“It is so wearisome. First you put on your shirt, then your trousers; you drag yourself into bed at night and in the morning, drag yourself out again; and always you put one foot in front of the other. There is little hope that it will ever change. Millions have always done it like that and millions more will do so after us. Moreover, since we’re made up of two halves which both do the same thing, everything’s done twice. It’s all very boring and very, very sad.”
– Georg Buchner in Danton’s Death, quoted by Gilles Deleuze in Repetition and Difference
All Anam saw that night was the sky, spread out like an inky black canvas strewn with points of fire-like paint. He did not smell the pungent acridity of burning rubber, did not feel the asphalt hard and unyielding on his back, nor did he hear the slow whine of the car engine as it ground to a stop, the pattering of many feet or the hushed din of whispering voices. He did not recognise the man who stepped into his field of vision, obscuring the stars the likes of which he had never seen before. He did not feel the man’s pasty white hand as it slid inside his shirt collar, feeling around for his pulse and he did not feel the blood, warm and thick, flow from his left ear, pooling behind his head like a halo. He did not taste the sharp metal of iron as more blood leaked from the corners of his paralysed mouth. Had he been conscious he would’ve registered the stabbing hurt of his broken nose, the lung punctured by a broken rib, and maybe even his sputtering heart, beating and beating against his chest like a war drum. All he would see was the sky, the lofty clear boundless night sky.
Earlier that day, Anam had woken from uneasy dreams to the ringing of his Chinese alarm clock. He brushed leisurely and shaved with an electric razor. He put on a suit, a yellow tie and polished his shoes, just like he did every day. He left his rented room in Baneswor and walked down the street to a cheap restaurant where he ate a bowl of noodles and a fried egg. There was a man sitting at the table next to him, reading The Kathmandu Post. Anam glanced over at the paper and although he couldn’t see it, the headline said: Thirteen people injured in a bomb blast in Sauraha. Anam ate quickly, paid his bill and left, stopping for a cigarette at a paanpasal and chatted briefly with the Madhesi storekeeper. He was dark, his hair glistening with coconut oil and his shirt open at the throat, exposing a thin gold chain. He chewed betel while he talked to Anam and occasionally turned his head ninety degrees to spit out a stream of red liquid. Anam flinched unconsciously, worried that the spit might splatter onto him, but kept up the conversation, remarking on the power outages and the shortage of petrol in the country.
Anam smoked half the cigarette then carefully ground the lit end against the brick pavement, saving it for later. The storekeeper saw the motion and called Anam over. Slipping two loose cigarettes into Anam’s shirt pocket, he smiled widely, exposing teeth rotten and reddish-brown from tobacco and paan. Anam thanked him profusely and walked away. A few hours later, the storekeeper would hastily tear open a new pack of Surya cigarettes only to have them spill out into the street. He would spend the next ten minutes hunting for the 20 cigarettes that came in the pack. He would regret giving Anam the last two from the previous pack.
Near the alleyway by the Birendra International Convention Centre, Anam waved to Akriti from across the street. She was wearing a sleeveless white kurta and a matching churidar. In the soft light of the morning, the kurta was almost translucent and Anam made out the contours of her body, silhouetted against the flimsy fabric. She lifted herself onto her tiptoes as she waved back, but there was no smile on her face, and her eyes were dark. Anam didn’t know there was something wrong with Akriti until the moment she shied away from his embrace. He reached for her hand and she let him hold it but did not reciprocate. They walked awkwardly, she leading him through a crowd and he trying not to let go. She stopped at a park bench not too far from the street and they sat down side by side. Akriti did not look at him, only down at her hands, folded together in her lap, Anam had been forced to let go as they sat. He asked her what was wrong but she only sighed.
Behind them was the park and there came sounds of a shuttlecock being batted around. Two middle-aged women in saris were daintily lobbing the shuttlecock back and forth, barely exerting themselves. Beyond them, a young teenager, his hair long and unkempt, wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and a red plaid shirt, played with a huge Tibetan mastiff, holding a stick out to it as it jumped around. Anam did not listen to much music and so ignored the tinny voice of Francoise Hardy playing on a scratchy record at a nearby window three stories up. Anam looked at Akriti.
“What has happened to us?” she said quietly.
Anam did not reply. He did not think there was anything wrong. He searched her face for a clue but she remained impassive, her eyes betraying no emotion. There were dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept and her fingers were knotted and tangled in her lap.
“We’re different people,” she said, more to herself than to him. “We’re different people,” she said again.
The slump of her shoulders, the mist in her eyes and the set of her jaw told Anam all he needed to know. He saw determination but not the little, little sadness. She had made up her mind before coming to see him. She had made up her mind last night as they had argued on the phone over whether or not she was spending too much time with her friend Sam. Three hours before her conversation with Anam, while on the phone with Sam she had decided to break up with Anam that very night. But Anam had been distracted, seemingly not interested in what she had to say. She had felt a little bad for him, and so had set up meeting the next day. After hanging up, Akriti had called Sam again and told him what had happened. Sam was angry at first, blaming her for wanting to be with Anam and not him, but she managed to calm him down and they spent the next two hours talking dirty on the phone. Sam played with himself but Akriti did not touch herself. She had slept little that night.
Anam watched as the boy with the dog threw a stick into the air, but the Tibetan mastiff stared dumbly at the boy, its tongue lolling and tail wagging happily. Anam turned to Akriti as Akriti looked down at her hands again. He sighed slowly, letting out the air and deflating his lungs. Akriti reached over and clutched his right hand.
“I have to go okay?” Akriti said slowly, more a statement that a request.
Anam nodded and extracted his hand from hers. He stood just as she did.
“I’ll call,” Akriti said, already walking away. A candy wrapper crunched her sandals, the boy with the dog was trying to make his dog follow him, a couple walked arm in arm towards her but separated to let Akriti pass between them. Anam’s palms were sweaty and he wiped them on his thighs, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He wondered if it was sadness or just hunger.
The couple who’d parted for Akriti passed by Anam as he stood contemplating where to go eat. They walked down the street, hand in hand, her body lodged comfortably against his. Unlike Anam’s recently deceased relationship, theirs was one like a spring flower in full bloom. They had met in high school, dated for a year, then broken up, and dated other people. But once locking lips with another, they realised how much they missed each other, and promptly got back together. It had been four years now, and her palm had lines on it from washing dishes and his back constantly made cracking noises from the construction job. Their Kalanki flat was small, cramped and dark but the walls were painted a bright summery yellow, her choice. Along with Anam, they boarded a microbus to New Road. Anam sat in the back while the two sat in the front seat, their four legs tangled.
Anam got off the microbus at Thamel where his office was. At his desk, he found a stack of folders, each consisting of a couple hundred bills and receipts. The invoices and bills needed to go into one pile, the receipts into another. They needed to be checked, one by one, the item and amount noted down in a ledger and organised by date. Repeat for each pile, then repeat for each folder. While the office around him bustled with activity, Anam did not talk to anyone for the first two hours of his shift.
At 11.30, he took a break. He walked to the bathroom, carefully avoiding people he might have to talk to. Manish waved at him from across the office and for a second, Anam was afraid he would walk over and make small talk. Fortunately, Manish bent back down to his computer and Anam slipped into the bathroom. He stood at the urinal for about 30 seconds and then washed his hands at the sink. The paper towel dispenser was empty so he wiped his hands on his pants and exited the bathroom.
Halfway to his cubicle, Esha reached out from hers and grabbed his hand. Anam jumped and made a little sound but it was only Esha, so he smiled nervously. Esha returned his smile and asked him how he was. Anam made sounds, more or less words and mumbled a lot. Esha played with a stray strand of her matted black hair, not quite dreadlocks yet, as she listened to Anam. She was head designer for the company and was working on a new logo. She showed Anam her early models and Anam smiled and nodded at the right moments. Anam noted the brown of her skin and the small black mole above her right breast. He noted the slight tan of her neck compared to the skin of her chest. He noted that the green logo she was now showing him looked vaguely familiar. Although Anam could not recall where he had seen the symbol before, it was identical to that of Peugeot, the French car manufacturer.
Esha had worked on the green logo for close to two days now, it was the one she liked best. She had missed her best friend’s birthday celebration because of that damn logo. She had called at exactly 12 from her cellphone but her best friend had already been drunk, yelling and laughing maniacally on the phone. Although Esha wanted desperately to tell her about the crush that she had had on her since late middle school, she swallowed the lump in her throat and yelled a happy birthday before hanging up.
Anam managed to extract himself from Esha’s attention and walked back to his cubicle. He worked for another two hours on a folder and like every other day, he left exactly at 1PM for his lunch break. Anam deliberated where to eat for quite some time, since he was down to his last 500 rupees. He debated blowing the majority of his money on a good hot meal, maybe a thali at that fancy place in Darbar Marg. He would have lots of white rice, thick daal, chicken curry or maybe chicken gravy, a fried cauliflower and potato medley, thick spinach saag and a spicy tomato achar. Instead, he decided to lunch at the nearby local family-run eatery like he did every day. He did not order, for there was no need. The proprietor’s eldest daughter, who Anam thought was 15 when she in reality she was 18, brought him his usual order: a plate of white rice, a small container of lean, watery chicken curry and a plate of very spicy chilli potatoes. He ate without relish, so completely used to the taste that he did not savour it anymore, simply chewed like a machine, so-so number of times and swallowed.
He smoked the remaining half of the cigarette he had saved and watched out of the corner of his eye as one of the young interns from the creative department devoured a stack of rotis and container after container of the bean and potato curry. Opposite the boy sat two women, both of them were women he worked with regularly, also from the creative department and they, like him, watched the young intern eat roti after roti. After 12 rotis, the young intern stopped, leaned back in his chair and took a long, deep swallow from his Coke bottle. He slammed the bottle down on the table and belched loudly. The two women looking on laughed heartily. One of them glanced over in Anam’s direction, caught his eye but quickly looked away before Anam could initiate a smile.
Anam waited at the table until it was five minutes to 2, then stood up and walked over to pay the bill. Smiling nervously, he slid over a 50 rupee note to the proprietor’s daughter. She picked up the note with her right hand and rubbed her neck unconsciously with the left, the same spot where her boyfriend had hit her two days ago while they were having furtive sex behind the garage where he worked as a mechanic. Her boyfriend was 10 years older than her and had a bad temper. He viewed an occasional slap or two as part of the privilege afforded to him as the boyfriend. Three days from now, the proprietor would find out about his daughter’s boyfriend and forbid her from ever seeing him again. She would leave that very night, taking what little possessions she had and 13,000 rupees from the envelope inside her father’s strongbox. Her boyfriend would hide her in his rented room down by the buspark at Kalanki and forbid her from leaving the room without him. For three days, she would wait for him until he got home after dark, drunk and abusive. He would have rough sex with her, often hitting her and then goto sleep. After the third day, she would go back to her father, taking what little possessions she had and what remained of the 13,000 rupees from her boyfriend’s pants pocket.
Anam took his hands out of his pockets as he sat back down at his cubicle. He played solitaire for a while, starting a new game each time he felt he was about to fail. He thought of calling his mother who he hadn’t talked in maybe eight months but decided against it. He played with his tie, the laces of his shoes and the lobe of his ears. He checked his email periodically, refreshing the page again and again every few seconds, hoping something interesting would come through. He leafed through an issue of VOW Magazine, really a socialite piece of trash. He thought about calling Akriti, but then remembered she had just broken up with him. He thought about calling Sushant but then remembered Sushant had left for his medicals in Bangladesh (it had been a year). He thought about calling Ramesh but then remembered Ramesh had left for MBBS in China (it had been eight months). Anam looked through the address book of his non-functioning mobile phone, disconnected for non-payment. There was no one he could call and make small talk. There was no one he could even make plans to have some tea with. He thought about calling Akriti.
By the time it was five, Anam had finished organising three of the seven folders. He neatly folded up the remaining work and placed them inside a binder, inside the top left drawer of his desk. He adjusted the position of the phone, which must’ve moved when he’d made and received a call or two. He wiped off the computer screen and replaced the protective cover on the keyboard. He made sure everything was turned off, except for his answering machine and fax, stood, straightened his tie, made sure his room keys were in his pocket and left the building. Outside, he felt an insane craving for some samosas. Although he knew he shouldn’t spend any more money frivolously, Anam decided that the samosas would be his dinner.
Dodging people along the narrow alleyway to Tip-Top samosas, Anam felt his mouth water as the smell of fried dough and potatoes wafted through the air. He thought of the red chilli sauce, the hot, scalding samosas and a cool dudhmalai to wash it all down. The first bite of his samosa burnt the roof of his mouth but Anam opened his mouth and breathed out, switching the mouthful of fried dough and potato from side to side, trying desperately to cool it.
A woman with hair down to her waist watched Anam from the opposite corner as he struggled to eat. She sat at a table, smiling to herself, revelling in his discomfort. Anam saw her smile but looked away before she could meet his eyes. The woman with the long hair shifted her weight from her left foot to her right, ruffling her sari in the process. She reached down and adjusted the numerous folds, her glass bangles clinking together a haphazard melody. There were shopping bags around her feet, five in total, crammed with clothes and boxes. She had been shopping for the family. It was almost time for Dasain and Dasain meant new clothes for everyone. While looking for new shoes for herself, she’d tried on a pair of inch-high black pumps. The salesman had put them on her feet himself, slowly lifting the hem of her sari to expose her ankles. He had then leaned back, crouched on his haunches, a smile on his lips and his head nodding as he surveyed her feet. The woman with the long hair had stood, holding her sari up as she too surveyed her ankles, noticing for the first time the shape of her calves. When the salesman had taken the pumps off, he had run his fingers down her length of her feet, almost caressing them. The woman with the long hair felt an involuntary shiver and almost held out a hand to stop him but it was over before it even began and she wondered if it had happened at all.
Anam watched as the woman with the long hair finished her lassi, carefully picked up her five bags and walked daintily out on inch-high black pumps. He finished the rest of his meal in silence and in his own company.
Anam usually went straight home after work, but the samosas rested comfortably in his stomach and he felt content. He wondered what had caused the samosa craving this particular day and felt a little uneasy; his daily routine disturbed, he felt as if the world was shifting, taking a turn . He wondered if it was just the spicy chilli sauce he’d ingested or something else entirely that was making him sweat. He made his way to Tundikhel and chose a clean spot to lie on the grass. He removed his coat and folded it carefully before placing it under his head as a pillow. It was getting darker and Anam could see a faint crescent moon in the sky. There were wispy clouds conglomerating together and a chill in the air despite the late summer. Anam recalled waking up from uneasy dreams with a feeling of utter and complete desolation. Anam closed his eyes and thought about the dream he’d had last night.
Anam had been sitting on the ground crosslegged with a banana leaf plate before him. A woman entered the room with a big pot of rice. She scooped out a huge ladleful onto his banana leaf. There was another woman behind and another and another, each with a pot full of either dal, tarkari or achar. Anam ate ravenously, relishing the food. When he finished the food, the women kept bringing more. Anam kept eating, never sated, but growing increasingly sick of the food. It reminded him strongly of the food his mother used to make when he was a child, each and every day for lunch and dinner. Anam he tried to call out to the women, tell them to bring him some mutton maybe, or some fish, or even rotis would do. But he couldn’t say a word. Each time he tried to speak, a piece of food left his mouth. First it was a piece of chicken, fully whole, cooked and edible. He tried again to speak and warm white rice fell out this time. He tried again and choked on the liquid dal that leaked from his mouth and nose. And all the while, the women kept piling his banana leaf with food and his right hand kept moving, as if on its own, shovelling the food into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, although with each bite, he yearned for something different, anything to break the monotony, maybe a burger, a slice of pizza, some chowmein. The scene repeated endlessly. Anam retched inwardly, the food now tasting horrendous, like rotten egg and meat; it smelled like vomit each time he brought a mouthful to his face. And yet, he couldn’t stop eating. After maybe the tenth or eleventh repetition, Anam woke mercifully, the alarm his saviour.
Anam opened his eyes and looked off to the side, beyond the grass and the metal fence surrounding Tundikhel and there, by the road, underneath the pedestrian overhead bridge, an old man sat on a bench, tending two portable stoves, on one was a pot of tea that he stirred continuously with a steel ladle and on the other, a frying pan that he was frying an egg onto. The old man had been tending the same roadside stall for thirteen years now. It provided him with a sense of purpose. He loved the cooking, the spare simple ingredients to his food and the regulars who frequented his stall. And though he always got to the same spot at 7AM every morning, unzipped the bags strapped to his creaky old bicycle and set up the portable stoves on the sidewalk in exactly the same way, he did it with pleasure every day. For despite the regular repetition, each day was different, each day something new simply because of the day that had preceded it. Every morning he made his signature noodle spice: a blend of red and green chilli, garlic, ginger, lemon and finely chopped red onions, but each time he tasted it, it tasted slightly different, depending on what he had eaten the night before, how much sleep he had had, the weather, the position of the sun in the sky, the phase of the moon or the state of his own creaky back.
Anam got on a microbus parked underneath the pedestrian overhead bridge, near the old man with his stoves. He sat in the first row at the window and looked out. There was a man on a motorcycle with a woman sitting sideways behind him. There was a small child, maybe five or six years of age, her hair in pigtails, sitting in between them, her tiny arms around her father’s waist. Her mother’s long braided hair flew like an arrow behind her as the motorcycle zoomed in and out of Kathmandu traffic. The family was headed to a birthday party for the man on the motorcycle’s boss’s son. The man on the motorcycle had picked out a GI Joe toy for the seven year old’s birthday. It had cost him 400 rupees at the supermarket. While there, he had also bought a Snickers bar, a bottle of Coke which he had proceeded to drink then and there, and a disposable razor he would later use to shave the hair off his chest as his wife had wryly commented on the amount of hair on his chest. Anam watched as the man on the motorcycle’s red helmet disappeared from view as his microbus took a right at Jamal.
At Kala’s house, Anam pressed the doorbell and it was Kala’s mother who opened the door. Kala’s mother brought over a cup of tea for Anam and he waited at the table while Kala turned off the television and collected her books. Over the next hour, Anam taught Kala trigonometry although he had never really been very good at it while in school. People didn’t care that he hadn’t exactly studied mathematics in college, they assumed that any young man who had gone to college in America was qualified to teach mathematics to a ninth grader. Anam sipped his tea and talked to Kala in Sin, Cos and Tan.
Towards the end of their session, Kala asked Anam about college and Anam told her the same thing that he’d been telling everyone else since he’d returned seven years ago: he wasn’t the right person to ask. Look at me, he would say, out of college for years now and I don’t have a job, don’t have a decent place to live, no money saved up, no car, no motorcycle, not even a bicycle, no girlfriend, no interests even. Sure, he’d read Deleuze in college but that meant nothing in Nepal, no one cared. He’d taken a few economics classes and that had helped land him a menial job in the finance department of a failing ad company and somehow he’d managed to con Kala’s family into letting him teach her mathematics outside of school. Don’t ask me, Anam really wanted to say to her, I’m the one who failed.
Anam said goodbye to Kala at the door. Kala watched Anam walk down the driveway without a glance back and only after he had disappeared from view, did she step back into the house and shut the door. The phone rang and Kala ran for it, elbowing her father out of the way. It was her Uncle Dinesh, asking for her father. Kala handed the phone over, disappointed. Kala had kissed a boy for the first time three days back. He had called her each night since then and today was the first time that he had been late. Kala had been afraid the phone would ring during her tuition with Anam and her father would answer it and she would have to explain to him who the boy calling for her was. She wouldn’t have known what to say, except that the boy looked a little like Anam.
Outside, Anam turned the corner and stopped for a cigarette. He took a drag, flicked the cigarette and blew out the smoke. Anam felt a little sick. It wasn’t a physical pain, just a nausea that seemed to start not in his stomach but his diaphragm. He finished his cigarette and crushed the butt beneath his heel. He spat to the side of the street and walked about a hundred feet to an intersection. Night had fallen suddenly while Anam had been teaching Kala trigonometric conversion. There was a faint artificial smell of lilac in the late summer air. Summer was ending and it was just starting to get a little chilly, the wind rising and falling in waves. We call it Autumn, thought Anam, but they call it Fall. He waited at the intersection to cross the street. He looked left and right and was about to step onto the street when he saw headlights approaching in the distance. Anam noticed the car was moving fast. With his foot almost off the edge, the moment seemed to lengthen into an eternity and as his foot hovered between blacktop and pavement, Anam made a decision.
As the car driven by the man with the pasty skin rushed towards him, Anam stepped down into the street. He looked up at the sky, spread out like a canvas strewn with points of fire-like paint. Tendrils of smoke floated into the night, an errant column from someone’s nearby cigarette. Headlights washed over him as Anam stood frozen gazing up at the night sky. He didn’t notice the car swerve violently as it tried to avoid him. The car careened wildly to the side, its tires howling on the blacktop. It climbed onto the pavement and milliseconds before it crashed into a wall, bending its hood in half and leaking black smoke from its engine,
Seconds later, Anam was kneeling next to the man with the pasty skin, having just dragged him from the wreckage of the car. His eyes were open and staring but his mouth made gasping, drowning noises. A bubble of blood formed at his left nostril and popped, spraying his face with speckles of bright red blood like freckles. Anam felt for the man with the pasty skin’s pulse but even as Anam counted the beats, 21, 22, 23, 24, they spluttered, foundered and eventually stopped. With his hand on the dead man’s wrist, Anam thought his own death, of a punctured lung and a halo of blood behind his head. Anam felt a tug, as if he were on the back of a motorcycle making a sharp turn, felt the inertia of motion. His body wanted to keep going in one direction, and yet the world has irrevocably taken a turn. A crowd of people had gathered, someone was taking pictures with a mobile phone and a woman next to him repeated “Oh my God, Oh my God” over and over again.
Pranaya SJB RANA
25-27 March 2011 (first edit: 15-17 April 2011)
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY.