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Mad country, p.20

Mad Country, page 20


Mad Country

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  I was stunned. It happened so speedily. Do these fuckers know who I am? But instantly the anger evaporated, and I knew I hadn’t acted wisely. I should have used my naram voice and appealed to the kindest face in the room, an appeal from a mother instead of a strident citizen.

  I consoled myself: this was a temporary punishment to teach me manners, like forcing a mouthy child to squat with knees up to her chin. All I had to do was be silent for a while, then call them sweetly. I could do that. Before Kailash’s health failed, he and I had attended a meditation camp or two, and I recalled some of those instructions. Say Om on the outbreath. Don’t force your awareness. Simply be cognizant of your breath. Feel the in-and-out of your belly. In and out.

  I stood against the cell door, eyes closed. Then my thoughts ricocheted inside my head—Kailash; Ramesh; the company; my older, married daughter, Priya, who had drifted away from me.

  “Have you fallen asleep, madam?” A woman’s voice startled me. I had barely looked at the other prisoners in the room, as I was convinced their offenses were graver than mine. There was a strong odor in the cell, and I saw that a clothesline ran from one wall to the next where some panties and a petticoat were hung. Now I could tell that the women in the room were of the lower class, laborer-type village women. So was the woman who had addressed me. There was a knowing look on her face. I knew their kind. The savvy, conniving street types. I thought of prostitutes. And this woman could easily be a handler of prostitutes.

  “Did you ask me something?” I said.

  “I was wondering if you’d fallen asleep. I’ve never seen anyone fall asleep while standing.”

  “I was meditating.” I thought that this woman looked clever enough that if I wasn’t cautious, she’d sell me in the Basantapur market next door before I realized what had happened.

  “What type of meditation?”


  “Vipassana? Sahaja? Or something else?”

  “What are you talking about? It’s just meditation.”

  I looked past her at the other women. One dark woman was sitting against the wall, her head buried in her knees. She could have been sleeping, or in despair. One woman was staring out of a small window at the sky; another leaned against the wall, humming. A transvestite with a bruised face was softly crying. The cell was at the end of a corridor, and I didn’t see anyone in the hallway. If no one showed up shortly, I was going to call out. Perhaps I should shout Bhagirath Lamichhane’s name, so that they’d think I knew someone here, that I had a connection.

  “I attended a Vipassana meditation camp once,” the woman said. “It was a ten-day retreat: meditate all day and remain silent. It was hard, but at the end of the ten days I felt refreshed, as though a new person had awakened inside me. Alas, it didn’t last long. After a week or so, my mind was back to its monkey tricks.”

  “What are you in here for?”

  “I’d rather not say.”

  Then why are you blabbering to me about all kinds of nonsense? I thought. But I didn’t want to engage her more than necessary, so I moved away.

  She followed me. “In some prisons they are starting meditation programs now because they have discovered that meditation makes balanced prisoners.”

  “I see.”

  “The food is terrible here. But today I think we get transferred to another jail, somewhere in the outskirts.”

  I approached the cell door again and shouted gently. “Anyone there?” Conversation and laughter sounded in the distance, toward the front office.

  “Can someone come here, please?” I said again, a bit louder.

  The woman stood next to me, looking in the direction I was. “I think they’ll come only in the evening, unless another prisoner arrives.”

  “I can’t wait until the evening.” I was about to say that I had a business to run, but restrained myself.

  The woman gave me a sympathetic smile.

  “Bhagirath Lamichhaneji! Bhagirath Lamichhaneji!” I cried.

  My loud voice woke the woman on the floor, who shot me a nasty look.

  In the evening a few policemen came, handcuffed us, and led us away. I asked for their forgiveness for my behavior that morning. They remained silent as we were led out and herded into a van. A few yards away, some Japanese tourists were taking snaps of the nearby temples.

  Inside the van the windows were not only small but also covered with mesh screens, allowing only a small amount of light to filter in. By now my employees at Kailash Construction would be beside themselves trying to locate me. “Did madam have an appointment somewhere today?” they’d be inquiring of one another. The office would be in shambles; I liked to run a pretty tight ship, and the staff constantly looked up at me for guidance and authority. By this time, of course, they’d have called the house, and Kailash would be worried. Never had I vanished for an entire day like this. I’d not been out of touch with my family or staff even for more than a couple of hours—I was constantly on my mobile, texting and emailing and dialing and answering and confirming and negotiating and hectoring. My mobile, which the police confiscated this morning, must have rung all day.

  Ramesh. I was so caught up in my own situation that I hadn’t thought about him for some time now. Had he also been taken to the same place we were being transported to now? Was I going to be reunited with my son?

  But it was quite possible that Ramesh had already been released, perhaps last evening, not long after he was taken to the station. I knew that many political protestors were detained for a couple of hours, then let go. It might be the same with troublesome youth, I guessed: seize them, cage them for a couple of hours, then discharge. For all I knew, Ramesh, after being released, could have slept over at a friend’s house the previous night, as he frequently did these days.

  “What are you thinking?” the woman, who had let me know that her name was Sita, asked me. The van was racing through the streets. I could only view a portion of the sky, the crisscrossed telephone and electric wires.


  “That’s impossible,” she said. She was sitting across from me. The dark woman crouching had her face covered with the end of her dhoti. A policeman sat next to her, his eyes half closed. “It’s impossible not to have any thoughts inside your head,” Sita informed me.

  “It’s possible for me.”

  “Why? Because you’re so special?”

  Her voice had no rancor, so I said mildly, “Maybe.”

  “Because you own a big construction company?”

  Earlier when this woman, Sita, had asked me for my name, I’d only given my first name. Now it was clear that all along she had known who I was. The devious conniver! But I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, so I looked at the floor of the van.

  “Anamika Gurung,” she said.

  Nothing was more depressing than the fact that this lowlife woman not only knew my name but also was addressing me as though I was a petty commoner.

  “I am your friend, Anamika,” Sita said. “So you can tell me your thoughts. Anytime.”

  After traveling for close to three hours, the van stopped. The road we’d been on had frequently been uphill, and quite bumpy, so my body felt battered. The door opened and we were commanded to exit. The policeman who stood by the door as we climbed out of the van looked somewhat senior than the others, even in the dark, so I appealed to him, “Bhai, there has been a mistake.”

  “Keep on moving!”

  “But bhai, please listen.”

  His subordinate struck my shoulder with his baton. A brutal, stinging pain coursed through my left shoulder, cascading down to my ribs and hips, all the way down to my toes. I sucked in my breath and limped ahead.

  Sita walked alongside me toward the building where we were headed. “It’s pointless to talk to them,” she whispered. “Did it hurt?”

  Hobbling, holding my
arm, I didn’t respond to her.

  Load shedding had darkened the entire area, but a policeman was at the door of the building, holding a bright lamp, saying, “This way, if you please,” and we were taken inside to what was clearly a jail: narrow rooms with bars facing a corridor. The women were being pushed into these cells in twos as we went along, and because Sita was next to me, we ended up together. They bolted the door from the outside.

  “At least they have beds here,” Sita said in the manner of someone inspecting a mediocre hotel room for its amenities. There were two bunk beds fastened to the wall, like in a train compartment. I wondered if I could request a different roommate, perhaps the dark one who hid her face and didn’t say anything. Pain was shooting up my thigh and back, making my body crooked, but to sit down right now seemed like giving in, so I remained standing.

  “Top or bottom?”

  I grimaced.

  “Do you want the top bed or the bottom bed?”

  Any moment now, I thought, they’ll come to get me.

  “There you go again, lost in your thoughts.”

  “Top or bottom doesn’t matter.” I could barely speak.

  “Then do you mind if I take the upper bunk? I’ve always wanted to sleep on top. One of my cousins lived in a hostel, and when I visited her, I remember thinking what fun it’d be to sleep so close to the ceiling and look down upon people.” She clambered to the top bunk and sat cross-legged.

  I had been dying to urinate since the morning. At Hanuman Dhoka an open toilet had sat in the corner, but there was simply no way I could have crouched in front of all those women to pee.

  “I know you need to pee,” Sita said. “It’s not healthy to hold it in. Don’t. I won’t look.”

  I ignored her, but the pressure building up in my crotch was too much, and I had to go to the corner and squat. I stared ahead at the wall, where someone had scrawled some initials I couldn’t decipher. Nothing came out. I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined that I was at home, in my own fluffy-toweled bathroom, but when I did I immediately thought of Kailash, how panicked he must be by now. He could also be thinking that I had left him.

  “You’re lost in thoughts again,” Sita said. “You need to focus on the task at hand.”

  I concentrated hard on the initials on the wall. After a while the letters began to resemble shapes: a monkey’s mouth, a crooked house, a flower petal. But still nothing came out; it was as though a rod was clamped across my pelvis, like I was wearing a chastity belt.

  “Focus on your breathing,” Sita said.

  Without wanting to, I became aware of my breathing.

  “In and out, in and out.”

  I could feel a movement in my abdomen, and along with it a slight loosening.

  “On the out breath, let everything go.”

  I exhaled deeply, and a drop escaped. Another exhale, a small trickle. Slowly, bit by bit, I peed with Sita’s guidance, thinking I looked like a child suffering from constipation who is gently coaxed by her mother. Toward the end, when I began to experience relief, I glanced at her and found her still in the seated position, her hands on her knees, her eyes closed.

  A week passed. We were taken out of our cells to the dining room for lunch and dinner. In the evening after dinner, which was served early, we were allowed in the small courtyard in the middle of the prison. There were about twenty women in this prison. It must have been quite expensive to maintain it, what with the guards (about six, from what I could see), the food, and bedding. A dhoti, made of cheap coarse fabric, had been provided for each of us, so now all the women wore the same beige-colored garb, effectively making it a type of prison uniform. At times I thought they resembled the Padma Kanya college girls who all wore the same saffron sari. I still clung to the sari I was wearing when I was dragged in here, and it was beginning to give off a slight odor.

  But everything around me had a smell: the cell, the dining room, the corridor, even the courtyard, which on some days had garbage piled in the corners. The only thing that didn’t give off a smell was the prison dhoti. It was either brand-new, or it was washed and ironed and starched (most likely the latter), and I frequently held it to my nose and inhaled its freshness. Sita laughed when she caught me doing it. “It looks like you’ve elevated that dhoti to the status of a fancy perfume,” she said. “The kind of perfume you used to wear, I’m sure.”

  Sita was the most cheerful of all the prisoners. She sang songs to herself—she had a surprisingly melodious voice—sometimes clapping her hands together. I didn’t recognize any of the songs; they were folk tunes and had the language and diction of the hills and mountains, of young, demure yet clever lasses and seductive men whose main goal was to shatter their hearts into pieces.

  Sita chatted with everyone. She knew all the prisoners by their names, and often she brought gossip home—to our cell—after our time in the courtyard. She related these juicy bits to me as though we were roommates in a boarding school, the kind I had attended as a young girl. It was a one-sided conversation, with her going on and me listening.

  I barely talked to anyone; I had lost my voice. One time, I told a guard super politely, “Babu, it would be nice if I could send a message to my family.”

  “Political prisoners don’t have that facility.”


  I had mustered up the courage to speak to him right as we were being steered into the dining room, with Sita walking next to me.

  “Is your roommate dense?” the guard asked Sita.

  “She’s in a state of shock, Amrit. She’ll come around.”

  “You better teach her, Sita. It’s common knowledge that there can be no transfer of messages.”

  “She’ll learn soon enough.”

  The dining room was basically three tables put side by side, where all the prisoners sat, crammed tight.

  “What was that about political prisoners?” I whispered to Sita.

  “Who knows?” she said. “I know zilch about politics, apart from the names of the parties—Ehmaley, Maobadi, Panchey, Cangressi.” Then she came up with other made-up party names, “Hatteribadi, Gayegujrekobadi, Nakkacharey Dal, Machhikney Party,” which elicited laughter.

  Sita was such a presence in the prison that, as the days began to roll by, I wondered what it would be like in here without her. There’d be none of that clapping and crooning and yes, also dancing, although one had to be careful about dancing because while the guards tolerated some noise, dancing would have signaled a level of happiness that defeated the purpose of the prison.

  That was what Sita told me in our cell as she danced and eyed the door to make sure that a guard wasn’t peeking in through the opening. There were days when Sita performed just for me. “For you, my sweetie,” she said, and she danced. Her dances were not varied. They all involved the same gestures and movement: spread the arms wide, tilt the body at an angle, and rotate clockwise, then counterclockwise as she twirled her hands in the air. It was a dance she’d learned in her village, a dance I’d seen hill women perform during the Teej festival.

  When I asked Sita where her village was, what it was like, what was its name, she said, “All the villages are the same—the same village pathways, the same poverty, the same suffering. So what difference does it make what my village is called? God, it has been so long, I won’t be surprised if its name actually begins to slip away from my mind. Actually, what’s the name of my village?” The women around the table tittered. “Oh, look at me, I have become such a shameless hussy that I don’t even remember what my village is called.”

  “A shameless hussy,” someone said.

  “What is it called, though? Is it Durgaon? Is it Dandakanda? It is it Bhakundo Khola?”

  That had the women in stitches.

  One day, I cited stomachache and didn’t go for dinner, and when Sita returned she found me lying in my bunk, weeping.
She sat next to me, put her hand on my arm, and started to sing in such a soft voice that it sounded like she was crying. She stroked my arm, and I said, “I can’t, I can’t.”

  She consoled me by saying, “I know.” She lay beside me, and, tears streaming down my face, I made room for her. She took my chin in her hand and sang a song about the beauty of the hills and the dappling sunlight on the purest stream that one finds north of the Gangetic plains. She leaned over and kissed me on my forehead. I snuggled against her, the odor from her armpits making my nose crinkle. She kissed me on my nose, then softly on my lips.

  • • •

  From then on Sita and I slept together on my bunk bed. She sang to me, held me, and I thought, God, I’d die without her. Every day my need for her got stronger, and soon I was always clinging to her. There was nothing sexual about our relationship: it was only holding each other in bed, nuzzling, and occasionally, light kissing. I still hadn’t regained my voice, but in this intimacy I had begun to smile a little, especially when she sang to me. Her songs transported me to a place and era that was so far removed that my throat swelled with longing. I closed my eyes and imagined myself in the places described in her song, and I momentarily forgot where I was, or why I was here.

  After dinner, Sita sometimes braided and oiled my hair in the courtyard. We weren’t allowed creams or lotions or oil, but she had managed to coax Amrit into bringing her a bottle from his wife—for what price or favor returned, I didn’t know. We sat in a corner of the courtyard with the other women forming a circle around us to block us from the guards’ view. As Sita worked on my hair, the women talked. The conversation ran the gamut, from the cloudless sky above to analyses of the guards’ personalities. The women talked about their childhoods, their favorite foods, the festivals and the melas they’d attended, their best teachers, their worst teachers. I listened with great pleasure. It seemed to me that my life hadn’t been that interesting, or at least that my likes and dislikes paled in comparison to these women’s, or that even if I thought some details about my life were interesting (my love marriage with Kailash, for example), if I tried to tell them, I wouldn’t find the proper voice for them, and they’d sound dull. So I was perfectly content to listen to these women.

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