Maya watched the box with spare interest, but only a steady ticking sound emanated from the recesses of the brown container. There were no labels, no marks, just an innocuous box wrapped clumsily in brown paper. The folds were messy, the creases were everywhere. She picked it up, shook it gently. A slight clattering. So something small, maybe mechanical, she thought. A clock? A bomb?
The man who had left the box at her counter hadn’t looked like a Maoist, but nowadays Maoists came in all shapes and sizes. (Why, only yesterday, she’d heard those glue-sniffing street kids from around the corner yelling at some rich teenagers that they were members of the Young Communist League. The teenagers, dressed in jeans too loose for their hips, t-shirts two sizes too big, and caps with flat wide brims, had cruelly pushed aside a glue-sniffer as he begged them for money.)
He had been tall, a fair man, with wide cheeks and very prominent cheekbones. He had a craggy face, like the side of a rock exposed to swift winds. And he had smiled. Smiled while he took the box out of his equally weathered bag, a ratty-looking thing with frayed straps and a zipper that looked like a mouth with bad teeth. Maya remembered his hands, how smooth they’d been, even the palms, like a virgin piece of slate, so unlike his face. There was no hair on his knuckles, not even on his forearms. He cradled the box in his hands for a second before he put it on the counter and slid it over. Maya tried to remember, had it been ticking then?
“For Ramesh,” he’d said, the deepest voice she’d ever heard. It made her imagine what it’d be like to have that voice whisper in her ear, dark things, naughty things, things she would gladly do if that voice would just ask her.
Maya shook the box again, slowly this time, hoping not to set off a bomb. Now this Ramesh, he wasn’t a very straight fellow, but surely not the terrorist type. He came here often and usually had things for people, always left a generous tip for her too. Maya wondered about Ramesh. He who had once taken her to a cheap bar for beer, then in the darkness and his drunkenness tried to grope her. She’d let him, the first few times.
But Ramesh was really a small ferret-like person, with a ferret-like persona. He spoke too fast, often too fast to clearly understand what he was trying to say. He wore coats two sizes too big for him and in Nepal—where all coats are tailored—Maya was almost certain they were certain that they were stolen Or maybe they were just his brother’s hand-me-downs.
Maya was still trying to conjure up Ramesh in her mind, when he appeared before her like the devil.
“Maya, how are you today?” he asked, too fast.
“I’m okay, Ramesh dai, just a little tired from yesterday,” she replied.
“Yesterday? What happened yesterday?” Ramesh was immediately curious, as Maya knew he would be.
“Oh, nothing really. Just a few of the girls got together for a little party at that little bhatti. It was Ramila’s birthday.”
“Ramila? My Ramila? Our Ramila? Why wasn’t I invited?” Little things excited Ramesh so.
“It was for girls only, kya,” Maya said sweetly, flirting openly.
“I need to get a gift for Ramila then,” Ramesh said. “Our Ramila. How old is she now?”
“She’s 18. But you don’t need to buy her a gift. Everyone already gave their gifts. If you buy her something now, she’ll know that you forgot her birthday.”
“Forgot! I didn’t even know!” said Ramesh, flustered. He turned away, towards the street, and appeared lost in thought, head bowed and hands fidgeting. He looked so much like an anthropomorphic ferret, even from the back. Maya knew exactly what he was doing.
“Here!” He swiveled suddenly then slapped a few notes on the counter. Three hundred rupees. “One for you and two for Ramila. Tell her that it’s from me.”
Maya smiled. She slid over the box she’d been holding, her fingers flitting over the brown wrapping, lingering on the inexpert folds and creases. She could still feel it ticking. She wanted to ask but refrained. The reason Ramesh always came back to her was because she never asked.
“I’m off,” said Ramesh. He reached over and squeezed Maya’s hand before scampering away. As expected.
Maya folded the three notes and inserted them into her bra. Poor Ramesh. There was no Ramila, there never had been any Ramila. Once, one of the girls, maybe it was Radha, had had a visitor. A tall, fair, girl, dressed in a salwar-kurta. Her kurta had been long and white, set with yellow flowers, the kind that Maya could never afford. Her hair had been long, but done up in a confining bun and laced with red. She’d smelled of fresh flowers, as if she’d just walked out of the shower. Maya had almost melted with jealousy.
Ramesh had appeared at that exact moment to collect an envelope. Maya didn’t like envelopes. She couldn’t read and the most she could do with an envelope was smell it. Ramesh’s letters never smelled like anything, except for a faint odour of sweat. So Ramesh had seen the girl, that beautiful girl, who wore shoes with golden heels. That girl, whoever she was, became Ramila.
The other girls kept up the charade once they were let in. Each time Ramesh asked after her, they came up with some elaborate tale. So it was that Ramila fell sick with alarming regularity. Her family members passed away, one after another, in the course of the past three months and even her clothes had all been stolen by the washerman. Ramila never had enough money for medicine. She didn’t have money to go back home to see her dead family. She didn’t have money to buy new clothes. Ramesh always had money. Ramesh loved Ramila, even though he’d just seen her once. Ramesh thought he loved Ramila.
Maya luxuriated behind the counter, happy with the three hundred she had made just by standing around. It was a slow afternoon, not much happening on the streets outside. Sometimes there would be an incident. The massage parlour opposite often got busted. The woman who ran it thought she was above the law because she had once slept with Deepak Manange, a local hoodlum, so she didn’t pay off the cops. The cops kept arresting her girls for prostitution. And everyone knows what those thieving police do once they have you in that van. Pretty girls came back looking like ghosts, many couldn’t walk straight for days.
Maya thought a lot about the Rato Bhaley getting busted too. She imagined a police officer breaking down the door while she was in there with a customer. What would happen to her? Would the police do with her what they did with all the other girls? And how would she feel? Would she feel anything even? After all, how different would it be from what she did everyday?
Maya felt like just another one — a pretty girl. She was beautiful. A lion’s mane of dark hair, although frayed at the ends, came all the way down to her waist, her features Mongoloid and eyes small. She had a naturally petite body, never seeming to gain weight. The envy of all other girls. It infuriated them that customers almost always asked for Maya. She was fair, not white like the kuirey tourists that frequented Thamel, but like dirty porcelain. Maya had a lot of scars though, and customers didn’t like scars. Scars meant disease and marred their vision of a ‘clean’ girl.
One particular scar bothered her more than the others. A deep, long mass of scar tissue ran all the way from the inside of her right thigh to her bellybutton, like a deep, winding river. Maya didn’t like to think about it but that was the one most customers always asked about. She’d tell them that she’d fallen down a cliff when she was a child. A stray branch had torn her thigh wide open as she‘d careened down the slope. Most believed her.
Maya adjusted herself in her chair, running her hands through her long hair. As she watched the street, a little girl walked past, in a blue school uniform with red ribbons tied to her pigtails. She carried a backpack, sagging and frayed towards the bottom. Maya could spy a brown book edge poking out. The girl looked exceedingly like Manju. Maybe it was the pigtails, or the red ribbons but Maya was reminded of Manju with a suddenness that was frightening.
Manju, little sister Manju, oh how Maya missed her. As fair as Maya, only prettier. Manju was six when Maya left, a sweet little girl in red pigtails that bounced every time she ran to Maya. Whenever Maya looked at her, she could feel love so simple and so strong, it left her helpless. Maya wanted a good life for Manju. She wanted Manju to go to school and make something of herself. That was one of the reasons Maya had left. She wanted to make enough money to send Manju to school, to high school, maybe even college. Leaving her behind was the hardest thing Maya had ever done, but cold heartless Kathmandu was no place for a girl like Manju. Maya missed Manju most of all.
Maya often thought of writing to her family back in her village. And maybe she would’ve if she’d just known to read and write. She couldn’t trust any of the other girls with her thoughts. She already felt naked around them, and she didn’t want to bare her thoughts to them too. She missed her old father, whose bones ached like wildfire every winter and her mother with her prolapsed uterus. Maya had never witnessed anything as horrible as her mother’s prolapsed uterus. Just two days before she left home, she’d taken her ailing mother to the travelling health camp. There, she’d watched as the doctors, in blue UN caps, inspected her mother’s uterus, protruding sickly out of her vagina. The doctors were afraid to operate, Maya’s mother had blood conditions, so all they did was push the uterus back in and plug it up. Maya’s mother didn’t mind much. After all, she’d been living with the condition for six years, ever since Manju had been born. And, she’d walked for two days to the health camp.
It was three in the afternoon when a commotion outside jolted Maya out of her reverie. A glue-sniffing khate had been begging for money from a pretty female tourist. She had been eating a sandwich, which she tried to give to the boy. The boy grabbed the sandwich, and grabbed the camera she’d been holding. He tried to run, but realized too late that the lady had the camera strap around her hand. In a few seconds, shopkeepers had gathered around to protect this lovely lady. Gawkers added to the mix and pretty soon, this little khate was being slapped around. He started to cry, snot leaking from his nose in long tendrils. His left hand still held the half-eaten sandwich. The woman tried to look stern but Maya could see that she was getting uncomfortable with the beatings. The police showed up a few minutes later. Batons twirling, they cleared away the rabble pretty quickly, got hold of the boy, apologized profusely to the foreign lady, and then eyed her ass as she walked away hurriedly.
This kuirey lady had had long blonde hair in a ponytail, carried a massive backpack and wore dark sunglasses that hid her eyes and covered most of her face. The camera still dangled from her right hand. Maya wondered if the lady’s eyes were electric blue, like some of the other white people. She kept a running count of all her white customers. She’d had four, and only of them had the blue eyes she sought. If she ever had a child, she’s want him to have blue eyes.
By four in the afternoon, Maya had taken in four packages and three envelopes, given away all of the packages except for a letter. Usually letters went fast, faster than most packages. They were delivered by doe-eyed boys and picked up by dew-eyed girls. Maya enjoyed romances, and knew that these little pieces of paper spoke of unyielding love and unfaltering devotion. Maya couldn’t read, so she didn’t know for sure, but the other girls often tore open the envelopes. Maybe another reason why most trusted Maya with their deliveries.
The packages though, were always mysteries. Each time someone new delivered a package, Maya would make stories about the people and the boxes. Some were jealous lovers and the boxes contained parts of their rivals, killed, and body parts mailed to the loved ones. Others were drug dealers, and the packages contained vast amounts of cocaine, the only drug Maya had ever tried. A customer, a white man, had once brought some over. He wanted her to try it but Maya had protested. She didn’t know what it was, and she sure wasn’t putting anything that looked like salt up her nose. The foreigner had been convincing, and eventually cajoled Maya into agreeing. Maya had sneezed but the cocaine had been delightful. A slow wave of pleasure coursing through her body, leaving her wanting more and more out of the customer. He had laughed so.
Maya knew her place and she knew her job. Twenty days of the month, she was at work and the rest of the ten days, she sat at the counter, playing the postwoman. People shuffled in and out frequently. Those who left packages were transients, except for people like Ramesh, who were regulars. Letters were usually always from young boys and girls, those who couldn’t meet openly, for fear of fathers with guns and mothers with prejudices.
When Maya first arrived at the Rato Bhaley Dance Bar and Massage Palor, Sarita had been at the counter, sitting on an old bamboo chair, one hand inside her kurta and another scratching her thigh. Maya had asked if they were looking for waitresses. Maya knew they weren’t looking for waitresses. Sarita had looked at her long and hard, one of those long stares that Maya had come to detest so much. It had felt like Sarita was visualizing her naked. Maya was pretty sure she had.
Two hours and one conversation later, Maya had the job. Basanta dai had been kind, as kind as could be expected. He wanted a 50 percent cut on whatever they earned, that was it. They could keep all tips. Just one condition though. Maya would have to spend ten days at the counter, just like all the other girls. Sarita would explain everything to her. And Sarita did explain everything, just not enough. Maya didn’t know why they operated the counter, as she never handed in the money from the counter to Basanta dai. But Maya knew when to stop asking.
The girls alternated, first was Radha, then Gopini, Sarita and finally Maya. All of them sat at the counter when they had their periods, and a few days after too. All of them knew their place, but Maya knew best of all. For Maya, life wasn’t a game but the packages were. She knew her job, hated what she did, but did it because she had little choice. What other job could a poor uneducated girl from the villages ever get in a city like Kathmandu? Besides waiting tables, washing dishes and this job, what else was there? At least this paid the most. The packages were a diversion from her real job, maybe that was why she enjoyed her time behind the counter so much. For ten days, she could pretend to be someone else, and not someone working at the Rato Bhaley Dance Bar and Massage Parlor.
It had been almost a year now. She missed her family with a ache that was slow and pervasive. She cried alone at night, stifling her sobs into her dirty pillow. At first, she kept telling herself that the Rato Bhaley was temporary, until she raised enough money, to go back home, to send Manju to school, to take care of her old parents. Now, almost a year later, Maya had little money saved up. She made a modest amount, even after Basanta dai‘s cut. But most of it went towards food and rent. She lived in a cramped apartment in Chettrapati, just a 15-minute walk from Thamel. Chettrapati was seedy, especially the area she lived in. Junkies, thieves and murderers on every corner. She’d already been robbed twice, even almost raped once. Her apartment had a single bedroom where three other girls slept, Maya slept in the living room, on a simple cot with a bone-thin mattress. They shared a single toilet, which was almost always flooded. The other girls often shared Maya’s clothes. Maya made more money than them, so she would end up buying more clothes. She didn’t mind sharing, as long as they gave it back. Some did, most didn’t.
It wasn’t just her clothes, her money often went missing. She tried her hardest not to lend money and hid whatever she had in a sock and under her mattress. Three times, a few hundred rupees had disappeared from the sock. As much as she hated to leave her money there, she was loath to carry it with her, always afraid of being robbed.
Seven o’clock and the one letter still remained. Maya didn’t know what to do with it. Usually, the people who delivered the letters said who they were for, but this one man, he’d just handed it over and slunk away, like a rat into the darkness. The letter was an old-fashioned white envelope with red borders, two faded stamps peeled in one corner.
“Maya! We’re going home. You coming?” shouted Radha, busy changing clothes.
“I have one letter left.” Maya turned the letter over in her hands, feeling the coarse paper with her fingertips, imagining what secrets lay in its lettered depths.
“Let me see,” Sarita, whom Maya secretly hated, snatched the letter from her hands. Sarita was short, a plump woman with breasts like sacks of rice and a girth wider than a banyan tree. Plus, Sarita could read.
“Oho!” Sarita exclaimed in surprise. “This letter is for you!”
“What?” Maya didn’t believe her for a second. In another second, all of the girls had gathered around the letter. Maya believed her.
“It says so right here. Written in perfect Nepali.”
“What does it say? Read it quick!” said Gopini, more excited than Maya was.
As Sarita tore the letter open, Maya flinched. A single sheet of paper, lined notebook paper torn from a school copybook. “Dear Maya…” Sarita began. And suddenly, Maya didn’t want to hear anymore. She knew what the letter contained. Only her mother knew her address in the city, the address of the Rato Bhaley Dance Bar and Massage Parlor. Her mother thought she worked as a waitress. She’d only sent one letter home. A single sheet of paper with a paragraph, written down by Sarita, with her address on it.
“Stop…” Maya mumbled.
Sarita paused. Her face went slack, the corners of her too-wide mouth began to droop. Radha, who had passed class six, read over her shoulder. Maya knew. Maya didn’t want to know.
“Maya…” began Radha.
“Don’t tell me!” Maya screamed. She knew it. The letter would be the end of everything. Something dark lived in those letters that Maya couldn’t read. She wanted to be somewhere else, someone else.
“But…” the others protested.
“Shut up! All of you! I don’t want to know!”
her father had died her sister had died her entire family had perished in a landslide in a flood in the war murdered by the maoists slaughtered by the army Manju had been raped and killed by the army Manju had been raped by four men three armymen and one other man from her village raped and slit with a hunting knife all the way from thigh to bellybutton Manju had bled and bled and bled but her father had taken her to the health post in time Manju now had a scar running from her thigh to her bellybutton like a deep winding river Manju had run away to kathmandu unable to bear the shame Manju had contemplated killing herself Manju was now a prostitute
Maya clamped her hands on her ears, trying to blot out the world. She shut her eyes, squeezed them until tears as hot as blood leaked from their sides. Radha put her arm around Maya and Maya fell to the ground.
“The bomb, the bomb,” Maya mumbled, words tumbling out of her mouth like square wooden blocks.
“What bomb, Maya?” Radha asked, concern lining her 17-year old face. “It’ll be alright. We’re here for you.”
“The bomb,” said Maya again.
“What bomb…” began Sarita before Gopini hushed her.
“The package,” Maya uttered more to herself than anyone else. “Wish it had exploded.”
August 2008-December 2008
Pranaya SJB Rana