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Mad country, p.3

Mad Country, page 3


Mad Country

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  “Have you heard from Chitra?”

  “No, she’s not picking up.”

  “I’ve also been trying all evening. I’m headed over to her flat.”

  “I’m also coming.”

  On the drive in the night traffic, Shalini realized that Chitra might have moved recently. She called Prakash, who told her that Chitra now lived in Battisputali; he gave her directions.

  Battisputali was swathed in darkness—load shedding. She found Prakash waiting for her outside the apartment building. “She’s not in,” he said. “The door is open, but she’s not in.”

  “Could she have gone to a neighbor’s place and forgot to lock the door?”

  “That’s not Chitra.”

  “We should ask around.”

  They went knocking door-to-door in the building. It was one of those ugly concrete structures that had cropped up all over the city when she returned from America, a big single house with about a dozen or so rooms built for renting. Most of Chitra’s neighbors didn’t know of her whereabouts; it was clear she didn’t socialize with them. One young boy said that he’d seen three young men go past his window toward Chitra’s flat, which was at the end of the third floor.

  Shalini and Prakash entered Chitra’s flat. Nothing seemed out of place. Even her laptop was at her desk—she prized it so much she wouldn’t have left it there with the door open, even for a short time.

  Shalini sat on Chitra’s bed. Across from her on the wall was a photo of an elderly woman Shalini knew was Chitra’s mother, who lived in Bhotechaur, where Chitra was born. “What to do, Prakash?”

  “Ah, that’s the big question, isn’t it, madam?” His voice was trembling.

  Three days later, Shalini filed a police report at the police station. The police had initially told her that only kin could file a report, but Shalini told them that she was Chitra’s legal guardian. She’d already contacted the deputy superintendent of police, who had assured her that he’d look into the matter. But the first step, the DSP had said, was to get a police report written so official action could be taken. Shalini hadn’t yet contacted Chitra’s mother, because she still hoped Chitra would be released after being locked up somewhere. She briefly closed her eyes every time she thought where Chitra might be, what they might be doing to her.

  She had also called Minister Gujrel’s office a few times, but there had been no response. She went to his office, planted herself in the reception area. The minister’s assistant came and tried to persuade her to leave, but Shalini wouldn’t budge. Anger was making it hard for her to speak these days. It was as if her throat and tongue were swollen. “My colleague Chitra has disappeared,” she said to the assistant. “I’m going to take you and your boss to international court.” But she knew nothing about international courts.

  Just then Minister Gujrel, wearing daura suruwal, walked in, chatting with a white man. He glanced at Shalini and said, “You came without an appointment.”

  She stood. “I came to talk about Chitra.”

  The minister cast a puzzled glance at her, then at his assistant. “Who is Chitra?”

  Shalini tried to speak, but something dammed her up.

  “The reporter who wrote that article, sir,” the assistant said.

  “Right now Mr. Morton and I are consulting about human rights in our country,” Minister Gujrel said. “Mr. Morton is the newly appointed deputy chief of the OHCHR.”

  “How do you do?” the deputy chief said.

  “This is the famous Mrs. Shalini Malla,” Minister Gujrel said.

  “Ms.,” Shalini said. “Not Mrs.”

  “Of course,” Minister Gujrel said. “How could I forget?” To the OHCHR deputy chief he said, “She runs a magazine. You must have heard of it. Fast Forward.”

  “I have the most recent issue on my desk,” the deputy chief said. “Still need to read it, of course.”

  “Come, Mr. Morton.” The minister ushered him inside.

  Shalini waited. Tea was brought for her. She didn’t touch it. She checked her email and tweets. Half an hour, then one hour. Next to her, the minister’s female receptionist was working at an old computer. The minister’s assistant entered and exited the inner room, careful to shut the door behind him quietly each time. Shalini needed to go to the bathroom, but she was afraid to move in case the minister emerged while she was gone. When the assistant appeared again, Shalini asked him how much longer she’d have to wait. “He’s still with Morton sahib,” the assistant said apologetically.

  The phone vibrated. It was a text from Priyanka. urgent. alina overdosed. come to teaching hospital immediately.

  can’t, Shalini wrote back. waiting for a meeting with gujrel. how is alina?

  She waited, but Priyanka didn’t write back.

  After a couple of minutes, Shalini dialed Priyanka, but Priyanka didn’t pick up. She found Gaurav’s number and dialed. But that number was busy.

  The assistant was about to go inside again, so Shalini stepped up to him and said, “Two hours I’ve waited. Now I’ll go into that room.”

  “Just one minute, please. I’ll check. Please, ma’am. He has a very busy schedule. He’ll see you as soon as he’s free.”

  Her phone rang. It was Priyanka. “Where are you, Shalini?”

  “What happened to Alina?”

  “It’s not good, it’s not good.”

  “Hoina, what happened? Why aren’t you telling?”

  “She’s in a bad state.” Priyanka was crying. Shalini had never known her to cry.

  “Okay, I’m coming,” Shalini said. She looked toward the home minister’s door. It looked monstrous. She wanted to kick it in and go inside and kick the minister, probably even kick the OHCHR chief. But right now she needed to find out what had happened with Alina.

  Several weeks later Shalini was in Mami’s flat in Chhetrapati, drinking tea. “I’ve thought about returning to America for a PhD,” Shalini said.

  “A PhD in what?”

  “I don’t know. A PhD in anything. Just to get away from this mess.”

  Mrs. Malla slurped her tea with her tiny mouth. “I say you go only if you really want to study. Otherwise you won’t be happy there.”

  “I’m only joking, Mami. It’s just that sometimes I see no hope here.”

  “Whatever the case, it’s our country, and we need to love it. If we abandon it at the first sign of difficulty, then we’re the ones who are hopeless.”

  Only if it were the first sign of difficulty, Shalini thought, and not the hundredth, or perhaps even the thousandth. Chitra had simply disappeared. No sign of her. Chitra’s mother had come from Bhotechaur, pounded on a few doors, then returned because she had an aging, senile father to look after. For a couple of weeks, Shalini talked daily with her on the phone, but now the frequency had decreased simply because Shalini had nothing new and positive to report, except to assure Chitra’s mother that she hadn’t given up on her daughter.

  It was true: Shalini was still making phone calls, meeting people, attempting to put pressure on those with power. She was no longer allowed into the ministry; the guards had been alerted not to let her in. One time she had attempted to brush past the guards, but a handful of men whom she assumed were plainclothes police had appeared out of nowhere and dragged her out to the street. When she tried to break free of their gasp, one of them had slapped her and said, “You show your face here again, and I’ll break your arms and legs.” When she’d used her phone to take photos of the goons, they’d grabbed it, smashed it on the ground, and stomped on it. A bystander had managed to snap a picture of the goons manhandling her, and the next day Twitter was ablaze with a photo of her tussling with the men, accompanied by the caption: Shalini Malla bitch-slapped by Minster Gujrel’s men. Some had retweeted it as: A bitch bitch-slapped for being a bitchy bitch.

  When the minister was criticized fo
r the way he treated Shalini, he responded that she had been nothing but a disruptive force since the disappearance of her reporter. “Mrs. Shalini Malla has lost her mind,” he said. He went on to explain that his office had nothing to do with Chitra. Fast Forward had so many enemies; why wasn’t Shalini going after them? He hinted at another suspect, a member of a rival party, one with whom he’d been feuding, whose corruption scandal Fast Forward had investigated in the past. A media war erupted between the minister and his rival, with accusations and counteraccusations, and the press’s attention shifted from Chitra to their feud.

  Fast Forward’s office was still open, now managed largely by Prakash. The next issue was going to be a black issue on Chitra’s disappearance. Prakash had written a couple of incomprehensible, foaming-at-the-mouth kinds of pieces, hurling accusations left and right, even embroiling some other prominent personalities, including a conservative journalist and a Christian fundamentalist, both of whom, Shalini was certain, had nothing to do with Chitra’s disappearance. Prakash’s rambling piece traced the conspiracy behind Chitra’s disappearance to an event two decades ago, when a prominent left-wing politician had suspiciously died in a car accident.

  When Shalini pointed out that Prakash’s extreme rhetoric would turn Fast Forward into a cheap political rag distributed at the vegetable market, Prakash accused her of not doing enough for Chitra. “Out of sight, out of mind, is that it, madam?”

  “Prakash, I have been trying.”

  “You’ve given up, I can tell.”

  She banged the table. “I haven’t given up. I never will.” But she was tired, she admitted to herself. To Prakash she said, “Who got slapped by the home minister’s goons? Not you! So I don’t need your lecture.”

  “Yes, one slap, and now you’re the martyr, not Chitra.”

  “Prakash.” What could she say? She wanted to say, We’re on the same side. But Prakash knew that already. Let him do what he wants, she thought. Let him bring out this black issue and get it out of his system.

  She laughed at her own reasoning. Get it out of his system—as though all that was needed was for Prakash to experience catharsis, as though a real, living person with a quick mind and powerful prose hadn’t simply vanished from the face of the earth, wasn’t in all likelihood already dead somewhere. Perhaps raped before she was killed.

  Shalini’s agitation was so great that she found herself trembling while driving, while walking the streets, while brushing her hair in front of the mirror in the morning, while changing into her pajamas at night. When she held out her hands, her fingers shook.

  One night Alina appeared in her dreams and asked, “Do you miss me?” Shalini had immediately woken up and wept. She’d hadn’t thought as much about Alina and her suicide in the past couple of months as she felt she ought to have, so consumed had she been with Chitra. Shalini had gone to Alina’s cremation at the arya ghat, consoled Rasik (who appeared devastated, Alina would have been interested to know), and taken part in a memorial held by their school’s alumni association. But whenever her thoughts drifted toward Alina, Chitra appeared in her mind, and Shalini became disturbed, felt that she wasn’t doing enough for someone who could still be alive. Then she picked up the phone and started calling people and forced herself to get out of the house and knock on doors.

  She visited Mami more now, and sometimes mother and daughter cooked in the evenings. Mrs. Malla told her stories about her father and their freedom-fighting days. After dinner they sat on the couch and watched television. Shalini liked to lie down and place her head on her mother’s lap, like she used to when she was a little girl. They watched mostly dumb shows like serials and comedies and singing contests because the news and analysis and talk shows now gave Shalini headaches.

  Whenever Minister Gujrel appeared on TV, Shalini closed her eyes. Mrs. Malla, oblivious to her daughter’s reaction, said, “Look at him, the fool. Look at that pudgy face. Listen to him bloviating about what’s good for this country. Ah, what would I do with you if I could get my hands on you, fat face!”

  And despite herself, Shalini couldn’t help but smile.

  Beggar Boy

  Ramesh pressed through the dense crowd of Chabel. Hardly any room to walk. It was as if the whole of humanity had descended upon this road: starving children and poop on the street and counterfeit clothing and exhaust fumes—and of course the fruits and vegetables that would go bad if not sold by the end of the day. The footpaths were so clogged by vendors that shoppers were forced off the pavements. But a second level of vendors had already spread their wares on the curb, and people had no choice but to walk in the center of the road. The irate drivers yelled at the pedestrians, who cursed the vendors, who in turn blamed the police and the government, who accused the migrants.

  Ramesh elbowed people, and people elbowed him. Two young high school boys his age approached, arm in arm, jabbering away. One boy made a funny remark, along with “Hoina?” and the other boy let out a gleaming smile. As they passed him, something was exchanged between the boys and Ramesh: a challenge, a taunt, a bit of condescension that didn’t fully register until Ramesh was already a few yards away. He looked back, and above a sea of heads he saw that the boys had also stopped and were staring in his direction, their eyes dark and dangerous.

  He moved on. He seemed to be having this type of encounter more and more, and it convinced him that he needed to do what he had been thinking about doing. A soft, tightening tremor passed through him every time he pictured it. He didn’t know when exactly, but he’d know when the time came: He’d walk into the bank and pull out his revolver, then wave it into the air. There would be gasps. The fat teller with the enormous lips would be there. He’d go to her window and gently rub the tip of the revolver on her lips.

  Would his mother come to visit him in jail after he was captured? Would she feel remorse for what she’d done? He pictured her weakened by guilt, holding the bars of the cell where he’d been kept with other hardened criminals, tears streaming down her face. “It’s all my fault,” she’d say. “I should have never left you. It’s because of me that you’ve ended up here.” He’d console her. He’d clasp her hand between bars and tell her that she shouldn’t take all the blame upon herself, that these things happen. “It is my destiny.”

  It is my destiny. He didn’t want to think like this. It sounded as though he was deluded—destiny!—but there was no other way to put it. His mother needed to know what he was capable of. She had to be put on notice.

  What happened at the bank with the fat teller a few days ago had further persuaded him that he was being propelled toward an act that would change things forever. She had given him a hard time about his signature. He’d gone to the bank because his father had phoned from The Hague, asking him to withdraw twenty-five thousand rupees and give it to the head servant. Some months ago, Ramesh’s father had opened an account for Ramesh, and sometimes when the old man was away for days—he was a well-known diplomat—he asked Ramesh to take out money and hand it over to the head servant for household expenses. Ramesh didn’t even know how much there was in the account, except there always seemed to be enough at the time of the withdrawal. His father had also said Ramesh could use some of the money for himself.

  But the money didn’t mean much to Ramesh. He didn’t have friends he could spend it on, and he didn’t have extravagant tastes. Once in a while, he liked to go to fancy restaurants, order the most expensive and unheard-of dishes, but he quickly got bored with the food and most of the time ended up watching the other patrons. One time in a Vietnamese restaurant, he ordered a duck egg that still had the embryo inside it, but instead of eating he merely stared at it. Another time, a Japanese fish dish (which he couldn’t finish because it stank) cost him nearly three thousand rupees.

  That day at the bank the fat lady had taken his check made out to “self” and scrutinized it for a long time. Then she’d consulted a file she had on him. “Your
signatures don’t match,” she’d finally said.

  He took out his checkbook, wrote another check, and signed it.

  She inspected it and said, “Not the same.”

  He signed two more, but each time she shook her head. She even stuck out her fat lip.

  “Well, it’s me,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”

  “If the signatures don’t match, then it’s not you.”

  “I’m here, and I need the money.”

  She said slowly, “What do you need such a large amount for? A young boy like you?”

  “It’s me. It’s my signature.”

  “Do you have permission from your father to take out this money?”

  Did she know his father? “It’s my account.”

  She shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

  “Show me how my signatures don’t match.”

  They were talking in low voices, but Ramesh felt as though everyone inside the bank was watching.

  “That’s not possible,” she said.

  “Then I’m going to raise my voice.”

  She stared at him. Her eyes were big. “You think I’m afraid. Afraid of a schoolboy?”

  “Where is your manager?” Ramesh looked toward the cubicles to his left, where the other bank staff worked.

  She flipped open the folder, pulled out a paper, and thrust it toward him.

  Ramesh studied the signature on his account application, then the signature on his check. “They look exactly the same.”

  She stabbed the check with her index finger. “In this signature, the Y has a loop.” Then she stabbed the application. “In this signature, the Y has no loop.”

  “So I’ll make a loop. Or not make a loop.”

  “Without matching signatures, how do I know you are who you claim to be?”

  “I also don’t know you are who you claim to be.” What he really wanted to ask was, Are you a fat lady with enormous lips?

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