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Arresting god in kathman.., p.8

Arresting God in Kathmandu, page 8


Arresting God in Kathmandu

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  Downstairs, there was laughter. Hiralal turned off the light and stood at the top of the stairs, watching Rukmini hold Moti’s arm as he stumbled up drunkenly. He was singing, probably a song from the film they’d seen. When Rukmini saw Hiralal, she asked, with concern, “Did you eat, Ba?” Hiralal shook his head. “Why don’t I heat the rice for you?” Moti shot one glance at his father, then went to his room, humming.

  Rukmini lit the stove while Hiralal sat on the pirka. He remained silent as she heated the leftover rice and vegetables from the morning. Then, as she served him, she said, “I asked him not to drink, but he wouldn’t listen.”

  Hiralal was eating.

  “He even forced me to drink.”

  He tilted his head in surprise. “You drank?”

  “Just a little,” she said. “One glass of beer.”

  “Let’s smell?” he said. He moved dose to her face, and she opened her mouth and said, “Haaa,” revealing her pink tongue. The smell of beer was negligible, but Hiralal felt his chest tighten. “You shouldn’t have drunk.”

  “What could I do?” she said. “This is the first time he’s spoken to me.”

  “Still,” he said. He shook his head. His teeth damped down on something hard, sending a shiver through his body. He extracted a small stone from his mouth and showed it to her. “The rice wasn’t cleaned.”

  She took it from his hand. “I cleaned it thoroughly this morning.”

  “Well, you need to do it properly.” He pushed the plate aside and said, “You must be more responsible. I thought you’d get him in line.”

  Her eyes filled with tears. “Just today he spoke—”

  “I know,” he said. “Don’t drink with him from now on. Make him stop.”

  Later that night he regretted having spoken to her so harshly. She was a good girl, and Moti was starting to take an interest in her. Hiralal listened to the sounds from the couple’s room. They were making love; Hiralal could hear Rukmini’s soft sighs.

  Once Chaudhari saheb got better, Hiralal could no longer go home in the afternoon. Besides, Moti stayed in his room all day and drank. By the time Hiralal got home in the evening, the house smelled like the bhatti from which Hiralal had once dragged Moti. The three ate together in the kitchen, and Moti couldn’t keep his drunken eyes off Rukmini. Hiralal marveled at this change in his son. How did she do it? Hiralal watched her carefully. She had an earnest, childlike face, yet her eyes suddenly looked wise, as if they could sway the events of the world by merely gazing at them. Hiralal was startled.

  In the mornings, while Moti was sleeping off his drunken stupor, Rukmini served food to Hiralal. One morning, she said, out of the blue, “At least now he’s drinking at home.” When Hiralal didn’t respond, she said, “Ba, I’m trying.”

  “I’m not criticizing you.”

  That evening, Moti announced during dinner that he’d found a job as an office boy at a travel agency. He said this to Rukmini, although it was clear that she already knew and that the message was intended for Hiralal. “I’m starting tomorrow,” he said, his eyes on his wife.

  “That’s very good,” Hiralal said, trying not to show his surprise.

  The next afternoon Hiralal went to Chaudhari saheb, who was studying some papers in his living room, and said, “Hujoor, do we have to go to the factory today?”

  Without raising his eyes, Chaudhari saheb said, “No. Why?”

  “I was wondering whether I could take the car. My daughter-in-law is ill; she needs to go to the hospital.”

  Now Chaudhari saheb looked up. “Go ahead. I have to prepare for a meeting with the managers tomorrow. Just make sure the car is here this evening.”

  His heart beating rapidly, Hiralal drove out of Chaudhari saheb’s compound. He had never before lied to his boss.

  When he got home, he expected to find Rukmini in the courtyard, but she wasn’t there. The door to the house was locked from the outside, so he unlocked it, went upstairs, and softly called her name. Standing in the kitchen, wondering what to do next, he heard her come up the stairs. “Where have you been?” he asked, unable to hide his irritation.

  “I just went to the neighbor’s house,” she said and started to fill the kettle.

  He stopped her. “No, we’re going out.”


  “I don’t know where. I have the car.”

  She stood still, her eyes on him, and said, “Okay. I’ll get dressed.”

  He watched as she limped to her room.

  When she emerged, she was wearing a green sari with red seams. She hadn’t put on any makeup. As they left the house, Hiralal saw a neighbor watching from her window.

  “Where are we going?” Rukmini asked again once they were in the car.

  He turned to her and smiled. “You tell me. It’s your day. I borrowed the car especially for you.”

  “Really?” She appeared pleased. “But we’ll have to come back soon so that I can cook dinner. It’s Moti’s first day at work, so I’m cooking goat.”

  “We’ll be back in time,” he said.

  Because she couldn’t name a place she wanted to visit, they drove around the city. They passed through New Road, with its bright shops and newspaper vendors. They circled the Tundikhel field, drove past Dharahara, its tower soaring up to the sky. She laughed at the heads of goats and sheep, their teeth bared, outside the Muslim butcher shops. “They look as if they’re grinning,” she said.

  He smiled at her and said, “They’re happy they don’t have to think anymore.”

  She laughed.

  Hiralal turned the car and headed south. “I know where we can go,” he said at the traffic circle in Tripureswar, and sped toward Teku, then on to Tahachal. He drove quickly, passing small lorries, even taxis. Drivers honked at him, annoyed. He could sense that she was holding her breath, and he drove even faster, until she said, “Do you have to go this fast?”

  He slowed down immediately, but by this time they were already in the outskirts of the city, in Swayambhu.

  He parked the car at the bottom of the hill.

  “Are we walking up?” she asked, calculating the hundreds of stairs leading to the stupa.

  In his excitement he had forgotten about her limp. “We don’t have to,” he said. “We can circle the bottom in the car.”

  She squinted at the stupa. “No, we’re already here. May as well go.”

  She took twice as long as he did to mount each step. Halfway up the staircase, she nearly fell, and he grabbed her arm. From then on, she leaned on him as they climbed. Monkeys roamed around them, chattering. One monkey held a baby monkey in her arm and monitored them cautiously. A large monkey chased smaller ones, who scattered, making frightened noises.

  By the time the two reached the top, sweat was trickling down her forehead. She rested briefly before the large stupa and wiped her face with a small red handkerchief she’d pulled from her purse. They circled the stupa, then stood at the lookout.

  “Moti liked to come here when he was a child,” Hiralal said.

  She said nothing.

  “He was like a monkey,” Hiralal said and laughed. “So much energy.”

  “Tell me,” she said, “what was your wife like?”

  He was surprised at her boldness, the way she called her dead mother-in-law “your wife,” as if Hiralal were a friend, not her father-in-law.

  “She was like you,” he said.

  A haze hung in the air below them. “How was she like me?” She moved closer to him, and their shoulders touched.

  Hiralal hoped no one he knew was in the temple. He wanted to say, She combed her hair just the way you do. But he knew he shouldn’t. “I don’t know,” he said. “When I look at you—”

  She took his hands in hers. “Do you miss her?”

  He nodded. She played with his fingernails.

  “What do you want me to do?” she asked.

  “What do you mean? I don’t want you to do anything.”

  “No, you want s
omething from me. What is it?”

  “I want you to take care of Moti. Make him stop drinking. Make him a responsible man. Give me grandchildren.”

  “No, that’s not it,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “That I’ll do. But you want something else.”

  He realized that his knees were shaking, and so were his hands. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.

  “I know what you want,” she said. “But you have to promise me. Once you get it, you can’t ask anything more of me.” Without fully understanding what he was agreeing to, he nodded, his heart pounding.

  They walked down the steps in silence. Inside the car, she told him to drive behind the temple area. After they crossed Ring Road, which circled the city, she asked him to stop at an area off the road, in a clearing among trees that blocked their view of the surrounding houses.

  She placed her hand on his chest and started rubbing, and he touched her shoulders and moved his face close to hers. As he kissed her, he felt like crying. She fumbled with his trousers, took his penis in her hand, and caressed it. He felt it rise and knew he should stop this, but something inside him had been released. “Why are you crying?” she asked. “Do you want to do this?” He didn’t answer, but he wasn’t surprised when he went limp in her hands. “You’re getting small,” she said, and he rested his head on her chest.

  They drove back in silence, slowly, as the evening rush hour filled the streets with trucks, cars, three-wheelers, and mopeds. She was silent throughout the ride, and by the time he dropped her off at home, a slow burning had started in his stomach.

  In Jawalakhel, Chaudhari saheb was still in the living room with his papers. “What did the doctors say?” he asked.

  “Everything is all right,” Hiralal said. “She just has the flu.”

  “Yes, everyone seems to be catching it these days.”

  After Hiralal got off the bus at Ratna Park and was walking through Indra Chowk, negotiating his way through the crowded marketplace, the noise around him turned distant, and his stomach began to convulse. Dizzy, he leaned against a pole.

  At home, a strong smell of goat meat came from the kitchen. He went directly to his room and shut the door. The burning had now moved up to his chest and down to his hips and legs. Sweating, Hiralal took off his shirt and trousers and lay, face down, on the rug. He rested like this, his skin on fire. Only after about half an hour did the heat leave his body, and he got up and put on his clothes. Again, he looked at Rammaya’s picture, and a tremendous wave of shame washed over his body. “Rammaya,” he whispered, but couldn’t bear to see her face. He took the picture off the wall and slipped it under his bed. Then he sat by the window. The sun had already gone down, and soon he saw Rudra walking by, twirling his shop keys on his finger. Rudra shouted, “I hear Moti has found a job.”

  “Yes,” Hiralal said.

  “Didn’t I tell you?” Rudra said. “Amazing what a wife can do.”

  “Yes, you were right, Rudra.”

  “Soon you’ll have grandchildren to look after.” Rudra laughed, waved a hand, and walked on.

  After Moti came home, Rukmini called Hiralal to dinner. “I’m not hungry,” he said loudly. She knocked on his door, and when he opened it, she said softly, “You must eat something.”

  He shook his head, and turned his back to her as she whispered, “You must get hold of yourself.”

  He went to sit on his bed, and she followed him. “I thought you understood.”

  He was conscious that Moti was in the next room and that the door was open. “I can’t live in this house with you anymore,” he said quietly.

  “What are you going to do? Where would you go?”

  He had no answers. All he knew was that sooner or later Moti would sense what had happened between his wife and his father that afternoon.

  “Don’t you see?” she said. “It was bound to happen.” She left the room.

  He didn’t join them for dinner, and later that night, when the sounds of their love-making filtered through his wall, he walked out of the house. He wandered for a long time, even after most of the shopkeepers had pulled down their shutters and turned off their lights. He moved through alleys and streets he’d never known existed. In Naxal, a mob of drunken young men followed him, challenging him to a fight. Hiralal merely quickened his steps.

  He went home only when his legs were aching. Although he tiptoed up the stairs, Rukmini must have been awake. She opened her door and stepped out. “Where have you been?” she whispered angrily.

  “Walking,” Hiralal said.

  “Don’t you understand? What happened this afternoon—it was bound to happen. There was nothing you or I could do.”

  “No, I don’t understand,” he said. As he gazed at her under the weak lamp, his mind was quick with thoughts.

  “Put her picture on the wall again,” she said. She went into her room and shut the door.

  He moved on to his room and reached under his bed for Rammaya’s photograph. Her eyes were the same as when she smiled at their son or looked up at him when combing her hair in the courtyard. As if she were right behind him, he could smell the coconut in her hair, could smell her dhoti, with its faint aroma of onions and goat meat. “It was bound to happen,” Rukmini had said. Hiralal held his wife’s photograph and lay down. “What have you done, Rammaya?” he whispered. He closed his eyes, and felt as if he were floating, suspended in the air.

  During the Festival

  GANESH lay on his back in bed, one hand behind his head, his legs dangling off the side, while his wife rummaged through the dresser for the sari to wear that evening. He watched her plump body in petticoat and bra, her fingers lingering on one sari, then another, finally pulling out one of red chiffon. When she turned and saw him watching her, she asked, “What’s the matter? You don’t want me to go?”

  “No. You go,” he said.

  She asked him to help button her blouse, so he went over to her half-naked body, his heart hammering in his throat.

  He went down to see her off through the courtyard, and climbed the stairs back to their apartment. He could imagine her walking down the street, her neatly combed hair pulled back, a tika on her forehead. He could imagine the taxi driver peeking at her in the rearview mirror, unable to take his eyes off her faintly powdered face, wondering what kind of a husband she went home to, how it would feel to lie next to her and hear her sigh under his caress. Ganesh could see her entering the wedding tent, adjusting her sari, her eyes appraising the crowd, familiar faces lighting up when they spotted her, a childhood friend of hers coming to greet her proprietarily, introducing her to guests, the men eyeing her from behind their wives.

  He opened the door to the small balcony and stepped out. Four stories below, in the courtyard, two boys were playing marbles. In the opposite house, the new tenant, a young, bald man, leaned against the window, surveying the courtyard. When their eyes met, the bald man smiled. Ganesh didn’t like him; he was too friendly, suspiciously friendly. So Ganesh barely nodded. The boys’ arguments echoed amidst the frantic cries of the evening birds. The setting sun cast a saffron glow on the houses surrounding the courtyard. The evening, though beautiful, seemed alien to him.

  He had recently told a friend at work that he did not understand his wife. He had said it casually, as if it were a joke. His friend blew into his cupped palms, as he always did when considering a serious matter. “Do you think your wife has a secret life?” he asked.

  “There’s something about her,” Ganesh said, shaking his head. Lately he had been studying her; he watched her while she slept, tried to imagine her thoughts when she stirred eggplant or beans in the kitchen. He also wanted to know what she thought about when he wasn’t around, what areas her mind lingered on. He suspected that her thoughts excluded him, and this possibility filled him with dismay, with pain.

  They’d been married for three years, and Ganesh had not worried this way the first two years. Before he married, he lived on the second floor of a small house
in Chhetrapati with his mother. Ganesh barely remembered his father, who died of a brain disease that no doctor or shaman had been able to cure. And there were rumors that Ganesh was really not his father’s son; that he was the son of the man who had been his mother’s lover for many years. It was his mother who had arranged Ganesh’s marriage. She’d sung the praises of his future bride—“She has the most beautiful eyes”; “She’s known in the neighborhood for her faultless manners”—until he too began to think she would make a wonderful wife, even though he’d not yet met her. When she first came into the house, he had been surprised by her beauty. He’d seen pictures of her, but in person she was ten times more striking. Her jet-black hair made a lovely contrast with her fair complexion, and she had a long, slim nose from which a diamond glinted whenever she smiled. A mere glance from her made his heart beat rapidly, and when she laughed, the tiny gap between her two front teeth made her irresistibly charming. “Your daughter-in-law’s face glows like the sun,” he heard relatives tell his mother, and everywhere he and his new bride went, people commented on how his wife’s beauty would usher in good luck for the rest of their lives. He had basked in the warmth of these comments, but later, that pleasure had given way to wariness, for he couldn’t believe that such beauty could be enjoyed at no cost.

  He tried to recall the exact moment when he first had doubts about her; it was, he thought, when they were at the eastern wall of the temple complex of Lord Pashupatinath on a sunny day, looking down at the dirty Bagmati River. A young man standing near them said to Ganesh’s wife, “Look how filthy the river is. Look there”—he pointed to a couple of women washing themselves contentedly, letting their soap suds drift into the blackened water—“how uncivilized these people are. Look there”—he gestured to a mass of garbage on the river’s edge—“our holy Bagmati River.”

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