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Arresting god in kathman.., p.2

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 2

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  Pramod sighed at her simple ways.

  By now the streets were crowded; people were on their way to work. The park, in the center of the city, provided a good view of the surrounding buildings, many of them filled with major offices.

  The woman stood, stretched, and said, “Well, I should be going home. Make tea and then cook some rice for myself.” She looked at him sweetly. “I can make tea for you in my room.”

  Pramod was startled.

  “It’s all right,” she said. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. Here you are, sitting and worrying about what, I don’t know. So I thought you might want some tea. My house isn’t far. It’s right here in Asan.” She pointed in the direction of the large marketplace.

  “All right,” Pramod said. He got up and followed her out of the park, embarrassed to be walking beside this servant girl, afraid that someone he knew might see him. But he could feel a slow excitement rising in his body. He walked a few steps behind her, and she, seeming to sense his discomfort, didn’t turn around and talk to him.

  When they entered Asan, they were swept into the crowd, but he maintained his distance behind her, keeping her red dhoti in sight. There was a pleasant buzz in his ears, as if whatever was happening to him was unreal, as if the events of the last two months were also not true. His worrying was replaced by a lightness. He floated behind her, and the crowd in the marketplace moved forward. He didn’t feel constricted, as he usually did in such places. In fact, his heart seemed to have expanded.

  When they reached an old house in a narrow alley, she turned around at the doorway and said, “I have a room on the third floor, the other side.” She led him through a dirty courtyard, where children were playing marbles, and beckoned to him to follow her through another door. Pramod found himself in the dark. He could hear the swish of her dhoti. “The stairs are here,” she said. “Be careful; they’re narrow. Watch your head.” He reached for her hand, and she held his as she led him up the wooden stairs. Now Pramod could see the faint outline of a door. “One more floor.” He thought she looked pretty in that semidarkness. On the next landing she unlocked a door and they entered a small room.

  In one corner were a stove and some pots and pans; in another, a cot. A poster of Lord Krishna, his blue chubby face smiling at no one in particular, hung above the bed. The gray light filtering through the small window illuminated the woman’s face and objects in the room. She was smiling.

  He was drawn to the window, where he was surprised to find a view of the center of the marketplace. He had never before been inside a house in this congested quarter. In the distance, vegetable sellers squatted next to their baskets, smoking and laughing. A faint noise from the market drifted into the room, like the hum of a bee, and he stood at the window and gazed over the rooftops and windows of other houses crammed into this section of the city.

  “You can sit on the bed,” she said.

  He promptly obliged, and she proceeded to boil water for tea. He wondered how she, with her meager income as a housemaid, could afford an apartment in the city’s center. Then a curious thought entered his head: could she be a prostitute? Yet he knew she wasn’t. As if divining his thought, she said, “The owner of this house is from our village. He knew my father, and he treats me like a daughter. Very kind man. Not many like him these days, you know.”

  He smiled to himself. Yes, he knew. He said nothing.

  When she brought the tea, she sat next to him, and they sipped in silence. Soon he felt drowsy and lay down on the bed. She moved beside him, took his hand, and placed it on her breast. He ran his finger across her plump face. Her eyes were closed. He had no reaction except that there was an inevitability to this, something he’d sensed the moment she began to talk to him in the park.

  When he made love to her, it was not with hunger or passion; the act had its own momentum. He was not the one lifting her sari, fumbling with her petticoat, he was not the one doing the penetrating. She required nothing. She just lay beneath him, matching his moves only as the act demanded.

  He stayed with her until dusk. They ate, slept, and then he got up to survey the marketplace again. The crowd had swelled; strident voices of women haggling with vendors rose to the window. He felt removed from all of it, a distant observer who had to fulfill no obligations, meet no responsibilities, perform no tasks.

  When he got home that evening, he was uncharacteristically talkative. He even played with the baby, cooing to her and swinging her in his arms. Radhika’s face brightened, and she asked whether he had good news about a job. He said, “What job? There are no jobs,” and her face darkened again.

  During the afternoons Pramod still pursued his contacts, hoping something would come along, but the late mornings he reserved for the housemaid. They often met in the park after she’d finished her work and walked to her room in Asan. On Saturdays and holidays he stayed home, sometimes playing with the baby, sometimes listening to the radio.

  Once while he and Radhika were preparing for bed, she looked at the baby and said, “We have to think of her future.”

  Pramod caressed his daughter’s face and replied, “I’m sure something will happen,” although he had no idea of any prospect.

  Putting her hand on his, Radhika said, “I know you’re trying. But maybe you should see more people. I went to Shambhu-da yesterday, and he says he’ll find you something soon.”

  “Shambhu-da.” Pramod suppressed a groan.

  “He’s the only one who can help us.”

  “I don’t need his help,” said Pramod.

  “Don’t say that. If you say that, nothing will happen.” Pramod jumped from the bed and said, trembling, “What do you mean, nothing will happen? What’s happening now? Is anything happening now?”

  One cloudy morning as Pramod and the housemaid left the park and entered the marketplace, he saw Homraj walking toward them, swinging his umbrella.

  Before Pramod could hide, Homraj asked, “Oh, Pramod-ji, have you come here to buy vegetables?” He looked at the housemaid curiously. Pramod swallowed and nodded. “Nothing yet, huh?” Homraj asked. “My nephew can’t find a job either, but his situation is a little different.”

  Pramod, conscious of the housemaid by his side, wished she would move on. He put his hands in his pockets and said, “Looks like rain, so I’ll have to go,” and he walked away, leaving her standing with Homraj.

  Later, she caught up with him and asked, “Why were you afraid? What’s there to be afraid of?” Pramod, his face grim, kept walking, and when they reached her room, he threw himself on her cot and turned his face away. His chest was so tight that he had to concentrate on breathing. She said nothing more. After setting the water to boil, she came and sat beside him.

  Pramod stopped his search for a job and was absent from his house most of the time. One night he even stayed in the housemaid’s room, and when he got home in the morning, Radhika was in tears. “Where were you?” She brought her nose close to his face to smell whether he’d been drinking. “What’s happened to you? Don’t you know that you are a father? A husband?” Now when he went to family gatherings, he wasn’t surprised that the relatives looked at him questioningly. The bold ones even mocked him. “Pramod-ji, a man should not give up so easily. Otherwise he is not a man.” Some sought to counsel him. “Radhika is worried about you. These things happen to everyone, but one shouldn’t let everything go just like that.” He didn’t feel he had to respond to them, so he sat in silence, nodding. His father-in-law stopped talking to him, and his mother-in-law’s face was strained whenever she had to speak to him.

  At a relative’s feast one bright afternoon, Pramod watched a game of flush. The men, sitting on the floor in a circle, threw money into the center, and the women hovered around. Shambhu-da was immaculately dressed in a safari suit, and his ruddy face glowed with pleasure as he took carefully folded rupee notes from his pockets. Radhika sat beside Shambhu-da, peering over his cards and making faces.

  “Pramod-ji,
aren’t you going to play?” asked a relative.

  Pramod shook his head and smiled.

  “Why would Pramod-ji want to play?” said another relative, a bearded man who had been Pramod’s childhood friend. “He has better things to do in life.” This was followed by a loud guffaw from everyone. Radhika looked at Pramod.

  “After all, we’re the ones who are fools. Working at a job and then, poof, everything gone in an afternoon of flush.” The bearded relative, with a dramatic gesture, tossed some money into the jackpot.

  “No job, no worries. Every day is the same,” someone else said.

  Radhika got up and left the room. Pramod sat with his chin resting on his palms.

  Shambhu-da looked at the bearded relative with scorn and asked, “Who are you to talk, eh, Pitamber? A bull without horns can’t call himself sharp. What about you, then, who drives a car given to him by his in-laws, and walks around as if he’d earned it?”

  At this, some of the men nodded and remarked, “Well said” and “That’s the truth.” Pitamber smiled with embarrassment and said, “I was only joking, Shambhu-da. After all, this is a time of festivities.”

  “You don’t joke about such matters,” said Shambhu-da with unusual sharpness. “Why should you joke about this, anyway? What about the time you embezzled five lakh rupees from your office? Who rescued you then?”

  The room became quiet. Shambhu-da himself looked surprised that he’d mentioned that incident.

  Pitamber threw his cards on the floor and stood up. “What did I say, huh? What did I say? I didn’t say anything to you. Just because you’re older, does that mean you can say anything?” With his right hand, he gesticulated wildly; with his left, he rapidly stroked his beard. His voice grew louder. “What about you? Everyone knows you had that police inspector killed. We aren’t fools. How do you make all your money, donkey?”

  The use of the word donkey prompted the other men to stand and try to restrain Pitamber, who seemed ready to froth at the mouth. “Enough, enough!” cried one woman.

  Radhika came back. “What happened?”

  A shadow covered Shambhu-da’s face, and he too got up. “What do you think, huh? What do you think? Say that again, you motherfucker; just say that again. I can buy people like you with my left hand.”

  Radhika went over to Pramod and said, “See what you’ve started?”

  Bitterly, he said, “You are a fool,” and walked out of the room.

  He was engulfed by numbness; things disappeared in a haze. Words and phrases floated through his mind. He remembered stories of people jumping into the Ranipokhari Pond at the center of the city and being sucked under to their death. Could he do it?

  Pramod walked the two miles to Asan and moved through the darkness of the staircase to the housemaid’s room.

  She was pleased to see him.

  “I’d like to lie down,” he told her.

  “Shall I make you tea?”

  He shook his head and sank onto her cot. It smelled of her sweat and hair oil. He felt like a patient, ready to be anesthetized so that his body could be torn apart.

  “Are you all right?” She put her palm on his forehead.

  He nodded and fell asleep. It was a short sleep, filled with jerky images that he forgot when he woke.

  She was cooking rice. “You’ll eat here?”

  For a while, he said nothing. Then he asked, “Aren’t you afraid your husband will come? Unannounced?”

  She laughed, stirring the rice. “He’d catch us, wouldn’t he?”

  “What would you do?”

  “What would I do?”

  “Yes. What would you say to him if he catches us?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “I never think about it.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s not in my nature.” She took the rice pot off the stove and put on another, into which she poured clarified butter. She dipped some spinach into the burning ghee; it made a swoosh, and smoke rose in a gust. Pramod pulled out a cigarette and set it between his lips without lighting it.

  “You know,” she said, “if this bothers you, you should go back to your wife.”

  “It doesn’t bother me.”

  “Sometimes you look worried. As if someone is waiting to catch you.”

  “Really?” He leaned against the pillow. “Is it my face?”

  “Your face, your body.” She stirred the spinach and sprinkled it with salt. “What will you do?”

  “I’ll never find a job,” he said, sucking the unlit cigarette. He made an O with his lips and blew imaginary circles of smoke to the ceiling.

  “No. I mean if my husband comes.”

  He waved away the imaginary smoke. “I’ll kill him,” he said, then laughed.

  She also laughed. “My husband is a big man. With big hands.”

  “I’ll give him one karate kick” Pramod got up and kicked his right leg vaguely in her direction. Then he adopted some of the poses he had seen in kung-fu movies. “I will hit Pitamber on the chin like this.” He jabbed his fist hard against his palm. “I will kick Shambhu-da in the groin.” He lifted his leg high in the air. His legs and arms moved about, jabbing, punching, kicking, thrusting, flailing. He continued until he was tired, then sat down next to her, breathing hard, with an embarrassed smile.

  “What good will it do,” she said, “to beat up the whole world?”

  He raised a finger as if to say: Wait. But when his breathing became normal, he merely smiled, leaned over, and kissed her cheek “I think I should go now.”

  “But I made dinner.”

  “Radhika will be waiting,” he said.

  It was already twilight when he left. The air had a fresh, tangible quality. He took a deep breath and walked into the marketplace, passing rows of meat shops and sweets vendors.

  At the large temple complex of Hanuman Dhoka, he climbed the steps to the three-story temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. A few foreigners milled around, taking pictures. He sat down above the courtyard, which started emptying as the sky grew dark.

  When he reached home, Radhika didn’t say anything. She silently placed a plate of rice, dal, and vegetables in front of him, and he ate with gusto, his fingers darting from one dish to another. When he asked for more, she said, “How come you have such an appetite?”

  His mouth filled with food, he couldn’t respond. After dinner he went to the baby, who stared at him as if he were a stranger. He picked her up by the feet and raised his arms, so that her tiny, bald head was upside down above his face. The baby smiled. Rocking her, Pramod sang a popular song he’d heard on the radio: “The only thing I know how to do is chase after young girls, then put them in a wedding doli and take them home.”

  When Radhika finished in the kitchen, she stood in the doorway, watching him sing to the baby. Without turning to her, he said, “Maybe we should start a shop. What do you think?”

  Radhika looked at him suspiciously, then realized he was serious. Later, when they were in bed and he was about to turn off the light, he said, “Can you imagine me as a shopkeeper? Who would have thought of it?”

  “I think you would make a very good shopkeeper,” Radhika assured him.

  “I will have to grow a mustache.”

  In the darkness, it occurred to him that perhaps he would be such a good shopkeeper that even if Kamalkanth did come to buy something, Pramod would be polite and say “Please” and “Thank you.” He smiled to himself. If Shambhu-da came, Pramod would talk loudly with other customers and pretend Shambhu-da was not there. And if the housemaid came, he would seat her on a stool, and perhaps Radhika would make tea for her.

  This last thought appealed to him tremendously.

  The Cooking Poet

  HE WAS a well-known poet in Nepal. During the rule of the Rana dictators, which lasted for one hundred and eight years, he had been their outspoken critic, lashing out at their cruelty, writing poems comparing the situation of him and his countrymen to that of a caged parrot, whose hunger is not fo
r food but for freedom, whose only desire in the world is to fly away into the woods. The Ranas immediately banned the circulation of the poems and threw the poet in jail. When the revolution finally toppled their regime (it was a classic rebellion, led by the legal king, who had been treated by the Ranas like a eunuch, locked inside the palace and barred from even reading the news), the poet, generally known as Acharya, was regarded as a hero by the people. The king called him into the palace and awarded him several prestigious tides, including one given only to outstanding soldiers on the battlefield, although Acharya had never advocated physical violence. After the elections—as bitter quarrels erupted among the freedom fighters for high-ranking positions in the government, causing a general climate of corruption and ultimately a severe setback in the economy—Acharya was presented with an award given only to the nation’s foremost poets.

  Acharya was not dazzled by his fame. His quest for truth far outweighed any desire for personal recognition. It amused and surprised him that people made a fuss about his poetry—some critics went so far as to call him “our Shakespeare”—for he loved poetry as an art, not as a means to achieve personal aggrandizement.

  Now, at the age of sixty, Acharya lived with his wife and two children (his elder daughter was married and living in another part of the city) in a comfortable house in a quiet part of the city. Royalties from his anthologies and books of poetry, still used in classrooms throughout the country, brought him a decent income, and he spent his time reading, relaxing, and being guest of honor at various functions at schools and colleges. Over the years he had also been a mentor to those whom his friends recommended as serious young writers. Often he judged a poet not only by his writings, but also, after careful observation, by his character, maturity, and humility.

  One young man who presented himself to Acharya made an immediate impression by the deep insights expressed in his poems and the masterly way in which they were shaped, with subtle echoes of the classical tradition, infused with a rigorous quality of modernity. After spending some time with the young poet in his study, however, Acharya became offended by his arrogance. The man kept pointing out the impressive manner in which he had employed certain images and his adroit handling of the language. Acharya, convinced that so large an ego is detrimental to the art of poetry, refused to take the young man under his wing, much to the dismay of the colleague who had recommended him. But Acharya was resolute: the poet does not make the poem; the poem makes the poet.

 
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