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Mad country, p.24

Mad Country, page 24


Mad Country

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  After three beers, Biks took out his phone and dialed Seema’s mobile on a lark. A female voice picked up at the other end. Seema. Or it could be a servant. “Seema?” he asked.

  There was a pause, then, “Biks?”

  He closed his eyes. Things were moving inside his body, like ants. “How are you?” he finally asked.

  “I’m fine. How is America?”

  On TV they were showing explosions in Ferguson. The police—or was it the army?—in riot gear faced the protesters. A woman was shown ranting into the night. “My studies are going well,” Biks said. “I’m preparing for my exams.” He kept going. “It’s not easy here. You have to study hard. You have to write papers. You have to participate in class discussions. Expectations are high.”

  “Are you happy in America?”

  “What’s not to be happy about? How can anyone not be happy in America? This is America, not some piddly-ass Third World country.”

  She gave a soft chuckle. “Listen to you, sounding so American.”

  After a pause, he asked, “Are you—? What can I say? I’ve heard things.”

  There was silence at the other end. Momentarily, he panicked, thinking she’d hung up. “Seema?” he said.

  “Yes, I’m here.”

  “Don’t worry,” he said. “Such is life.”

  “Such is life,” she said.

  “But you’re happy?”

  “I’m happy,” she said, softly but firmly. “Very happy.”

  “Ah, you’ve always had a good attitude.”

  On TV, Sean Hannity was going on about the mob in Ferguson: “What about the dangers to our cops? What about the risks they literally have to take every day when confronted by these thugs?”

  “I’ve grown a beard now,” Biks said.

  “Really?” Then, gently, her voice filled with sympathy, “Why? Has some tragedy befallen you?”

  “I now look like a terrorist,” he said. “They’ll soon take me to Guantanamo Bay.”

  She gave a soft chuckle at the other end, and then they got disconnected.

  He didn’t want to stay in the gas station, hiding. And it had also become clear to him he could no longer work at this place. This was not the life he’d envisioned, being taunted by teenagers, called “boy” by white cops, trying to be blacker than blacks—“Blacker than thou,” he muttered to himself—when his history didn’t compare to theirs, the brutality, the dehumanization, the violence. He was a fraud, trying to pretend to be someone he was not. Perhaps Seema had sensed that in him. That’s what Saurav, too, was trying to convey, although Saurav came with his own set of problems. “I am a pretender,” Biks said to himself. “A poseur. An impostor.” He sighed. “An impossible impostor.”

  He left a note for the manager, who usually came to open the station in the mornings. Dada, salaam! he wrote, and continued writing in Romanized Hindi, borrowing the overly dramatic language from Hindi movies: Aaj mai aapsey albida mang rahahoon. Mujhe maf kardena, Dada Don. Mai aapka pau ka dhool bhi honai ka laik nahin hoon. Albida! Albida! Albida! —Apka namakhalal Biks.

  Seeking goodbye, please pardon me, I am not worthy to be even the dust at your feet. Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye! —Your backstabber, Biks.

  He turned off the lights, locked the doors (he’d hand over the keys to Saurav) and was on his way out when a semi truck pulled into the station. The station wasn’t very large, so usually big trucks avoided it. The driver leaned out of the window and asked, “Is there a bathroom here, man?” He had a long brown beard running down his chin, like one of the guys from ZZ Top. He was even wearing dark glasses at night.

  Biks was about to say no when ZZ Top said, with an impassive face but in a voice that broke, “Need to pee real bad.”

  Biks unlocked the gas station and got the key that opened the bathroom on the side of the building. As he waited for ZZ Top to come out, he lit a cigarette. Then he noticed the license plate on the truck. It said missouri.

  It made sense that he’d end up in Ferguson that night, at two o’clock in the morning, bleary-eyed yet insanely alert, as though someone had jolted him with an electric rod. ZZ Top had dropped him by the side of the road on I-270, in Florissant, near a high school. “No way in hell I’m going in there,” ZZ Top had said, pointing toward Ferguson. “That place is burning tonight. I’d say it’s about a thirty-minute walk from here. Use Google Maps on your phone if you get lost.”

  Biks thanked him.

  “Well, best of luck, buddy,” ZZ Top said, and zoomed off.

  So here he was, Biks, in Ferguson, after an hour walk in the dark through what appeared to be a largely residential area, wondering if a cop was going to stop him. Or a redneck in a pickup truck, elated by the grand jury decision, who might decide to take it out on a lone darkie who looked like an “Eh-rab.” At one point in a street that was less well lit than the others, he had become anxious that he’d be lost and would have to spend his night roaming around these neighborhoods. Or, irrationally, that he’d be mugged. What the hell, Biks homie, he’d chided himself. Where do you think you are? New York City? Then, he heard voices and saw figures in the distance: people moving toward the action. Soon, he was no longer a solitary figure, and there were people, a pizza shop, Walgreens, a church, brighter street lights.

  Now he was smack in the middle of the madness. There was a palpable, unpredictable energy in the air. People swarmed around him. A young woman wearing a colorful headscarf met his eyes and said, “It’s so fucked up!” He responded, sickened by the wisdom in his voice, “Tell me about it.” He noticed a few white people in the crowd, and some with Oriental features, but no one who looked South Asian. He almost expected someone to get into his face and shout, “What the hell are you doing here? This is not your fight!” It was irrational, this feeling, yet it had returned, the earlier sense that he was an impostor.

  In the distance he saw a large building that had been set on fire—it was glowing, bubbling. He moved toward it as though it were his lodestar. A group of people huddled near a grocery store whose windows were shattered: they were burning the American flag. A strong smell hit Biks’s nostrils, as though flesh had been singed. “I’m tired, I’m so tired,” a middle-aged black woman wailed as she crouched on the ground near Biks, her fists bunched in front of her.

  Police in riot gear approached from the next block to meet the protesters.

  The city exploding—the burning, the anger, the screams of murder and helplessness—was, in a way, like home. He could, if he wanted to, start shouting slogans in Nepali. So he did, gently mouthing, “Police atyachar, murdabad, murdabad. Peace and justice, paunai parcha, paunai parcha.” He giggled. This could work.

  The woman in the colorful headscarf was next to him, looking at the police with piercing eyes. “Damn!” she said. Some of the younger men around them were hurling stones and bottles at the cops, who were shuffling toward them in a tightly knit formation, flanked on both sides by what looked like small tanks. “You go home!” the protesters shouted at the cops. A series of small explosions sounded, like firecrackers. But Biks was entranced by the woman’s earrings. Long and dangling down almost to her shoulders, they were made of tiny black and white beads that stitched together resembled dancing skirts. He was certain Seema had worn the exact same earrings one afternoon when she’d come to visit him. Well, I’ll be damned, thought Biks now, and he nearly reached out and touched them. The woman noticed him staring at her and, with rolling eyes, moved away.

  What craziness. Here he was, in the thick of it, and he was checking out a girl. This will not do, my friend from the mountains. A glass shattered, and suddenly a flurry of bodies hurtled toward him, chased by the police, and he was pushed to the ground. He struggled to get up, but his every attempt was thwarted by people trampling him to get away. There were clattering and clanking noises, then hisses. “Tear gas!” someone shouted.

Then it was as if Biks’s chest had caught on fire. He nearly clawed his eyes out—that’s how badly they burned. A searing heat entered his lungs, and he hacked and coughed and doubled over on the ground. He writhed, made “hah” sounds with his breath, called out his mother’s name.

  But even in the midst of this ridiculous pain, he knew ultimately nothing would happen to him, that he’d come out of this fight unscathed, at most only bruised. This realization brought some solace, and he closed his eyes tightly, feeling tears running down his cheeks. Do it, he told himself. With a concentrated focus, he encouraged his mind to rise above his body, and it did, bit by bit, until he was so high up that he saw himself like a tiny rag doll below, with other small figures running about, small globs of fire exploding here and there.

  But he was already on the move.

  Now he was sitting on the roof of his house in Kathmandu. It was evening time. He could hear the sounds of pots and pans one floor below in the kitchen, where his mother was cooking dinner. On the horizon, rising above the city’s clutter, were those brilliant white mountains. He was sipping tea, with a strong flavor of fresh ginger, just the way he liked it.



  Samrat Upadhyay, Mad Country



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