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Arresting god in kathman.., p.6

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 6


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  It took him less than a week to hire another secretary, a short older woman with a loud voice. She wasn’t as efficient as Bandana-ji, but she caught on fast, and her phone manner was impeccable for someone with such a booming voice. For about a week, Deepak’s life acquired a semblance of normality again. The pleasure he had experienced with Bandana-ji now seemed unreal.

  But this sense of control soon gave way to restlessness, a feeling of emptiness. He began to compare his current state to the rapture he had experienced when Bandana-ji sang to him. His everyday life was so lacking in color that he worried that something had happened to his brain. When he went to Jill’s apartment for another party, this time a celebration of a solo exhibition in the city, she was no longer attractive to him. He wondered why he had so desperately wanted her back in his life. It was evident that Jill and Birendra were lovers now, for they held hands throughout the party, their bodies close to each other.

  One afternoon, a small boy delivered a package to Deepak at the office, and in it he discovered the pink sari. He picked it up and smelled it. It no longer bore her smell, that odor of cooking oil, so he assumed it had been cleaned. After work, he drove to Baghbazar and, with the package in his hand, knocked on the bottom door. An old lady told him that Bandana-ji had moved out, and that an Indian family now lived in her flat. No, she didn’t know where Bandana-ji had gone. The old lady shook her head, revealing toothless gums as she smiled. “She was a strange one,” she said. “She didn’t talk to anyone.” She paused, and a wistful look came over her face. “But she sang beautifully. It can only be God’s blessing.”

  It was getting dark. Deepak decided to leave his car and walk around the block. There were many sari shops in the area, and he peered into each one as he walked past, the pink sari package in his hand, with the absurd hope that Bandana-ji might be buying another. The street was half-lit with shoplights, as there were no street lamps above. Whenever he saw a thin woman in a shop, he stopped to see whether it was Bandana-ji. At one point, he heard a woman clear her throat, and followed her for a short distance.

  He walked the streets until he lost his bearings. His fingers were moist from clutching the package. By this time many shopkeepers had closed their doors and turned off the lights. After about an hour, he realized that he had walked all the way to Kupondole, past the Bagmati Bridge, which separated the cities of Kathmandu and Patan. He sat on the steps of a closed shop near a bus stop and listened to music coming from a stereo shop around the corner. Soon he recognized the voices of Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh, and he walked to the shop. A small man inside smiled at him. Deepak stood outside, listening.

  This night I have to stay awake till dawn:

  My fate is etched like this.

  Sorrow has entered my heart.

  Stars, why don’t you fall asleep?

  He closed his eyes, and in a moment he realized the voice he was hearing was Bandana-ji’s, not those of the famous singers. And he saw her face, the pregnant woman on her cheek. Arching his neck, Deepak waited for the sensation of bliss to enter his body.

  The Limping Bride

  “GET HIM MARRIED,” Rudra said. “Once he has a wife, he’ll come to his senses.”

  “Who’d marry him?” Hiralal said. “The whole city knows he’s a drunkard.”

  They were smoking, sitting in Rudra’s rice-and-beans shop in the neighborhood. Hiralal dragged on his Yak cigarette, and Rudra smoked from the chilim, making gurgling sounds as he sucked on the long thin pipe. Hiralal and Rudra had grown up in the same neighborhood, attended the same school a few blocks away, and had teased the same girls. Over the years, as his business prospered, Rudra had grown fat, and now he sat in his shop all day, groaning whenever he had to get up to scoop rice for a customer.

  “We’ll find someone,” he said.

  “I don’t know,” Hiralal replied. The sun was setting, and he could hear voices haggling at the nearby vegetable market. It was always in the evening that Hiralal most missed Rammaya. From his window he’d see her in the courtyard, combing her long black hair under the mild winter sun. She’d tilt her head as she combed the coconut-scented Dabur Anwla oil through her hair. Occasionally she’d look up at him, and he’d say something like, “Aren’t you going to come up?” She’d shake her head and go back to her combing. When she did finally come upstairs, he’d hover around her, just to smell her hair.

  A woman came in to buy some mung beans, and after she left, Rudra said, “Why don’t I ask my wife to find someone? Anyone. I think the important thing is to get him married.”

  Hiralal knew what Rudra meant by “anyone.” It meant they’d have to find a girl with a blemish on her face, one with pockmarks, a girl whose parents wouldn’t mind giving her away in haste—even to a drunkard. But Moti was getting out of control. Hiralal could imagine Moti lying on the street, face down, a patch of blood and vomit next to his head. He didn’t know where Moti found the money for his drinking; he probably relied on friends, sons of local merchants. Perhaps he even borrowed money from them. Moti had held a few jobs, mostly menial, but never for long; either his employers fired him or he simply stopped going to work. Now, at nineteen, he staggered through the streets, his eyes red and puffy, speaking to strangers in a slurred voice, stumbling into the alleys of Jaisideval whenever he came across his father.

  Hiralal said okay to Rudra.

  The drinking had begun when Moti was seventeen. He stayed out late and came home with alcohol on his breath. At first, Hiralal and Rammaya merely scolded him. But when he took up drinking in the afternoon, Hiralal had had enough. One evening when Moti arrived home swaying and staggering, Hiralal cut a branch from a tree in the garden and whacked his son’s legs. “You think you’re a big man.”

  Rammaya, cooking in the kitchen, rushed down the stairs and stood in front of Moti, her arms outstretched. “Don’t you dare hit our son,” she told Hiralal. Their first child had died of pneumonia when she was six months old, which propelled Rammaya into a depression that lifted only when Moti was born. “You hit him again,” Rammaya had told Hiralal, “and I will leave you.”

  For two days Moti stayed home, teetering around the house, a surly expression on his face whenever he ran into his father. Then, once he was steady on his feet, he returned to the neighborhood bhatti, a dark bar with tables and benches and a counter displaying fly-infested meat snacks. Hiralal and Rammaya tried talking to him calmly, and Moti listened, sometimes nodding, sometimes raising his eyes—large, like his mother’s—to look at his parents. “Do you promise not to drink?” Hiralal asked his son, and Moti said, “I promise.” Later that night, in bed, Rammaya said, “He won’t do it again. I know my son.” But the next day, after work, Hiralal peered into the bhatti, and there was Moti, his head against the wall, his eyes closed. As Hiralal stood in the doorway, the anger rising inside him, one of Moti’s friends nudged the boy. He opened his eyes, saw his father, and scrambled to get up, spilling the glass of raksi in front of him. Swaying as he stood, he said, “Ba?” as if he were asking Hiralal a question. Hiralal grabbed him by the right ear, and dragged him home, not saying a word, ignoring the looks of the pedestrians who stopped to see what was happening. At home, he took Moti to Rammaya in the kitchen, and said, “You said you knew your son.”

  When it became clear that Moti would not stop drinking, Rammaya again became depressed. Hiralal did not understand why Moti drank, and asked himself whether Moti felt something absent from his life. Both Hiralal and Rammaya had doted on their son. It occurred to Hiralal that perhaps that was the problem: perhaps they had pampered him. They were never able to say no to him, even when he demanded things they could barely afford: a large toy ship when he was seven, a brand-new Chinese bicycle when he was twelve, a trip to the Indian border to watch movies with his friends when he was fifteen. If Moti didn’t get what he wanted, he threw a fit, and Hiralal and Rammaya would succumb. Their giving in to their son’s every demand, Hiralal now thought, had turned Moti into a needy teenager, som
eone who felt insecure when faced with the rejections and disappointments of the larger world. Even as a teenager Moti had clung to Rammaya and sought her protection when he couldn’t deal with his father’s anger.

  “It’s not our fault,” Hiralal told Rammaya. “People do what’s etched on their foreheads at birth.” He enumerated for her the children from good families who’d gone astray: his cousin Bhola’s young daughter, who had eloped with a truck driver; their neighbor Horn’s son, who languished in jail for the murder of a police inspector; Rammaya’s own niece, who was rumored to be working as a prostitute in the city’s luxury hotels.

  But Rammaya could not be consoled. She moved around the house slowly and took longer to do her household duties. In bed, she hardly spoke to Hiralal, and sometimes when he woke in the middle of the night, he found her sitting, staring up at the ceiling.

  One morning she complained of a headache, and within a week she was gone. “Meningitis,” the doctors said. It was as if someone had sucked the breath right out of Hiralal’s body. And no tears came. He tried to cry, but his eyes only burned.

  After Rammaya’s ashes floated away on the Bagmati River, Moti’s drinking became worse. He went to the bhatti in the morning and stayed until it closed. Sometimes Hiralal heard him crying in his room. One morning Hiralal went to him and asked, “You miss your mother?”

  Moti looked at his father with cloudy eyes and said, “Ma comes to me in my dreams.”

  Hiralal smiled. “She never comes to me. She must love you more than she loves me.” All day long it bothered him that he hadn’t dreamed of Rammaya since she died.

  A week later, Rudra’s wife offered a proposal. A beautiful girl’s parents were looking for a groom for their daughter. Hiralal waited for the bad news. “She has a slight limp in her left leg,” Rudra’s wife said. Hiralal sighed. This was not what he had imagined for his son. “But she’s very beautiful,” Rudra’s wife added. “And a very good girl. She’ll take care of Moti. Bring him around.”

  Hiralal looked at the framed picture of Rammaya by his bedside. Would she have even considered this? “Moti has to agree,” he said to Rudra’s wife. “Do the girls’ parents—?”

  “They know,” she said. “But they’re anxious to find someone for their daughter.” Before leaving, she told Hiralal, “I’ll bring a photograph tomorrow. The parents were unwilling to give me a picture unless you were interested.”

  Hiralal was grateful to her for acting as a lami—the middle woman—for Moti, but he felt bad for the girl’s parents, having to settle for their daughter’s marrying a drunkard. But what else could they do? Let their daughter be mocked by neighbors and relatives all through her life? Hiralal knew how his society viewed such matters: better to have an alcoholic son-in-law than no son-in-law.

  The next morning, after getting dressed for work, Hiralal went to Moti’s room and had to shake his son a few times before he opened his eyes.

  “There’s a proposal for you,” Hiralal said.

  Moti sunk his face in the pillow. “Ba, I’m sleeping.”

  “A beautiful girl. From a very good family.”

  Moti turned his head. “What are you talking about?”

  “I’m saying that you should get married. And we’ve found the right girl for you.”

  Moti laughed. “Where’s this talk coming from?”

  Hiralal didn’t know how to answer. “Is this how you’re going to spend your life? Getting drunk, no job, no school?”

  “Please, Ba, I have a headache.”

  “Oh, really? I wonder why.”

  Moti again buried his face in the pillow.

  “I’ll arrange for a viewing.”

  “Do what you want,” Moti said in a muffled voice. “I’m not getting married.”

  “We’ll see about that.”

  On the bus to Jawalakhel, Hiralal puzzled over how to persuade Moti to come to the viewing. Over the past months, Hiralal had been remembering how, as a child, Moti liked to tour the city with him on Saturdays. They’d go to Patan, stroll in the square, with its intricately carved temples and the curio shops where foreigners bought small replicas of city monuments. They’d go to the Balaju Garden, with its twenty-two stone spouts gushing water, watch men bathe in their white underwear, women wash gigantic mounds of clothes. In Budhanilkantha, at the northern edge of the valley, they’d circle the huge statue of Vishnu reclining on a bed of snakes. Moti’s favorite place was the Swayambhunath Temple, perched on a hillock to the west. They would climb a steep staircase to the top, and Hiralal would have trouble catching up to Moti, who’d bound up the stairs like one of the hundreds of monkeys that roamed the temple complex. When they reached the top, Moti’s face would be flushed, and he’d rush to the lookout that opened on a breathtaking view of the valley. Moti loved to identify the city landmarks: the royal palace, with its strange curves; the large Tundikhel field, which now looked like a small green patch between the buildings; the Dharahara tower, standing like a white pencil. “Our house is there,” Moti would say, his finger struggling to pinpoint the exact location of Jaisideval in the cluster of houses far away.

  Hiralal worked as a driver for a rich Marwari businessman, Chaudhari saheb, who owned shops and restaurants in the city and two distilleries in the outskirts of the valley. Hiralal had been working for him for nearly twenty-five years, shuttling Chaudhari saheb in a Toyota Corolla between his shops and factories. Chaudhari saheb had treated Hiralal well, giving him bonuses during the Dashain Festival and the New Year, but he had one habit that annoyed Hiralal: he was a back-seat driver. When Hiralal became really annoyed, he would say, “I’ve been driving for years, hujoor.” Chaudhari saheb would grimace and say, “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful.”

  This evening Hiralal was tired. In Thapathali, Chaudhari saheb had shouted, “A bus to your right,” directly into Hiralal’s ear, making his head ring. Later, when Hiralal swerved too close to another car, Chaudhari saheb let out a series of grunts, like an animal. Hiralal had half a mind to stop the car and ask Chaudhari saheb to drive while he sat back and offered advice. As it was, driving in Kathmandu had become increasingly nerve-wracking. Hiralal was always having to avoid ricksaw-pullers, pedestrians who crossed the street with abandon, reckless taxis, bus drivers who smirked as they tried to run him off the road, government cars that cruised as if they owned the road, and village idiots who waited until the last possible minute to jump in front of him.

  But Hiralal’s exhaustion vanished when Rudra’s wife came to his house to show him the picture of the girl. She was indeed beautiful, with large, kind eyes and a slim nose. “She looks like a good girl,” he said to Rudra’s wife, who responded, “She’s a very good girl.” She was a year younger than Moti, she added, and a perfect match. “Of course, you’ll have to drive it into his head that his old ways cannot continue, or the girl’s life will be destroyed.”

  Hiralal debated whether to tell Rudra’s wife that Moti still needed to be convinced. But she might take that for a no and stop the negotiations. After all, her reputation as the middle woman was at stake. “He’ll come around,” Hiralal said, and kept the photograph to show to Moti.

  Late that night when Moti came home, Hiralal took a plate of dal-bhat to his room.

  “I’m not hungry,” Moti said. He was struggling to get into his pajamas. The room reeked of cheap liquor.

  “You have to eat something. With all that drinking—”

  “Ba, I already ate.” He sat on the bed.

  Hiralal sat beside him and held up the picture. “Here, take a look”

  Moti gave his father a quizzical glance and then laughed. “You don’t give up, do you? I told you.”

  “Just take a look.”

  Moti nodded at the picture and said, “No.”

  “Look closely. See how beautiful she is.”

  “Ba . . .” Moti started to say something, then took the picture and peered at it. Hiralal, watching his face closely, thought Moti’s drunken eyes
lit up. “She’s okay,” Moti said after a moment.

  “So, I’ll arrange for a viewing?”

  “As I said before, I’m not getting married. I’ll go for your sake, but I won’t marry her.”

  Hiralal put his arm around Moti. “Son, she’s a good girl. You’ll get married, get a job, I’ll have grandchildren.”

  Moti chuckled. “I’m just nineteen, Ba. What will I do with a wife? Just produce grandchildren for you?”

  “What’s the harm in looking? If you don’t like her, you’ll say no.”

  Moti leaned back on his elbows.

  “Think of your mother,” Hiralal said. “This is what she’d have wanted.”

  After a moment, Moti said, “All right, I’ll look. But I’m warning you, be prepared for a no.”

  Hiralal left the picture by the bedside.

  He couldn’t sleep that night. This was the girl meant for Moti. After he saw her sweet face, Moti would change his ways. At two o’clock, Hiralal turned on the light and looked at the framed photograph of Rammaya hanging on the wall next to the bed. She was wearing a traditional Nepali shawl, the khasto, her broad face smiling at the camera, her hand holding the brass plate she used when she went to a temple, her forehead marked with vermilion paste. Hiralal remembered when the picture was taken. She had just come back from the Kathmandu Geneshthan, the temple of the elephant god, only a short distance from their house, and Moti, then sixteen, asked her to pose in front of the garden in the courtyard. A few weeks before, Moti had seen the camera in a shop and had relentlessly pestered Hiralal to buy it for him. When Hiralal pointed out that it cost three thousand rupees, an entire month’s salary, Moti went to his room and slammed the door. When he didn’t eat for two days, Rammaya sold her gold ring and handed the money to Hiralal. She refused to listen to his objection and said, “He’s our only son.”

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