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Mad country, p.8

Mad Country, page 8


Mad Country

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  Mrs. Sharma worried about Nilima. The A-level exams were only two weeks away, but Nilima had taken her engagement with Jitendra as license to spend all day at his house. Mrs. Sharma cursed Changu for being so lenient, but she didn’t say anything for fear of spoiling the new in-law relationship. In a way, she was relieved about Nilima’s impending wedding. Jitendra was foolish and immature, but he doted on Nilima. Despite herself, Mrs. Sharma had grown to like Jitendra, who was always polite and sweet. Not like Nilesh, whose sullen face only aroused her anger.

  And Nilesh? What was going to happen to him? Defying everyone’s expectations, and surprising even himself, Nilesh would become one of the leading movie actors in the country. He’d haunt the dreams of young girls and boys, who would cover their bedroom walls with his posters and pray to him more than they prayed to Lord Ganesh. He’d ride in a fancy BMW, and he would star in movies that would not only become blockbusters but also win him accolades from even the most bitter of critics. He would end up owning his own production company that would make one hit after another. No one could have predicted this, but this is how the world works. One moment, you are stuck, and then the moment expands, as if God were forcing it open with his pretty bare hands, and you find yourself in another dimension, and you are still you, but the world around you has suddenly changed colors.

  Mrs. Sharma’s colors would change, too, but right now, wrapped in worries about her children while her husband explored Kanti’s body in the carpenter’s bedroom, she didn’t know that after her divorce, she would discover in the temple of Swayambhunath a swami whose soft words would make sense of the suffering inflicted upon her by her husband. She would see in a millisecond of remarkable clarity (God’s hand at work) that she had invited the suffering upon herself, that all suffering was self-induced, and—this is where her spiritual evolution would begin—that all of life was suffering. This insight would lead her to a place deep inside where she would no longer feel her physical self. Her body would turn into air, and she would fly over the city, glimpsing the lives of her one-time family, their suffering: “I want to die,” bedridden Nilima would say to her husband; Nilesh would laugh at a film clip in the air-conditioned auditorium in his luxury house, his arm around another man’s shoulder; Mr. Sharma would accompany his look-alike son to his first day in school.

  Freak Street


  Sofi found a room on Freak Street. She practiced saying the street’s real name, Jhonchhe, as the locals called it, but couldn’t wrap her tongue around it, and people didn’t understand what she was talking about. One person even thought she was speaking Chinese, so she gave up on “Jhonchhe.” The hotel was not really a hotel. It was an upstairs room rented out by a family, two alleys away from the street that was the main drag.

  The year was 1978, and pot and hashish had already been illegal for a few years now. The American government had paid millions of dollars to the Nepali king to ban them. Gone was the Eden Hashish Center, where hippies used to flock to buy quality hash and grass and receive the gift of a calendar with blue-colored Krishna and Shiva with a snake around his neck. The hashish business had moved underground, and one had to be on the lookout for the cops who roamed the streets, and who on occasion took the especially long-haired and unshaven hippies for an overnight trip to the station. Many hippies had stopped coming to Kathmandu, and restaurant owners in Freak Street bemoaned that the tourist hub had shifted to Thamel, where cleaner, more athletic-looking foreigners with money and trekking gear stayed before they went on their long hikes to the Annapurna and Everest region. The new tourists flew into the city, in contrast to the hippies, who used to travel by land in their beat-up colorful Volkswagens, passing through Turkey then Iran into Afghanistan, from Pakistan into India and, finally, Kathmandu. Still, every few months, a psychedelic hippie van could be seen parked at Basantapur Durbar Square, at the mouth of Freak Street, where peddlers sold statues of gods and goddesses, bells and dorjes and pipes and hookahs for smoking, and where some pot and hashish still passed through furtive hands.

  Sofi wouldn’t have found the room had she not been looking for something very cheap, and thus away from the main area adjacent to the square. “Hotel, hotel,” a man had said to her, pointing down the narrow alley with his cigarette, and she had asked, “Where?” then saw the sign for Buddha Eyes Hotel, and underneath it: “welcome to hippys.” The woman who ran it charged only five rupees a day, a real bargain.

  Sofi loved the place. She loved the round, pockmarked face of her landlady, whom she called Sahuni. Sahuni ran an eatery on the ground floor, basically a kitchen, with two tables and a few stools, that opened for business in the late afternoons. The eatery, also the family kitchen, was adjacent to the sleeping quarters where Sahuni slept with her old husband and a son who was about twelve. She sold spicy meat, momos, fritters, and strong-smelling raksi and jaand to the locals and occasionally to a drugged-out-of-his-mind hippie who happened to stagger in instead of going to a pie joint on the main street. Sometimes Sofi helped out in the eatery, boiling tea, carrying food and liquor to the customers, and in return Sahuni let her eat for free. The customers, almost always men, loved the idea of being served by a kuiriney with her flowing skirt, her bare stomach, and a phuli in her nose. They commented on her pale skin, her dirty-blonde hair, her smell of patchouli, and joked about her in their native tongues.

  Sofi loved the narrow alley leading to the hotel that usually became filled with puddles during the rains so she had to sidestep them when she walked back and forth. She loved the patch of garden with its radishes and spinach which Sahuni tended to with care. Her room overlooked a neighbor’s yard where children played and chanted, “Hippie, hippie,” when they spotted her.

  She loved Freak Street. She loved hearing the name from her own mouth and from the mouths of the other hippies. The name, the sound, the syllables evoked a place that was more than the neighborhood where she now stayed, the street with its pie cafés, its curio shops, and music stores from where guitar riffs by Jimi Hendrix, who had hung out here some years ago, pierced the air. Freak Street was also a sweet spot in the imagination, a far cry from the colorless town in Ohio where she’d grown up, a town with the impossible name of Coshocton, where her doctor father and housewife mother lived on a cul-de-sac, or a “dead end,” as she liked to call it. By the time she finished high school, the town had become for her a miserable hole. Oberlin College was a big relief, and the first step to liberation. Now at the other end of the world, this country, this neighborhood of Freak Street, was so open and free and pulsing with life. The mix of the locals and the hippies, the restaurants with their spicy Nepali food and brownies filled with hash, the temples—ah, the temples!—with their gorgeous carvings and their gods and goddesses that actually seemed to be living with the people. There was something sweetly natural about this city.

  One night she dreamed that she was wearing a traditional jyapu dress, typically worn by farming women in the valley. She spoke in Newari with Sahuni, who turned out to be her mother. The dream moved her so deeply that for days Sofi wandered about feeling that she was indeed a native, if not in this life, then certainly in a past one. Her solar plexus radiated an energy that transmitted images to her brain, images she thought were about her past life: working in the fields, cooking on a woodstove, scolding her children lovingly. She remembered that the solar plexus harbored a chakra, either the third or the fourth chakra—she wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to one’s reincarnated self. She smoked hash to deepen her experience. She climbed to the top of the monkey temple, Swayambhunath, where she and other hippies passed a chillum around while seated cross-legged in front of the main stupa. A young Danish man with rotting teeth and an emaciated face and body played the madal, the Nepali drum. Most days she meandered through the city, sometimes all day, braving neighborhoods where no foreigner stepped foot, pausing by stone taps to splash her face and drink the cool water and to chat with local women in
her rudimentary Nepali:

  Tapai sanchai? Are you well?

  Ma kuiriney keti. I’m a gringo girl.

  Pani mitho. Sweet water.

  Aakash garmi chha. The sky is hot.

  Tapaiharu sundar chha. You all are beautiful.

  She rested at roadside stalls, drinking milky tea, saying, “Mitho, mitho” to the shopkeepers, feeling that she must have been born saying mitho because the word came to her easily—she couldn’t do the hard “th,” but she was happy with the soft “th.” Besides, the locals understood her; their faces broke into smiles. The word itself seemed to fit this country, its people. Everything was indeed delicious here: the dust that rose around her feet as she traversed the streets; the way unkempt and snot-covered children happily followed her and called her hippie and kuiriney; the sudden, exhilarating glimpses of sky-touching white mountains; the torrential rains; the shouting and haggling in smelly, colorful markets. This was a mitho country.

  She asked Sahuni to give her a Nepali name. At first, Sahuni demurred, saying, through her school-age son who acted as an interpreter, that Sofi was a good name. But Sofi didn’t give up. She told Sahuni about her dream, and insisted that as her new mother, Sahuni must give her a Nepali name. The son haltingly and bewilderingly translated, often pausing to understand Sofi’s accent, and after a few tries Sahuni understood. Sahuni’s family spoke mostly Newari, but lately they had started using Nepali because they were worried that their son needed to be well versed in Nepali, the country’s official language, in order to succeed in school and in life. Since Sofi also picked up Nepali from the streets, this worked out well.

  Sahuni lightly tapped Sofi on the cheek and said, “Tan ta paagal nai raichhas.”

  “You are . . . mad,” the son translated.

  “Kaasto naam chhaiyo?”

  “What name you want?” the son translated.

  “A good name.”

  “Okay, okay,” Sahuni said. She had picked up a smattering of English from her tenants over the years. “I give you, okay? Good name, okay?”

  That evening Sahuni had Sofi dress in a red sari, applied some makeup to her, and took her to the Maru Ganesh temple. People stared at the white girl in her fiery brilliance as she was escorted through the Basantapur Square to the shrine of the elephant-nosed god who loved mitho sweets, especially the round laddoos that devotees placed under his rotund belly. Sahuni crouched down, whispered some mantras, then put a tika on Sofi’s forehead and said, “You now Sukumari. You! Sukumari!” The boy was with them, in his school uniform because he had just returned from school.

  “Why are you laughing?” Sofi asked the boy.


  “Name not good?” Sofi asked.

  “Very good, very good,” Sahuni said adamantly.

  Spectators had gathered to observe the naming ceremony for this kuiriney, and a chorus of voices said, “Good! Good name!”

  “Sukumari!” the boy tittered.

  Sofi whispered the name to herself. “I like it,” she said. “Mitho chha.”

  That drew chortles from the crowd.

  Sahuni pushed her son. “Tell her what it means. Tell her it means ‘a soft, delicate girl.’”

  The boy told her.

  “Like Kumari?” Sofi asked, pointing in the direction of the house that was a stone’s throw away, where the Living Goddess resided. Kumari meant “a virgin,” Sofi knew, a requirement for the young girl chosen as the Living Goddess.

  “Yes, yes.” Sahuni nodded enthusiastically.

  “Tara ma virgin chhaina,” Sofi said. I am not a virgin.

  But the boy wasn’t sophisticated enough to catch the nuance, so he translated that Sofi said she was not a goddess.

  From then on Sofi started calling herself Sukumari. When her hippie friends called her Sofi, she corrected them with, “I’m Sukumari now.” They smiled and nodded, a couple of them saying, “Far out.” When her friends couldn’t say her full name, she accepted their nickname of “Suku,” which was fine, since Nepalis frequently truncated the names of their loved ones to demonstrate affection. There were awkward moments when she was introduced to new people at Yin Yang, where she often hung out in the evenings. Yin Yang was in Basantapur Chowk, opposite the old palace with its tall tower. It was a popular joint, always packed, and a large metal yin-yang sign welcomed customers at the entrance. The reaction to Sofi’s Nepali name was initially confusion: people thought it was an Italian name. Once understanding dawned, some chose to mock her, some told her it was a put-on. “Sounds phony,” an English girl said.

  A bald, muscular man who worked at the American embassy—he was rumored to be a spy with the CIA—was argumentative. One day over beers in Yin Yang he asked what she hoped to accomplish by rejecting her American identity.

  “I just love this country,” she said. A former Marine, this man’s biceps were pronounced as his elbows rested on the table. Every now and then, he clenched his fist so that his muscles bulged more. He was a contrast to the thin, weak-looking men in long shirts around them. He was not well liked among the regulars here, as he was loud and aggressive. “Establishment,” they called him, but he appeared to relish frequenting Yin Yang, and occasionally he bought food and drinks for everyone at his table.

  “What is wrong with you?” he asked, then paused to accept the chillum someone passed on from the next table. There were low tables scattered throughout Yin Yang, where customers, both local youth and hippies, sat on the floor. He took a deep drag and offered it to Sofi, who shook her head. She tried to recall how she ended up with him: She had smoked some ganja in her room, then had meandered through the streets, stopping for coffee in the Cosmopolitan, which was on the second floor with windows that overlooked the Basantapur area. She’d watched peddlers try to sell their small trinkets to cash-strapped hippies, followed the movements of a cow with a bell hanging from its neck. A lone dog trotted by, briefly paused for some thinking, then resumed his gait. Across the square, she saw people in the small windows of the tall temple whose name she couldn’t remember.

  She didn’t recall how long she sat at the window of the Cosmopolitan—Stevie Nicks’s raspy voice on the stereo filled her consciousness—then she was downstairs and now in Yin Yang with the bald man. He’s a drag, she kept thinking about him—Mac? Mitt?—and there was no reason why she should allow herself to be bullied by him. She looked around the room. A low hum rose from the other conversations, occasionally punctuated by laughter. Today no one she knew was here.

  “Sofi,” Mac or Mitt said with emphasis. He reached out to grab her hands across the table. “You need to get a grip on yourself.”

  “My name is Sukumari, man,” she said. She tried to pry her hands away, but his fingers were thick as cucumbers.

  “I will not call you Shuka—whatever.” He lowered his voice, part threat, part caress. “I like your real name. Sofi. It’s American, with a European flavor. You should be proud of your heritage. Why are you so bent on going native on us?”

  “What is it to you what I do?” she asked, helpless and angry. “Stop trying to be my father, dude.”

  Not letting her hand go, he stared at her. “Sofi, Sofi, what should I do with you?” He arose and came over to her side and slid next to her, his body quickly pressed against hers. She looked around to see if she could call anyone she knew. She was familiar with the owner, but today he wasn’t around. Mac or Mitt put his arms around her and clasped her tight. “I can’t simply let you waste away your life among these—these filthy—wastes of humanity.” By now he was whispering in her ear. She felt his hot breath and a quick lick on her earlobe. No one in Yin Yang was paying attention to them. A cloud of smoke twirled in the room—a pungent mixture of hash and thick incense. A couple slowly swayed to Cat Stevens in the middle of the room, the girl’s hair hiding her face. A bearded man was slouched against the wall in the corner, eyes closed
, his mouth half open. A uniformed waiter was standing in the corner, looking bored.

  Sofi was caught in the man’s grip, and there was nothing she could do. Inwardly she cried out for Sahuni, and the fact that she didn’t think of her mother in Coshocton made her realize how far she’d traveled from who she was. She was not even a part of this— Yin Yang’s—world anymore. These people were lost in a Shangri-la that didn’t exist.

  “I’m going to fuck you today,” Mac or Mitt whispered. He pulled her up with his arm, threw some money on the table for their beer, and nudged her out of the restaurant. In the glaring sunlight outside, he sniffed her and said, “You’ve even begun to smell like a Nepali.” He hailed a taxi and gently pushed her in. “Maharajgunj,” he told the taxi driver, then spoke to him in rapid Nepali. Sofi caught the word hippie and something that sounded like chick but was not an English word, she could tell. It sounded more like chickney. The driver grinned at her in the rearview mirror.

  Mac or Mitt lived near the embassy in a gated house with two Nepali servants, young, good-looking, soft-faced boys. As he took her to his room, she knew that these boys were a part of his personal harem.

  She trudged back to Freak Street in a daze that night, her hair in disarray and her clothes smelling of sex. It’s rape. This thought crossed her mind, but she wasn’t sure it actually was. At any point in the evening she could have left: when Mac or Mitt began talking to her aggressively in Yin Yang, when he slid over to her seat, when they stood to leave that hashish den, even when the taxi stopped in front of his house opposite the embassy. But she hadn’t left. When he pulled down her underwear and mounted her and began to rock to and fro, she swayed with his rhythm, as though urging him on. She gasped and whimpered and cried out; she might even have had an orgasm.

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