Archive for the ‘fiction embellishments.’ Category
[My entry for the 2015 Writing Nepal contest, organised by Lalit and judged by Samrat Upadhyay. Won first place.]
In the hollow of your hands hides a heartbeat
PRANAYA SJB RANA
Raman took his first photograph at the age of eight. An oblong window in northern Kathmandu looking out on land that had turned to marsh in the monsoon rains, peopled with frogs and the young of mosquitoes. From the top left corner of the frame protruded the jagged edge of a tin roof and in the bottom right corner, a fat frog, resplendent green, stood on a solitary red brick rising from the waters like an island. In between, there were sharp blades of grass and the surface of the standing water, black with fine grainy mosquitoes.
He had taken the photograph with his father’s ancient Yashica, produced in the 80s and as sturdy as a rock. You popped open the back with a flick of the wrist, attached the film to the spool, stretched the film across the shutter and into the other spool at the other end, closed the back and finally gave the crank a good twist so that the film stretched tight and even. What his father forgot to teach him was that the film needed be rewound once 36 shots had been taken. And so, after Raman had pressed down on the shutter and pulled the crank 36 times, he opened the back gleefully to see the sights of his marshland canvas embossed on the black of the film. He saw only the black.
Raman’s father nevertheless developed the film. The only photo that came out was the one with the roof in one corner and the frog in the other.
At the age of ten, Raman took his father’s camera to school, hidden in his backpack. He took a photo of his friend Sudeep upside down on the monkey bars, his other friend Prateek on the swings, and his other other friend Saurav pushing Dipesh, who everybody hated, to the ground. Sneha, one of his female friends, asked him to take her photograph but he refused, fearing backlash from the boys. Sneha promptly told the English teacher that Raman had brought a camera to school. The Yashica was duly confiscated and Raman’s father called to school the next day.
Raman’s father, an English teacher to bored management students in the morning and bored high school students in the afternoon, let his displeasure be known with a pinch to Raman’s ears. Raman’s father was no big believer in physical punishment but he felt it was necessary to sometimes give substance to his anger, which amounted mostly to ear pulling, nose twisting and a slap on the head. Later that year, for his eleventh birthday, Raman received his father’s Yashica for his very own.
Raman used the Yashica to take his first real portrait of the first woman he photographed — his mother, silhouetted against the screen door leading out of the kitchen and into the small backyard where a brown hand pump stood forlorn. She was bent over the counter, cutting onions, her beige shawl cinched tight around her waist. Light seeped through the screen like water through a sieve and Raman’s mother was bathed in the glow of a thousand pin-points.
Raman felt a rise in his stomach whenever he looked at that photograph of his mother. It was as if a part of her were locked forever within the frames of that innocent rectangle, like an insect trapped in amber, unchanging and unmoving. The portraits, even when posed, contained a blink of an eye, a twitch of an eyebrow or a corner of the mouth, and a bend to the knee. There was energy latent beneath the skin of the photograph. To Raman, the portraits looked out at him and reflected in their sheen, in the eyes of the subjects so frozen, he saw himself staring back. They whispered to him something secretive about himself, something only he would know as truth. He decided then, at age 14, sitting in his bedroom with at least a hundred of his photographs arrayed on the floor in front of him, to throw away all of his landscapes and keep only the portraits.
* * *
Unfortunately for Raman, his hobby was not to turn into a profession, for he wasn’t really a photographer. Rarely would you see him trawling the gallies of Kathmandu in search of an elusive moment to steal from the flow of time. He didn’t like elaborate photo shoots either. Once, upon learning of his hobby, his uncle had asked Raman to take a formal family photograph. His uncle, aunt, two cousin sisters and one cousin brother had all dressed in their best wedding party clothes, slicked and spruced their hair with gel and spray, piled on the foundation and blush, and shined their shoes till they all sparkled. They had been happy enough with the result but Raman found the process an unbearable chore. He felt like a workman, lowly and menial, a mechanic tinkering with parts he was unfamiliar with.
A good portrait depended on knowing exactly when to trip the shutter and to know when, Raman followed people around till he got to know their rhythms and patterns. How many beats until they blinked, how many milliseconds until they turned, how often they moved their hands, the angle at which their heads tilted when they laughed, the degree and speed with which their shoulder slumped when dejected, how expressive their eyes and eyebrows were.
In this study, Raman discovered, quite inadvertently, that women were just that much more aesthetically pleasing than men. Men’s bodies were either hard or soft, one or the other. His father, large of stomach and large of heart, was a soft man, a pliable man in both mind and body. His uncle was a hard man, quick to anger and quick with an open palm to the side of the face, and it showed in the dense straight lines of his arms. Raman’s mother, like most women he photographed, was an amalgam. Her calves and biceps were as hard as any man’s, from all the lifting, standing and walking she did while in the kitchen and around the house. But her body was soft and yielding, just like her eyes whenever she got angry with Raman, as they gave him hope for reprieve even when her brows and forehead and lips and arms were taut and rigid.
This much he surmised from the myriad girls he invited back to his house, despite the consternations of his mother. In school and later in college, he found that there were many, men and women both, who did not feel comfortable in their bodies and his photographs were a way to show them that their skin was their own. In his room, he would snap picture after picture as the girls and women wandered around his room, glancing at the hundreds of pictures he’d put up on his walls. And as they passed from window to wall, Raman would park himself in a corner, eye glued to viewfinder. The ones who refused to be photographed were summarily excised. The ones who stayed became more his subjects than his friends.
Eventually, they all left, but not before Raman had teased from them their best photographs. There was one of his now-friend Sneha, as she leaned out a window on the western wall of his room, the dying afternoon light marking alternating bands of crimson and gold on her back. The window frame was centered, a frame within a frame, and Sneha was a picture within a picture. She had turned her head slightly to the left just as the shutter clicked and what he captured was a hazy side-profile, almost like a thought in motion. There was another that he cherished, of a girl named Maya as she crouched in a corner, resting on her haunches and looking straight into the camera. She occupied almost all of the frame and her flower-patterned dress caught the light in ways magical. Her hair was in her eyes but she stared wide-eyed into the lens, as if looking past and into the person behind.
There were others but in each of them, Raman found something missing. It was not so much their physicality as their presence in the photograph, which seemed not to draw the eyes into the picture but to diffuse it around the frame. Even when the focus was sharp and the subject clearly outlined, Raman wondered just how much of their soul he’d captured, even if for an instant.
There was only person who seemed capable of holding Raman’s eyes captive and that was Abha, she of the long nose and the broad face, the dirty brown eyes and the jet black hair, the nose ring and the many-pierced ears. He saw her first in Patan Durbar Square, sitting on one of the temples flanking Krishna Mandir, with her legs drawn up and a cob of corn in her right hand. Raman took a photograph from a distance, placing her in the lower right quadrant with the temples dwarfing her small body. There were pigeons startled into flight in the frame, rising on a high angle starting from behind the girl in the photograph to the high balustrades of the Krishna Mandir.
He had only just taken down his camera when she got up and strode briskly towards him.
“Can I see that picture you just took?” she asked, a little haughtily, Raman thought.
“It’s a film camera,” Raman replied, also a little haughtily.
“Who carries a film camera in this day?” She asked rhetorically. It was 2008.
“I do, lots of people do,” Raman tried to walk away.
“Wait, wait, I want to see that picture,” she demanded.
“I can’t show it to you until I develop it.”
“Well, find me when you do then. I’m usually here,” she said before walking off.
It took Raman longer than usual to finish that roll of film. It was about three weeks later that he came back to Patan Durbar Square, 36 fresh photographs in his backpack and a new roll of film in his Yashica. He found her at the same place, in almost the same position, only with a kulfi in her hand instead of a corn cob. He walked up to her and tried to get her attention by standing nearby. When that bold approach didn’t work, Raman attempted a clearing of the throat and eventually, an “excuse me.” He felt like a fool when she turned to him and asked, “Ke?” rather rudely.
“I…I wanted to show you the photo I took,” he said a little uncertainly.
“What photo?” she asked again, less rudely this time.
“Remember about three weeks ago? I took a photo of you from over there? And you wanted to see it?” With each question, Raman searched her face, hoping he wouldn’t have to explain any further.
Finally, she said, “Oh.” And Raman heaved an internal sigh of relief before fishing in his bag.
“This is nice,” she said. “Can I have it?”
Raman hadn’t thought that she would ask for it, but he had the negative so he mumbled an okay.
When she folded the photograph, Raman felt as if he had been broken in half. She put it into her back pocket, jumped off her temple seat and asked him if he’d like to go have some chhyang.
“Uh…” said Raman, but she was already walking and he was already following.
Into Mangal Bazaar and past a hundred tiny entranceways to a hundred tiny chowks and domiciles, she led Raman down a maze of alleys until they bent under an arch, down a narrow corridor and emerged into a large space, occupied entirely by middle-aged men in moustaches and wife-beaters, sitting at small tables and slurping chhyang out of small bowls made of tin. She sat down and beckoned one of the serving boys, who most certainly hadn’t gone through puberty, to bring her a jug of chhyang, a plate of chhoila and a plate of piro aloo. Raman took a photograph of her when she raised her bowl of chhyang to her face and had his second picture of her.
When they left the bhatti after the food, she parted easily but with finality.
“Okay, bye,” she said.
Another two weeks later, he found her again at the Square, eating an ice-cream bar, the kind usually sold from a portable cooler, the kind that is all sugar and very little flavour. She didn’t ask about the photos, only finally introduced herself.
“Abha,” he repeated like a child being taught correct pronunciation.
“Yes,” she beamed at him, her nose ring glinting in the sun.
He raised his camera and took a close-up, leading her to squeal, half in joy and half in surprise. Her face occupied all of the frame, her nose large in the centre, her nose ring just protruding into the centre-right quadrant and her eyes in the top third. Wisps of errant hair froze in the air.
Later, at night, in his bed, he replayed the shots in his head, frame by frame. Abha in shorts and a t-shirt, with her back to him and a wooden ice-cream stick in her hand. Abha walking down stone-lined streets with her head tilted up at the sky, watching the birds roosting under the eaves of the buildings. Abha silhouetted against the entrance to a dark corridor leading to unfathomable Patan depths. Abha at the door to her home, framed in the doorway, one hand resting against the frame, a slight smile on her face.
Their relationship progressed in stills, captured in the hundreds by Raman’s Yashica. There was the time, sitting on the open roof of the Honacha eatery, when Abha asked Raman, for the first and last time, “Why are you always taking photographs?”
Raman didn’t reply at first, but not because he didn’t have an answer. He had too many reasons and wanted to pick the one most important. Eventually, he ended up saying that it was a way for him to remember things, when he should’ve said that it was a way for him to stop time for a fraction of a second, to hold time in his hands like a plaything, to keep things as they were, easy and understandable, flat like a photograph and always open to interpretation. But he feared he would’ve sounded too pretentious and he was just starting to like Abha. He was already surprised that she was willing to tolerate his eccentricities.
So he too asked her why, “Why do you tolerate me?”
“I don’t mind photos,” she said. “They make me feel alive.” She looked away from him and said, almost sheepishly, “Does that make me sound pretentious?”
When she looked back, Raman captured her amused, as if laughing at herself.
Walking, he captured her angry, because he had mentioned that when she squinted in the sun she looked like an old woman so she should start wearing sunglasses. He caught perfectly the coming together of her brows, the downward tilt to the corners of her mouth, the slight flaring of her nostrils and the flash in her eyes. Two minutes later, she kissed him on the mouth and he found himself unable to think straight for a solid hour.
“I don’t want to kiss you when I’m happy,” she said by way of explanation. “I don’t trust myself when I’m happy.”
There was also that photo of Abha standing on a hill in Palpa, after they’d just been to the Rani Mahal. She was wearing a Dhaka topi that she’d just bought, perching it rakishly on her head at an angle, and posing with her right hand index finger pointing up in the air, like Prithvi Narayan Shah. She was wearing blue jeans and a red shirt and maybe it was just the late afternoon light that lit her from behind or the breeze that lifted her shirt and teased her hair from its confining ponytail, but Raman felt like he had the perfect picture of Abha, she as she should be, she as he would remember her, she as no one else.
In their hotel room, Raman took a picture of her standing with her breasts bared and the window directly behind her, bathing her in an over-exposed ethereal glow. Afterwards, she reached for him as he reached for his camera. He brought the Yashica to his face and pointed it as she lay on her side on the bed with her legs drawn to her chest and her head on her arms. She looked at him after the shutter and for the first time, Raman sensed something not quite right in her gaze. Later, he looked at the photograph closely, studying her face from its side profile and saw something angry in the set of her lips.
* * *
They got married in late April, when the Nepali new year had just begun. It had been Abha’s idea at first but Raman had come around. She had proposed in December, while under the covers of a hotel in Nagarkot, and Raman had not immediately agreed. It had been two years and he was certain he loved her and yet, marriage scared him. To commit himself mind and body to one person was no problem, but he was afraid of what marriage could do to his idea of Abha — what if the many desperations of domestic life destroyed that image of Abha on a Palpa hill, the wind in her hair?
To Abha, the idea of marrying Raman seemed hopelessly quixotic. She didn’t mind the camera constantly obscuring his visage. It had come to become an affectation of sorts, something she even looked forward to and indulged in. She understood that the camera was an extension of the man, much like glasses are an extension of the myopic. In many ways, she found that she learned more through Raman’s photographs than through conversation. The moments he chose were telling, like that one of her crouched beneath an umbrella on a Mangal Bazaar side road as rain poured around her. Or the one of her exasperated and outside his window, calling him out while he arranged pictures of her into a collage. They recalled to her a book of photographs — stark black and white prints of a Japanese wife by her Japanese husband. In them, and in Raman’s photos, she found a comfort that comes with recognizing oneself in the mirror.
Abha eventually won him over, mostly through sheer persistence. The decisive moment came when Raman perused a photograph of Abha in a sari she had picked out for their wedding. It was red and green with an inlay of mirrors going around the edges. In that sari, Raman saw himself reflected a thousand times over, and as if in an epiphany, concluded that if he was ever going to get married to anyone, it would have to be her.
Their ceremony was small and simple, even though Raman’s mother had wanted a lavish occasion. Abha’s parents were more amenable and Raman eventually managed to bring his mother over to the ascetic side. There were no photographers at the wedding and the only picture of them together was one that Raman set up on a tripod. It was the first picture of the two of them together.
The number of pictures from then on only grew. From Abha making tea in the morning, dressed only in shorts and a bra, standing with the sole of her left foot flush against the calf of her right leg, her hand resting on the marble kitchen counter to Abha looking back over her shoulder under a canopy of bougainvillea as she left the house for work to Abha coming home in the evening, her hair disheveled and loose around her face, her backpack slung over her shoulder to Abha mid-way through undressing in the pale yellow light of the bulbs in their bedroom, one bra shoulder strap around her arm.
Abha had photos of her own, if only Raman would’ve noticed. Raman’s job as an English teacher, much like his father, did not take him away from home much but Abha, who worked as a journalist for a magazine, travelled frequently. On these trips, she brought back photos taken with her phone or her own compact Canon point-and-shoot. Raman would give them a cursory onceover and make a comment that was superficially appreciative at best and incisively critical at worst. Abha soon learned to keep her photographs to herself.
All too often, Abha would come home to find Raman poring over old pictures of her, all laid out on the floor like a giant jigsaw puzzle. At times like these, he wouldn’t even notice her presence, seemingly not hearing her until she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Even then, he would be brusque, the pictures occupying his attention until he had come to some foregone conclusion.
Once, she had cut the web of skin between her thumb and index finger while attempting to pry open a can of tuna and come running to Raman for sympathy. He had been caring enough, but only after he’d gotten a shot of her gaping wound and the leaking blood. Then again, when Abha’s mother was getting a tumor operated on, Raman had taken a photo of Abha sitting on the windowsill of the hospital, her knees drawn up her to chin, and crying. The picture was beautifully composed, the light was just right and the focus just soft enough to capture the sadness that seemed to emanate off of Abha. Later, she was moved looking at the photo but couldn’t quite reconcile the person sitting in the frame with herself. She felt like she was looking into the mirror and seeing someone else.
One night, Abha woke to find Raman with his camera and a portable light, perched over her bed. She stifled a scream but Raman only replied, “I am trying to photograph you dreaming.” He hadn’t so much noticed her smeared lipstick, disheveled hair and the creases on her clothes. Neither had he noticed the stink of guilt around her and the way she avoided his eyes at the dinner table.
Abha told him of her affair on a whim, hoping secretly that it would crush him. It didn’t. He continued to pore over pictures of her from days past until Abha left quietly one morning. When Raman came home to an empty closet and an empty house, he simply photographed her absence, as if it were a crime scene.
Abha didn’t come back, even though Raman arrived at her parent’s house the next day without a camera. She understood what he was trying to promise, but she knew what Raman wanted and she also knew that wouldn’t have been able to give it to him.
“You want me to stay the same,” she said to him. “Like in your pictures. Each time you look at me, you are taking a picture of someone I once was. I’m not that person anymore. It’s gotten to a point where I don’t see myself, I only see you looking at me.”
Raman didn’t respond, he had never been much of a talker. He went away without a complaint. They didn’t divorce immediately. Raman couldn’t bring himself to and Abha never really cared. It happened only because their parents called for it. When Abha finally saw him to sign the papers and finalize their divorce, Raman was thinner than she remembered and his eyes were bloodshot, as if he’d been drinking. That infernal camera still hung around his shoulders but he did not dare raise it a single time.
When Abha was about to leave, Raman asked her for one last favour. Back in their house, now just Raman’s, he disrobed and stood naked in front of her. She took a photo of him, the first and only portrait Raman ever stood for. The only light in the room came through a slit where the heavy drawn curtains failed to meet. He stood in the center of the frame, a lone figure, grey and emaciated, barely illuminated, hunched over and not meeting the camera’s gaze.
Raman sent Abha that photo later, after he had looked it over for hours on end, trying for once to see himself whole as someone else, and not just as a thousand fragmented reflections in a thousand tiny mirrors.
JULY 15, 2015
Listen, you said to me as hazy crimson light filtered through the flimsy gauze of your dark maroon curtains. Listen, you said again, pulling me close so that my head rested in between your twin breasts. You lay on your back, hands beneath your head as I listened, my ear flat on your brown skin, now flush with activity and slick with sweat. Like a steady beating drum, your heart tapped out a rhythm all its own and though I listened, thoughts flitted in and out like shadowy figures in the dark.
Your hair, long and full then, spread out behind your head like a halo and you played absently with an errant lock, coiling it around your finger. Wisps of hair strayed onto your stomach, the nape of your neck and onto your nipples but I closed my eyes and saw your face, your eyes heavy lidded and your mouth half open as we moved together. Both forward, each rising to meet the other.
You didn’t make a sound when I first burst through. One push, one tear and then relief. I watched your face then, poised as I was. Your eyes were shut tight and your forehead crinkled into so many lines, just awaiting that moment of rupture. Your stomach clenched and the only sign you gave were your lips widening and your eyes squeezing even tighter. I tried to stop but you refused, your arms locking more insistently around my back as if afraid to ever let me go. Then, you opened your eyes and looked into mine and smiled slightly. You pulled me close and kissed the side of my mouth chastely, as if in compensation. It was you who started moving first and I only matched the pace you set. You whispered in my ear and your breath, hot against my skin, sent tendrils of electricity shooting through my spine.
At first, your fingers clung to my back like claws digging deep. But slowly, they gave way. Your fingers moved from my back to my shoulders and then to my arms. You weren’t holding on to me anymore but guiding, not a scared participant but an active accomplice. We moved like boats on rolling waves, like wheels on bumpy roads. First, you said dreamily and I was jealous of your future and you were envious of my past.
Cigarettes and joints were being passed around and beer being swigged from long necked bottles. There was a fire in the middle and we crowded around it like prehistoric men afraid of the darkness. You sat with your hands outstretched and your palms facing the embers, drawing in as much heat as you could to counteract the winter chill. I sat opposite you and although the whiskey burned latently in my bowels, there was a coldness in my arms and legs. Head buzzing and limbs anesthetized, I moved myself and attempted to speak to you. The liquor had dulled my brain and despite my lack of coherence, you responded in kind. You were drinking beer and pulling on a long cigarette, the kind that smelled like cloves. A few of the boys went off to take a leak, some others huddled around and started to sing a song, harmonizing terribly. I fumbled around for your hand and clutched it tight between mine. But it was you who leaned in and kissed me suddenly, with your lips that tasted like cloves.
You pulled me up and led me away by the hand, navigating the chairs and people like mice in a maze. No one gave us a second look. When I closed the door behind me, we were immediately kissing, our hands urgently tearing at each other. When you turned off the lights, I protested but you wouldn’t listen. I only felt around for you as you dropped clothing after clothing, neatly on the floor beside the bed. Under the covers, our bodies felt like furnaces pressed against each other, warding off the cold outside. With your full length on top of me and our mouths melded together, all I could do was clasp you tight as I could. When you let out a cry, I held myself back and despite the black, I could make out your outline, moving slowly in the dark.
You threw off the covers after a while, baring yourself to the cold. I ran my fingers down the length of your arms and across the goosebumps that appeared. Then onto your back, tracing the ridges of your spine as if they were part of some alien snake skeleton. You moved even more stridently and drunk as I was, I felt I could go on forever. But when you stooped low and screamed into the pillow, I thrust my hands into the mane of your hair and fell back exhausted. We lay beside each other for a long time, not speaking, only breathing. Then you turned on your side and I stretched out my arm and you lifted yourself slightly, allowing me under and around you. After a while, my arm went to sleep and so did you but I stayed awake for a long, long time.
You took off your yellow sundress with your back against the open window, letting the garment collect on the floor and around your feet. You stepped out of its circle and moved towards me, your arms outstretched. I lifted you up and into the rented bed while the rented fan spun lazily in that rented room. From the other side of the wall, a steady creaking emanated, punctuated by periodic grunts and occasional moans. We tussled on the bed like a pair of wrestlers, limbs entangled and bodies straining. When you let out an involuntary cry, I put a finger to your lips and for some reason, you started to laugh maniacally. I stopped and stepped to the side while you laughed and rolled around on the bed, your stomach creasing into frowns each time you doubled over. I watched amused as the contours of your body changed shape and outlines, merging and expanding. Your hair, short and cropped then, kept falling into your eyes.
Later, you told me that it was as if I had a thousand hands and a thousand mouths, each travelling over the expanse of your body like a cartographer charting a map. You twisted and contorted when I placed my mouth to your lips, alternatively pushing and pulling me as if you didn’t know yourself what you wanted. This time, your scream was guttural, a sound I had never heard you make. It came as if from the depths of your being, from inside a locked away Pandora’s box of desire. Your cheeks flushed with red and your fingers dug deep enough into my skin to draw flecks of blood.
Afterwards, when I lit a cigarette, you gently took it from me and put it out against the wall, letting the ash trail onto the filthy carpeting. I don’t want you to taste like an ashtray, you said to me.
Your friends were in the other room and they knew exactly what we were upto. I could heard them giggling in between shots of vodka and chasers of sprite. You didn’t make it any less obvious. Everyone knows what you get like when you’re drunk on vodka. Not that I was complaining when you kept rubbing your hand against my inner thigh. The situation might have called for a little subtlety but you were too far drunk. Once in the bathroom, you immediately pulled off your clothes and tugged at mine. Despite being unable to even stand, you managed to take off your shorts and that top that revealed a little too much. You rested against the sink and eventually, sat on it. All the while, I was afraid the porcelain would crack and send you tumbling to the floor in a shower of shards. And there I would be standing with my pants around my ankles. That did not happen but you were drunk and your kisses were sloppy. All the while, I made eye-contact with myself in the mirror behind you and it felt like kissing myself.
Halfway through, I realized that something inextricable had changed. Your back was to me and I couldn’t see your face, let alone your eyes. You had blonde streaks in your hair and three piercings in each of your ears. Periodically, you looked back at me and smiled the smile of the drunk and horny. After what felt like an eternity, you had finished three times and I had yet to even once. Eventually, I simply stopped and you attempted to take care of me, possibly feeling guilty despite the vodka in your veins. I lifted you up from on your knees and kissed you on the mouth. You looked at me, naked in the bathroom, swaying on your feet and said, I know now what your soul looks like.
The very last time, I told you where we go and what we must do. The future, I said, was dark and forbidding. You cried and I placed an arm around you and held you close. Your tears soaked through my shirt and clung to my chest like morning dew. I kissed the top of your head and said everything would be all right. I know you didn’t believe me but I didn’t believe myself either. Outside it was raining and we were in your room. Your parents were away again and the house reeked of artificial sandalwood because we had just been smoking in your bathroom. You were wearing those blue jeans that fit you perfectly and that loose white t-shirt that kept slipping off your shoulder, exposing the pink strap of your bra. I stared at the hollow of your clavicle and thought about how I would never be kissing it again. My eyes traced an invisible line up your neck and across your cheeks but avoided your eyes. I kissed your forehead and you pushed me away.
We talked for long, nestled against each other, intertwined in a way that only couples who’ve been together skin on skin know how to fit together. I don’t remember what set it off or how the talking even turned into tentative kissing. It was like we were on a first date again, shy and ashamed of ourselves. This time, you never threw off the covers. It was fast, painful and a necessity. We brought things to a close, the way we had first started it. Later, we once again lay next to each other like we had done so many times before. Only this time, the covers were up to your neck. We listened to each other breathe. You were heartbroken and I was inchoate. Eventually, I pulled you to me and you placed your head on my chest, letting my heartbeat reverberate through and through you.
Back then, I was something else.
Once I was destiny, plotting out an infinity of paths in a labyrinth of time where each fork diverged into another fork and each crossroad only let to another crossroad. This was a labyrinth of choices, one taken and the others forgotten. I watched you choose one after another, lost in your own self, thinking each choice you made was yours to make alone. But there were others and they chose exactly as you did. Only you would never meet them. You would never even know they exist. And even if your paths did cross, each would go your separate ways, not knowing that the world you held was the world they held too.
Once I was dream, amorphous and everywhere. I was a child, wandering through a meadow, fascinated by the robin and the blue jay, enthralled by the red wingtips of a massive butterfly and scared of the tall, thick shadow cast by the oak. I was a woman, lying in bed and wishing desperately for it to stop, seizing a hard, metal ashtray from the bedside table and smashing it into a head, blood as thick as molasses and hot as the sun trickling onto my skin and marking me for life. I was an old man, walking through the streets of the city, bent over my gnarled wooden stick, a candy wrapper stuck to my shoe, a long forgotten tune on my lips, my eyes on the distant horizon and my long-gone wife in my heart. I was a butterfly, dreaming I was a man. Or was it the other way around?
Once I was death, answering questions I didn’t know the answers to. I stood by empty cots, mangled cars, fallen buildings and the back of buildings. I stood on towers and bridges. I hung from ceiling fans and the branches of old, old trees. I lay in wells, discarded and in ditches, forgotten. I walked on ocean floors and fell from burning airplanes. And all those times, you asked me, what happens next. As if I had the answer. I am merely a conduit, I wanted to say. I am that which separates the black from the grey and the grey from the white. I am the crack in between, the line over which you must cross. I am neither here nor there. But instead, I heard myself say, what comes next irrelevant. What came before is all that matters. No one gets anything special. You get what everyone gets. First you dream, then you die.
These days, I am no one new.
most of the time i don’t remember. what it feels like. when a fist collides with a face, the force of it, the power, the crunch of bones, the thick flattening of skin as it spreads underneath hard, sharp knuckles to rip and bleed like an oilspring. i remember what it tastes like, your tongue heavy in your mouth like a dead slug. i remember what it smells like, sweat and blood and fear. but mostly i don’t remember what it feels like.
afterwards, when nursing bruises and wounds, i think back, remembering what my body tells me then: fight, it says. you fool, are you going to let them win? they who laughed at you, they who mocked you secretly, they who said you didn’t matter, they who let you down. fight, you fool. fight as if your life depended on it, as if every breath you take might be your last, as if every ounce of being in you is alive only and for this moment. fight, you fucker. fight until you can’t move, until your nose is filled with blood and broken and you can feel holes in the gaps of where your teeth used to be, fight until every muscle screams in agony and refuses to answer, until your eyes are bloody. but i don’t remember what it feels like.
i only prepare for one fight. every night, the same fight. it is a fight i began from birth. it is not a fight i chose but it is a fight i fight. the fight has no beginning, i only came into its middle, and it has no end. it is a fight we all fight. sometimes i am pitted against you and sometimes you are pitted against you. there are other combinations, an infinite actually but each fight is one fight. it is always one fight. and each fight is different, the fight changes with each failure and each victory, each knockout and each collapse. but each fight is one fight. it is a fight we all fight. there are no winners or losers, only victories and losses, and an infinity in between. the fight has one rule. there is one grand champion. the grand champion cannot be defeated. in the end, he always wins. there is no fighting him. this is the only rule. he appears in our dreams often. sometimes as falling from an airplane, sometimes as alzheimer’s slow, certain forgetting, sometimes as a cold, nauseating, invincible, always proliferating cancer, other times as lethargy, wondrous lethargy that sucks all joy down its black hole of endless hours looking for something you know doesn’t exist. lethargy that turns into something more insidious, a poison seeping through your veins, a toxin fastening itself to your neurons, spreading thoughts that whisper incessantly of expectations and a failure to live up to them, the chains of family, the world and the social contract, the pressure from a society that values the appearance of your physicality over its actual functionality or even your brain, not being good enough,ever. and there he is. the grand champion. in every noose that tightens around a broken neck, every poison that eats through your stomach walls like an acid, every razor that zips down a naked wrist, every 8-ball laced with rat poison, and that last bottle of sweet sweet whiskey that sends that last liver cell crumbling into nothingness. in the end, he (or was it a she?) is there for us all.
the bruise it heals. there is a stinging now and then, just to remind me that its there. but more and more, there is an emptiness, a feeling of missing what was once there. each time, the hole feels bigger, slightly, just slightly. and still i don’t remember what it feels like.
Come to the door, Ma, and unlock the chain
I was just passin’ through and got caught in the rain
There’s nothin’ I want, nothin’ that you need say
Just let me lie down for a while and then I’ll be on my way
I was no more than a kid when you put me on the Southern Queen
With the police on my back I fled to New Orleans
I fought in the dockyards and with the money that I made
And the fight was my home and any blood was my trade
Baton Rouge, Ponchatoula, and La Fayette town
Well they paid me the moon, Ma, to knock the men down
I did what I did, when it come easily
Restraint and mercy were always strangers to me
I fought champion Jack Thompson in a field full of mud
Rain poured through the tent to the canvas and mixed with our blood
In the twelfth, I slipped my tongue over my broken jaw
And I stood over him, pounded his blooded body into the floor
Well the bell rang and rang, still I kept on
‘Til I felt my glove leather slip ‘tween his skin and bone
And the women and the money came fast, in the days I lost track
The women red, the money green, but the numbers were black
I fought for the men in their silk suits to lay down their bets
Well I took my good share, Ma, and I had no regret
I took the fixed staid hombre with Big Diamond Don
From high in the rafters I watched myself fall
So he raised his arms, my stomach twisted, and the sky it went black
I stuffed my bag with their good money, and I never looked back
Understand me, and Ma, every man plays a game
If you know anyone different, then speak out his name
Well Ma, if my voice, now you don’t recognize
And just open the door and look into your dark eyes
I ask of you nothin’, not a kiss, not a smile
Just open the door and let me lie down for a while
Now the grey rain is fallin’ and my ring fighting’s done
So in the work fields and alleys, I take them who’ll come
If you’re a better man than me then just step to the line
And show me your money and speak out your crime
There’s nothin’ I want, Ma, nothin’ that you need say
Just let me lie down for a while and then I’ll be on my way
Well tonight in the shipyard, a man draws a circle in the dirt
Like I always do, I move to the centre and I take off my shirt
I study him for the cuts, the scars, the pain man no time can erase
I move hard to the left and I strike to the face
“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.