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Mad country, p.21

Mad Country, page 21


Mad Country

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  Once or twice someone said, “And what about you, Anamika? Why don’t you also say something?” I blushed and shook my head.

  Sita took my chin in her hand and said, “Feeling shy, dearie?” I turned my face away, and they all laughed in delight.

  “These days she’s like a bride for you, Sita,” a woman said.

  There were nights I couldn’t sleep. I thought of Kailash, of Ramesh, but they came to me as though they were people I’d known a long time ago, perhaps when I lived in a distant, mad country. The construction company that I ran single-handedly—now I knew that I wouldn’t have the confidence, or the skills, to work there as a simple typist. When I recalled the bigwigs I met and made deals with, people like Mr. Pathak, I was struck with amazement as to how I accomplished what I did. It couldn’t have been me, could it? No, it couldn’t have. It was another woman who led that life, who went out every morning to face the world and to make a difference. This sense of alienation from my former self made me anxious.

  I squeezed my eyes tighter to feel more fondness for my husband and for my son than I did. The harder I tried, the more they drifted away. In my mind the woman I saw with them was me, but she was also not me. She was stockier (I had lost significant weight in the prison) and possessed a more imperial appearance. She spoke in sharp, assured tones, whereas I could barely speak without blushing or hesitating.

  “Any day now,” the guard said one afternoon, the same guard who supplied Sita with bottles of hair oil.

  A revolution was brewing outside—that was the report. “Political prisoners are being freed,” the guard had conveyed in a whisper. In the past, too, there had been rumors, creating commotions among the women. Some time ago, there had been frenzied whispers that we were about to be executed, perhaps even beheaded. A couple of women wore handkerchiefs around their necks for protection.

  Another time the news arrived that some male political prisoners were being brought in to mate with us, that those who refused to comply would be lashed. One woman put her hand on her crotch and said, “Bring it on! This cunt by now can take not only one cock but a dozen.” But most of us were petrified. We walked around in a huddle, our ears alert for the voices of strange men at the main entrance. I clung to Sita, who patted my head and consoled me.

  “I won’t be able to take it,” I told her.

  “I won’t allow anyone to touch you.”

  She talked to Amrit, who said, “If it happens, I won’t be able to protect any of you, not even you, Sita, let alone her.”

  “I’m not worried for myself,” Sita said, “but she will die.”

  “The most I can do is pair her up with a man who looks the most harmless, but even that I’ll have to do surreptitiously.” He lowered his voice. “The senior guard has been after me for a while now, ready to pounce. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in here, I tell you, so I have to be extra careful. But for you, you know.” He looked suggestively at Sita.

  Sita put her hand on his arm. “You know the kind of reward that’ll await you if you can do this for me.”

  I didn’t know what Sita was talking about, for she was never out of my sight. We slept together, ate together, skipped rope together in the courtyard (the warden wanted us to exercise more). When did she have time to do anything for the guard? Was she doing things behind my back, even though I didn’t know how that could be?

  This secrecy between Sita and Amrit made me jealous, and I became more watchful of their interactions. Amrit could be getting his reward right under my nose, and the fool I was, I was not seeing it. I became more vigilant, observing every move that the two, especially Sita, made. But I found nothing.

  Then I wondered if Sita was returning Amrit’s favors in another way. Every night before going to bed, Sita meditated cross-legged on the upper bunk. I waited for her until she was done so we could sleep in each other’s arms. But now I wondered if she was making herself sexually available to Amrit through meditation, through some kind of mental transference. So when she had her eyes closed, I watched her face for evidence of sexual pleasure. But she only had a tiny smile, like she did even when she wasn’t meditating.

  Ultimately, no strange men came to sleep with us.

  That’s why at first we thought that the rumor about a revolution occurring in the outside world was just that, a rumor. But one day we heard the main gate clang open, and soon marched in a small, chubby man in military uniform who resembled the midget comedian Mukri. “All the political prisoners, come out and form a line against the wall!” he shouted.

  The guards unlocked our cells, but we were afraid to move, for if we heeded his command, we’d be admitting we were political prisoners. We weren’t sure whether political prisoners were the heroes or the enemies in this revolution. The military man could line us up and instruct the guards to shoot us. As we were pushed out of our cells, I noticed red stains on the wall, which I had always thought were stains from paan that the guards had chewed and spat out. But now I wondered if they were something else. Others, too, noticed the stains, and we all edged away from the wall.

  The military man turned to the warden. “Isn’t this a prison for political detainees? Am I losing my mind here?”

  The warden whipped his stick in the air. “You heard the colonel. Line up against the wall!” He raised his stick as though to strike us on our shoulders, but the colonel stopped him and whispered something. I caught the word accountability.

  We lined up against the wall. The colonel walked past us slowly, the fingertips of his hands together, saying “Hmmm” as if appraising us for a ragtag militia he was forming. Finally he stopped, cleared his throat, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the revolution has arrived, and I am happy to report that we are on the side of the victorious and the righteous. There is a new spring in the air, a new dawn, a new beginning, and an awakening. The masses have arisen, the sleeping dogs are no longer lying, the tiger has roared awake.” He paused. “Your contribution to this revolution, for the days you’ve spent here for your beliefs and convictions, is immense. The state recognizes it, and we—the army—recognize it and are grateful. Know this: your sacrifice will not be forgotten.” He lifted his chin and sniffed the air. “I can smell our bright future.” A more significant pause. “As of this moment you are free.”

  There was confusion. The prisoners moved away from the wall, then some moved back again. No one even dared to utter the word “free.” I whispered to Sita, “What does he mean?”

  She stroked my chin. “I think he means we can go home now.”

  “But why? Why?” I cried. My fingers were clasped with Sita’s, and I dug into her palm with my nails, making her let out a small yelp.

  After the initial shock was over, a couple of women began to weep openly. One prisoner ran into the courtyard and began to run in circles, spreading her arms like an eagle spreading its wings. Some were babbling about what they’d do once they were out in the open. Sita began to snap her fingers and croon softly about the rolling meadows and sweet-running streams and lambs and baby goats following their mothers. But today the pictures she presented appeared deceptive. I ran back to my cell.

  Sita soon followed me. “Anamika?” I was on my bed, lying down, facing the wall. She sat next to me. “Don’t be like this. Today is a day of jubilation.”

  My voice was muffled against the pillow. “I don’t want to go.”

  She stroked my back. “Why be so afraid?”

  I turned to her and waved my hand in the air. “And what about all this? What about this thing we’ve built in here? Is it simply going to vanish? No more?”

  She didn’t respond.

  “And who is going to braid my hair from now on? Who’s going to sing to me?”

  She wiped my tears and sweet-talked me into sitting up. “We can’t fight this, Anamika. This thing is bigger than us. If we don’t accept it, then we are the ones who’ll suffer.”

/>   I was still crying softly when she helped me gather my stuff—what did I have, though? Nothing, apart from an extra dhoti, a comb, and a half bottle of oil that Sita had given me.

  Clutching their meager belongings, the women had formed a line in the corridor. The colonel led the way, marching in the front, his buttocks twitching. We went out the front door toward the gate. I had not seen this gate since I came to this prison nearly a year ago. I’d only heard it clang open or shut. At the gate we were given plastic bags, and when I looked into mine, I found my mobile and my purse.

  I held the mobile in my hand—it felt like an alien apparatus, one that I had heard much about but never had a chance to see and touch. As I held it in my palm, it seemed as if it could start ringing at any moment, although the battery was surely dead. Someone from my family could call me, or someone from Kailash Construction. What would I do then? How would I account for all this time that I had lived apart from them?

  I handed the phone to Sita, who asked, “You don’t want it?”

  “No,” I said.

  She put the phone to her ear and pretended to answer a call. “Allo? Allo? Yes, this is Kailash Construction. Yes, Anamika Gurung speaking. Oho, Bimalji! Mailey ta kasto nachineko! How are you? Everything well? No, no, that shouldn’t be a problem at all. If you give us the dimensions of that plot, we’ll build a nice home for you there. Yes, yes, with a swimming pool and a theater and all that jazz. You want two houses? One for your wife and one for your mistress? And one for the little boy who lives down the lane? No problem, no problem. You can have as many houses as you want. Why not? You’ve worked hard for your money, your father worked hard for his money, your grandfather worked hard for his money. It’s your money to splurge. Arre, let people talk! Why worry about what others say? Do you think countries like America and Singapore progressed by worrying about what other countries say? Yes, a solar panel, a garden portico, why not? A pleasure room? That can be done, too. Yes, yes, with a massage table. Arre, who will I tell, baba? Why would I tell your wife? This is my bread and butter also.”

  Sita sounded so much like my former self that I was blushing with embarrassment as the others clutched their stomachs in laughter. Now the women were getting excited about what lay beyond the gate. Sita was gazing at my face. My eyes welled up.

  “And?” she asked.

  “I can’t.”

  “What choice do you have?”

  We observed each other for a while.

  “Okay, I’ll take you with me,” she said. “But I’m a vagrant. I don’t really have a home.”

  The gate groaned and clanged open, and we were told to exit.

  The prison was on a hill, and the scenery before us was of a valley below in the great distance, where the city was. “It’s about a half a day’s walk from here,” the guard at the gate said. “There’s a great celebration down there. If you all stop your jabbering, you might be able to hear it.”

  We stopped shuffling and held our breaths and listened. What the guard had said was true: a soft din rose from the city, and if you remained pindrop still, you could even hear the sound of drums like a faraway heartbeat.

  America the

  Great Equalizer

  At first Biks, too, hadn’t understood what the fuss was all about. The guy had robbed a store. Biks had seen the grainy video in which he had shoved the Indian shopkeeper out of the way and walked away with the cigars. Even in that video he appeared mean and scary looking. Why were people now going on as if he were a charming, dimple-faced young boy who got shot by a racist cop?

  He said so one evening in a Nepali gathering in Skokie, and he found many in agreement with him. “These blacks,” said a girl who worked at a computer firm and made tons of money, “they’ll cry racism at the first opportunity they get.” There were a chorus of yeses, and an elderly woman said, “They play the race card, ke, race card. Bujhenau?” It was obvious she relished saying “race card.” Others gave examples from their own lives about how the kaleys were lazy, took advantage of the system, and possessed criminal minds.

  Biks became silent and watched them. Half of them were very dark people themselves—As dark as I am, thought Biks, self-consciously—yet they referred to the blacks as kaleys. The computer girl was darkish. The fat married man from Bhairawa and his silent wife and two children were so dark they looked like some ancient aboriginal people. The young engineer wearing the i love nepal T-shirt was dark.

  Yet here they were, calling other people dark. Of course, they were using kaley as a racial identifier, not merely as “black skin,” but it still sounded hilarious when dark people from one part of the world used “darkie” to put down people from another part of the world. When he’d started the conversation about Michael Brown, he’d not anticipated that it’d so quickly devolve into talk about the inferiority and criminality of blacks.

  Fools, he’d thought, all of them, people who had no sense of history. Biks knew this history; he’d studied it. Over the course of the evening, as he heard his compatriots speak as if blacks didn’t deserve this country into which they’d been brought as slaves, in chains and packed together like sardines in ships, a type of understanding dawned on him. The smaller truth might be that Michael Brown was not a victim, but the larger truth was something else.

  That night he called Seema. It was early in the morning in Nepal. A man picked up the phone, presumably her father. Biks hung up. He checked her Facebook page. She’d never been a heavy Facebook user; her last entry was three months ago when she’d written about a social activist who’d passed away. Biks had offered his condolences beneath her post, but she hadn’t “liked” it, so he’d sent her an email, knowing she wouldn’t respond, just like she hadn’t responded to the other emails he’d sent.

  In the past, after failing to reach her at home, he’d tried her mobile, but a woman’s annoying automated voice always informed him that the number was busy: “Tapailey dialgarnubhaeko number ahiley byasta chha.” It did the same tonight, so he tried the home number again.

  A woman picked up after a number of rings. It sounded like Seema. His heartbeat quickened. “Seema?” he said.

  There was a pause. “She’s not here.”

  It was Seema, he was certain, but then he thought the voice could belong to a servant. “Do you know when she’ll be back?”

  “Don’t know.”

  He waited, hoping she would talk more so he could ascertain her identity, but when the voice said nothing further, he said, “Could you tell Seema that Biks called and tell her that I need to talk to her? Either on Skype or on the phone? Here, take down my phone number.” He paused, then said again, “Seema?” But the other side had hung up.

  Fall semester started. He began getting into heated arguments at Nepali gatherings. “You all are racists,” he told them.

  Now every time he spoke, he imagined Seema watching him, like an eye hovering above him. The third eye. What would she think of him now, getting all riled up about this thing? She’d probably say, “What’s wrong with you, Biks?” He imagined her thinking, You’ve turned into a loser.

  Yes, I might be a loser, he answered her back in his mind, but what’s going on is also not right. What all these people said about blacks was not right. They feared blacks, discriminated against them even as they themselves were targets of discrimination in the white world where they worked. A middle-aged woman who worked at Jewel Osco complained about her white customers yelling at her because they couldn’t understand her accent. “You come here and take our jobs,” her customers said, “and you can’t speak English.”

  A young man who sold used cars in a dealership said that he was the constant butt of jokes of his white colleagues. They mimicked him, sometimes feigning “bad smell” when he was near them. The manager once told him, “Maybe that sales pitch works in the Third World—don’t use it here.”

  “You all are immigrants,” Bik
s told his compatriots, gesticulating with a beer in his hand, “and you’re prejudiced against people who’ve lived here for centuries.”

  “You arrived here yesterday,” someone said, “and you judge us.”

  “I may be a newbie,” said Biks, who was a second-year graduate student in political science at Northern Illinois University, “but I know more about this country’s history than all you yokels. Slavery doesn’t matter? All that lynching doesn’t matter? Have you hillbillies heard about Jim Crow? Segregation? You think all of this is happening in a vacuum?”

  Biks recalled his early days at Northern Illinois. In the cafeteria, he’d find himself sitting next to students who were Pakistani or Indian, sometimes with the occasional Nepali. The white students sat by themselves, and the black students formed their own clusters. A couple of times, he’d sat at the black table, but it had been an uncomfortable experience. It seemed like the black students didn’t know why he had joined their table. He thought he heard someone mutter “faggot” under his breath, and he saw a couple of them kicking each other under the table. He exchanged a few words with the student next to him, but the student had a smirk on his face, and the others said something to him, something Biks didn’t catch, in rapid English—some sort of a black dialect, Biks had thought at that time. The experience had left him slightly depressed and insecure.

  “I don’t need your history lesson,” said a restaurant owner from Des Plaines to Biks. “I’ve lived in this great country for twenty years.” He put out his hands in front of him. “See these? All these burns and cuts? That restaurant I built with my own two hands.”

  “And you’ll take my restaurant only from my cold dead hands,” said a young man whose hairstyle could only be described as a mohawk.

  The restaurant owner held up his hand to quiet the laughter. “That so-called Michael Brown was a thug, like most of these kaleys are. I know because I’ve tried working with them. It’s in their genes. And I’m glad he got shot. End of story.”

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