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Mad country, p.22

Mad Country, page 22


Mad Country

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  “Khel khattam paisa hazam,” someone else said. “But look at them, acting like animals, robbing and looting.”

  They sympathized with the Indian store clerk who had been manhandled by Michael Brown, even though Indians often didn’t feature well in the conversations at these gatherings. “These kaleys don’t want to work, but they rob decent people like us who want to work,” someone said. Another person expressed irritation with “all this talk about race-face” and suggested that they play cards. A group immediately sat down on the floor and began to play Flush, and the hostess hurried to make tea, and someone opened a second bottle of whiskey.

  Biks went to a corner with a beer. Purushottam Uncle came up to him and said, “What has happened to you these days? Why do you get so agitated? I thought there was going to be a fistfight.”

  “I was ready for a fight. We all need to fight ignorance, Purushottam Uncle, don’t you understand?”

  “There’s slavery in Nepal, too,” Purushottam Uncle said. “Isn’t our kamaiya system of bonded laborers slavery? Why do you have to talk only about American slaves?”

  “Oh, so because slavery is still alive in Nepal, it’s okay?”

  “Let it go, Biks,” Purushottam Uncle said. He taught English at a community college but still carried a pronounced Nepali accent. Biks had often wondered if his students made fun of him, like students did of Chinese professors at NIU who taught math or computer science in incomprehensible accents. A relative of Biks’s mother, Purushottam Uncle was a green card holder who’d lived in Chicago for years, and had promised her that he’d look after Biks in America. “I need to talk to you about something,” Purushottam Uncle now said. “In private.”

  The two pushed the screen door open and went out to the deck. In a corner, a couple of girls and a boy huddled together, but when they saw Biks and Purushottam Uncle, they quickly disengaged and went down to the large backyard, leaving behind them a waft of marijuana smell.

  “This new generation can’t party without ganja,” Purushottam Uncle said in dismay. “Hettiraka! What has this world come to?” He took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Biks. “One of those girls”—he pointed to the group that was now smoking near the bushes—“her father is Dr. Gupta, that neurosurgeon, but look at her, smoking ganja and whatnot. I hear she is . . .” He looked at Biks meaningfully, but Biks ignored him. He was still thinking of retorts he could have used on the restaurant owner.

  The two smoked in silence. Finally Purushottam Uncle said, “So I’m assuming you haven’t heard?”

  “Heard what?”

  “I thought so.”

  For a moment Biks wondered if something had happened to his mother—an illness, hospitalization, discovery of cancer. He hadn’t called her in a couple of weeks. “What, Purushottam Uncle? Why are you being so secretive?”

  “I’ll tell you, but remember, Biks, okay, don’t kill the messenger.” He said “don’t kill the messenger” in English, raising a finger as though he were admonishing school students back in Nepal.

  Biks took his last drag and threw the butt toward the lawn. “Just say it. I need to go home soon.”

  “I’ve heard that she got married.”

  Biks put his hands into his pockets and stared into the darkness.

  “It’s a recent thing.” When Biks didn’t respond, Purushottam Uncle said, “Biks?”

  “Who is your source?”

  “Why implicate people with names? My source isn’t the type to spread rumors.”

  “Okay, thank you for letting me know,” Biks said. “Thank you,” he added for mock emphasis and went back inside. Standing against the wall, he watched the card game, taking long swigs from his beer. Purushottam Uncle also came back in and stood in the corner, watching him.

  “Aren’t you going to play Flush, Biks?” the hostess asked.

  “He’s still worrying about slavery,” a player said.

  “Fuck you,” Biks said to him, but he sat down to play. He played hard, taking risks he normally wouldn’t. At one juncture he tried to bluff his way through a lousy hand, but the other person wouldn’t relent, and at the end of that round he lost about fifty dollars. Soon he got up and left the party, catching a ride with someone who was headed in his direction, to the house he shared with two Indian roommates on the edge of the campus.

  He called Seema that night. He first tried the home number, then her mobile number. No answers. Marriage preparations, he thought. He thought of the banker, the one he’d seen at the hotel where she worked. Biks had gone to her hotel one day to surprise her, and there was a tall, handsome man in a suit chatting with her near the reception. The man was laughing and leaning close to her, and Seema was smiling. The man caressed her arm. She saw Biks by the door to the lobby, and an expression of alarm passed through her face. Later he learned that he was a successful banker, the son of her father’s colleague.

  Biks called Ira, Seema’s friend. Ira had occasionally hung out with Biks and Seema, and Biks had her mobile number jotted in his address book.

  “Arre, Biks!” Ira said when she picked up, sounding pleased. “Long time no hear. How is America?”

  After some chitchat he asked about Seema.

  Ira became quiet.

  “So what I’ve heard is true,” Biks said.

  “What can I say, Biks?”

  “Did you go to the wedding?”

  “I’m finding it difficult to talk about this with you.”

  “Nothing difficult. It can’t be that hard to say whether you went to the wedding or not.”

  “Yes, I went,” she said, barely audible.

  “How was it?”


  “Please, Ira, tell me how was the wedding?”

  “You want to punish yourself? It was bhavya.”


  “The grandest wedding I’ve attended.”

  “Where was it held?”

  “At the Hyatt Regency, in Bouddha.”

  Ah, of course. Seema’s parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

  “Who did she get married to?” Then, before Ira could answer, he said, “Wait, don’t tell me, but do tell me whether she looked happy?”

  Ira didn’t answer.

  Something changed in Biks after that night. It was as if he stopped caring about the world or his place in it. Things no longer made sense. He stopped going to classes. It was very hard to get up in the morning. When his roommates tried to wake him up in the morning, Biks curled over to the other side and waved them off. Around noon he got up, drank some coffee, then smoked a joint, after which his thoughts became manageable. He watched TV for an hour or two, first CNN, then FOX, then CNN again. News about Ferguson saturated everything. Racists, all of them, he muttered to himself.

  Toward late afternoon, after the effect of pot wore off a bit, he drank some beer. As part of his graduate assistantship, he had evening duty at the media center, where he worked for a few hours. But he stopped going to his job, too. There were phone calls. A secretary from the department called and left a message on his machine, asking him if he was sick, if everything was all right. He didn’t respond to any of them. His money was running out, but he no longer cared about that. When Purushottam Uncle called, he pretended he was too busy with schoolwork.

  Rich girl. Pretty girl. Fair Seema. No wonder she had rejected him. Not only was he very dark, his hairline was already receding. He thought of the word rejection when he realized what she’d done, and it generated in him a feeling of shame and anger. For the first time it occurred to him that she had rejected him not only because his family wasn’t as established and wealthy as hers but also because of the color of his skin. The realization startled him, for he had not thought this way before. She had never given him a reason to think this way. In fact, she had always professed that she loved his dark skin. She’d run
her finger over his face and say, “My kalu Biks, how I love you so.” In the past he’d loved to hear her say, “My kalu Biks,” but now he recalled a teacher from the seventh grade who’d always demonstrated antipathy toward him.

  The teacher would run his index finger down Biks’s cheek, then inspect his finger and say, “This one is such a darkie, I’m afraid I’m going to get coal smeared all over my finger.”

  Watching the anger over Ferguson brought back the memory of his first day on American soil, an incident he’d discounted until now as part of the ritual of entering America. At Chicago O’Hare airport more than a year ago, the immigration officer had looked at his passport and asked, “Is Nepal an Islamic country?” Biks said no. “Then why does your passport have a green cover?” The officer repeatedly looked at the passport and the I-20 and at Biks’s face. “Do you have relatives in yo-yee?” When Biks expressed confusion, the officer said, speaking slowly, with controlled hostility, “UAE. United Arab Emirates. I’m asking if you have family in UAE.” When Biks said no, the officer asked what the purpose of his visit to Dubai was. The Dubai trip was for a conference paid for by the travel agency in Nepal where Biks had worked. “What type of travel conference?” the officer asked. Biks couldn’t think. Much of the time he’d spent at the hotel pool, drinking beer, talking to Seema on Skype. The officer waved over a second officer, who escorted Biks to a room in a corner of the immigration area.

  After half an hour, he was escorted farther inside and grilled by a woman officer with high cheekbones: “Are you of Arab ancestry? Do you have a criminal record in Nepal? What’s your father’s occupation? What was the name of the hotel you stayed in Dubai? Do most Nepalese look like you, with curly hair? Don’t they have, uh, different skin color?”

  He’d become afraid that he’d begin to speak to the interrogating officers in Nepali, as if he were addressing cops in Nepal: Ke ho yesto? Timiharule jathabhavi garna pauchau? America jasto thauma pani yesto annyaya? Instead he said in a calm voice, “The American consulate in Nepal checked all my documents and gave me the visa.”

  The officer interjected and said she had the right to deny him entry. “I have the power,” she said. He was escorted to the outer room again and asked to wait. Biks noticed other passengers in the room: a red-faced white man who was speaking fast to a teenager in what sounded like a European language; a family of small-bodied Muslims, the woman in a burqa, the man wearing a skullcap, with two children, one of whom was watching Biks with her thumb in her mouth. Biks observed the baggage claim area through the glass windows and didn’t recognize any of the passengers from his plane, which meant that they had all left. From a corner of the terminal came a crowd of new passengers, and workers in loud voices directed them to proper lanes.

  After an hour the officer returned, handed back Biks’s passport and documents and said, “Welcome to America.”

  In mid-September Biks ran into Saurav when returning from a bar, The Thirst, one late afternoon. Saurav, who was active in a Nepali organization in the Chicago area, was the first Nepali Biks had met when he landed. He had picked Biks up from O’Hare and had helped him get oriented those first few days. Then they’d lost contact.

  “What’s up with the beard?” Saurav asked.

  “Just like this, yaar,” Biks said, caressing his bushy growth.

  “Diusai dankayera ayeko jasto chhani, ke ho?”

  “Just a glass or two, yaar. At The Thirst. I was feeling bored.”

  They ended up in Saurav’s apartment that evening, drinking. Lisa and her baby had gone to her mother’s house in Toledo for a couple of days. Saurav was pursuing his PhD in physics at Northwestern, had been working on his dissertation for years now. He’d met Lisa in a bar. Lisa had told him she couldn’t be sure who the baby’s father was.

  Biks finally told him that he’d quit school and was now short on funds. He told him about Seema. Saurav sympathized, kept saying, “Tragedy has befallen you.” But it was not good, Saurav said, that Biks had abandoned his studies. “That might be a bigger mistake than the tragedy that has befallen you,” he said.

  Biks said he agreed, but that there was simply no way he could focus on academics right now. “I don’t know where life is going to take me from here,” he said. As they got drunker, Saurav made an offer: Biks should move in with him and Lisa. They had a room meant for the baby, but the baby slept in the same room with Lisa and Saurav anyway. When Biks said that Saurav should first consult with Lisa, Saurav dismissed his concern. “Maybe you can help with the groceries,” he said.

  “But I don’t have any money,” Biks said.

  “I’ll get you a job,” Saurav said. With an exaggerated accent that could have been Middle Eastern or European, he added, “You will be rolling in bread, my dear friend from the mountains.”

  Lisa wasn’t pleased when she returned to find Biks occupying their spare room. She and Saurav argued behind closed doors in their room while Biks sat in the living room with a beer and the TV on, watching protestors shout “Arrest Darren Wilson” at their elected leaders in a county meeting in St. Louis. His phone buzzed. Another text from Purushottam Uncle: everything okay? why aren’t you picking up the phone? Biks didn’t respond.

  The argument inside seemed to die down, and Biks heard the bed creak and Lisa moan softly.

  “She thinks I’m going to marry her, Biks,” Saurav said a few days later when Lisa was out. “She wants to go to Nepal. Wants to have a Nepali wedding there. What do you think, Biks? Should I take her to Nepal, introduce her to Pitaji and Mataji? Ask her to do pranam to them?” He pressed his palms together and bowed.

  “You’re not serious about her?”

  “I’m a playaaah,” Saurav had said, but Biks knew that he liked Lisa, more than he wanted to admit. Saurav just couldn’t imagine taking her to Nepal, especially to his aging parents who lived in a village in Parbat. His uncles had homes in Kathmandu, but even they would be aghast if he brought back a bideshi, not to mention an unwed bideshi with a baby whose father was unknown. Sometimes Saurav acted out the chaos that would ensue: his aunts, all super religious women, in a tizzy; his older uncle advising him in a grave voice that a liaison with a kuiriney would never work; his younger uncle, himself a Don Juan known for his extramarital affairs, telling Saurav laughingly what a fool he was for not understanding that these goris were good only for fun and not for marriage.

  Saurav got Biks a job at a gas station about a mile from his apartment. Saurav knew the Indian owner, but Biks soon discovered that Saurav knew everybody and everybody knew Saurav. The Greek manager of Town Market where he bought groceries greeted him by name. The Vietnamese butcher gave him the special cuts of goat meat he liked. The Somali car mechanic did his oil change for free.

  The gas station owner was a paan-chewing middle-aged man with a beer belly who called Saurav “dada.” Biks was employed for the evening shift; he’d get paid six dollars an hour, which, Biks was told, was not bad for an illegal.

  This is what my life has come to, Biks thought the first evening at the job. There I was in Nepal, dreaming about spending my life with a woman as beautiful as Seema, and here I am working illegally in a gas station owned by an Indian whose mouth is always bulging with red-juiced paan. How could I not have seen my life’s trajectory?

  His college friends in Nepal had been surprised when Seema fell for him. When she started coming to Biks’s house, Mamu, an educated woman who taught school, had said, “How fair Seema is. Biks, how did you manage this? She is so fair and beautiful, she looks like a model. She’s not going to end up deceiving you, is she?”

  He’d scolded his mother for her questions but he’d also understood where she came from: she herself was a dark-skinned woman who’d faced taunts and comments, often from her own mother-in-law, who, Biks remembered in stunned moments of rage, was an illiterate hillbilly who had to sign documents by dabbing her thumb in ink. But he also knew that Mam
u approved of Seema not only because she was gori-ramri but also because she came from a well-to-do family with old money. Mamu went out of her way to cater to and please Seema. Biks had thought it was a bit excessive, Mamu’s fawning, but he had also been secretly pleased. Once he and Seema got married, he’d mused, there’d be no friction between his mother and his wife.

  But that time never came. Now it became clear to him that Seema never had intentions of introducing him to her family, let alone make a case that she ought to marry him. No wonder she’d not objected when he’d initially talked about his desire to go to America for further studies. Not only had she not objected, she’d encouraged him to apply. And he had assumed that his going to America was part of their future together, perhaps even an investment in it. He’d imagined that even if he were to go alone, she’d soon follow him within months, and they’d solve the problem of potential irreconcilability between their two families. What was America if not the great equalizer, the eraser of differences, of caste and creed?

  By the end of the first week, Biks had come to hate his job. There was a pervasive smell of gas that infiltrated his nostrils even when he was inside, behind the counter. He made mistakes when he sold lottery tickets. The customers became irate for small reasons: for the store not carrying their brand of cigarettes or beer, for it not having an air station for their tires, for the line at the counter being too long. Whenever a cop car showed up, Biks felt like he should duck or go into the back room, but that’d have made him look even more suspicious.

  As the days started getting colder, he became convinced that Seema had rejected him because of his dark skin more than because of his family status. “Do you want to live with someone as dark as him for the rest of your life?” he imagined Seema’s mother saying to her. Her mother would stroke Seema’s hair and say, “Such a fair, beautiful daughter I have. I can’t think of someone this fair and beautiful with someone like him.” Seema’s father would be somewhere in the background, mumbling about dark men and their dark hearts. “Look, chhori,” Seema’s mother would say. “The banker is tall and handsome. And look how goro he is, totally matching your skin color. You two would look so good together. Plus he’s successful, has a name, comes from such a reputable family.”

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