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Mad country, p.4

Mad Country, page 4


Mad Country

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  “I’m not the one cashing a check.”

  “Show me your identification paper so I know you are an employee of this bank.”

  “I don’t have to show you anything.”

  Ramesh went toward the cubicles and said loudly, “That fatty over there isn’t letting me cash my check. Where’s your manager?”

  The manager came stumbling out of his cubicle. The fat lady was summoned. There were questions and answers and explanations and rebuttals. Ramesh was asked to write his signature on a piece of paper. He did, making sure it had no loop. “Problem solved,” the manager said.

  The fat lady said nothing, but Ramesh could tell she had become filled with anger. They returned to her station, where she counted the money and handed it to him. He took out a hundred-rupee bill and slid it under the glass partition. “Your tip for a job well done,” he said and left.

  The gun belonged to Ramesh’s father. It was in the cupboard next to the safe in his father’s study. Ramesh didn’t know where his father bought it, why it was in the house. He didn’t talk to his father much, especially since his mother’s departure, and he didn’t want to ask questions now to arouse suspicion. A silence had descended upon the big house once his mother left. His father had not uttered a single sentence about her. The day after she left, a truck appeared at the big house, and some men came inside and hauled all his mother’s things away.

  He’d gone to visit her about a year ago, at her behest. She’d called him on the phone and, perhaps feeling guilty, had asked him to come. Driven by his father’s chauffeur, he’d gone all the way to her house, where she’d clasped his hands and cried, given him incoherent sentences about why she was in her mediocre house and not in the big house with Ramesh and his father.

  A child had appeared from the shadows in the living room where they sat, and Ramesh’s mother had pulled her close and told her, “This is your brother. Say namaste to your daju!” Ramesh had instinctively reached out to pat the girl on the head, then recoiled. The girl was older than what she’d have been had she come out of his mother’s womb. So she was his stepsister.

  Another figure half-emerged from the shadows. A man, her mother’s husband. “Hello,” he said to Ramesh—in English, as though he fancied himself a foreigner.

  “Hello,” Ramesh responded. The man was still in half-shadow, so Ramesh couldn’t see his face completely, but the body and voice suggested someone much younger than his mother.

  When Ramesh first discovered the gun, he had thought that his father had acquired it to shoot his mother. The gun was longer and slimmer than what Ramesh thought a gun would be, at least longer than the ones he’d seen in movies. Its barrel seemed to go on forever. When Ramesh put the gun flat against his cheek, it stretched across his entire face. His father might have bought it when he discovered her affair. Was it an affair? Ramesh didn’t know. Until the day she left, he didn’t even know she had someone on the side. Where did she find the time? Where did she meet her lover? Ramesh often wondered if his father, too, was hounded by similar thoughts.

  On occasion when Ramesh passed by the study, he glimpsed his father staring at the wall. On his desk sat about a dozen tiny bottles of whiskey, the kind they served on airplanes. In Ramesh’s mind, there was a melodramatic scene involving him and his father: One evening Ramesh passes by his father’s study, but instead of continuing on, he pauses. His father’s gaze falls on him. Ramesh’s eyes water. “Aren’t you going to come in?” his father asks. Ramesh gingerly steps in. His father observes him and says, “Well, it’s just the two of us now, isn’t it? In this big old house?”

  It’s been the two of us for a while, Ramesh thinks.

  His father asks him whether he wants whiskey. Ramesh nods. He drinks straight from the bottle, slowly. The whiskey tastes bitter, but it also warms his throat and belly. It’s not the first time he’s tasted alcohol. He’s stolen a few of these bottles before, and one time he went to a local bar to drink with his classmates after school. “We will survive, son,” his father says. “We will survive.”

  The big house sat on a lane that branched off the raucous main road of Chabel, where the bank was located. Some months ago, a murder had taken place on the lane leading to the big house. No one had witnessed the murder, but there had been bloodstains on the gravel. Ramesh had seen it on the way to the school bus stop one morning. The bloodstain, along with a clump of hair, had sat there for a few days. Dogs lapped at the spot until all that remained was the shape of the stain. The servants—there were five or six servants to take care of the big house’s two residents, Ramesh and his father—had talked about what might have happened. Then Ramesh’s father made the wall higher and placed big coils at the top. That was the view that greeted Ramesh when he looked out of his room.

  The big house had close to ten rooms, and most of them were empty now. When his mother lived here, her laughter echoed across the hallways into the rooms. The house hadn’t felt empty. Besides, the servants were always inside the house, talking, quarreling, cackling, complaining. Now they did all this in the servants’ quarters, which was a separate building.

  Often Ramesh sat in his room in the afternoon, listening to the sounds from the servants’ quarters. He pictured himself with them: He is playing cards, drinking tea, and chomping on pakodas. They are all very fond of him; they consider it a privilege that he prefers to hang out with them in their meager quarters rather than in the big house. He dismisses their fawning and says that he is no different from them, that if it weren’t for the craziness of fate, he would have been born in the servants’ quarters. “I feel more comfortable here,” he tells them.

  “Really, babu?” they say, their hearts filled with happiness.

  “Am I not like your own son?” he asks a middle-aged servant who is about his mother’s age.

  “Of course you are,” she says. “When I look at you, I don’t doubt that you are my very own son. Look, even our facial features are the same.” She puts her cheek against his.

  The others comment, “Indeed! There is a striking resemblance. The same shape of the head. The same chin. Look at the similar eyebrows! My god, how could anyone doubt that these two are related by blood?”

  He eats with them; he plays hide-and-seek with their children in the small vegetable garden adjacent to their quarters. He takes his afternoon naps in his servant-mother’s bed. It has a thin mattress, but he sleeps soundly on it for an hour or two, until his servant-mother wakes him with a glass of tea. She watches, her eyes saturated with love, as he slurps his tea loudly.

  Ramesh’s mind had become a source of much fascination for him lately. Some time ago in Chabel, he’d seen a small, pretty girl who was not more than eight or nine and wearing a purple dress, a new purchase from her not-from-the-city parents. The father’s shirt was buttoned all the way to the top, the mother wore excessive, cheap jewelry, and the little girl was dressed gaudily: purple frock, shiny plastic earrings in tiny ears, and swathes of kohl around her eyes. Sexy, he thought. Sex-ai, he mouthed to himself, and his breath whispered sex-ai right in front of the parents and the girl, who was sucking on a lollipop as the family stopped in front of a stationery shop. Ramesh didn’t find the small girl sexy, so he didn’t know why he was saying it. He wasn’t attracted to small girls, or girls his age, for that matter.

  What disturbed him more was that in subsequent days he’d pictured himself being wedded to the little girl in a village ceremony. His bride is put in a large doko, with her legs hanging over it, and a man carries her in that basket with a strap resting on his forehead. Ramesh wears a daura suruwal, holds a bidi in his fingers, and sends the smoke twirling up in the sky. There are a band, crying relatives, excited children climbing walls of houses to watch. Then he sees a group of protestors, led by a well-known bearded human rights activist, standing on the side of the path as Ramesh takes his child bride home. They shout against child marriage, say he should be jai

  Ramesh was amazed that he could fantasize about marrying a child when he had no sexual interest in children. For days he played in his mind a scene of him with his child bride on the wedding bed adorned with flowers. Both sit crossed-legged and play snakes and ladders. He feeds her cake, then puts her to bed with a kiss on her forehead. “Sleep well, okay, nanu?” He goes to his window. “Go home,” he tells the human rights activists picketing outside. “Return to your family.”

  Until recently, until the bank idea came to him, Ramesh had wondered if he should go to a psychiatrist to sort out his thoughts. Suresh, his classmate who also came from a wealthy family and whose father knew Ramesh’s father, had advised him to go to one. Suresh had a know-it-all attitude that irritated Ramesh. Whenever Suresh talked to Ramesh, he seemed to be pitying him, especially when other boys were present at school. You have no other friends besides me, Suresh seemed to be conveying. That their names were similar-sounding led the other boys to refer to them as twins.

  Recently his classmates had teased Ramesh that he and Suresh had different fathers but the same mother, which was meant as a dig at Ramesh’s mother’s supposed promiscuity. Suresh had pretended to be offended by this dig, but Ramesh could tell that he was secretly pleased. “What’s it to you?” Suresh told his guffawing classmates. “Yes, we are twins, both of the same mother. Why don’t you go fuck your own mothers?” He put his arm around Ramesh and led him away from them. He spoke to Ramesh in a muted, cajoling voice, as if he were looking out for the well-being of a younger sibling. “You should not take all of this too seriously. Such things happen. We cannot all have the kinds of mothers we want. What your mother did was very bad. My father tells me that your mother had no right to abandon you. It is abandonment, isn’t it? What else would you call it? I know your father is devastated. He might not show it, but my father says that your father has taken it really hard.”

  Suresh lowered his voice even more. “My father says your father had seen it coming for a long time. Your father told my father that as soon as he married your mother, he knew she wasn’t the type to stick around, that she’d leave him after she’d given him a child, which turned out to be you, Ramesh. Isn’t that uncanny? My father says ever since your mother left, your father’s drinking has increased. What a shame. And how unfortunate for you. Your mother ditches you to go gallivanting around with a younger man, and your father turns incommunicado. Incommunicado. Life is incommunicado, isn’t it, Ramesh? People no longer communicate with one another. Look at our country. If only we talked with one another, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in today. You know you can communicate with me, right, Ramesh? I am your friend, you understand that, don’t you?”

  Ramesh nodded, but he knew that as soon as Suresh left his side and joined their classmates, there would be much chortling and thigh-slapping mockery.

  Suresh gave him a long look. “You shouldn’t really feel ashamed about going to a mind doctor, like a psychiatrist or someone. One of my father’s friends is the most famous psychiatrist in the country, Dr. Gopal Man Singh. You must have heard of him.”

  Ramesh hadn’t.

  “He’s usually booked for six months in advance, but if I make a call, he’ll see you today.”

  “I don’t need to see anyone.”

  “Just a thought. No need to be alarmed.”

  “I’m not alarmed.”

  Suresh observed him. “I want you to come to my house,” he said. “It’ll be just you and me.”

  “Sure,” Ramesh said.

  “We need to strengthen our friendship,” Suresh said. “We can’t do it at school with all this riffraff around. When are you free?”

  “Well, I’m—”

  “One of these Saturdays. I’ll let you know.”

  A couple of days after that, Ramesh had stopped going to school, partly to avoid Suresh and his gang, but mostly because it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Last week when the school called in concern over his absence, Ramesh had pretended to be his father, who was still in Europe. Ramesh adopted a grave, thick voice and said, “Yes, yes, I am aware. Ramesh has simply not been well for a while, especially since his mother left me. Yes, yes, I am heartbroken, too, but I have to be strong for my boy. He will return to school once he recuperates.” He had spoken in English, to lend gravitas to his words. The administrators at his school went gaga over English. Even the school sweepers greeted the students in a chirpy Americanized accent: “Gooood morningggg.”

  When the school called again after a couple of days, Ramesh said, “My son Ramesh has been diagnosed with a serious psychiatric disorder. I will be taking him to Singapore for treatment. Pray for him.”

  His father returned home Friday night, and on Saturday afternoon he called Ramesh downstairs. “Why aren’t you ready yet?” he asked. When Ramesh expressed confusion, his father said, “We’ve been invited to the Sapkotas. Didn’t Suresh tell you?”

  “Oh, yes,” Ramesh said. He had to be careful here, as he didn’t want his father to know that he hadn’t been to school lately. But when Suresh had invited Ramesh, hadn’t he said it’d just be the two of them?

  • • •

  It was a grand party, with more than a hundred people mingling on the Sapkotas’ lawn, which was bigger than the Thapaliyas’ lawn. A long buffet table offered a variety of steaming food. Waiters in white uniforms carried trays of drinks and appetizers and glided in and out of the throng of guests. A large fountain in the middle gushed water. A band was off to the side, playing traditional Nepali folk songs but with a hint of jazz, perhaps even reggae. Men in tuxedos and women in glittering saris laughed and conversed. Some were dancing ballroom style. Ramesh thought of a scene from a movie starring Robert Redford about people dancing and partying in America in the 1950s, based on that famous novel whose name he couldn’t remember.

  Ramesh was the only one in jeans, and he wondered why his father, who went off to greet his friends as soon as they entered the gate, hadn’t told him to dress more appropriately. He figured his father didn’t care enough. Ramesh stood near the gate, his hands in his pockets, wondering what would happen if he left. He could later tell his father that he had developed a headache and had to return home. Suresh would think that he never came, or that he left early. In any case, he didn’t owe Suresh any explanation: Suresh had lied to him when he’d said there’d be just the two of them. But this was a full-fledged party, with half of Kathmandu’s elites. Ramesh recognized a popular actor who was surrounded by women. In another group was a well-known socialite, a model-turned-interior decorator who called herself the Martha Stewart of Nepal. Ramesh caught a glimpse of a famous banker who was recently in the news for his ruthless acquisitions. Then he spotted a writer who had written one lousy book but who was being lionized as the Himalayan Hemingway for his clipped sentences. Plastic people, he thought. But he didn’t leave, as he was spellbound by this world-unto-itself appearing before him while the city raged incoherently outside.

  “I was looking for you all over.” It was Suresh, standing before him. “I saw your father, and he said you had come with him, but I couldn’t find you.”

  “I was just enjoying the view,” Ramesh said. Just you and me, eh?

  “Isn’t it something?” Suresh said, standing next to Ramesh and observing the party. “The glitterati and literati of our society.”

  “The pisserati.”

  Suresh clapped him on the back. “You have a fine sense of humor, you know? You should display it more often. Why hide it? It’ll bring out your personality.” He put his arm around Ramesh. “And why haven’t you been to the school lately? You forgot about me, eh? Come, I want you to meet some people.”

  Suresh broke into groups, into conversations, introducing Ramesh as though he were his girlfriend, exuding an air of confidence that Ramesh couldn’t help but admire. Suresh punched a popular actor in the shoulder and said, “Are you going to talk on
ly about yourself, Pravin dai? You’re no Tom Cruise. There are other people in this world, too, you know? My friend Ramesh here, for example.”

  Suresh tapped young, pretty girls on their cheeks and told them how ravishing they looked. He briefly discussed politics with a former minister, who listened to him attentively, then told the others, “Where does this young boy get his cleverness, I don’t know.” He pointed to Suresh’s father. “Certainly not from his old man, that much is certain. Suresh, you thinking about a career in politics? This country needs an astute dimag like yours.”

  It was exhausting, and exhilarating. It’s all a big show, only a show, thought Ramesh.

  Yet there was a magnanimous quality to Suresh’s social performance. He was not daunted by the big shots at his party—it was as if he owned them, knew who they really were, and could dismiss them with a wave of his hand. In conversations with his guests, Suresh constantly made references to Ramesh such as, “At school, Ramesh and I . . .” Or, “As I was telling Ramesh some time back . . .” He put his arm around Ramesh while talking, or placed his hand on the small of Ramesh’s back. Once he even squeezed Ramesh’s hand.

  By the time they finished doing the rounds, Ramesh felt weak. When Suresh suggested that they go upstairs to his room, he gladly accepted.

  Suresh’s room was on the other side of the house, in a corner, with windows overlooking a high wall on the back that blocked the view of the neighborhood. “Nice and quiet in here,” Suresh said, and he latched the door behind them and turned to Ramesh with a smile. “I told you it’d be just you and me.”

  Despite the high walls and the barbed wire, the din from the road could be heard in the big house, like a distant yet continuous and unmistakable cry of the country. In between the barbed wires, Ramesh could glimpse the tops of the other neighborhood houses with their satellite dishes and telephone lines running close to their windows. These houses served as the second line of fortification against the racket of the main road.

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