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Arresting god in kathman.., p.5

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 5

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  “I’m trying to,” she said, “but he’s asking too high a price.”

  The sari was bright pink, with a delicate embroidery of flowers and hearts. A thin strip of velvet bound the edge.

  “How much?” he asked the shopkeeper, who, on seeing a well-dressed man, became deferential. “Only three thousand rupees, sir,” he said. “Discount price.”

  “Pack it up.” Deepak reached into his pocket and gave him the money. He expected a strong protest from Bandana-ji, but she just stood there, clearing her throat.

  They left the shop and moved toward Indrachowk as if they had planned this encounter. She walked with short, brisk steps, holding the bag with the sari and not looking at him. He found himself matching her steps. He knew she lived in the opposite direction, toward Baghbazar. They were repeatedly separated by other pedestrians, and every time they joined up again, Deepak had nothing to say. The sun, about to set, cast a pink glow on the buildings. The crowd thinned once they reached New Road, near his office, where Deepak felt compelled to say, “Where are you going?”

  “You?”

  “Just walking around.” He told her he had left his car at the Annapurna Hotel.

  “It’s a beautiful evening,” she said. She was attempting a smile.

  “Are you going to wear that sari to the office?”

  “You want me to?”

  He nodded.

  “Then I will.”

  Together, they went toward the office. Now she walked close to him, the bag held to her chest, her shoulder occasionally touching his. He opened the door to the office and thought, This is crazy. Once inside, they immediately walked into his office. She looked at Jill’s paintings on the wall as if she had never noticed them before. He sat in his chair and watched her.

  “She’s not that good,’’ Bandana-ji said.

  “She’s talented.”

  She came to him and sat on his lap, still holding the bag. “Deepak Misra,” she whispered. Deepak put his hand on her back. There wasn’t enough flesh between each vertebra. He pulled her face toward him, kissed her on the lips, lightly, then with more force. His hand went to her breasts, so small that he could scarcely feel them. She responded with vigor, darting her tongue inside his mouth while her palms held his head. “Deepak Misra,” she whispered again. When he found himself groping for the gap between her thighs, he became aware of the absurdity of the situation and gently pushed her aside. He opened a file and bent his head.

  “You’re thinking about her,” she said accusingly.

  “Who?” He brushed his hair with his fingers and sat up straight.

  “Your American wife.”

  Deepak shook his head. “I’m going to leave now.”

  “She’ll hurt you. You want that?”

  “Bandana-ji,” he said, “this is unbelievable. If you don’t mind my saying so, it is none of your business.”

  She stood before him, her arms crossed over her scrawny chest. She started to speak, but when he said, “Don’t,” she stopped.

  “I think of you all the time, Deepak Misra,” she said softly.

  Deepak, not knowing how to respond, smiled.

  “I can give you much more than she will.”

  Deepak stepped toward the door, but she was in the way.

  “I thought she had gone back to her country.” Her small eyes behind her glasses were filling with tears.

  He put his hand on her shoulder. “This shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “You are my secretary.”

  On the drive home, Deepak was troubled by what he had done with Bandana-ji. Now she was acting as if she were competing with Jill.

  Deepak took home some Chinese food and listened to the sarod-playing of Amjad Ali Khan, another of Jill’s favorites. She was crazy about Indian classical music. When Deepak first met her at the party, she had talked about how she loved Nepal and India (Nepal more than India, she assured him), how she got ideas for her paintings by just walking the streets of Kathmandu and gazing at the carvings on the temples. Deepak had found her charming, although she was like many of the Nepal-crazy foreigners he knew, people who lived in the country in a romantic haze, love-struck by the mountain beauty and simple charms of the people, but grossly naive about their suffering.

  Later during the party, he found her in an upstairs bedroom, lying on the floor, her eyes closed, listening to the sitar-playing of Ravi Shanker. There was something about her, the way her blond hair fell about her face in disarray, the way her nose twitched when the music took a turn, that made him sit beside her and study her face. A while later she opened her eyes, started to say something, then merely smiled at him.

  After they were married, he discovered that she lived in a space inside her mind that he could not reach. When they returned from their honeymoon in Pokhara, she concentrated so much on her painting that he believed she wouldn’t even notice if he left. At social gatherings, she mingled with other guests with an ease that was alien to him. He had always been shy, and he felt abandoned when she left his side to talk with her friends. She became increasingly critical of his mannerisms, of his taste. “You didn’t even smile at him when I introduced you,” or “You call that a suit?” Her criticism hurt him, and before long he struck back, mocking her friends, calling them superficial, making negative comments about her paintings, criticizing her lack of cooking skill. He didn’t want to, and he suffered pangs of self-loathing. So he began spending more time at work, for he loved her, and he couldn’t abide the way she wounded him with her words. Often when he reached home at night, she was at a party. When she returned, she’d slip into bed without a word, and he was left staring at the ceiling. After a few months, she told him she was not happy. He held her, caressed her face, refusing to believe they couldn’t be intimate again.

  The morning she left, two years ago, he got up around six o’clock, just as the sun was rising, and saw the empty bed beside him. Although for the rest of the day he pretended that she was visiting friends, he knew that she had left him. What Deepak remembered most clearly about that morning was that the neighbor’s cat, who always came into their house and cuddled up beside Jill, was sitting on the windowsill, staring at him, its green eyes eerie in the dim light. When he reached out to stroke its fur, it shrank back as if it were fearful of his touch.

  “It’s your wife,” Bandana-ji said as she transferred the call.

  “I need to talk to you,” Jill said.

  “What can I do for you?”

  She told him she was coming over.

  When she appeared at the door, Bandana-ji didn’t look in her direction. Jill, wearing a sari, walked past Bandana-ji and said, “You’re still working for him.” Bandana-ji kept her eyes on the computer screen. She hadn’t yet worn the sari Deepak had bought for her.

  “Is she still strange?” Jill whispered as she sat in front of Deepak.

  He nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me you were checking out of the hotel?” She was wearing the gold necklace he’d given her for their wedding. Her earlobes were weighted with heavy earrings, and she’d pulled her hair back so that her smooth cheeks shone under the office lights.

  “Didn’t have time,” she said. “Birendra offered me a room in his apartment.” She’d lost money in the casino, and now, since she didn’t want to stay with Birendra, she needed to borrow money from Deepak.

  “The house is still there,” he said.

  “I can’t stay with you, Deepak.”

  Deepak went to the window. On the street below, two drivers were arguing, and traffic had stalled. He knew she was using him, yet he couldn’t bring himself to say no. He opened the safe in the corner, extracted ten thousand rupees, and handed them to her.

  “I’ll return this soon.”

  He waved a hand in the air and became conscious that Bandana-ji was watching them through the glass. “Let’s go for lunch,” he said to Jill.

  They went to a nearby restaurant, and Jill told him that Birendra wanted to sleep with her. “The other night
he just slipped into my bed,” she said. “Nepali men, you know. Either you’re a mother, a sister, an aunt, or you’re a whore.”

  Deepak laughed, and she, apparently pleased to see him happy, laughed with him. Before they parted, he demanded she promise to call him as soon as she found an apartment.

  On his return to the office, he found the door locked. Inside, on Bandana-ji’s desk, was a note: “I am not feeling well.” Finally some time off, Deepak thought.

  The next morning Bandana-ji came to the office wearing the pink sari and a matching pink blouse. “How different you look,” he said. He wasn’t sure someone so dark should wear such a light, buoyant color. He also noted a trace of lipstick on her lips, and was reminded of the story of the crow who wanted to become a swan.

  Deepak asked her to stay after closing to finish some important documents that had to be mailed the next day. She came into his office, and they were cross-checking some numbers when he reached up and touched her lips. As the lipstick smudged his fingertips, he told her, “This color really suits you, Bandana-ji.” She smiled, and suddenly Deepak felt his head become lighter. She bent toward him. “Deepak Misra,” she whispered. “Every night in bed, you come and settle in my heart.” They kissed, and his hands roamed her body. He unbuttoned her blouse, pushed up her bra, and began to suck her breasts. She helped him undress, and as he sat ridiculously naked on the Tibetan carpet, his penis firm and standing like the tower of Dharahara, she carefully took off her sari and petticoat but left her glasses on. She reminded him of a stork as she stood in front of him, her palms feebly covering her breasts. She smiled shyly, like a bride, and he felt a surge of happiness.

  When he entered her, she kept repeating, “Oooohhhmmm,” which sounded a lot like Om, the mantra for Lord Shiva, and it made him laugh, which made her laugh. Deepak’s erection grew stronger by the minute. He was alive, as if the cells inside his body had awakened from sleep.

  They had sex in the office once a week. Deepak became convinced that he had never before experienced such pleasure. Although sex with Jill had been satisfactory, she liked to talk about her paintings while he was inside her, and that bothered him. It excited her to talk like that, she said. But Bandana-ji gave him her complete attention, and the sweetness that entered his heart lasted for a couple of hours after they climaxed. They lay on the carpet, and she fell asleep, her head tucked neatly on his chest. Each time the pleasant feeling passed, however, and Deepak would get up abruptly, overcome by guilt and loathing. She would ask, “What happened?” and he would quietly put on his clothes and leave, without uttering a word.

  For the few days between, they were boss and secretary again, but she came to be more and more beautiful to Deepak. Even the disfigurement on her face appeared to him a beauty mark, enhancing her appearance.

  At Jill’s housewarming party, Deepak sat with a glass of whiskey and watched Jill and Birendra whispering in the corner, like lovers. There were roughly a dozen people in the room, most of them expatriates working as artists or journalists in Kathmandu. Earlier, he had talked with a few of them, but he was bored with their incessant complaints about the Nepalese bureaucracy. When they went on like that, he wondered why they chose to live in a country they only found fault with.

  Birendra was laughing at something Jill said, and, the whiskey warming his neck, Deepak walked over. They continued as if he weren’t there.

  “Excuse me,” Deepak said. “May I talk to my wife alone?” He sounded belligerent, but he didn’t care.

  “Wife?” Jill laughed.

  “We’re not divorced yet,” Deepak said.

  Birendra looked at him with a smirk. “Deepak-ji, you’re quite a man.”

  Deepak took a sip and glowered at Birendra, trying to think of something cutting to say.

  “My Deepak,” Jill said. “He’s so sensitive. He should have been the artist, not me.” Today she was wearing a Punjabi salwar-kameez, and her dirty-blond hair spilled down her back.

  “I must talk to you,” he said.

  “Okay.” She walked out on the balcony, and he followed. The city lights spread out before them.

  “How long are you going to continue with him?” he asked.

  “Why do you want to know, Deepak Misra-ji?”

  “Can’t we—”

  “It’s hopeless, Deepak. You’re insisting on something that’s not possible.”

  “Why?” he said, his voice higher.

  “There was a reason I left. We were both unhappy.”

  “Then why are you here?”

  “You don’t have a monopoly on this city,” she said, throwing back her hair.

  He was ashamed. They stood in silence for a while. Then she put her hand on his arm and said gently, “Let’s go back inside.”

  Deepak left the party a short while later and wandered through the streets. His throat was parched from the alcohol. Then he started walking toward Baghbazar. The address was somewhere in the back of his mind, and he found the house, located off the main street. He stood in front of the three-story building, wondering whether he should knock on the bottom door, when he looked up and saw Bandana-ji in the second-floor window. Only her head and shoulders were visible, but he could see that she was wearing the pink sari and blouse. She glanced down and spotted him. When their eyes met, she stood still. She smiled, and he hurried away, his heart throbbing.

  The next day Deepak decided that he couldn’t go to the office. Over the phone he gave instructions to Bandana-ji, who didn’t mention having seen him standing outside her apartment. For four days he stayed in bed until late in the morning, then got up and listened to music. In the evening he drank whiskey and walked around the house, looking at photographs of himself and Jill or of Jill alone. On the fourth afternoon, while he was listening to ghazals by Jagjit and Chitra Singh, the famous husband-and-wife singers, the doorbell rang. There was Bandana-ji, clutching some files. “I need your signature,” she said.

  As his sofa was piled up with his dirty clothes, something he kept telling himself to take care of, they sat on the living room carpet, where he signed the papers. It occurred to him he hadn’t heard Bandana-ji clear her throat since they’d started making love. As he sat there, his head bent over the papers, she started to quietly sing along with Jagjit and Chitra Singh. She had a beautiful voice, and he stopped writing and listened. She smiled as she sang:

  If separated after meeting, we won’t sleep at night.

  Thinking of each other, we’ll cry at night.

  He turned the volume down so that he could hear her more clearly. The words penetrated his skin, and he closed his eyes. When her voice went higher, he felt a shaft of pleasure enter his ears and run down his body. With his eyes closed, Deepak imagined the voice belonging to a different body, someone with a long neck, large deerlike eyes, and an aquiline nose. Then he imagined it belonging to Jill, and he saw her pale face as her tongue played with the words. Her hand reached out and caressed his face, then started unbuttoning his shirt. He opened his eyes and let Bandana-ji undress him. He undressed her, his throat dry with anticipation. She kept singing even when he entered her.

  Deepak stayed in bed for days, sometimes reading, sometimes staring at the ceiling, often drifting into sleep. In the evening he got up, put on ghazals, and slowly drank himself into oblivion.

  Every few days Bandana-ji came with papers for him to sign. Eventually he stopped asking questions about the office; he just took out his pen and signed what she handed him. Then he waited for her to sing. When he heard her voice, his body moved as though under a tender massage. The warmth spread from the bottom of his spine to the top of his head, and he arched his neck to hold on to the sensation.

  The phone rang constantly. People buzzed the doorbell and knocked loudly. Once he heard Jill calling, “Deepak, what’s the matter? Open up.” But he opened the door only for Bandana-ji, after peering through the curtains to make sure it was she. When she told him that some clients were irritated by his absence, he said, “Te
ll them I’ve gone to Singapore for a conference.” And when he finished his stock of whiskey, he drove to a nearby shop and bought two cases. Every hour without Bandana-ji was a long stretch of boredom, and he constantly thought of the pregnant woman on her face, the bones of her hips.

  One afternoon, with Bandana-ji on top of him on the carpet, humming, Deepak saw someone move past the window curtains toward the back of the house. There was a creak, and he knew that someone had opened the back door, which he had forgotten to lock the night before. He recognized the footsteps as Jill’s. Then Deepak saw her legs at the entrance of the living room, and looked at Bandana-ji. Although her eyes were closed, Deepak knew that she was aware of Jill’s presence. What a sight, Deepak thought: the whole house smelling of alcohol, and he, on the carpet, straddled by Bandana-ji. Deepak moaned, and their movement became quicker until they climaxed. As Bandana-ji’s head came to rest on his chest, Deepak turned his head and saw the empty space where Jill had been a moment ago.

  His pleasure was mixed with a strange satisfaction, as if he had won a battle he’d been fighting for days. But that didn’t last long. After Bandana-ji left, he became filled with self-loathing. He drank so much that he bumped into tables and lamps. In the living room he picked up a large photograph of Jill and, after glancing at it briefly, set it back, face down. He did the same with other pictures of her. He felt Jill was laughing at him.

  Despite all the whiskey, Deepak couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night he got up and took a cold shower, made himself a cup of tea, and sat in the living room, looking out the window into the darkness. He could hear the frogs outside, and their melodic croaking calmed his nerves. As the darkness gave way to a gray light, and the birds started chirping, his head cleared, and he reached a decision, a painful one.

  The next day, his body tired but his mind fresh, Deepak asked Bandana-ji to submit her resignation. She didn’t protest. She went to her desk, entered something into the computer, and came back into his office. He had a stack of money in front of him, much more than what he owed her, but she carefully counted the money and took only what was due her. He wanted to say that he was sorry, but the only thing he could do was stare at the rest of the money on the desk.

 
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