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Arresting god in kathman.., p.4

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 4


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  The words to the epic did not come. Acharya played with language, plot, all the techniques he had learned over the years. During these three months he often stayed up late into the night, forgetting to eat, and his body looked frail as dark circles appeared around his eyes. Twice he had to be rushed to the hospital with excruciating back pain.

  One night, after he had torn to shreds nearly twenty of his recent verses, Acharya lay his head on the desk and abandoned the task. All the versions had been mediocre at best; he needed no one to tell him this. Nor did he have any intention of revealing his work, for he did not wish to display the degeneration of his art, which had brought pleasure to men for years. Quietly, but resolutely, he shut his notebook and left the study.

  When the government announced that Acharya was to be named the poet laureate of the country, his family members and friends could barely contain their joy. The Poetry Committee of the academy, with the active endorsement of the king, decided that, in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolution, Acharya should be honored not only for his participation in the revolution but also for his commitment to poetry and art, as substantiated by his prodigious body of work. “We were not wrong,” wrote one of the critics who had earlier called him “our Shakespeare.” “Acharya has proven himself the equal of any acclaimed author today,” and he went on to list some of the giants in poetry, such as Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Posters of Acharya from his earlier days appeared all over the country. He received letters of congratulations from famous poets in neighboring countries, and a procession was organized to take place after the awards ceremony.

  The academy auditorium was filled with dignitaries and high government officials. A red banner with Acharya’s name hung at the back of the stage. Well-known poets praised Acharya’s poetry and his contribution to Nepali literature. Acharya, sitting in the front with the country’s prime minister, who would soon present the award, watched the ceremony in a daze, the noise buzzing around him.

  The prime minister gave a short speech, and Acharya made his way to the stage to receive the gold trophy, a small statue of a famous seventeenth-century poet. He thanked his family and friends for their support.

  After a few words, he was about to head back to his seat when he glanced at the silver lights focused on the middle of the stage and remembered Giri reading in that auditorium, his white face shining in the darkness. Acharya felt paralyzed, as if stricken by stage fright. He did not see any faces, only dim figures that could be sitting, standing, dancing in the dark, offering applause that rose and fell, rose and fell, until a steady din started circling the high walls and ceiling of the auditorium.

  Deepak Misra’s Secretary

  THE TROUBLE began for Deepak Misra when he kissed his unattractive secretary in the office. But later he decided that the trouble had actually started some time before—around ten o’clock one morning when a friend called to tell him that his ex-wife Jill, who had left him a couple of years earlier and returned to her native Cleveland, was back in the city.

  “Where?” Deepak asked, his voice tense.

  “She’s staying at the Annapurna Hotel. Says she’s looking for an apartment.”

  “An apartment?”

  “Looks as if she’s here to stay, Deepak.”

  After he hung up, Deepak requested a file from his secretary, Bandana-ji, and asked her to wait while he scrutinized its contents. He thought of Jill’s long face, the way her thin fingers, hovering over the canvas with a brush, gave the illusion that they were thinking. “My wife is back in Kathmandu,” he said shortly. When Bandana-ji didn’t respond, he looked up.

  “Is there something wrong with the account?” she asked, pointing to the file.

  “Just checking,” he said, and handed it back to her.

  Deepak had been a successful financial consultant for seven years. When Jill left him, everyone thought his business would collapse, that he’d plunge into something dark and horrible, probably aided by raksi, and his world would break apart. But Deepak showed remarkable endurance. Three days after Jill disappeared, without leaving even a note, he was back in the office, making phone calls, sending faxes, and tinkering with numbers on his new computer. Bandana-ji said, as if to the air in front of her, “It seems unnatural.” She had been with him a little more than a year and was undiplomatic in her dealings with people. But Deepak liked her because she had a quick mind and a no-nonsense way about her that actually softened his clients. She was the best secretary he’d had.

  Before Bandana-ji, there had been a young woman, Anju, who sat at her desk and combed her shiny, waist-long hair until it seemed to breathe. The floor beneath her desk and chair was always littered with strands of hair, and the janitor who came in every morning complained. Then when Anju started oiling her hair in the office, Deepak found smudges on important documents. Because her brother was his friend, he didn’t fire her. Also—and Deepak admitted this to himself reluctantly—he found her pleasant to look at. When she lifted her mirror and studied her face or applied kazal to her eyes, he became entranced. But when more and more clients complained about important documents never reaching them or about incorrect calculations in their yearly assessments, Deepak had to let her go. He called her brother and apologized, to which her brother replied, “I’m surprised you kept her this long.”

  When he hired Bandana-ji, on the recommendation of a Marwari businessman, he was skeptical. The first time she entered his office, she cleared her throat so vigorously, the noise startled him. She also had an aloofness about her that disturbed Deepak. She didn’t appear comfortable around people, a drawback in a secretary. On top of that, her thin hair was combed back with an awful-smelling oil, and she wore a purple sari with several patches. A prominent skin disfigurement on the right side of her face looked like a pink-colored map that started at the temple and curved down toward the chin. Later, Deepak thought it looked like a pregnant woman, whose protruding belly pointed toward Bandana-ji’s nose. But her resume was impeccable. She had worked for some of the top businessmen in the city, all of whom wrote laudatory recommendations. She even knew how to use a computer, a skill her previous employer claimed she had learned on the job in a single day.

  After her interview, when Deepak said he was interested in hiring her, she asked, in a coarse voice, “How much are you going to pay me?” When he told her, she smiled, scrunching up the pregnant woman’s belly on her cheek, took her dilapidated folder from his desk, and walked out. He was stunned, but then he ran after her. She had already disappeared in the hustle and bustle of New Road outside his office. Two days later, he called her former employer and got her number. She answered the phone, and he quoted a higher salary. “That won’t do,” she said. Afraid she’d hang up, he asked what she expected. “Eight thousand rupees,” she said, vigorously clearing her throat. He promptly agreed, though after he put the phone down, he wondered why he’d given in to her exorbitant demand. She would be the highest paid secretary in the city. He could easily have hired another woman, perhaps equally competent, for half that salary.

  When he reached the office the next morning, she was waiting outside the front door. “I need a key,” she said, and he rushed to the key shop down the street to have one made. From then on, when he arrived at his office in the morning, she was there, and from the amount of work already accomplished, he knew she had been at her desk for at least an hour. The second day he made an extra cup of tea in his office and took it to her.

  “I don’t drink tea,” she said, her eyes glued to the computer.

  “Soft drink?” he asked.

  “I don’t drink soft drinks,” she said.

  He stood there, helpless, holding the cup of tea, staring at the hair on the back of her neck. She never drank or ate in the office, though she was there all day. A few days later he told her she should feel free to take an hour off for lunch, and if she brought lunch from home, she could put it in the fridge. He also recommended some restaurants d
own the street. “The Punjabi Restaurant has the best tandoori chicken in the city,” he said.

  “All right,” she said.

  When he came out of his office around lunchtime the following day to go for a walk and clear his mind of the numbers, she hadn’t left her desk. “Make sure you lock the door when you go out for lunch,” he said pointedly. She was still there when he returned.

  Now, on this day, Deepak finished his work and went to the Annapurna Hotel. The receptionist checked the computer and said, “Yes, Jill Misra, Room 223.” A small hope lit up inside Deepak—she’d kept his last name. He took the elevator upstairs and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so he went down and ordered a beer from the bar and let the cold seep into his stomach. He finished his beer in the lobby just as she walked in with a man. Deepak was about to call her name, but something stopped him. She had put on weight, and there was a glow to her face. The man with her was Nepali, thin and dark, and sporting a mustache that curved down to his chin. They walked past him and stepped into the elevator.

  That night Deepak drank half a bottle of whiskey and listened to some ghazals—Urdu poems set to music—that he and Jill had loved during their three years of marriage. She likened the words of the ghazals, especially the surprise endings, to the strokes of her paintbrush. She had had her paintings exhibited in Kathmandu and Singapore, and before she left him, she had been trying to arrange shows in New Delhi and Bombay, cities with thriving artist communities.

  Deepak got so drunk that the room began to spin. Deciding that he should eat something, he went to the kitchen to make an omelette, but soon became tired. An egg dropped from his hand and cracked on the floor, where the yolk spilled out, still intact, forming an eye. Deepak wished he had not fired his servant a few days ago, but the boy was lazy and had stolen money. Deepak staggered out of the house and, without thinking, got into his car. It was nearly ten o’clock, and the streets were abandoned. His car was weaving, but he didn’t care, and he nearly hit a bicycle rider at the front corner of the Royal Palace.

  At the Annapurna Hotel, he walked into the Chinese restaurant next to the lobby. It was empty, and he sat in a corner and ordered ginger chicken, which nauseated him after he’d taken a few bites. He wondered whether the mustached man was with Jill in her room or whether they had gone out. She liked to dance, so Deepak asked the waiter if there was a dance club in the hotel. On learning that there was, he went to the bathroom, washed his face, combed his hair, then stepped into the sparsely lit dance club. A deejay droned on about the “rhythm” of the forthcoming piece. Once Deepak’s eyes adjusted to the light, he spotted Jill, standing at the edge of the dance floor, tapping her feet, a drink in her hand, and talking to the man with the ridiculous mustache.

  “Welcome to Kathmandu,” he said in English, awkwardly, when he reached them.

  She looked at him not with surprise but amusement. “I had a feeling,” she said in stilted Nepali. Her Nepali had been fluent when she left him. She introduced the mustached man as Birendra, and Deepak offered his hand.

  “Well,” she said.

  Deepak went to the bar and ordered a drink, though he hardly took a sip after he went back to them. She was telling Birendra about an incident in Cleveland that involved a man and his dog. A thousand questions leaped to Deepak’s mind. When she finished the story and Birendra laughed, Deepak grabbed her arm and said, “Just a moment.” He led her to another corner of the dance floor, the revolving lights on the ceiling making her movements look jerky, and he stood there, not knowing what to say. She asked how he was, and he nodded, waved a hand in the air.

  “You want an explanation,” she said.

  “Well, it is—”

  “I have none,” she said. She looked around the dance floor. “It just got to be too much. I had to get away. I guess we should file for divorce.”

  She was wearing a phuli on her nose, its diamond glittering, and her beauty stung him as it had when they first met, at a party. He recalled how his parents, who died soon after he married Jill, had advised him not to marry a foreigner. “You’ll suffer later, son,” his elderly mother had told him.

  “We could,” he told Jill now. He swallowed his drink in one shot and said, “What makes a woman leave her husband just like that? What had I done? No letter, no postcard. Nothing.”

  She stood there, holding her drink. “You knew I wasn’t happy,” she said.

  He glanced at Birendra, who was staring in their direction. “Your friend,” Deepak said.

  “He’s nothing,” she said and asked Deepak whether he would drive her to the Swayambhunath Temple, a few miles away. She left without saying goodbye to Birendra.

  In the car, she launched into a lengthy explanation about why she’d left him, but her words floated around him like a haze. He realized, now that she was here, that the question of why she had left him was no longer important, even though it had filled his mind so insistently during her absence. They climbed the steep steps to the temple, and, at the top, he kissed her. She pushed him away. In his drunkenness, he started to cry, and she held him, as one holds a weeping child. He told her that he was willing to forget what she had done to him, although he knew the alcohol was twisting his thoughts.

  He wanted to take her home, but in the car she said that she wanted to “go slowly,” and he accepted this, trying to envision a time when she would come back to him and everything would be as it was before.

  “We should probably make today a holiday,” he declared to Bandana-ji as he walked in.

  “I have too much work to do,” she said, without asking why he wanted a holiday. She rarely looked at him when she talked about subjects other than office matters. Deepak went to his room and called the hotel. The receptionist told him that Jill Misra was not in, so he left a message. Although there was much work to be done, his mind wandered. Through the glass partition, he saw Bandana-ji staring at the wall. Maybe she didn’t feel well. She hadn’t missed a day of work since she started. One Saturday afternoon, a few months after she joined him, he came to the office to fetch his address book and found her at her desk, working. “I don’t want you to work on a Saturday.”

  “Will you please just let me do my job?” Bandana-ji said sternly.

  “But you work—”

  “I don’t like people interfering with my work,” Bandana-ji said, as if he were an outsider.

  He picked up his address book and walked out. She was a strange creature. She never wore any sari other than the one she had on when she came for her interview. Sometimes when he was at his desk, he had the eerie sensation of being watched, and when he looked up, he saw her quickly avert her eyes.

  The next Saturday he had called the office just to check, and her coarse voice answered, “Deepak Financial.” He put the phone down.

  Now, watching her staring at the corner, Deepak called her into his office and asked whether she was sick. “I feel fine,” she said.

  “I saw you sitting still—”

  “You want me to work like a slave?” She cleared her throat.

  Deepak was taken aback. “No, I mean—”

  “Did you see your wife? Is that why you are so perky?”

  He looked closely at her face. Her eyes were small behind her heavy glasses. He started to tell her about the night before, but she interrupted him.

  “What did she have to say?”

  “Nothing,” he said, suddenly unsure that he should be talking to her about Jill.

  “These foreign women,” Bandana-ji said, her face angry.

  “She is just—”

  “They think they can play with other people’s lives.” And she went back to her desk.

  Deepak was touched by her concern. She had never given an indication that she thought about Deepak’s life outside the office, other than the one time she said, “It seems unnatural,” when he came back to work the third day after Jill left. He thought, then, that she meant his returning to work so soon, but now it occurred to him that she may
have been referring to Jill’s abrupt departure.

  His mind on Jill, Deepak didn’t speak to Bandana-ji for the rest of the day. After work, he drove to the hotel, where the receptionist informed him that Jill had checked out an hour before. When Deepak asked whether she had left a forwarding address, the receptionist, a young man in an oversized suit, shook his head. “Did she get my message?” Deepak asked.

  “She must have,” the receptionist said. “There’s nothing in her box.”

  For a few minutes, Deepak lingered in the lobby. He checked the restaurants, the dance club, the swimming pool, but Jill was nowhere.

  He left the hotel and, leaving his car in the hotel parking lot, walked toward the area of Ghantaghar and Ranipokhari. Near the Ghantaghar clock tower, he saw students walk into Trichandra campus for their evening classes, the girls holding their notebooks close to their chests. The clock tower chimed six as he walked beneath it. At Ranipokhari he stood near the railings that surrounded the pond and stared down at the greenish murky water. He moved on to Asan, the bustling marketplace, and slipped into the crowd to distract himself from thinking about Jill.

  As he passed a sari shop, he saw a reflection of Bandana-ji in one of its large mirrors. She was looking at the colorful saris laid out on the counter. Deepak stood still. She appraised a sari and bantered with the shopkeeper. Then she looked up and their eyes met in the mirror. Deepak wanted to pretend he hadn’t seen her, but she was staring at him, so he stepped inside.

  “Buying something?” he said.

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