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Mad country, p.9

Mad Country, page 9


Mad Country

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  But she knew that she’d gone along with Mac or Mitt only because she wanted to be done with it. Quickly. She wanted Sofi to be a thing of her past.


  She didn’t emerge from her room for three days. She didn’t smoke. In fact, she made a vow that she was not going to smoke again. It was all this nonstop smoking that was screwing with her mind.

  Sahuni was worried. Every few hours she rapped on Sukumari’s door. “Suku, Suku, what is going on? Are you ill?”

  The son translated, “Suku, Suku, health okay?”

  On the second day of Sukumari’s self-imprisonment, Sahuni and her son heard a faint answer to their queries. “I am fine,” she said. “I just need to rest.”

  The son translated for his mother, and Sahuni said, “A crazy girl she is. She hasn’t eaten for days.”

  But on the third morning, Sukumari did come down, her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, her eyes thoughtful, unsmiling. She wore a dhoti given to her by Sahuni a while back, one she hadn’t worn until now.

  “La hera,” Sahuni said. “She looks like a pukka Nepali girl now. Only the skin is white. You must be hungry! What happened to you? Did someone do something to you? Bad news from home?”

  Sukumari put her head on Sahuni’s shoulder, which was slightly awkward as she was half a foot taller than Sahuni.

  “Ke bhayo?” Sahuni asked. “What is wrong with my chhori? Everything all right?”

  Tears streamed down Sukumari’s face, and Sahuni wiped it. She made Sukumari sit at a table in the eatery. “What would my chhori like to eat? You must eat something. Otherwise you can’t go.”

  “Sahuni,” Sukumari said. “Ma maas ko bara khanccha.”

  Sahuni laughed. “It makes me so happy to hear my chhori speak Nepali. But you are my daughter now, so what is this ‘Sahuni, Sahuni’ business? Am I still a shopkeeper to you? You have to address me as Ma.”

  “Ma,” Sukumari said, unable to stop her tears. “Maas ko bara khanchha.”

  So Ma cooked the lentil fritters for Sukumari, who ate them hungrily. The boy came from inside the sleeping quarters, and he started laughing.

  “Idiot!” Ma said. “What’s so funny?”

  The boy pointed at Sukumari. “She! She’s funny! Look at her. She a kuiriney hippie, but she thinks she’s Nepali.” He did a brief dance and sang, “I am a kuiriney hippie keti, but I like to act Nepali.”

  Both Sukumari and Ma laughed. The boy, whose name was Rajesh but who called himself Rajesh Khanna after the screen superstar, rubbed his belly and said, “I’m hungry, Ma. What are you cooking?”

  “This is maas ko bara for your sister.” Ma asked Sukumari to hold out her plate for more, but as soon as she ladled a steaming bara onto Sukumari’s plate, Rajesh Khanna snatched it and ran out the door.

  “Stop! Thief!” Sukumari shouted in English and chased after him. Speedily, Rajesh Khanna ran through the alley, and with equal vigor Sukumari chased him, the boy biting on the bara whenever he could. The boy took a left on the main street, toward Basantapur, and the early morning shoppers looked at the duo in amazement: a chubby Nepali boy being hotly and breathlessly pursued by a kuiriney wearing a stay-at-home dhoti and shouting, alternatively in English and Nepali, “Thief! Thief! Chor!”

  Sukumari avoided Freak Street. She mentally divided the neighborhood into Freak Street, where all the hippies and the tourists hung out, and Jhonchhe, which was a little bit inside and where she lived with Ma and Baba and Rajesh Khanna. This was not accurate, she knew, because the main street that opened to the chowk and the tower, was actually Jhonchhe in the Newari language. But the geographical division inside her own mind provided her some solace. She practiced saying “Jhonchhe” with determination until it stopped sounding odd, and the locals no longer looked at her in confusion. When she had to go to the Maru Ganesh vegetable market, she took a circuitous route through Jaisedeval and avoided Freak Street. If she encountered tourists or hippies, she kept her gaze averted, or didn’t smile if her eyes met theirs. When she needed to go to New Road or Indrachowk, she circled around through Pako.

  One day a former Yin Yang friend meandered into her path near where she lived. James from Minneapolis had spent a few months in jail in Indonesia for smuggling drugs and had now opened up a chakra studio in Thamel. He was an incredibly thin man, with shoulder blades that jutted out of the loose kurta he wore. He was startled to run into her, and although she tried to pretend that she hadn’t seen him, he leaped in front of her, blocked her path, and exclaimed, “Sofi! Sofi! Man, what happened to you?” And he laughed, slapping his thighs and hooting.

  “Nothing happened to me,” she said in a clipped voice.

  “But . . . but . . .” James searched for words.

  “And you know very well that my name is Sukumari now.”

  James turned somber. “I’m sorry, I apologize. I shouldn’t be laughing, but dude, this is a drastic change.”

  Sukumari didn’t want the attention on herself, so she asked him how his chakra work was going, and the two chatted about James’s “healing” practice.

  “You should come by,” James said. “I’ll align your chakra, man. I have some good bud from Thailand.”

  “I no longer smoke.” She had fought off the urges. There were days when she would have killed for a high, but she reminded herself that she was no longer Sofi, reminded herself of what happened to Sofi with Mac or Mitt, and gradually, over days, her cravings diminished. Whenever she experienced cravings, she popped a betel nut into her mouth, which Ma also relished and chewed on all day.

  James seemed about to say something, but changed his mind. “You live around here somewhere, don’t you?”

  Sukumari became anxious that he might invite himself to her place, so she said that she was now living and teaching in a school in Jawalakhel.

  “But I heard that you are living above that restaurant.”

  “I gotta go,” Sukumari said, and moved away from him. She slipped into an alley, then took narrower alleys until she was out of his reach.

  The encounter with James left her depressed. It was as though her stupid past was determined not to leave her, no matter how hard she tried to leave it. She thought about her parents back in Coshocton—the name of her hometown sounded even stranger to her now, like the name of a distant galaxy. Her mother must be wondering what had happened to her. Sukumari hadn’t been to the post office in Dharahara to send her a postcard for weeks now. Her mother was not the worrying kind; one of her favorite songs was, “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be.” She began humming it once she began on her gin and tonic every afternoon, a ritual that lasted late into the night. When he was not with his patients, Sukumari’s father spent most of his time on his boat on Lake Erie.

  The memories of her parents came to Sukumari as though they were characters from a novel set in a remote culture. When Rajesh Khanna plied her with questions about America, she was increasingly unable, and often unwilling, to answer them. It felt like such a long time ago since she’d left America, even though it’d only been about six months since she’d boarded the plane to Amsterdam from Detroit. She now found her previous name odd, and when she whispered it to herself, it sounded like the name of a furniture brand. She tried to remember what her childhood was like, but all she saw was a blonde girl whose emotions and concerns appeared unreal to her.

  • • •

  Ma had her move into the room below where the family slept and lived. The room was next to the eatery and was the same size as her previous room, except upstairs it had been only Sofi, and downstairs in the same space it was the four of them: Ma, Baba, Rajesh Khanna, and now Sukumari. She had wanted to continue living upstairs so she could pay Ma the monthly rent. But Ma said that Sukumari was her daughter now, so she couldn’t accept lodging expenses from her. “It’s simply not done in our society.” Ma was adamant about this, so finally
one day Sukumari moved downstairs, fully recognizing that she was adding to the cramped living conditions below. But it would also mean that Ma would be able to rent the upstairs room to someone else, and there was solace in that.

  Ma put down a mattress next to their existing mattress on the floor, and now the four of them slept together, the two males at the ends and the females in the middle. Rajesh Khanna was delighted to be sleeping with Sukumari nearby but was not happy when Sukumari tickled him in the morning to wake him up.

  Sukumari’s Nepali gradually improved; now she was able to converse haltingly with Ma without Rajesh Khanna’s help. The mother and the daughter, when the restaurant closed in the afternoon, talked for long hours. Ma told her stories about her past, her own mother who had passed away when she was a young girl, how her father brought in a stepmother who mistreated Ma and her siblings. Ma especially talked at length of one of her sisters, the oldest one, now dead, who had remained strong and protective while they lived under the abuse of their stepmother. Ma shed a few tears, and Sukumari wiped them away. “It’s very hard for me to let go of people I love,” Ma said. “And now that I have a daughter in you, I pray that nothing will keep us apart. I want to take care of you, I want to see you get married, I want to hold your babies and play with them.”

  Sukumari blushed.

  “What?” Ma said. “Don’t think that you’ll be able to avoid the marriage question for long. No daughter of mine will remain a budhi kanya.”

  “Budhi kanya?”

  It look a while for Ma to get the concept of “old virgin” across to Sukumari, who laughed once she understood. But she secretly cherished the idea of remaining an old maid in Ma’s house. In this culture, old people stayed with their children and often were taken care of and loved, and she looked forward to spending time with Ma and Baba as they aged, making sure that her brother Rajesh Khanna became college educated and married a nice girl from a good family. She was already beginning to think like a Nepali, but she couldn’t imagine herself getting married and going to live in her husband’s house, living apart from Ma and Baba and Rajesh Khanna. This was her home now, this small house in this narrow alley in Jhonchhe. She had not known that this type of happiness was even possible, this deep belonging. She was already twice removed—twice reincarnated! There was the Sofi who grew up sulkily in Coshocton, then the carefree hippie Sofi who lived in a cloud of smoke in Yin Yang, who pumped her body full of acid and hash, and now the clean Sukumari who spoke Nepali and performed household chores with Ma and tutored Rajesh Khanna in English and served customers chhoila and kachila and raksi. It was as though she had moved to a space that made her former lives empty and superficial, like they were fascinating but ultimately useless dreams.

  The guest who ended up moving into Sofi’s previous room was not a hippie but a Nepali man by the name of Manandhar. Sukumari soon found out that it was not his first name but his last, that somehow he had always been called Manandhar. He was a relative of Ma, her aunt’s sister-in-law’s brother, and he had returned to the city after working on a highway in the east. “I don’t like him one bit,” Ma said. “But what to do? He’s a relative, and he says he wants to stay close to the family as he builds a house in the city.”

  “So he’s staying for free?”

  “I told him that I couldn’t take him because that room is only for foreigners, and that I couldn’t charge rent to a relative, but he has insisted on paying rent. And he’s insisted on paying me more than the regular rent.”

  “Eh, ramro!” Sukumari exclaimed. It was a favorite word of hers now, ramro—good, beautiful, nice—as it bestowed approval on everything.

  “I don’t know, Suku. I bet you it’s not honest money. I bet you that man didn’t work honestly wherever he was. The sooner he leaves this place, the happier I’ll be.”

  Manandhar came down to eat twice a day: in the morning when the family ate in the eatery, and in the evening with the customers. Ma served him with great strain on her face. He was polite, didn’t speak much except to say a word or two to Rajesh Khanna, and quickly returned upstairs. He barely acknowledged Sukumari. He appeared aware of Ma’s disapproval of him. Most of the time he was not in his room, but occasionally Sukumari saw him smoking a cigarette at the top of the staircase, gazing into the distance. It was hard to tell how old he was. Judging from his years of work on the highway, he should have been in his early thirties, yet he appeared younger, with a lock of hair boyishly covering his forehead that he didn’t bother to brush back.

  Rajesh Khanna brought the news one morning that Manandhar was gravely ill. The boy said he had gone upstairs for something (Sukumari suspected that the man gave him money for candy) and found him hacking and coughing and delirious.

  “I guess I should go up,” Ma said. It was the day of the Shivaratri festival, and she had just bathed and put on fresh clothes to visit the Pashupatinath temple.

  “Ma, why don’t I go up so you can go to the temple?” Sukumari said.

  Ma didn’t think it was a good idea, but Sukumari said that it’d be okay.

  “All right,” Ma said. “Just see what’s wrong with him, and maybe take him some soup. Don’t linger for too long.”

  After Ma left, Sukumari went up and gingerly opened the door, wishing that Rajesh Khanna had accompanied her and not disappeared to play with his friends. Manandhar was lying in bed, his head propped up on the pillow behind him. His eyes were squeezed shut, and his face was red. He didn’t show awareness at her entry, but when she sat next to him, a soft moan escaped his lips.

  “Ke bhayo?” Sukumari asked, and realized how silly it was to ask what had happened to a feverishly ill man. So, she asked a question that sounded more logical. “Are you hungry?”

  Manandhar opened his eyes, only slightly, and a word escaped his lips that she took to mean paani.

  She found a jug with water on the table that was against the window, but it was old water, with a fly floating on the surface. “One minute,” she said and, suddenly hot and in a hurry, ran down to the kitchen, where she poured some water from the large gagro into a jug, then had a second thought, and boiled that water before she took it up. But the water was too hot, so she blew on it to cool it, then fed it to him with a spoon.

  Still delirious, he called her “Auntie,” obviously thinking she was Ma. She touched his forehead: he was burning. She didn’t have a thermometer on her, and she wasn’t sure there was one downstairs, but she knew that she needed to administer cold presses on him immediately. She fetched some cold water along with a handkerchief and applied the wetted handkerchief to his forehead until his body began to cool. When he fell asleep, she went down to make soup.

  When she came back up, he was sitting up, propped against the pillow. “Where is Auntie?” he asked weakly.

  “She has gone to Pashupatinath for Shivaratri. You must be hungry, so I brought some soup.”

  She set the bowl of soup on the floor, hoping he’d pick it up. When he didn’t, she said, “You should have the soup. It’ll make you feel better.”

  He winced as he shifted; it was clear that even sitting up was hard for him, and after a while he started breathing heavily.

  “Shall I feed you?” she asked.

  He closed his eyes.

  She sat near the bed and began to feed him the soup with a spoon. “La, aan gara!” she commanded him to open his mouth, like she’d seen Ma command Rajesh Khanna, who was still fed by his mother. Sukumari found it endearing how in this culture even kids who were seven or eight years old were fed by their mothers. On the street Sukumari frequently stopped to observe mothers feeding their children in the sun, asking them to do “aan” and inserting dal-bhat into their wide mouths. In the US, even as early as elementary school, she had to come home and make her own sandwiches. On those days her mother was too tired or drunk (or both) to cook dinner, Sofi would find a note posted on the fridge: Fend for yourself.
  It occurred to Sukumari now that it was more about the attention than about the food.

  In between feeding Manandhar, she wiped his chin with the end of her dhoti. When he didn’t open his lips, she gently coaxed him. He soon became tired of eating and closed his eyes, falling into a somnambulant state. Yet his right hand clasped hers, unwilling to let her go. She watched his face. He had a mustache, like many Nepali men, and a stubble of beard because he hadn’t shaved recently. His eyebrows were thick (bushy, she thought), and yet he had a long, slender face. His lips, even in sickness, were rosy and full. Before she knew what was happening, she leaned over and kissed him. She quickly unclasped his hand and stood, holding her breath to see if he’d open his eyes. When he didn’t, she exited the room.

  Once downstairs, to calm herself she began to tidy up the restaurant, which she usually did after the morning customers left. I could use a hit right now. This thought possessed her for about ten seconds with an aggression that made her tremble a bit. She closed her eyes and squashed the thought—she had no intentions of bringing back Sofi—and swept the floor of the shop with renewed ferocity.

  Ma returned in the early afternoon, sweating. It was an unusually warm day for February, she said, and the crowd at the temple was large beyond belief. The line to get a darshan of shivalinga crawled at a snail’s pace, she complained. She put the prasad tika on Sukumari’s forehead, inquired about Manandhar. Sukumari told her about how she’d nursed him.

  “Now I guess we’re expected to bring him back to health?” Ma said.

  “He’s very sick, Ma.”

  Reluctantly Ma went up, then returned in about half an hour and busied herself in the sleeping quarters. After some time, Sukumari approached her and asked, “How is he, Ma?”

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