Sunday, July 29, 2018

In the Mountains: Book review of "The Himalayan Arc" in the Deccan Herald

In the Mountains

Shyam G Menon, JUN 16 2018, 16:57PM IST UPDATED: JUN 17 2018, 02:02AM IST 

The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East is an anthology of writings edited by Namita Gokhale. Positioned as a travel book with a difference (that’s what the book’s jacket says), The Himalayan Arc focuses on the stretch of the Himalayas...

Second, there is serious writing from well-known literary figures and articles authored by journalists. My favourites were the chapters from Sujeev Shakya; Amish Raj Mulmi, Thomas Bell, Sushma Joshi, Tsering Tashi, Manoj Joshi, Catherine Anderson, Prajwal Parajuly, Janice Pariat, Indira Goswami, Ma Thida, David Malone and Tulsi Badrinath.

Book review of "The Himalayan Arc" in the Hindusthan Times


The Himalayan Arc takes a long, hard look at the uneasy realities of the region


It’s an enjoyable, enlightening collection of accounts, essays, poems, and photographs that make up the Himalayan experience, but doesn’t shy away from revelations that could make one uneasy.

BOOKS Updated: May 23, 2018 18:57 Ist


Hindustan Times

How do you imagine the Himalayas? We do know that beyond its national limits, the mountain chain extends into as far as Afghanistan in the west, and to the east, extrudes into Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar, but how often do we consider the fact’s geopolitical implications?
Compiled by acclaimed Indian author, and co-founder of the Jaipur Literary Fest, Namita Gokhale, The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East is an unlikely book about travel and experience, about communities and their relationship with their land, and the spectral nature of frontiers. The ramparts of India’s political northern fortress, the geographical shield that blocks the harsh Siberian cold from getting into the country, and a touristic pride for all of us, the massive mountainous strip has, for the longest time, been a battleground of conflicts of all sizes and forms between us and our neighbours.
The book spans genres and forms in under 30 individual chapters — fictional and non-fictional accounts, essays, photograph series and poems. There are intimate portraits of places from the insider’s perspective, deeply personal accounts of journeys interspersed with mysticism and suffering, and pieces on diplomacy and espionage. Emerging contemporary authors regularly shine through (Meghna Pant’s Boongthing is a story about a couple on a honeymoon to Nathu La and the mystic revelation that awaits them there; Prajwal Parajuly’s disenchantment with the ‘construction malaise’ and state neglect that afflicts Sikkim; and Nepalese author and critic Sushma Joshi’s account of waking up in the rubble after the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake), as do acclaimed figures (Pushpesh Pant’s short chapter on mountain cuisine/s; Indira Goswami’s depiction of a strife-torn landscape as she journeys into the heart of Assam to witness a traumatic breakdown of an old couple; Janice Pariat’s story about a lonely man who sits down to listen to another man’s story of heartbreak in a Shillong bar).
A section on photographs documents the traditions and settings of life in the Himalayas, mostly in the 19th century, and another on poetry from India’s northeastern states, with a helpful introduction by Aruni Kashyap, has poems about violence and civil strife, and also those about folklore. Ronid ‘Akhu’ Chingangbam’s Your Constitution Has Nothing for Me is a lyrical disavowal of the state’s policies, invoking the visceral images of blood and war.
The book is an unprecedented attempt to shed a geopolitical light on a stretch of land, a region that has so far been imagined as having a curiously singular identity, which ceases to exist beyond political borders. However, experiences from the arc transcend any sort of boundaries, and change of culture, practices, beliefs, and language is fluid.

It’s an enjoyable, enlightening collection, but doesn’t shy away from revelations that could make one uneasy. No journey is without its hiccups and the contemplative nature of a few accounts is not sure of appealing to all. Despite an eclectic mélange of pieces spanning narratives from countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar the Indian states of Sikkim, Assam, Mizoram, the book misses a pervasive common thread, which could get irksome. Nevertheless, The Himalayan Arc makes for a compelling collection of work, important especially in the current times.

Monday, May 14, 2018

HYPER_REALITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE HOLY LAND

 
 Here's my paper which I wrote for  a class on travel literature in the 1600s at the Santa Fe campus of the Breadloaf School of English in 2000. Seems like an appropriate time to share this!


HYPER-REALITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE HOLY LAND

In addition to this act of penitence and grace, the journey to Jerusalem also held deep mystical and legendary meaning for medieval men and women, for the scared city was believed to be the center of the world, the omphalos or navel, the scared hub of the world's orb. At the same time, it was the ideal of the sacred city - for Jerusalem was both the center of Christian history, the stage of Christ's redemptive sacrifice and resurrection, and the end of all history.
(From the Introduction, Guide to the Holy Land, Theoderich - Ithica, 1986)


Guide to the Holy Land is a medieval guidebook written by Theoderich, a German monk of the 12th century. It is a text that explores the sacred geography of Jerusalem, and allows us, as contemporary readers, to follow some of the ideologies, stories and sights important to a twelfth century Christian pilgrim. We are led, in this process, through the pathways of mediaeval Christian constructions of Jerusalem as a holy city, and end up with a virtual tour of a hyperreal space built out of exclusions, ahistoricism, mythic realism and nostalgia. Following the constructions of space throughout this text is akin to a guided tour to the appropriation of Jerusalem for Christianity.

Written in the detail-oriented language of the guidebook, the text is bare of emotions, and except for the rare spiritual epiphany, does not allow the narrator to interject his subjectivity. The book focuses exclusively on the spatial and architectural aspects of the city, leading people up and down buildings, churches, historical sites, stories and relics with the same dispassionate interest. While the text is very clearly a guidebook, it is written in a style that hails the reader as a pilgrim present, virtually, in the space as Theoderich leads ahead through the alleyways and city boundaries of the Holy Land. In the prologue, Theoderich writes: "This we have done in order that, according to the best of our ability, we may satisfy the desires of those who are unable to proceed there in describing those things that they cannot see with their own eyes and hear with their ears." The text, then, is a virtual tour, inscribing within its words the sacredness of the architecture, and leading people on a tour through the process of reading. 

The Twelfth Century Renaissance, which led to a renewed interest in the classics, as well as re-readings of the Bible, meant Theoderich was addressing a well read audience, familiar with aspects of the Bible. It was believed that through the act of pilgrimage, people could reenact the sufferings of Christ and gain redemption. In addition, there was a resurgence of popular spirituality, with interests in the relics of saints. Medieval pilgrims re-enacted the suffering of Jesus and of the saints by thronging to major pilgrimage sites. Jerusalem was the most popular. For people who might not be able to make the actual physical trip, the guidebook served as a metaphorical journey, one that brought alive the sights and sounds of a space of sacred cosmology.

The book leads us into the maze of buildings, providing us an exhaustive and omniscient tour. A description of The Church of the Holy Sepulchur, takes us, step by step, through its importance, a historical note of its royal patron, its shape, its orientation, its exterior and interior frameworks, each door, the sepulchur, the altar, the paintings that adorn and illustrate each Biblical event that is believed to have taken place in that altar. The minute details of mosiac, gilt and gilded crosses function to heighten the sense of realism that pervades the description. The architecture, in this way, becomes constructed as a natural frame to contain the scriptures, reproduced in the forms of quotations, which reiterate, again and again, the death of Christ and his suffering.

The earthly Jerusalem was clearly not the heavenly Jerusalem, built out of jewels and twelve pearly gates. And yet pilgrimage to the earthly Jerusalem, envisioned to be the center of the world, was seen by many to lead them to a vision of the heavenly city, fulfilling the prophecies of the Apocalypse. The apocalyptic visions were translated, at this particular point in history, by the first Crusaders, who had occupied the city. This military presence and occupation is never mentioned by Theoderich, except in oblique references. This piece of selective exclusion, we can assume, was either because Theoderich presumed that his audience would know about the Crusades already or because he did not want to draw attention to irregularities in his carefully drawn picture of a naturalized Christian space.

Besides the heavenly and the earthly Jerusalems, then, we can posit a third one: the hyperreal Jerusalem. As defined by Baudrillard, the hyperreal is when an image no longer has a referent, no longer has any connection with any basic reality - it becomes it own pure simulacrum. This simulacra, or copy, has no reality behind it, other than its own. In Theoderich's account, we see this construction of a hyperreal Jerusalem, see this as clearly as if it were being drawn in front of our eyes, with the words and images of Biblical references, with the selective omissions of other religious groups, with the minute awareness to physical details that eradicate all other realities. The city stops being an idealized space drawn on the moorings of the ideological frameworks of Christianity, and starts to take off as a pure simulacra.

The guidebook is constantly constructing and reconstructing a perfect Jerusalem. The construction of space that occurs throughout the guidebook, drawing mainly from legendary stories from the Bible, shows us how Theoderich spatially takes over the city for Christianity. This is a city which has been woven out of the tangled threads of many histories for centuries, moves in and out of conflicting versions of history. By eradicating all political, economic and religious ambiguities, and highlighting very simple narratives taken from the Bible, Theoderich manages to construct an elegantly reductive version of history, using the architecture as "proof" and historical evidence of their actual occurrence. The ordering of space, in this way, becomes linked to the ordering of a atemporal History. This epistemological takeover of the city for Christianity  becomes a symbolic part of the Crusades, even though the author refuses to draw a linkage to his ostensibly spiritual project, and their "political" one.

Theoderich, drawing upon the historical understandings of his time, places Jerusalem at the center of the world. The world, envisioned as a mandala-like circle, places Asia at the top, Europe at the bottom, and Jerusalem at the center of this circle. The orientation of this map reflects the importance people put on the centrifugal energy that drew and attracted all sources of power to the Holy Land. Readers, thus, are interpollated as pilgrims, real or virtual, present or potential, into this religious and spiritual mapping of geographical space.

Like all pilgrims, they needed a guide, a map, a bounded route and a translator in order to show them the correct path, and to dechiper the meanings of unfamiliar signs and symbols. By serving as guide, Theoderich not only creates the itinerary of the pilgrimage and determines the pathways the potential pilgrims will take, but he also has a hand in the policing of meaning that goes with any act of translation. As the authority on the boundaries of the Holy Land, he has authoritarian control in deciding which monument is important enough to be on the tour, why a relic has meaning, why a certain sight should be illustrated with that story, and not any other. In the introduction, we are told that his guidebook was one of a kind, an eyewitness, personalized account unusual for the time. His striking emphasis and knowledge of architecture - which has led people to hypothesize that he might have had some training in the field - and his usage of it as "material proof" and rack on which to hang certain mythic stories, shows as the power the author has in shaping meaning even in a seemingly innocuous genre like a guidebook.

Architecture, in Theoderich's hand, becomes conflated with Evangelical significance and meaning. The architecture is used to reproduce a specific ideology of Christianity - Jesus was murdered by the Jews, he suffered, and this is all inscribed in the rooms, the steps, the mundane details of the buildings. In the very first chapter, we learn that two Roman princes have driven out the "murderers" of Christ out of their own land to live among foreigners, and many of the names of places have been changed.

We are given no information about any conflicting claims on religious monuments made by the large Jewish and Muslim populations living within the city. Jerusalem's sacredness has been appropriated by Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups for their own ideological purposes for millenia, but we only get oblique references to this, as in the story of the Temple of Solomon, which is built and razed and rebuilt through successive regimes of Christians and Jews. This careful construction of boundaries, architecturally and symbolically, around the terrain of meaning sets up an invisible wall around the dangerous Other, who are never addressed except as passive background figures, or dangerous infidels -  potential but containable threats.  

The emphasis on spatial clarity and organization, ironically, also functions to obfuscate the complex political and economic structures of the Holy Land. Jerusalem, as a trading city, located in the crossroads of commerce, was mined with economic and political interests. In the introduction, we are told that the pilgrims often came back loaded with trade goods, including slaves, that would offset their travel expenses, but we are not told who they traded with. What were the sectarian linkages in that time and place? Who traded with whom, and for what purpose? All of this is obfuscated, and lost, in the myriad of small details that make up the image of a land replete with buildings, and absent of human presence.

Nostalgia, according to Baudrillard, assumes its full meaning when the real is no longer what it used to be. As Jerusalem was stirred by the turmoils of the Crusades, the moral line between right and wrong, between the oppressors and victims must have become muddier. Could the Christians have avoided internal moral questionings as they tried to take possession of the city, bringing conflict and a military regime to the Holy Land? It is in this moment of crisis, when the holiness of the land, made sacred by Christ's suffering, threatens to disappear under the suffering of the ostensible "oppressors", that the reality principle must have become less absolute. And it is in this moment of crisis when there is the clearest imperative for nostalgia, for bringing up the loss of what used to be, but perhaps never was. It is, in this moment, that it is most important to ressurect the figurative, and this is what Theoderich does with such immense power.

His guidebook, in this way, comes alive with the myths of the Bible. We are told about the cradle where Christ used, we are given Mary's lock of hair, we are shown the Cross on which he died. There is no way to refute the materiality of such absolute evidence. In fact, the mythical figures are much more vivid, present and alive than the real human beings who live and farm in the land at that moment in time. Nostalgia, again is in evidence, through this fetishization of the lost object. A nostalgic sacredness is constructed by privileging of this mythological history. This privileging serves a double function by inflicting symbolic violence against the Other until they are virtually erased, while at the same time heightening the "reality" of the Biblical tales. By making the Jews invisible, and voiceless, for instance, he can them proceed to tell miraculous tales like the one where the Jew who tries to tear Mary's shroud from her dead body sees his arms wither without loss of realism. Architectural solidity forms an unshakable foundation for the miracles.
 
  Jerusalem, in this narrative act, turns into a clean museum, a theme park of Christianity. The Holy Land is captured and memoralized as a trendy and fashionable relic through the preservationist attempts of the text. It is a city consisting of a few iconic buildings. There is no cityscape, no bazzars, no life beyond that of the ones that Theoderich selectively maps onto his bounded space. Even the peripheral cities, which are given some marginal afterthought, seem to appear only in order to validate the center. The outsiders who are recognized, are placed within the proper place in the hierarchy within the map of Christianity. It is a text that manages, every effectively, to control its alien Others through a ethnocentric and Eurocentric frame.

Pilgrimage, a seemingly innocuous cultural phenomena, was used as a process of staking a claim, and putting up boundaries, around a spiritual center. The military regime protected the pilgrims that moved about the city. Pilgrims, by becoming part of the symbolic landscape, validate the sanctity of geography, and also gave a reason for militarization. Human beings were needed in order to stake a claim to possession, whether spiritual, religious or economic, and pilgrims fulfilled these function in mass, voluntary numbers. The Holy Land, in addition to other material resources, also lay claim to producing holiness - a commodity that could produce spiritual benefits to the one doing the consuming, and therefore, worth fighting for.

Theoderich ends as he began - with no definitive beginning, or closure. His is a truncated account, with no explanation of the process of arriving and leaving. His interest in pilgrimage as an unmediated interaction between the Holy Land and the pilgrim, points to his belief that spiritual development is attainable without mediation. As a universalized, complete, definitive, text on the Holy Land, his book provides a self help guide in that direction. His text closes with a reiteration of his original purpose: that the mind of the pilgrim might awaken with love for Christ with the knowledge gained about the Holy Land. The circularity, and echoing of purpose, in some way points to a non-linear framework where time has not progressed,  and re-echoes his view of an atemporal historical space within his narrative.

The function of a travel narrative is often to create a fabulous world that prepares people for a material reality. Through expectation, people come to demand what has been given to them virtually. By this subtle act of claiming - through nostalgia, and through an ending of history - Theoderich stakes a claim on Jerusalem for Christianity, and in the process delegitimizes the claims of all other groups on its physical and symbolic terrain. 


I wrote this paper for "TRAVEL LITERATURE THROUGH THE 1600s," which I took during a summer at the Santa Fe Campus of the Breadloaf School of English in 2000.

  

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Himalayan Arc

Here is an email I got from Amrita Mukerji, Deputy Managing Editor at Harper Collins India, about The Himalayan Arc. The anthology was edited by Namita Gokhale, co-founder of the Jaipur Literary Festival. My essay "The Quake" is also included. I attended the festival in 2010 but I could not go this year.

If you are interested to hold a book reading of this anthology in your city, please let me know and I will inform Amrita!

***

Dear contributors,

As mentioned in my earlier mail, the book launch for The Himalayan Arc was held in Jaipur at the Jaipur Literature Festival on 26 January at 1.40 p.m. Many thanks to all those who participated, and we missed those who could not attend. Unfortunately we couldn’t do a Facebook Live because of connectivity issues, but I have attached a few photographs of the event. We hope to hold more such events through the year, and if any of you would like to organize a book reading or event in your city, do let us know and we’ll discuss the way forward.

We have also started dispatching copies of the book to all, the international couriers are taking a little more time but you will all receive a copy soon. As mentioned earlier, if you have any suggestions for media reviews or publicity for the book, please do let me or Shabnam know and we’ll arrange to have copies sent.

The response to the book so far has been encouraging, thank you all for making this the wonderful read it is.


Regards,
Amrita





Thursday, November 23, 2017

THE DEATH OF RAMMOHAN ADHIKARI

Nepalese Clay, 21st Issue (2013)

SUSHMA JOSHI

On the morning his son was to return from Doha, Rammohan said to his
wife: “Lets go to Shivapuri forest, you and I. We can both take some
rope and hang ourselves together tonight.”

Rammohan Adhikari knew with absolute certainty, at five in the morning
on that warm July day, that he was going to die that night. The air
felt muggy—rainwater from a sudden downpour collected in slippery
puddles on the road, the looming new construction of his neighbour’s
rising building seemed to close in, heavy and oppressive, cutting off
the flow of air, and a low bank of dark rainclouds had hovered over
the Kathmandu Valley.

His wife, who was wondering what to feed her eldest son, who was to
fly in from Doha that afternoon, scolded him. “What kind of talk is
this? You must stop thinking these dark thoughts, and welcome your son
back home.”

                                                ***
Rammohan, peering from the grimy glass windows separating the waiting
crowd from those returning from abroad, saw a faded, balding man walk
out of Tribhuwan airport-this was his eldest son Prem, who he had seen
walk off to the United Arab Emirates fourteen years ago, and who he’d
seen three times since. Rammohan watched this tired man walk towards
him and had a tiny moment of déjà vu—only last Saturday, he’d stood
there watching from the same glass wall, looking at the long line of
men dragging suitcases. Except on that day, his youngest son was
leaving to go to Kuwait, instead of returning to Nepal. His broad back
exuded energy as the young man dragged his suitcase up the sloping
concrete and into the line of people waiting to leave. Wearing red
tika and a marigold garland, he had eagerly gotten their blessings,
then hastened off without a backward glance at his tearful mother.

This was Prem’s third return home since he’d gone to the Gulf. Their
daughter-in-law, who lived in the apartment above the old couple,
welcomed him with wavering uncertainty, as if she didn’t recognize the
man who she had married, and who had left for a foreign country,
fourteen years ago. Their three year old daughter, on the other hand,
gave him a raucous welcome, as if she knew the father who she was
meeting for the first time.

Prem worked for a company that helped disabled people, he told the
group of assembled people from his tole who’d come to meet him upon
his return. “You know those chairs that move. I help push the people
in it.” He gave them a tired smile. Rammohan could see his neighbours
turning away, uncomfortable, when his son shared this news. His son
worked with apanga people, pushing their wheelchairs? What kind of
profession was that? A sense of shame overwhelmed him—he thought about
all the other people who’d told him their sons worked in hotels, or
with big clothing companies.

Rammohan didn’t say a word, but his son caught his eye and gave him a
smile. “In Western countries, they respect people who work with the
disabled,” he said. “It is also one of the highest paid work.”
Catching the flash of disdainful anger in his father’s eyes, he added:
“And they also don’t believe disability is caused by past life sins
and karma. They think disability is caused by genes.”

“Jeans?” one of his nieces questioned her newly returned uncle.

“Genes. A code inside our body that defines who we are. It lies like
two intertwined snakes, so they say.”

“Eyyy, geeenes!” said his niece, nodding wisely. “We just learnt about
genes in science class.”

That’s all Prem said. Rammohan felt a tiny weakening of his resentment
and anger—perhaps, he thought, his son was doing something important,
after all. And then a wave of anger overcame him again. He has left
his parents in their old age to go push chairs for apanga people?

An old woman exclaimed that Prem had always been a kind and
compassionate little boy, and she always knew he would grow up to
serve those in need. Prem smiled then, a quick smile. That smile
seared through Rammohan. “How can he sit there, lapping up this
adulation?” Rammohan thought. “He has abandoned his parents in their
old age, to serve disabled strangers in a foreign country. Then he
boasts it is highly paid. How can he justify this?”

The flight had been long. People left, allowing Prem to take a nap and
shake off his tiredness. As the last woman walked out, Rammohan said
to his wife, again: “The Shivapuriforest. We can go together to the
Shivapuriforest.”

“Buda,” the old woman said. “Please stop this talk. I need to go out
and buy vegetables. I will get pumpkin shoots. It is Prem’s favorite
food. I know they don’t have it in those Khadhi muluk.”


                                                *

A day before Prem’s flight from Doha, Rammohan had an urge to eat mangoes.

“Here you go, Muma,” the student who lived in the room pulled the
curtain to their room, and handed a roll of bills to his wife. “Here’s
my rent. Please forgive the lateness.”

His wife started to count the notes. They lived from the rent they got
from tenants who lived in their two houses. The young student with the
lively smile was the son of an old friend of hers from her maiti. She
let him stay in the house for reduced rent.

“I want to die when one of my sons are in town,” Rammohan said to his wife.

“What are you saying?” She said. “You are barely sixty. We have four
sons. One or other of them will be around when you die, surely. Its
not like they are going to be away from Kathmandu forever.”

“But I haven’t seen them in almost four years,” he said. “One is in
Doha. Another in Malaysia. The third is in Saudi. And the fourth has
just gone to join his uncle in Kuwait. I don’t know if they will
return.”

“Well, they keep coming and going. Now let me think about what to do
with the money. We need to replace the mustard oil, and the salt
too…and I would like some brown sesame seeds, and some fennel.”

“Can I ask you something, Budi? Can you give me the Rs.500?”

“What do you want that for?”

“I want to buy some mangoes.”

“Five hundred rupees worth of mangoes? We can’t buy five hundred
rupees of mangoes.”

“But I want to eat some mangoes.” The old man, when he wanted to,
could be stubborn.

The old woman sighed. “Here you go,” she said, peeling off a green
hundred rupee note. “This is enough.”

“But I can’t just eat by myself. The entire family must eat,” he insisted.

“This Rs.100 will buy half a kilo. Its enough for you.”

“Everyone--all four of our buharis, all our grandchildren. They should
sit in a big line and eat today. Even if it is only a small piece.”

“Mangoes for everyone,” said his wife, sighing. Her husband could be
impossible sometimes. “We shall do as you say.”

She took the note, and called out to one of her daughter-in-laws, who
was at this very moment walking down the stairs, if she could buy the
mangoes. “Sorry, Ama, I am about to go out to meet a friend,” the
youngest buhari said, hastily, before she could be roped into an
errand. “But why don’t you ask Sabita?”  Sabita was the eldest
granddaughter, and more affectionately disposed to the old couple than
the other children.

“Sabita! Saaaabita!” the old woman went out to the balcony and called.

Coming, Muma.” The old man could hear the girls giggling in the flat
above—they were watching a film on Star TV. His granddaughters seemed
to talk endlessly about the latest film stars and models, for hours
and hours. As for his eldest grandson, who had grown old enough to
have friends who owned motorcycles, he had taken to going out every
weekend to places he would never see. The older his grandchildren got,
the less they talked to him.

Even the young ones were difficult to talk with—they chattered about
their boarding schools and lessons, and the old man couldn’t
understand any of it. It wasn’t the same lessons he had learnt during
his school years--no Sanskrit mantras, no Nepali poems, no dantay
katha. “During our days, we used to recite Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana by
heart,” he said to Ramu, his youngest grandson, one day. Ramu, taking
this as an accusation from his grandfather of his ignorance, retorted:
“But Bajay, that was during your time, in the village. We live in the
city now. Uilay ko kura khuili sakyo! Today this is our Ramayana…” And
then Ramu opened his mouth and sang:

Radha likes to party
Radha likes the moonlight

 And then he and the other children burst out into giggles at his daring.

Once Rammohan had tried to teach his eldest grandson the hanuman
chalisa. The young man had continued to play his video-game machine
while repeating half heartedly after him, until the old man, irritated
by this inattention and the ping! ping! ping! noises, had given up his
lesson. He sometimes got the sense that they lived in worlds so
different it could never converge.

About an hour later, Sabita did come down, and the old woman asked her
to go out and buy some mangoes, because Grandfather said so. The old
man, who was sitting there by her side, told his granddaughter this:
The mangoes should be true maldau, with thin, taut skin, and when the
top was cut off, they should be able to smell its fragrant origins.
The insides should be yellow, not orange, and they should be able to
bite into it and taste its firm flesh, without it falling into their
hands in a slippery mess. There should be enough for all four
daughter-in-laws and the seven grandchildren, even if they were very
small pieces.

                                                *

A few months ago, their well, which had served them well since his
earliest days in Kathmandu, had run dry. One day, his wife came to him
and said: “Buda, there’s no water.”

A new apartment building of thirty stories had risen up like a monster
in front of their house. The man who drilled for water said that he
used to get water at sixty feet--now there was none at two hundred
feet. The new construction had sucked the neighbourhood dry. They now
paid three thousand rupees for water, which arrived in a tanker two
times a month, and filled black plastic tanks that sat on top of their
roof. His whole life seemed to be turning into a desert, just like
those of his sons, who toiled in the hottest deserts in the world.
Turning on the TV terrified him—each day there was a news item of
someone who had committed suicide, or died in an accident, in the
Gulf. One day I am going to turn on the TV and see one of my sons
return as a corpse, he feared. Is this what he’d toiled in his youth
for—to sit in great fear in front of the television each day, fearing
death?

Their eldest son sent back money, his buhari had told his old wife.
But all that money went to pay for school fees, for books and for
clothes. Then there was the hair saloon his buhari went to each month,
and from which she emerged transformed, her hair looking strangely
yellow. She needed money for frivolous expenses, grumbled the old
woman--hair saloon, going to the cinema to watch the latest movie,
buying expensive shoes and hair dye. He and his wife had never seen a
rupee of the money his sons sent back home. His sons’ families lived
on different floors of their big house, and each dealt with their
finances themselves.

The old couple had enough—they had a number of small rooms they rented
in their two concrete buildings. The rent was enough for food and
other expenses. To supplement this, his wife went out every afternoon
to wash dishes at a house down near the square-this extra income
helped to buy his medicine. She didn’t say anything, but he felt her
reproach at having to demean herself to this level. She was, however,
determined to do her duty.

What he didn’t have was the sense of being surrounded by a family who
he had raised and loved. That appeared elusive. His sons, when they
called, never asked them if they needed any help with the household
expenses--they took it for granted the old couple could manage. The
people who surrounded him—four buhari, seven grandchildren—all
appeared so independent, so uncaring. Nobody asked him how he felt
that day. Nobody asked him or his wife what they were going to eat
that evening. Everyone was rushing in their own world, busy with their
lives. It felt at times as if he lived in an arid desert, just as his
sons were living in theirs, sweating in the Gulf.

Each dusk, the old man looked out over his balcony, and at the lights
twinkling at the giant city around him. Where had these buildings
sprung from? When he had looked out before from his balcony ten years
before, all he had seen were rice fields. How lovely it had been then!
They had been the only people with tall buildings in that
neighbourhood then. And now there were even taller buildings all
around him, cutting off sight of the mountains.

The air seemed to be getting tighter around his neck—he had asthma,
the doctors had told him. It was not curable, but they gave him
multiple inhalers and other medications. Those cost a fortune. His
wife put aside the money for them in an uncomplaining manner, but he
was aware, all too keenly, that the money could be used on other more
essential items.

Each morning, he looked out over the balcony and saw a giant city
sprawling at his feet—bigger and taller, denser. The trees had
vanished around him as he watched. And the older he got, the greyer it
got—buildings with blue glass fronts springing up all around, and the
streets thronging with new people, none of who he recognized.

He thought back to all the hard work he’d done in his youth. “Mari
mari kaam garyou buda, abha hera ta, saas pherna pani garo cha
ahilay!” You killed yourself in your youth, old man. Now look, you
can’t even breathe, the old woman often reminded him. Breathing had
become difficult these days. Maybe there was less air in the Valley to
breathe.

At forty-two, he’d saved enough to build buy an anna of land. A small
house was still on it, and a peepul tree shaded the roof from the rain
and wind. Then fortune had intervened. A businessman had offered him a
generous sum for it, since it was in a good neighbourhood. He’d cut
the peepul tree that fell in-between his wall’s periphery and the
temple next door. The temple priest had said he shouldn’t cut the
tree, but he had ignored the old man’s protests and done it anyway.
With the giant tree out of the way, the one anna had given him enough
profit to buy four anna outside the Ring Road. And this was too good
too give up.

This buying and selling had continued. Rammohan had bought a lot of
cheap land, felled a lot of trees, and sold it to people who wanted
big houses. And from that, he’d amassed enough for two big concrete
buildings inside the Ring Road. Two tall concrete buildings which had
been the dream of his lifetime. These buildings, he had always
imagined, would save him from a life of poverty and hardship. The
buildings would bring him happiness.

He’d thought one day he would leave them to his four sons. How was he
to know they would all leave one day, to pursue their own dreams? How
was he to know he would one day he’d be trapped in these buildings,
unable even to walk up and down the stairs, unable to breathe in a
city that seemed to be closing in on him with the concrete heaviness
of his own dreams?

                                                *
Sabita came back, carrying a bag of fragrant maldau mangoes. That
evening, when everyone was home, the old woman called them over.

Everyone sat in the old couple’s room, in a long line, as he wanted.
They were all laughing and talking, and he felt glad as he saw the
smiling faces of the young children arrayed in front of him. These
were his progeny—the children who would continue his long, proud
lineage.

His wife sliced the mangoes into small pieces, cutting them into five
pieces—two big slices on each side, then two small wedges from the
sides. The khoya, or seed, was saved for the smaller children, who
liked to suck upon them. There was a big buzz in the room as the
children licked up the drops of mango juice from their palms and arms.

“Are you happy?” the old man asked Nirmala, his youngest grandchild.

“Happy!” Nirmala announced, trying to lick her elbow. “Mango! More!”

“Your Baba will buy you more mango. He’s coming tomorrow.”

The little girl hadn’t seen her father, but she had talked to him on
the phone, and seen his face in the computer. She knew Baba was a
special man. And for the first time, he would bring her gifts, just as
the fathers of other little girls brought for them in the
neighbourhood.

“Baba!” The little one’s eyes brightened. “Baba make me housing,” she
said, using the English word. “Big housing. Blue glass windows!” Her
mother smiled and said to the old man: “Prem promised her that when
he’s made enough money, he’ll make her a tall building with blue glass
windows.”

A blue glass building! The old man felt a lump in his throat, as if
the waste and the loss of youth and time was too much for him to bear.
He thought about himself at his son’s age, driving like a maniac at
night to pick up customers. How reckless he had been! How he’d worked
months with so little sleep! He’s waited outside bars in Thamel,
waited for johns who’d stumble out drunk with young dancers on their
arms, all so he could have enough money for his buildings. He closed
his eyes, and for the first time in his life, he felt his life flash
before his eyes, and he felt its piercing emptiness.

                                                *
        Then his son Prem arrived in the afternoon flight. He was tired, his
father could tell. He smiled his old mischievous smile. His hair had
gone white, and he looked old. “Baba,” he said, and he bowed in that
old way, reaching all the way down to touch the old man’s feet, which
made the old man feel happy and humble inside.

Later, sitting on his father’s bed, chattering and laughing, Prem had
asked his father: “How are you?”

“I am good,” the old man said, his face taking on a closed look. “As
good as can be.” The fact that Prem spent his time working for apanga
people still rankled with Rammohan, but he knew raising it would be
useless. Rammohan couldn’t imagine why his son wouldn’t stay home and
take care of his aging parents, instead of taking care of disabled
strangers in a foreign country. But money was obviously paramount in
this day and age, and who was Rammohan to voice any dissent about his
son’s choice of a profession? I have no say in this, he thought, and
didn’t bring it up again.

“His asthma is worse,” his wife interjected. She was sitting below the
bed on a little chakati, and making some wicks out of cotton for her
evening pooja. “And the doctor has told him he needs to have…” here
she lowered her voice: “An operation.”

“An operation? For what?”

“He needs to have his water removed.”

“What water?” asked Prem, puzzled.

“You know, from over there.”

“Oh, you mean…?”

“From his private parts,” the old woman whispered in a penetrating
whisper, as if she would hide the news from her grandchildren,
scattered around and laughing from their own conversations. “From his
private parts.”

“Its going to cost Rs.60,000!” The old man spat. “That’s enough for my
kriya expenses. I’d rather spend that money on my funeral than on
removing my balls.”

“They won’t remove your…” The old woman looked at him reproachfully.
“Just the water. It will make you feel better.”

Prem did not know what to say. He agreed with his father, in
part—sixty thousand rupees did appear a large sum of money from an
operation which, it was clear, hit at his father’s sense of manhood.
On the other hand, the way his old mother looked at him, with those
mournful eyes, it was almost as if there was no other recourse. The
operation had to be done, and done in full, if his father was to be
taken care of properly in his old age. Mentally, he calculated where
the Rs.60,000 would come from—he couldn’t contribute any income to the
operation, and he doubted his brothers could either.

“Rs. 60,000 is enough for my funeral,” the old man repeated. “I’ll use
the money to pay for my kriya, not for this operation.” What, wondered
the old man, was the use of having your most essential part removed,
and for what? To enrich those nursing homes and doctors who kept
snipping off parts of you, one after the other? To add to the mountain
of medical bills people like his sons had to pay? They slaved in the
deserts of the Gulf, only to have their hard-earned money go towards
removing body parts from their family members. The whole world, the
old man decided, had gone crazy. People no longer followed natural
laws anymore. It was better to die, then to continue living, in this
world anymore.

                                                *
The old couple’s room was once again full of people. All four
daughter-in-laws, who quarreled about petty matters on other days,
joined together to welcome their eldest brother-in-law. The
grandchildren ran afoot in an excited buzz. For one small hour or so,
Rammohan felt as he had imagined his life would be, when he was
working all those long, hard nights of taxi-driving of his youth. He’d
be surrounded by happy grandchildren and loving children, he’d dreamt.
And here, with the old familiar smile of his son by his side, the
dream appeared real.

For a brief moment, as he felt his son’s hand rest on his shoulder,
Rammohan felt his life was complete.

At five pm, when all the house was quiet with people resting in their
own rooms, the old man walked into the puja room where his wife was
putting together the dhoop and batti for the night’s pooja. “Budi, can
you give me twenty rupees?” he asked.

The old man hadn’t worked in over a decade. He didn’t have money in
his hands since he stopped driving. The tenants gave the rent to the
old woman, who handled all the financial affairs of the household.

“Why do you want twenty rupees?” Then she opened her purse, and gave
him a fifty rupee note. “Here you go.” Twenty appeared so little.
Whatever he needed it for, a fifty was more in line with the times.

*
        Later, they learnt that the old man had gone to the small shop where
they sold the plastic mugs and buckets, and the feet of nylon and jute
rope. He had asked for four hands of rope.
        “Char haat dori?” the shopkeeper asked. “What are you going to do with it?”
        “I planted a guava tree in a flowerpot,” the old man answered. “The
tree got too big, and it broke out of the pot. I need the rope to tie
the pot back together again.”
        “Here you go,” the shopkeeper, a pleasant young man, said, handing
him the rope.
        Later, neighbours would report spotting the old man as he walked by,
carrying a coil of rope behind his back, peering at the trees. “What
are you looking at the trees for?” they inquired.
        He’d replied: “I’m looking for a tree in which I can hang myself.”
        “Hanging is such a difficult way to die,” one of the young men had
joked, thinking the old man was making fun of them. “Why don’t you try
some other method that is an easier way to go.” And then the young men
had laughed uproariously. Rammohan had smiled at them, as if he agreed
it was a good joke.

                                                *

        At around five thirty pm, Rammohan walked to the Kumari temple.
There, close to the temple, he saw a long column where a light was
affixed. The column was just the right height—it would make an
excellent place to die. Besides, he’d always wanted to die by the
Kumari temple, as he’d told his wife.
        That night, they all gathered in his room to watch the program on
Nepal Television—the funny program. The children laughed and laughed,
as if they couldn’t stop laughing. Prem teased his nieces and made
them laugh even more. The old man smiled along with them, happy at
last. He looked over at his son every once in a while, as if to make
sure he was still there.
        It had seemed so important, when they were trying to have children,
to have a son.
        “If you don’t have a son, who will give you the dag-batti?” his old
mother had admonished him. “When you die, you need a son to set the
funeral pyre alight.” How happy they had been, when the sons arrived,
one after the other. Four sons, all at once, like some boon from
heaven.
        “I had this son for a purpose,” he thought. “Now he is going to
fulfill his purpose.”
        Around ten pm, everyone retired to their rooms. The old woman fell
asleep on the sofa. For the past few nights, as if sensing his threats
about dying were real, she’d laid across her body across the door, on
the floor, as if she’d stop him from walking out at night when she was
asleep. But tonight, in happy exhaustion, she’d fallen asleep on the
sofa.
        The old man got up, and with great care, put on a clean and crisp
white shirt. He wanted to look good on his last day on earth. His
pants were black, and he took the time to iron them with care,
watching his sleeping wife through the half open door. Then he rifled
through his pile of Dhaka topi, till he found the one he was looking
for. The one with the tallest peak, which made him look elegant. He
looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like a bridegroom about to
go pick up his bride. He smiled. This was turning out to be a good
day.
                                                *

        At eleven at night, the old woman woke up, suddenly disoriented.
Where was everyone? She realized she’d fallen asleep on the sofa. Then
she looked around for her husband. He was gone. He wasn’t in his bed,
he wasn’t in the next room, he wasn’t watching TV. He was not in the
house.
        She called her son. There was no recourse—the sudden panic she felt
at her husband’s disappearance meant she had to wake someone, and her
son was the first one that came to mind. Prem, who was just falling
asleep, put on his shirt over his white vest, and quickly put on his
pants before taking a torch to go search for his father.
        “Where do you think he is?” he asked his mother.
        And for the first time, all those remarks that he had made came back
to her. “Lets go to Shivapuriforest, you and I,” he’d said to her,
only the afternoon before. “We can hang ourselves from ropes and die
together.”
        “I think he may be in the Kumari temple,” she said, as calmly as she
could manage. Because the second thought that came to her memory now,
with penetrating freshness, was this off-the-cuff remark: “When I die,
I’d like to do so in the Kumari Temple,” he’d told her one day, after
returning from the temple. Like all remarks of his, she had let it
pass without a second thought. Now it returned to her, like a
prophecy.

        And there he was, hanging, in his pressed pants and white shirt,
wearing his Dhaka topi like a bridegroom, on the pillar of the Kumari
Temple.
        At eleven thirty pm, even though they had not wanted to do it, all
the neighbours had awakened. At twelve, the police arrived. The police
had come from all from sides—east, west, north, south. They put their
arms around people’s necks and took them off to interrogate them about
what had happened.
        There was really nothing much to tell, except to say that the old man
appeared to have thought it out with care, down to the last detail. It
was clear he wanted to die while one of his sons were in town so he
could get the dag-batti from their hands. And, on that day, his eldest
son had just returned home from the United Arab Emirates.