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Mad country, p.6

Mad Country, page 6

 

Mad Country
 


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  The bank was in a row of commercial buildings across the street from another row of commercial buildings. It was a popular bank, one that ran radio and TV commercials day and night, and its advertisement jingle was also a hit:

  Sano Bank

  Our Own Bank

  Warm like a home, this bank

  Always in service, like a riverbank

  Ramesh scoped out the bank. He walked back and forth in front of it, but not so much that it aroused the suspicion of the guard, who stood at the entrance with an old rifle. The guard had an ancient mustache, thick and drooping. He was not scary. The trick was to get the gun in. Customers had to go through a metal detector, but Ramesh knew the metal detector didn’t work. On his previous visit, when the fat lady had given him a hard time, he’d been behind a man from whose bag the guard had extracted a small khukuri after the man went through the metal detector. The knife was about a few inches long, the kind one buys as a souvenir, a smaller version of an actual khukuri. The guard had questioned the man, who had become annoyed. “This piddling knife—do you think I’m going to rob your bank with it? If you’re that worried, why didn’t your metal detector catch it?” Faced with the man’s anger, the guard had become apologetic and said that the metal detector didn’t work. It needed to be replaced, but the bank didn’t have any money. The man and the guard had a good laugh about a bank not having money.

  But to this day the metal detector hadn’t been changed. The guard still carefully inspected the customer’s bags before letting them through. How to get the gun past him? Ramesh finally came up with a solution.

  Tuesday was a hot day, with the forecast that it was going to get hotter. Ramesh went to the bank. He carried with him a bag, and wore a tracksuit and tennis shoes. He also carried a tennis racket. The guard patted him down, then sifted through his bag. He extracted a towel, a lotion, and a T-shirt. “What is this?” he asked, his fingers digging deeper into the bag.

  “Oh, my tennis balls are in there.”

  “But why can’t I take them out? I can feel them.”

  “It’s a secret compartment.”

  “I need to see them.”

  Ramesh turned the bag inside out, unzipped the secret compartment and extracted a tennis ball. The guard took one, sniffed it, squeezed it, then bounced it on the floor, repeatedly, to verify its bounciness. “How much do these cost?”

  “They’re about a hundred rupees each.”

  The guard raised his eyebrows. “How much does the bat cost?” He picked up the racket and slammed it against his palm.

  “About three thousand rupees.”

  “How many more balls do you have in there?”

  “Five or six.”

  The guard again dug into the bag. His fingers spent some time there, like he was fondling his own balls. “Why do you keep them hidden?”

  “People steal them.”

  The guard handed him the bag and indicated he could go in.

  Ramesh feigned anger. “I come to this bank often after my tennis practice. Will you be harassing me every time I come, waste my time like this?”

  “It’s my job, babu.”

  “Well, now that you know what’s hidden in that bag, will I have to show you its innards again?”

  The guard looked around and whispered, “Now I recognize your face. It’s no problem.”

  Ramesh adopted a pleased expression and took out a hundred-rupee note and slipped it to the guard. “The issue is, dai, I don’t have time, so please. Okay? Next time no search, okay?”

  Except that on Ramesh’s next visit, there would be a gun in the secret compartment.

  The guard indicated for him to go in and winked.

  Inside, there were four tellers behind the glass partitions at the counter. The fat lady with the enormous lips was there. When their eyes met, something shifted in the fat lady’s face. Her expression became focused, like she’d spotted an enemy. Ramesh noticed something else: another guard inside, standing against the wall, watching customers. This second guard hadn’t been here the last time. Then Ramesh remembered the recent string of bank robberies in the city. This second guard was sure to put a crimp in Ramesh’s plan when he came here on the big day. Ramesh might end up in a struggle with him, which wasn’t how he wanted to perform this. This guard was not mustachioed, which Ramesh read to mean that he had no false bravado. He was the real deal. He was lean and thin, with a tough-looking chin. The type who didn’t suffer fools gladly, who despised inefficiency, who left no mess. The man didn’t drink or smoke—Ramesh knew this instinctively. And judging from his eyes that roved from customer to customer, he took his job seriously.

  The guard’s eyes landed on Ramesh, then flitted toward the fat lady. Something passed between them. It was as if she’d already talked to the guard about him, given him Ramesh’s description.

  Ramesh stood in line. There were about five people in front of him. Ramesh felt a change in the air at his back, and without turning he knew that the guard had moved away from the wall and had come closer. There were only three bank tellers today, including the fat lady. Although she was open, she had her eyes fixed on Ramesh instead of the customer at the front of the line, who was looking at her expectantly.

  One of the other two tellers left his station, so now there were only two tellers. The customer at the front of the line finally called out to the fat lady, “Aren’t you open? May I come?” Without taking her eyes off Ramesh, the fat lady gestured toward the remaining teller, who was engaged.

  The customer who’d addressed her turned to others waiting behind him. “Even when they’re open, they’re not really open. There’s a limit to laziness.” He was supported by a chorus of voices—“It’s craziness, not laziness,” “The customer is not a king here but an untouchable”—that became quiet once the third teller returned to his station. Then the line rapidly moved forward, and Ramesh was at the front.

  The fat lady called to him, “Please come here.” He pretended not to hear and kept his eyes focused on the teller next to her. “I said, please come here.”

  “She’s open now,” the customer behind Ramesh said. “Go, go!”

  “I thought you were not open,” Ramesh said.

  The guard was at his elbow. “Please go to her.”

  Ramesh reluctantly approached her window. The guard went with him and stood a couple of feet behind.

  The fat lady was looking at him impassively. “For what purpose have you come?”

  “I need to take out some money.”

  An internal smile passed through her face, like a small breeze that, unless one was a vigilante and knew what to look for, could go undetected. “How much?”

  “Five lakh rupees.” He didn’t know whether the account had that big an amount—he assumed it had—but right now he wanted to throw her off guard.

  At his mention of five lakh rupees, he heard an audible sucking of breath behind him from the guard.

  Through an image that zipped inside his mind like lightning, he saw them: the fat lady and the teetotaler guard embracing in a dingy flat, he sucking on her enormous lips. These two were lovers. How could Ramesh have missed it? She’d told the guard about the boy who gave her a hard time on what was most likely the guard’s day off. “Some Richie Rich,” she told him, caressing his bony chest, and he must have said to her, “I will break his mouth.” Then they made love. There was a physical connection between the two, the guard and the fat lady—Ramesh could smell it in the air between them, a whiff of animal sex. He’d smelled something similar when his stepfather had emerged from the shadows during his visit to his mother’s house.

  “Five lakh rupees?” the fat lady said. She looked past him to the guard.

  Just let her try to do something funny again, Ramesh thought. I’m going to bring the house down. I’m going to create such a ruckus that it’ll be written up in the pa
pers. Ramesh might, if it came down to it, even announce that the fat lady and the guards were lovers. Do you allow sexual relationships between your employees? he’d loudly ask the manager. Perhaps you even encourage it?

  “Have you brought your check?”

  He took out his checkbook, wrote one to “self,” and quickly signed it on the counter in front of her, then pushed it toward her. She picked it up with both hands and lifted it up, even higher than eye level, as though she were scrutinizing it for some invisible ink. She didn’t speak. He then understood that she was showing the check to the guard behind him.

  “There’s no loop in the Y today,” Ramesh said. “But it’s me.”

  “No problem,” she said. She put down the check and smiled at him. “How is your father?” she asked.

  “My father?”

  “Yes, how is he?”

  “Do you know him?”

  “Let’s say I do.”

  “What does that mean? Either you do or you don’t.”

  “He’s a big man. He might not remember me. But we used to work together a long time ago.”

  This woman working together with this father. Fat chance. “Where?” he asked.

  “Oh, you wouldn’t know. This all happened before you were born. Your father and I . . .” She looked at him meaningfully.

  “Yes, please tell me.”

  “Let’s say your father and I—how shall I put it?”

  “Put it well.”

  “Let’s say we spent some fun moments together. A looong, looong time ago.”

  This woman was half his father’s age, and Ramesh couldn’t ever imagine his father having fun with a woman, let alone a woman like her. She was goading Ramesh. He couldn’t let himself be ruffled.

  “How’s your mother?” Her voice was softer, lower now, only for his ears, but not too low for the guard, who’d stepped closer to catch her words. Anyone looking from the door would probably see three people in collusion, the teller with her incredible lips, a troubled young man with an impossible amount of money, and a guard bent forward, breathing down the young man’s neck.

  Ramesh didn’t respond to the fat lady’s query about his mother.

  “So sad,” the fat lady said, as though intuiting his emotions, “what happened with her.” She looked at him kindly. “Now I hear she has a child of her new beau.”

  That child wears an evil eye tika, he thought, probably to ward off bad gazes from people like you. He wondered if his mother ever put a talismanic tika on his forehead. For some reason he thought she didn’t.

  “But we knew this was coming a long time ago, didn’t we?” the fat lady said.

  “We?”

  “Your father and I. During our heyday. He’d just married your mother then. You were yet to be born. One evening we were drinking in the lobby of a hotel after an event. Like I said, your father and I—well, what’s the point in dwelling on that? But that evening, he said, ‘She’s not a keeper, this one.’ It took me a few seconds to understand whom he was referring to. Your father looked despondent. I prodded him about why he was speaking like that about his wife, and he said, ‘Something about the way she laughs when she’s with other men. She laughs for no reason. When she’s with me, she never laughs for no reason.’ I asked your father whether she already had a lover he’d seen her with, and he shook his head. ‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘But she’ll get herself someone soon. Maybe she’ll even give me a child, a boy, before she moves on.’” The fat lady paused. “And here you are.”

  “Can you cash my check, please?”

  “You know you can talk to me.”

  “Please give me my money so I can go home.”

  She lowered her voice. “You know, you shouldn’t walk around with so much cash.” She beckoned him closer with her hand, and foolishly he leaned into the window so his chest pressed against the counter. “We’ve had cases,” she whispered, “where ruffians loiter outside the bank, sometimes even inside, watching our customers stuff large amounts of cash into their bags, then rob them on their way to their home or office. What you are doing is dangerous.” She brought her face very close to him, and for a moment he thought she was going to kiss him with those huge lips. With dismay he realized that a part of him wanted to taste those lips.

  Breathlessly she continued, “There has even been a case of murder. A young man. Like you. Throat slit in that alley. The same alley that leads to your house.”

  Then things happened very quickly. She reached under the counter and pulled out four stacks of banknotes. She endorsed his check with multicolored stamps in rapid succession: clack, dyab, bhyat. “Give me your bag,” she said, and like a dolt he did. She stuffed the money into his bag, tightened the strings, then called the guard, who didn’t need to be called because he was right behind Ramesh. “Birendra, could you escort this babu home? He’s the son of an old friend.”

  Before Ramesh realized what was happening, his bag with the money was in the hands of the guard, who said, “Follow me,” and strode toward the door.

  “My bag,” Ramesh said weakly and hurried after him.

  “Give my regards to your father,” the fat lady called after him.

  By the time Ramesh exited the main door with its metal detectors, the guard had disappeared into the crowd. “Where did he go?” he shouted at the mustachioed guard.

  “Birendra? He went that way,” the guard said, pointing toward Ramesh’s house.

  Ramesh ran down the street. The sun was intense in the sky. He finally saw the guard’s head bobbing in the distance, among a sea of heads. Without looking back or breaking his stride, the guard raised his arm and waved him forward. Sweating, Ramesh chased after him.

  The guard had disappeared into the chaos of Chuchepati. Ramesh half-ran all the way to Bouddha looking for him, then all the way back to the Ganesh temple. The man had vanished. Ramesh turned around to go to the bank and raise hell.

  But as he waited for a break in the traffic to cross the street, he stopped. What did it matter? The phrase a drop in the ocean came to him. That money was nothing to him. It was not his money; it was his father’s money, and it was a drop in the ocean for his father. His father might not even notice the money gone. Or if he did, he might think that Ramesh somehow spent it. Five lakh rupees! Ramesh could tell him that he lost the money gambling in the casino. His father might get mad, scold Ramesh for being so casual with his money, lecture him about how he, Ramesh’s father, became rich only because he conserved every penny he received. Or Ramesh could tell him that he spent the money on a party he threw for his friends, a party like the one he attended at Suresh’s house, except it was held in a hotel. “I’d always wanted to throw a big party for my friends, Dad,” Ramesh would say in the lazy voice of a rich, spoiled kid, and his father, although outwardly disapproving, would be secretly pleased that his strange son had finally understood what money could do and the moneyed legacy he had inherited.

  His father might say, “Son, why didn’t you tell me that you wanted to throw a party for your friends? I would have thrown a grand party for you right here in our big house.”

  “Would it have been something like the Sapkotas’ party, Dad, with liveried servants and a live band?”

  “Arre! I would have thrown a party even bigger than the Sapkotas’. I would have thrown a party that would have been the talk of the town for weeks.”

  Let the guard and his fat girlfriend enjoy the loot, Ramesh thought, as he stood across the street from the bank, human traffic swarming around him. He wondered if the fat lady was still inside, or if she’d already joined her lover somewhere. Perhaps, breathless and giggly, they were already on a bus headed out of town, the bag with the money held tight between them, stunned at how easily this fortune had landed in their laps through the courtesy of a Richie Rich fool. Enjoy, Ramesh told them in his mind. It was never my wealth to begin with.


  Never my wealth to begin with, he repeated to himself as he went home. At home, in the spaciousness of the hallway and the empty rooms, he reiterated, Never my wealth to begin with. As if to prove to the world what he’d just said, he put on his poor-boy’s clothes. He thought of his mother. Maybe there was a good reason that she left. Maybe things had, for some reason, become unbearable for her, just as—he contemplated his big, cavernous house—they were becoming unbearable for him. Perhaps she was really a poor woman at heart, and had to go away to find her poor-woman’s ways.

  What Will Happen to the Sharma Family

  The Sharma family’s trip to Bombay didn’t go well. The Royal Nepal Airlines plane (before the Royal was taken out of it) started acting funny after half an hour—a strange sound choked the left wing, and the plane began to hiccup—so they had to land in Patna, where the passengers were forced to stay in a hotel for the night. The mishap would have been tolerable had not twenty-one-year-old Nilesh sauntered out of the hotel after dinner to “check out the territory” and within two minutes got mugged in an alley, where two hoodlums pocketed his wristwatch, his gold necklace, and the twenty thousand rupees Indian currency stashed in the inside pocket of the coat he had on that warm evening.

  “I told you to get traveler’s checks,” Mrs. Sharma shrieked when Nilesh came back, his face bruised and the arm of his coat ripped off. Mr. Sharma slapped him, for that was what he often did to his children in situations where he felt helpless.

  Their eighteen-year-old daughter, Nilima, fat and smart, said, “Maybe this is a sign we should turn back.” She had strongly resisted the trip, saying she needed to study for her A-level exams, whereas everyone knew she didn’t want to be away from her Jitendra, who was so stunningly handsome, with a sleek body and a puff of hair on his forehead, that Mr. and Mrs. Sharma often wondered what he saw in their fat daughter. Mrs. Sharma was convinced Jitendra wanted to marry Nilima for her parents’ money, which didn’t make sense as the Sharma family wasn’t super rich. Mr. Sharma thought Jitendra wasn’t right in the head, and that the puff of hair hid an anomaly in his brain.

 
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