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Arresting god in kathman.., p.7

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 7

 

Arresting God in Kathmandu
 


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  Hiralal watched as Rammaya stood next to the white roses and complained as Moti asked her to move this way and that. Moti said, “Smile,” in English, as if he were one of the foreigners who clicked cameras in the nearby Durbar Square temples. When Rammaya smiled, Hiralal couldn’t help smiling himself.

  Hiralal, Moti, and Rammaya’s uncle, an old man with a stoop, went to the girl’s house for the viewing. She was seated, Hiralal noted with relief when they entered the living room.

  A servant brought tea and biscuits, and the girl’s father, a large man with a paunch, said, “Rukmini is our only child.” Hiralal nodded. “Moti is my only son. Our first child, a daughter, died when she was a child.”

  They chatted for a while, and eventually Rukmini’s father said, “Well, I expect Moti babu will get a job once they’re married.”

  “Of course, of course,” Hiralal said. Moti was wearing a suit and had combed his hair, and Hiralal thought he looked handsome except for his eyes, ravaged by all that drinking. Hiralal had pleaded with him not to drink on this important morning, and to his surprise Moti had complied.

  Moti stole glances at Rukmini, who sat beside her mother on the sofa, her eyes focused on the floor. She was wearing a pink sari and matching pink lipstick. Once she briefly lifted her head to catch a glimpse of Moti, and then looked down again. Hiralal noticed that her legs were covered by her sari.

  When they were about to leave, Moti abruptly said, as if to the air in front of him, “It would be good if she and I could talk. Alone.”

  The room became silent.

  “This is not normally done,” Rukmini’s father said.

  Hiralal, though surprised by Moti’s request, said, “What harm will it do? Just for a short time.”

  Rukmini’s father looked at his wife, who nodded. The parents went to the next room, where they waited impatiently, the girl’s father frequently glancing toward the door. After about ten minutes, Moti came out, his face slightly flushed. “Let’s go,” he said to Hiralal.

  “So, what is the decision?” the girl’s father asked.

  Hiralal was about to say that he’d get back to him tomorrow when Moti said, “Yes.”

  All eyes were on him.

  “Everything is all right, then?” Hiralal asked.

  Moti nodded.

  In the taxi, Hiralal said, “What did you talk about?”

  “This and that.” Moti was still avoiding his father’s eyes, as if he were embarrassed.

  “Did she get up to see you off at the door?”

  “Why?”

  “Just asking, wondering what happened.” Hiralal’s heart was beating rapidly. He didn’t want to push this, lest Moti change his mind.

  “So what did you like about her, Moti?” Rammaya’s uncle said with a laugh. “I thought you were not going to marry.”

  Moti smiled.

  Hiralal nudged Rammaya’s uncle to query Moti further.

  “So, what is it? What about her?”

  “She reminds me of—” Moti turned red and shook his head.

  “Who?” Hiralal asked.

  But Moti, looking out the window, didn’t answer.

  During the next few days, Hiralal was beset with anxiety. Every time Moti came home, Hiralal expected him to fly into a rage. To say he’d learned about her limp through someone—a friend, a relative, a stranger who’d whispered to him on the street, “The girl is a langadi.” But Moti apparently hadn’t heard.

  As the day of the wedding approached, Hiralal couldn’t sleep. Once or twice he almost got up and went to tell Moti the truth. But the wedding was already set. Moti was sure to rebel, and the family’s name would be destroyed forever. Rukmini’s father would be humiliated among his relatives and neighbors, and the poor girl would have an even tougher time getting married. When Hiralal did manage to doze off, he woke instantly to his own voice. He suspected he was saying Rammaya’s name.

  On the big day, Moti was dressed in a smart brown suit tailored for the wedding. He had even borrowed cologne from his friend—to hide the stench from his mouth, Hiralal was certain—and a faint aroma of musk hovered around him. Surprisingly, Moti was steady in his movements, and he joked with his friends and chatted with relatives.

  The wedding procession marched to the bride’s house, where the ceremony began. Rukmini, dressed in a red sari, golden jewelry shining on her neck and ears, was led to the garden by her mother and aunts. They seemed to be lifting her with their arms so that her limp wouldn’t show, and for a moment Hiralal forgot that his daughter-in-law was a langadi. He hated that ugly word anyway; it reduced this beautiful girl’s entire existence to her limp. Under a canopy, the bride and groom were seated side by side, and the priests started chanting. After an hour, it began to rain, first small drops, then a torrent, which sent the guests scurrying to the large tent in a corner of the compound. “Rain means there’s blessing from above,” people commented. Hiralal held his breath as Rukmini and Moti circled the wedding pyre, but they were moving so slowly, and there were so many umbrellas in the way, that Rukmini’s limp was obscured. At one point Hiralal overheard two women whispering that Moti wasn’t aware the girl was a langadi, but they stopped when Hiralal glared at them.

  Hiralal had managed to borrow Chaudhari saheb’s Toyota Corolla for the day, so the bride and the groom rode in the back seat while a procession of cars, taxis, and motorcycles followed them toward the groom’s house.

  Hiralal’s aunt ushered Rukmini into the house and then into Moti’s room, where she was introduced to all the members of her husband’s extended family, one by one. She knelt before them and touched their feet.

  After the introductions, the relatives left, and Rukmini was alone. Moti was in Hiralal’s room, talking with his friends, who also soon took their leave. Hiralal hovered between the two rooms, then peeked into the room where Rukmini sat on the bed, head down, and told her, “If you need anything, I’m in the other room.” He paused. “Anything.” He went to his own room, where Moti was lying on the bed, his eyes closed. “Tired?” Hiralal asked. Moti nodded without opening his eyes. “Well, there’s someone waiting for you,” Hiralal said. Moti got up and went to his bride.

  Hiralal changed, then sat on his bed. It had been a long day, but his heart was beating so rapidly, he knew there would be no sleep. He lay down and stared at the ceiling, trying to hear sounds from the other room. He could hear Moti murmuring, but he couldn’t make out the words. Would Moti notice her limp now? Hiralal didn’t even know how bad it was. Was one of her knees twisted? Was one leg shorter than the other? He should have asked Rudra’s wife.

  He must have fallen asleep, because he woke to a loud slam of the downstairs door. He quickly went to the window and saw Moti heading out of the courtyard to the street. He looked into Moti’s room and saw Rukmini sitting on the bed, crying. “What happened?” he asked.

  She kept crying.

  Hiralal sat beside her and put his arm around her shoulder. She looked up at him, the kohl on her eyes running down her cheeks. “He didn’t know?” she asked.

  Hiralal shook his head.

  “How could you do this?” she said. “He told me he wasn’t going to stay with me.”

  “He will,” Hiralal said, unsure. “He will accept it. He’s lucky to have someone like you.”

  “First, I get married to a drunkard,” she said between sobs. “Then, he calls me a langadi and walks out. On my wedding day.”

  He tried to console her, saying that Mod’s rage was only temporary, that he’d appreciate her once he got to know her. When she became quiet, he told her, aware of the absurdity of his words, “Try to get a good night’s sleep,” and left her to her misery.

  It was midnight. Hiralal changed into his trousers and walked out of the house.

  The street was deserted. A few houses away, he came across a group of young boys loitering outside a closed shop. One was Moti’s friend who had attended the wedding. Without being asked, the friend said, “Moti bought a bottle of r
aksi here and went, I don’t know where.” Hiralal nodded at the boys and left.

  He found Moti on top of the platform of the Shiva-Parvati Temple in the Durbar Square, a block away. Moti, in his pajamas, was drinking straight from the bottle. When he saw his father, he said, “Bastard. Betrayer.”

  Hiralal tried to touch him, but Moti slapped his hand and moved away, taking another swig from the bottle.

  “I didn’t do this because I wanted to, Moti,” Hiralal said.

  “I am not going to stay with her.” His speech was slurred.

  “You have to,” Hiralal said. “She’s your wife now.”

  Moti got up and said loudly, “Motherfucker. Why don’t you take her as your wife?”

  “Moti.”

  “Fuck Moti.” Spittle appeared on his lips.

  Hiralal tried to grab the bottle, but Moti held it tight and tried to hit his father. Hiralal slapped him, hard, on the right cheek.

  “Motherfucker,” Moti said again. “You’ve ruined my life.”

  “You’re a drunkard. You’re lucky to have someone like her.”

  Moti sat down again on the platform and started crying, saying “Ma” and repeating, “You’ve ruined my life.”

  “Let’s go back.”

  It took a while, but Hiralal managed to coax Moti into returning home. He still held the bottle, taking a swig every now and then, his cheeks wet with tears. When the two came across his friends, Moti shouted, “My wife is a langadi.” The boys stared at the father and son.

  On the staircase, Hiralal succeeded in prying the bottle from him. Moti could hardly stand up, and he was mumbling more obscenities. Hiralal led him to his room, where Rukmini sat in the same position as when he had left her. When she saw Moti in his drunken state, she turned her face away. Moti said, “I’m not sleeping here,” and struggled away from his father to lurch into the kitchen, where he crashed to the floor. Hiralal told Rukmini, “He’ll come around. Not to worry.” Grabbing a blanket from his room, he took it to the kitchen, where Moti was lying face down, and placed it over his son.

  In the morning, Hiralal woke to sounds in the kitchen. Soon Rukmini appeared, the edge of her dhoti covering her hair, a glass of tea in her hand, the bangles on her wrist jingling as she set the tea on the table. In the light of the morning, Hiralal saw her face clearly for the first time, and was struck, once again, by her beauty. Why would God curse such a beautiful girl with a lame foot?

  “Would you like something to eat?” she asked. Her voice was low and sad. “Shall I boil an egg?”

  He shook his head. “Is Moti still sleeping?”

  She nodded.

  He wanted to comfort her, tell her his son was not a bad boy. But she had spent the first night of her married life alone while her husband lay, drunk, on the kitchen floor.

  As she walked away, he saw that her limp was quite pronounced; she had to hobble to make her shorter foot touch the floor.

  Moti came home drunk every night and slept on the kitchen floor. He didn’t speak to Hiralal, and he didn’t utter a word to his new wife. When he woke in the morning to the sounds of Rukmini cooking and cleaning, he abruptly got up and went to the bathroom. He washed himself, changed, and left the house. At around nine o’clock, Hiralal ate in the kitchen as Rukmini sat in front of him, ready to serve more lentils or vegetables. “Why don’t you eat with me?” he once asked her, but she said, “I’ll eat after you leave.” He wondered whether she thought about going back to her parents. If she did, she gave no indication. She worked around the house—cooking, cleaning, not speaking unless spoken to. One morning, just as Moti was coming out of the bathroom, Hiralal said, “How long will this go on? How long are you going to treat her this way?”

  Moti said, “You have no right to speak to me,” and pushed past him to his room.

  At work, Hiralal found himself wondering what his daughter-in-law was doing. One afternoon, after dropping off some documents at a branch office in New Road, Hiralal drove to Jaisideval. That morning Chaudhari saheb had taken ill, so Hiralal had some free time. As he entered his courtyard, he saw Rukmini, seated on Rammaya’s straw mat in a patch of sunlight, combing her hair. Hiralal stopped. Rukmini’s comb was black, not yellow like Rammaya’s, but she, too, tilted her head as she ran the comb through her hair in long strokes. When she saw Hiralal, she abruptly tied back her hair, stood, and went inside. He followed. As she hobbled up the staircase, he sniffed the air behind her, but apparently she didn’t use coconut oil. She walked into the kitchen, and he went to his room, sat on the bed, and looked at the floor. When at last he came out, he ran into her just outside the door, holding a glass of tea. “I have to leave,” he told her, and she said, “But I just made tea.” He glanced at his wristwatch and saw that he had a few minutes before he was scheduled to pick up Chaudhari saheb’s son from school.

  He took the tea from her and went to the kitchen, where he sat down on a pirka and started sipping. “And you?” he asked. She poured tea for herself and sat on her haunches in front of him. They both sipped, Hiralal making loud noises, while hardly a sound came from her lips. He stole glances at her face, trying to figure out what she was thinking, but she concentrated on the tea. He knew Rammaya would have liked her, the way her soft voice sounded, the way her eyes gently took in her surroundings, the way she moved gracefully around the house, even with her limp.

  “Would you like bread?” she asked.

  “I don’t have time,” he said, finishing his tea. “I have to leave now.”

  She stood at the top of the stairs and watched as he walked down. At the bottom he turned back, and she asked, “You’ll come home at the same time as usual?”

  He nodded.

  The next day, since Chadhari saheb was still sick, Hiralal went home in the afternoon, and Rukmini, as if she’d been expecting him, had already poured milk and sugar into the kettle. Again, he sat on the pirka, and they drank their tea. She asked whether he wanted anything to eat, and he said no. She stood at the top of the stairs, and he turned back at the bottom before he left. The routine continued for several days; as long as Chaudhari saheb was bed-ridden, Hiralal always found an excuse to drop by the house. When he arrived home in the evening, it was as if nothing had happened in the afternoon. She stayed in the kitchen, cooking the evening meal, and he joined her when the food was ready. After he ate, he went to his room, chewed on a betel nut, and smoked a cigarette, while she ate by herself and then washed the dishes. Moti, who never came home in the afternoon, swaggered in late at night from the bhatti and slept on the kitchen floor, sometimes after eating the dinner she had left him on a plate, sometimes without touching it.

  One afternoon, while Rukmini and Hiralal were drinking tea, Moti appeared at the kitchen door, swaying like a bamboo pole in a breeze. He said to his father, “How come you’re home?”

  “I was in the area.”

  Moti’s forehead creased. He left the kitchen but reappeared a few minutes later, as Hiralal was washing his mouth. “Get dressed,” he told Rukmini. “We’re going to the cinema.”

  Hiralal wiped his hands and mouth with a towel, careful not to show his surprise. “Go ahead,” he said to Rukmini, who was watching Moti.

  “Quick,” Moti said harshly. “We’ll miss the three o’clock show.”

  Rukmini went to change her clothes.

  “You need money?” Hiralal asked Moti.

  “I don’t need your money.”

  Hiralal fished in his pocket and took out a hundred-rupee note. “Here, take her to a nice restaurant.”

  Moti said, “I’ll take care of my own wife. I don’t need your help.”

  Rukmini came back, wearing the pink sari and pink lipstick she’d worn when they’d first met her, as well as long golden earrings.

  “Why don’t I drop you two at the cinema?” Hiralal said. “The car is right outside.”

  “We’ll take a taxi,” Moti said.

  Rukmini said, “But a taxi will be expensive. Ba’s car is right her
e.”

  “I have the money,” Moti said.

  The three walked outside together. On the street, Hiralal got into the car, and Moti and Rukmini began walking toward Basantapur. Moti stayed slightly ahead of her, and Hiralal watched her limp after him. He started the car and waited for her to look back at him, but she was concentrating on catching up with her husband. Hiralal turned the car around.

  That evening, alone at home, Hiralal sat by the window overlooking the street. It was already dark outside, and the shops and houses had their lights on. He wasn’t hungry, even though it was past his usual dinner hour. He watched the passersby below, cyclists with their dim lights, and farmers shuffling down the street with their baskets swinging from the poles on their shoulders. He knew he should be thinking of Rammaya, missing her, but this evening he couldn’t even summon up her face. There she was, in the framed picture on the wall, with a smile. Her eyes seemed to be judging him critically. He moved from the window to the door, and her eyes followed him. Hiralal left the room and went down to the courtyard, where he could feel a breeze across his face.

  A few minutes later, Rudra passed by, twirling his shop keys on his finger. “What’s happening, Hiralal?” he said jovially. “Looks as if Moti has finally taken a fancy to his wife.” He’d seen them get into a taxi in front of his shop. “I told you he’d come around.”

  After he left, Hiralal waited outside for nearly an hour, but his legs grew tired, so he went to the kitchen and sat on the pirka. He didn’t want to go to his room and face Rammaya’s critical eyes. How could he explain to his dead wife how he felt toward his daughter-in-law? A tremendous feeling of guilt washed over him. He could smell Rukmini in the kitchen, the faint whiff of onions and body oil. He went to Moti’s room and turned on the light. Rukmini’s dhoti lay on the bed, crumpled, part of it spilling to the floor. Hiralal knelt down and smelled it. Yes, it had her smell. He pulled the dhoti to his face and rubbed it against his cheeks.

 
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