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Mad country, p.5

Mad Country, page 5


Mad Country

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  The phone downstairs had rung a few times since the party, and Ramesh knew that it was Suresh. Once, a servant who was dusting the living room had picked it up, and Ramesh had gone to the landing to observe her. The servant had talked in a low voice—since his mother’s departure, the servants talked in hushed tones inside the house, as if his mother had died—and, putting her palm on the receiver, had looked up at Ramesh.

  “Who?” Ramesh asked.

  “He says he’s a friend.”

  “What’s his name?”

  “He didn’t give it. Shall I ask him?”

  “No, just tell him I’m not here.”

  After the incident with Suresh, Ramesh thought more about why he was in this opulent house with its chandeliers and two living rooms and even a theater room. What made him so special that he was born to this privilege when many boys his age had to wash dishes in restaurants and get whipped for jobs badly done?

  One time he’d read about a young Tharu girl who’d been sold as a slave to a doctor’s family in the capital. They’d kept her locked in a tiny room for minor infractions, hands tied behind her back with a rope, not giving her food for days on end. Ramesh had tried to imagine being that girl. He put himself in her tiny room, his wrists chafing because of the tight rope, his eyes straining against the dark, his stomach cramped with hunger.

  It didn’t make sense, Ramesh thought, that he’d be bored with himself in this big house while children scrounged among garbage piles outside. He wondered about the life of the poor, began to fantasize about being poor. He imagined himself as part of a large family that lived in the shantytown next to the Bishnumati River. His parents collected scraps for a living; his brothers and sisters—and he had many of them—played naked on garbage piles.

  To accommodate his fantasies, and in preparation for the momentous thing he was going to undertake, Ramesh thought he ought to wear a poor man’s clothes. But where would he go to find such clothes? He could find poor people on the streets and pay them to sell their clothes to him. But they would think he was crazy. Or they would think that he was teasing them. He could show these poor people his money, perhaps even hand it to them to gain their trust before they gave him their clothes. He wondered if he could simply buy the clothes from one of his male servants. The problem was that the servants in the big house wore clothes that were cheap but clean and well-maintained. If Ramesh were to wear them, they would neither depict him as poor nor make him feel poor. He wanted clothes that, once he put them on, would immediately thrust him into his new reality of poorness.

  He considered going to a tailor’s shop to have them sew a poor-man’s clothes, but even a tailor serving the poor people would sew new clothes for them. After all, poor people didn’t have a tailor sew them rags. But one day he came upon a tailor’s shop in the market with the sign: “alterations, button-sewing, mending, rafus, and such are done here at reasonable prices. thank you!” He stepped up to the counter.

  In a cramped space inside, a solitary man was bent over a sewing machine. He didn’t look up but said, “Yes?”

  “I was looking for some clothes.”

  “Had you dropped them off recently?”

  “No, I mean, I want to buy some clothes.”

  “Well, I don’t sell clothes here.” The man stopped sewing. “Except these.” He pointed to a handful of clothes on hangers, presumably finished clothes his customers had neglected to pick up.

  “I’m looking for somewhat older clothes.”


  “Yes, the older, the better.”

  Confusion marked the tailor’s face.

  “I’m looking for clothes that are torn and dirty.”

  The tailor returned to his work. “Have you come here to joke? Majak gareko?”

  “I’m serious. I’m looking for poor-type clothes.”

  The tailor rummaged through a pile of clothes next to him and showed Ramesh a pair of trousers. “Like this one?” The legs were torn, as though they had become entangled on a bicycle chain. But the rest looked new. The tailor held up a shirt, which had a frayed collar but otherwise looked fine.

  Ramesh shook his head and left the shop. He walked toward the Pashupatinath temple. On the way, he saw many beggars sitting by the side of the road, their palms held out for scraps. Now these were the real poor.

  As he slowly strolled toward the main temple gate, he scrutinized all the male beggars, especially their build and height. He noted three or four who’d suit his purpose. Once he reached the main gate, from where he could glimpse the back of the giant golden bull that faced Lord Shiva, he made an abrupt turn, not bothering to genuflect.

  The beggar he selected was a bearded young man, perhaps ten years older than him. He was wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a tatty T-shirt that had turned brown because it hadn’t been washed. The young man sat crouched in front of a dirty towel, where there lay three or four coins of such small denominations even the monkeys who roamed the temple complex would have been mortified to admit them as their day’s wages. This beggar’s attention was not on his earnings but on a spot inside his own mind. His arms were wrapped around his knees, and he was gently swaying. Ramesh gagged at the filthiness of his clothes, but those were precisely what he needed. As soon as Ramesh began talking to him, however, the beggar became frightened and ran away. The woman who sat nearby asked Ramesh to throw the coins on the towel toward her, “for safekeeping,” she said.

  Farther up, a boy about his age and build was standing, his palms up for alms. He was wearing trousers that were too small for him, and the zipper apparently didn’t work because his underwear was peeking out. The shirt he wore was missing a collar, crumpled, and stained at the front.

  Ramesh stopped in front of him. “What’s your name?” he asked.


  “Ah, my name is Ramesh. We’re practically like twins.”

  Ramesh was struck by how closely this beggar boy resembled him: the same angular face, the same dull, defeated eyes, the same darkish features and unruly black hair.

  “Do you live around here?” Ramesh asked, then realized that the boy, since he was a beggar, probably slept on the streets.

  “Here and there,” the boy said warily.

  “Do you have parents?”

  The boy let his arms hang loose and said, “Why are you asking these questions? Are you from a charity?”

  “No, no,” Ramesh said. He pulled out fifty rupees and handed them to Naresh, who took them sullenly. “Just talk to me for a while, that’s all I’m asking.”

  “I have a father,” Naresh said. “But I don’t see him that much because he travels to do manual labor around the country. My mother—khoi.”

  “Tell me. Tell me about your mother.”

  “She left us a few years ago.”

  “Where did she go?”

  “She went with another man, a young man. I hear he already has a child from a previous wife.”

  It was difficult for Ramesh to get the words out, but he did. “Is she now carrying a child by this young man?”

  Naresh gave him an odd look. “Yes, I hear that she’s pregnant with his child.”

  “I need your clothes, Naresh.”

  Naresh observed him. “Are you a bit ill? Perhaps touched in the head?”

  “I’ll give you money for them so you can buy new clothes. I’ll give you good money. Plus you can have these clothes I’m wearing. Can we go someplace to swap?”

  Naresh took him to an abandoned hut by the Bagmati River. They went to the back of the hut, where Naresh said, “You give me your clothes first, just in case you’re playing some kind of sick game.”

  Ramesh stripped down to his underwear and handed his clothes to Naresh, who inspected them before he took off his own. “Your underwear also,” Ramesh said.

  “Then what will I wear?” Nare
sh asked.

  Ramesh took off his bright white underwear and handed it to him. Naresh glanced at Ramesh’s penis, seemed to become embarrassed, then took off his own underwear, which stank, and gave it to Ramesh, who put it on promptly with his eyes closed. The two boys then finished dressing and faced each other. “You look good,” Ramesh said to Naresh, who said, “And you look like me.” Ramesh gave him a few hundred rupees from his wallet. Naresh accepted the money with an expression of disbelief.

  The guard at the big house nearly didn’t let Ramesh in that day, thinking he was a street urchin trying to get in. “What happened, Ramesh babu?” he asked. “Why are you wearing such clothes?”

  Ramesh didn’t answer him and went up to his room.

  In the privacy of his room, every day for a few hours, he turned into a poor boy. He put on his poor clothes and practiced begging. “Please, sir, can I have some more?” he said, paraphrasing the famous line from Dickens’s Oliver Twist. He also turned into his father, a rich man on the street who came upon the beggar boy.

  “Shameless,” his rich man father says. “A healthy boy who should be working. Why can’t you go find a job instead of lazing around like this?”

  “But sir, I have lost my mother.”

  “What has that got to do with anything?”

  The poor boy becomes silent.

  On occasion the rich man turned into someone from Suresh’s party: the actor, the politician.

  “How did you lose your mother?” the rich actor asks disdainfully. “Did she die?”

  “No, sir, she left my father for another man. For other children.”

  “For other children?” The rich actor laughs. “Why? Were you not good enough for her?”

  “That I can’t answer, sir.”

  “Maybe she doesn’t love you.”

  “But sir, I came from her womb. How can a mother not love a child who comes from her own womb?”

  The politician slaps the poor boy. “Shameless!” he says. “Begging on the streets. You are the cause of this country’s downfall.”

  “I am so sorry, sir, so sorry, but I can’t help that I am poor.”

  “Of course you can! Lift yourself up by your bootstraps!”

  “But sir, I don’t own any boots.”

  Some nights Ramesh slept in his poor-boy’s clothes. It seemed to him that those nights he slept a deep, anxiety-free sleep.

  Ramesh made sure that he practiced his poor-boy routine only during the afternoons when his father wasn’t around, or when his father was traveling, or late at night when his father was asleep. One evening he was practicing when he heard footsteps outside his door he recognized as his father’s. The old man must have come home early from a trip. Ramesh held his breath. His father also seemed to hold his breath on the other side of the door.

  One afternoon Ramesh dozed off, then awoke, a voice inside him telling him to go to the market. He argued with the voice: it was a hot day, and he was feeling cool under the ceiling fan. But the voice was strong, adamant, so reluctantly he put on his poor-boy’s clothes, wore his poor-boy’s shoes—his chappals—and left the big house. The servants were in the back, banging away in the kitchen, or dozing in the quarters.

  The guard opened the gate and gave him a salute. Ramesh saluted back. He knew the guard thought of him as an idiot, the lonely boy—Richie Rich!—who wore a poor man’s clothes to go mingle with the masses. The guard probably had a wife and kids back in the village, plus arthritic parents he needed to buy medicine for. Ramesh thought he could detect the disdain and anger in the guard’s eyes, even though his face was impassive.

  It shouldn’t have surprised him when he saw his mother as soon as he entered the market. Immediately, he knew why the voice had told him to venture out. This was another thing that was happening more and more: his thoughts and inclinations merging with the outside world, a seed in his mind turning into reality. The gun, for example. As soon as he’d held it in his hand, he knew that he was going to do something with it.

  Still, when he actually saw his mother at the market with her family, Ramesh took in a sharp breath. The family stood in front of a shop that had kites and balloons hanging above its door. The girl, his stepsister, had grown, and she had a know-it-all look on her face as she addressed her parents in a querulous voice. The young husband was holding a baby who was wearing a tight-fitting bonnet. Even from the distance—Ramesh was a few yards away, across the street—he spotted the black tika on the baby’s forehead. Ah! To ward off the evil eye!

  His mother was laughing, and her young husband was pointing to a balloon and urging the baby to look. It was a plain blue balloon; there was nothing to look at or laugh and get excited about. And the baby wasn’t looking at the balloon but at Ramesh.

  Were they actually going to buy something? Or were they merely dillydallying? What was his mother doing so far away from home and so close to the house she’d left behind? Was she on a dare? Was the next step for her new family then to stroll over to the big house, her former family’s abode?

  Ramesh moved closer, now directly across the street from them, only a few yards away. The baby’s eyes followed him, and the father was gently nudging the baby—with the bonnet and its baby face Ramesh couldn’t decipher its gender—to look at the balloon. Ramesh wondered if the baby, through some sixth sense, recognized Ramesh as its half brother.

  I’m wearing a poor boy’s clothes, Ramesh thought, so I might as well do it. He lowered his head and held out his palms in supplication. “Please spare a few coins,” he said in a pathetic voice to the passersby. “Haven’t eaten for three days.” The tenor and the tremble of the voice came to him naturally, as though he was a veteran at it.

  A coin dropped onto his palm, then another, and after the third coin, he remembered that he ought to be grateful for the alms, so after every clink he mumbled, “May God bless you and your family.” The coins kept coming, at first slowly, then rapidly. The more people saw the coins accumulated on his palms, the more they gave.

  The coins filled his palms so quickly that he had to empty them in the pockets of his trousers. When he thrust out his palms again, the coins at first trickled, then multiplied. His mother’s family was still across the street, still engaged with the balloon. After his palms filled for a second time, he emptied them into his pockets and crossed the street. The coins jangled as though he was wearing anklets and dancing across a stage. He bowed before his mother’s family, head down, palms held high. “A coin or two. May your beautiful family be blessed.” His voice was muffled because his chin was touching his chest.

  “A beggar,” the young husband said.

  “Look how bowed he is,” Ramesh’s mother said. “Look, children, look at that young boy, begging. If you don’t listen to your mother, you’ll end up like him.”

  Ramesh waited for her to recognize him.

  “Hello, beggar boy,” the young husband said happily.

  “Scat!” Ramesh recognized the voice as that of the young girl’s. “Aren’t you ashamed to be begging?”

  “Some money for food, please,” Ramesh said. He raised his head a bit, then waited for his mother’s exclamation, her cry of distress at seeing her son in this state.

  “Don’t scold him,” the young husband said in a kind voice. “He must not have any parents.”

  “Young men these days—lazy!” his mother said.

  Ramesh raised his head even more.

  “Here, baby,” the young husband said. “Give the beggar boy this coin.”

  Ramesh felt warm breath on his head: the young husband had brought the baby close. A cold coin dropped onto his palm. He lifted his chin even more, then moved his eyes up in their sockets so he could see them. But his mother’s family had already moved on.

  He straightened and scanned the street. They were strolling leisurely, away from the market, down the hill, moving in the
direction away from the big house. Watching them, he wondered what his mother would think of what happened with Suresh. His father most likely would not care, or if he did, probably think that it was a one-time thing. His father might conclude that the boys had smoked some pot and fooled around a bit. He might then recall his own boarding school days in the hill station of Dalhousie in India, when things happened in the bunk beds at night that were spoken about only with winks and dreamy smiles the next day. His father would think that there was no harm in that.

  When he wondered how his mother would react to what had happened in Suresh’s room, Ramesh was flummoxed. He didn’t know whether she’d be angry or filled with concern for him. One moment he pictured her furious about what he’d done; the next moment he saw her gently caressing him and telling him that it was okay, that he ought not worry.

  That night Ramesh couldn’t sleep, even in his poor-boy’s clothes. Throughout the night, his mother’s face continued to switch from anger to love to distress.

  He opened his eyes in the predawn light, triggered into alertness by a pinprick in his consciousness. He propped himself up on his elbow and looked out of the window: the sky had barely begun to be illuminated. In the servants’ quarters, a servant was sweeping the floor of the veranda. He watched her. He needed to do something for her. He also needed to do something for Naresh—for his state of existence, which couldn’t be allowed to go on. In the greyish light that was now beginning to seep into the room, Ramesh looked down at his poor-boy’s clothes. I need to do something for myself. The time had come.

  He saw himself waving the long revolver in the bank. He saw himself walking out calmly with a couple of sacks stuffed with crisp banknotes, money that he’d then distribute to his servants. He’d then go over to the temple, locate Naresh, and hand him a few thousand rupees. “Here, I want you to start a new life. I want you to forget about your mother. She doesn’t deserve you.” Then he’d return home and put on his poor-boy’s clothes and wait for the police to arrive. The national media would be on the case: The rich boy who dresses in poor clothes. The rich boy who robbed a bank. His photo would be plastered all over the newspapers. The TV reports would probably show clips of him in handcuffs, being escorted out of the big house in his poor clothes into a police van. Across the city, his mother, while feeding her youngest child by hand, would glance at the TV, see his profile, and cry out in alarm, “Why, that is my very own son!”

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