalis, some of whom looked at Shalini because they recognized her from her media appearances. Shalini was used to such stares and attention by now. Sometimes people came up to her for autographs. She had a feeling that half these people hadn’t read Fast Forward and were only vaguely aware of what kind of magazine it was.

  She’d also been confronted by unhappy readers. Once she took her staff for a two-day vacation to Pokhara. When the van stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, a man approached and began ranting at her, gesticulating wildly about how she was destroying the country. Prakash stood and got in the man’s face, and soon the restaurant manager came and escorted the man away. Another time three hooligans, supporters of a minor politician who claimed he’d been “maligned” by the magazine, had burst into Fast Forward’s office and thrown stuff around. Luckily, Urmila had called the police as soon as she’d seen them coming, and the police had arrived fairly quickly. The men had not been arrested. The cops knew the intruders—they’d exchanged greetings when they’d arrived—and the situation calmed after the cops talked to them and took them out for tea.

  Now, after they’d ordered their food, Shalini asked how long Alina had been cutting herself. Alina said she’d only recently started. “It’s the best way, apart from booze, to drive away the pain.”

  “But you’re losing blood, Alina. One day it’ll be too much.”

  “Normally I make small cuts like these,” Alina said, then pulled her sleeve up to reveal horizontal cuts right above the crook of her arm. “Today I was going for something bigger.”

  Shalini gasped, and tears came to her eyes. Afraid that others would see Alina’s cuts, she reached across and pulled down Alina’s sleeve. She whispered, “Were you seriously thinking about finishing yourself?”

  “I don’t know what I was thinking, but I wanted to take the next step.”

  “You should go to a therapist. I know someone.”

  The food came. Meatball spaghetti for Shalini, mushroom pasta for Alina. Shalini wished Alina would eat some meat, but she’d declined.

  Alina said, “Why would I want to pay a therapist so I could think even more about Rasik, torture myself even more?”

  The two friends kept up a constant chatter, with Shalini scolding her, counseling her, Alina accepting her counsel, then mildly rebuffing her, then laughing at what she called Shalini’s “exaggerated concern.” Shalini said it was consoling that at least Rasik had left her the house, at which Alina laughed heartily. “You still think highly of Rasik, don’t you? You think that he is a good man.” No, the house was also in his name; Alina was living there at his mercy. “Any day now, he’s going to kick me out.”

  When Shalini went to the bathroom and returned, Alina had ordered a bottle of red wine and was already on her second glass—she must have guzzled down the first one. “Don’t say anything,” she told Shalini. “This is our celebratory drink.” She poured a glass for Shalini and raised her own in toast. Shalini almost asked the waiter to take away the bottle, but she didn’t want to create a scene, so she took small sips as she watched her friend down the second glass. She could
n’t believe she was letting Alina get away with this.

  When Alina reached for the bottle again, Shalini snatched it away.

  “It’s okay when I drink with you, isn’t it?” Alina said. “It’s only when I’m by myself that it’s a problem.”

  Shalini flagged the waiter and handed him the bottle. “Take it away.”

  “It’s no good, madam?”

  “It’s fine. We don’t want it anymore.”

  “Two thousand rupees down the drain,” Alina said.

  “I’m paying,” Shalini said.

  “Perfectly good wine wasted.”

  Shalini realized that Alina was still a tad drunk from the small bottles in her house.

  The two friends left Barolo and walked through Thamel, arms linked. “Remember when we used to come here after school to smoke pot?” Alina asked.

  Shalini did remember. Alina was always the wild one. She had an uninhibited personality that made her popular among her friends and disliked by many others, especially the goody two-shoes at their school. Alina wasn’t afraid to talk to boys, get into fights with girls from rival schools, and mouth off to teachers, leading to disciplinary actions or probation. They smoked pot in the back room of a Chinese restaurant they’d named The Dungeon. Alina smoked the most, and by evening she was always in a bad state. Often they went back to Shalini’s house, where Shalini called Alina’s mother to let her know that Alina would be sleeping over so they could study together. Alina’s parents were the uncaring sort, so they didn’t seem bothered by their daughter’s absence from home.

  “How’s Mami?” Alina asked.

  “Fine,” Shalini said. “She’s always asking about you.”

  “She has always been so nice to me.”

  “Yes, remember one time when your parents kicked you out of the house and you stayed with us?”

  “Yes, for two whole weeks,” Alina said, laughing, “and I didn’t want to go back home.”

  “Let’s go see her,” Shalini said.


  “Yes, she is just a neighborhood away, in Chhetrapati. You forgot?”

  “Oh, yes, she moved here a couple of years ago, didn’t she?”

  Shalini’s mother, now seventy, had abandoned the house built by her husband, who’d passed away not long after Shalini returned from America, and lived by herself in an apartment in Chhetrapati. Mrs. Malla was a small but formidable woman who’d fought for democracy when King Mahendra had slapped the one-party Panchayat system on the nation. During those years she’d spent time in jail, initiated hunger strikes, led protest marches, and gone underground for months. She was somewhat of a legend and still possessed a sharp mind. She read Fast Forward cover to cover, occasionally offering her opinions. If she was proud of her daughter, she didn’t show it. She certainly wasn’t awed by Shalini’s celebrity status—it didn’t seem to matter much to her that her daughter was now well known.

  Her decision to move to Chhetrapati was her idea. She said she wanted to live close to the city center, close to the house of a famous freedom fighter, now dead, who had served as her mentor. She wanted to walk to the vegetable market as well as the markets of Indrachowk and Basantapur. Shalini had objected, saying that Mami was too old to live by herself, that they could look for a house in Chhetrapati so they could live together. “I want to live alone,” Mrs. Malla had said, and that had been that.

  Mrs. Malla made tea for them, even though Shalini kept saying that it was too late. Mrs. Malla sat next to Alina, held her hand, and asked her to tell everything that was going on in her life. Alina told her about her split with Rasik. Mrs. Malla listened attentively, and in the end she said, “This marriage thing—they make a big deal out of it, don’t they?”

  “I loved Rasik, Mami,” Alina said.

  “Love is kind of overrated, too,” Mrs. Malla said. “There are so many other important things in life. Your personal independence, for example. Human dignity also.”

  Shalini had always been grateful to her mother for the way she thought. Mrs. Malla, for example, had defended her daughter when year after year Shalini didn’t get married and people began talking. “It’s her choice,” Mrs. Malla told them. “She has to be happy with her decision.” Conservatives who hated Fast Forward, however, were quick to seize on her unmarried state as a sign of her moral depravity. “She needs a good fuck” was a constant on Twitter. “She won’t be satisfied with one man” was another. Rumors had been spread that she was a lesbian.

  Shalini watched her mother. She’d missed her. She’d missed being around her, missed the strength her sheer presence exuded. Shalini would need that strength in the coming days. She’d fought off her magazine’s enemies in the past, but something larger seemed to be afoot this time. Yet she noticed at one point in their conversation that her mother had leaned against the sofa and closed her eyes. Just a momentary respite, thought Shalini, but seconds later she understood that no, Mrs. Malla had fallen asleep. Alina stopped talking when she, too, noticed what had happened. Shalini wanted to stroke her mother’s cheek, but she was afraid of waking her up. Alina took Shalini’s hand in her own, and they both gazed at Mrs. Malla.

  The next morning, Shalini was bombarded with text messages from the minister’s office; then there was a flurry of texts from unknown numbers. Her mobile also rang continuously. She picked it up only when Prakash or Chitra or Urmila called. They were all staying home. Urmila was planning on taking her young son shopping and for pizza, and Prakash was going to a movie with friends. “This is like a vacation,” Chitra joked over the phone.

  Shalini cooked some khichadi for herself (she’d loved the quick rice-and-vegetable mishmash since she was a child, when Mami was often too busy with her activism to make anything else) and lounged around the house, sometimes walking out to her garden from where she chatted with her next-door neighbor over the wall. A few more texts came in, but none from the minister’s office.

  After lunch she ended up falling asleep while reading a book. She woke up with drool on her chin; embarrassed, she quickly checked her phone. Nothing. The feeling of grogginess didn’t leave her even after she drank a cup of tea. She took a leisurely bath; her overhead shower didn’t work, but she enjoyed pouring water over herself from a bucket. After the bath, she got dressed in a salwar kameez that someone had gifted her. It was a bright red one, with an intricate, immensely pleasing design on the front. Viewing the mirror, Shalini got lost in the beauty of the salwar kameez. It made her look younger, as if she were getting ready to go to college.

  That college-going Shalini was a Shalini from a different era, naïve and believing in the fundamental goodness of the world. That girl no longer existed. This Shalini dealt with ministers who wanted to silence her to cover up a murder.

  Should I take off this dress? she wondered. But it was nice to see herself so bright and cheery, which, given everything that had happened, she no longer felt.

  She thought she should get in touch with Priyanka, see if she wanted to get together for the evening. They could discuss Alina, and Shalini could tell her about Alina’s drinking and cutting. Priyanka was levelheaded, and perhaps she could come up with a solution.

  Shalini called Priyanka, who was home and busy with her children. “Just come on over, Shals,” she said.

  Shalini drove over to her house, enjoying the long ride to Bhainsepati. On the way she called Prakash. No answer. She called Urmila, who answered but who was in a noisy restaurant and couldn’t hear properly. “We’ll talk tomorrow, ma’am,” Urmila shouted and hung up. Shalini called Chitra, but she didn’t pick up despite minutes of ringing.

  At Priyanka’s place, the two friends sat on the lawn and chatted. Priyanka’s son had been caught smoking pot on the roof after school, and apparently all hell had broken loose right at the moment Shalini had called, although looking at Priyanka now, one wouldn’t know that anything untoward had happen
ed. Her daughter, who was in the same grade as her son in the same school, had smelled something in her room and wandered up to the roof, where she’d caught her brother.

  “So what are you going to do?” Shalini asked.

  “He’ll need to be punished.” Priyanka leaned forward in her chair and whispered. “All the time I was scolding him, I was thinking what my son would say if he found out that I smoke on the same spot where he was caught.”

  “Smoke? You mean cigarettes?”

  Priyanka rolled her pretty eyes. “Do I have to explain everything to you?”

  “Ganja khane?”

  Priyanaka inspected her well-manicured nails.

  “I didn’t know you still smoked.”

  “Both Gaurav and I.”

  “Also Gaurav?”

  “Shals, you look like you’re getting ready for a heart attack. It’s not like I’m an addict or anything. On weekends, just to relax. Gaurav joins me occasionally when he doesn’t bring his work home.”

  “And where do you get the stuff?”

  “There’s a guy down the street.”

  Shalini dialed Chitra’s number, but there was still no response. She called both Prakash and Urmila, but neither picked up the phone.

  Gaurav returned from work, and there was pressure for Shalini to stay for drinks and dinner. Priyanka told her husband about their son, and the two of them laughed. They ate on the lawn. Gaurav told stories of his trips to China, where he did business. Shalini’s eyes kept drifting toward her phone in her hand. Every now and then she scrolled through her email: mostly junk, nothing from Chitra.

  Finally Prakash returned her call around seven-thirty. Shalini quickly stepped away from the table, nearly shouting into the phone, “Where are you? I’ve been trying to reach you.”

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