Sunday, October 08, 2017
Monday, October 02, 2017
“Oh broken homeland, glued together, walking beside me with your faltering steps.”
Browsing the Internet for online literary journals, I got tired of coming up against prestigious “international” literary journals based in the suburban mid-west of America. The more international they claimed to be, the more they seemed to print stories about lawns and Graham crackers and squirrels on trees. I had a feeling that a nationality check would show all the writers came not just from one country, but probably within the same 100mile county lines. Its not as if Americans don’t travel, or write about other places. They do, but for some reason these cosmopolitan writers always seem to end up getting published in publications who don’t self-style themselves “international.” Hmm, I thought. Maybe the term “international” has another meaning when it emanates from these mastheads. A little disgruntled, a little restless, I looked again, and imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Arabesques, a literary journal that comes out of Algeria. Not only is it in two languages (English and French), but they seem actually to follow through with their international vision by publishing writers from different countries.
Arabesques publishes Arabic literature in translation, amongst others. Reading Arabic literature reminds one about the rich civilization, culture and arts of the Middle East—everything from poetry, literature and drama which continues to flourish even as it remains untranslated and unknown outside Arabic speaking countries. One such writer which we may not have heard about is Adonis. Adonis, poet from Syria, who now lives in Paris, may not be well-known in Nepal, but his name comes up each time the Nobel Prize committee sits down to deliberate whom to give the Literature prize. So imagine my delight when I got a book of Adonis from my friends a few months ago. Titled Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs, the book of poems by Adonis has been translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard, and published by the Lannan Foundation’s poetry series. Full disclosure—I met Adnan and Michael at the Bellagio Center in Italy, during which they were working on the translations.
Hearing Adnan, who himself is from Lebanon, read out the poetry was a moving and unforgettable experience. Perhaps some of the emotional resonance came from knowing that our own subcontinental culture of Hindi and Urdu (and via that, Nepali) has been touched and transformed by the poetic lyricism of Arabic. This poetry wasn’t so foreign, after all. I, a cosmopolitan Westernized Nepali whose first encounter is always with English, came to know that the strangeness associated with Arab culture was more a filter set up by other cultures.
Michael Beard, at first glance, appears an unlikely collaborator. Teaching at the University of North Dakota, Michael is not one of those super-driven people who populate comparative literature departments. The first thing one notices about him is his courtsey, along with his playful and curious nature. Then, within a day of two of knowing Michael, one knows that he is, in fact, the perfect translator. His genuine interest in people, cultures and everything in between is palpable. The heart of a translator determines how the translation turns out, and a writer (but especially a poet) is lucky when they find that indefinable mixture of heart, language and style. A translator of poetry must be open to every nuance, every possibility, every double meaning. A poem often plays with many disconnected images, metaphors, analogies, and allusions. Translation requires an open mind, and more than that, an intense interest in wordplay and an engagement to sit and rework the poem.
What I noticed from translations of Nepali poetry into other language is that a literal translation of poetry may not capture the soul of the poet’s intentions. Whereas somebody else who has the heart and mind of a poet, even though he doesn’t speak the language fluently, may capture the poetic intent with much more depth. Wayne Amtzis, whose translations of Nepali poets have now been anthologized by Norton, comes to mind—Wayne’s translations appear to me to not just grab the elusive nature of poetic language, but also to take it one step further by adding rhythm, aurality and flow. Literal translators often lack this intuitive sense of layered meanings, leaving the reader with a hollow feeling of disappointment and a slight feeling of protest and outrage (I’ll spare you my thoughts about which translation of a Nepali epic I think about as I write this.)
“Oh broken homeland, glued together, walking beside me with your faltering steps.”
So writes Adonis. Everybody who reads that line in Nepal no doubt shares my flash of recognition. Mihyar of the title refers back to the eleventh century figure Mihyar of Daylam (in Iran), a convert from Zorastrianism to Shia Islam. Mihyar was considered a major poet as well as an accomplished elegist, write the translators in their introduction. Mihyar of Daylam launched a “rebellious voice” inside the political and religious culture, making him an outsider figure who revitalized the poetry canon from the margins.
“He is a language glistening between the masts the knight of strange words.”
These lines by themselves describe Adonis more than any other description. Biographical searches on the Internet brings up lots of information about Adonis, but none quite captures his entirety. Born in Syria, educated in Beirut, then an eventual immigrant in Paris, Adonis exemplifies the modern man torn between different perceptions and desires. So let his poetry speak for himself:
“I stir up the hyenas in you. I stir up the gods. I plant discord in you and feed up to the fever. Later, I’ll teach you to walk without a guide. I am the pole to your equator, a springtime let loose. I am the shudder in your throats. In your words, there is a bloodletting of my own. You approach me like leprosy. I’m the one tied to your soil. But there is nothing that brings us together, whereas everything that separates us—so let me burn alone. Let me pass through you like a spear of light. I cannot live with you. I cannot live without you either. You are the undulations in my senses. There is no escape from you.”
Adonis shakes up my perception of “international.” Lets hope suburban American literary journals catch on to his magic.
(This article appeared in The Kathmandu Post in 2009)
You can buy Minhyar of Damascus, translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard on Amazon:
You can buy Minhyar of Damascus, translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard on Amazon:
Thursday, August 17, 2017
ECS Magazine, July 2017
My family’s surname is “Joshi,” derived from jyotishi, or astrologers. According to family lore, they fled the Mughal invasion and came to Nepal via Nainital, where they became court astrologers to the Shah monarchy. By my grandfather’s time, nobody on our side of the family knew anything about astrology, nor did they show any interest to pursue this arcane and antediluvian subject. My father, who has a BA in science, and my mother, who has a Masters degree in Nepali literature, both profess a steadfast disbelief towards the subject.
There were, however, enough relatives around to provide glimpses of a more interesting family history. I remember in particular one elderly relative in his eighties who did read charts, and who was treated with great respect not just because of his ability to read the future but also because he was rumored to be short-tempered. He was known to walk back and forth in his wooden balcony in the middle of old Kathmandu, and hurl insults at King Birendra himself when he was feeling cranky. But because he was an elderly gentleman and an astrologer, he was left alone in the Panchayat days You don’t want an angry astrologer reading your chart—one never knows, after all, what could be said in such a moment.
My parents never did the karma kanda necessary for me as a child—my mother is fond of telling me that my pasni occurred in Guheswori Temple, that I wearing a 13 rupee cotton frock and a 3 mohar underwear, and that instead of rice and 108 dishes I got to eat dahi-chiura (Thanks, mom.) She blames the Joshi family and says they never did the pasni ceremonies for daughters, but I know this is not so, because there is documented proof to the contrary. My three female cousins, all older than me, had their pasni ceremonies documented for posterity in rich Kodak Technicolor slides, showing them decked out in red embroidered velvet outfits and with all the attendent festivities, which we used to project onto a white screen and watch while we were children. Then there was the odd family tradition in which my father, who worked in Hotel Annapurna, would buy gorgeous birthday cakes for my brother and all my cousins—but somehow he never did that for me (My superloving dad was influenced by my mother’s “Cake is a western tradition,” school of thought, I fear. Yes, I know I have a bad planetary configuration, but come on…) The only thing my parents did do correctly in the traditional realm, it seems, was to get a real astrologer to make a real birthchart for me.
Which is why that yellow piece of paper took on special significance when I finally saw it, rather late in life. And which I took with me to my first astrologer visit, at eighteen—a friend’s mother knew an astrologer in Ekantakuna, and she took me and another friend with her when she went. What I remember about that moment was the way in which this unassuming man sitting in his leaking room and charging a hundred rupees for his service, seemed to give meaning and direction to the people whose charts were being read. Later I would come to see how astrology functions as psychotherapy, as group counseling and as mental health support for a culture where none of those support systems exist through the medical or social service systems. Astrologers can act as financial advisors, marriage and divorce counselers, study abroad consultants, migration advisors, teachers and political advisors, amongst other roles.
I did not pay much more attention to astrology after that till I was 29, sharing an apartment in New York with two musicians and a poet. One of my housemates, a jazz musician, sat with me at the kitchen table that summer evening when the lights went out all over New York, and told me that 29 was the age of Saturn’s return. Matt Lavelle is the least likely astrological guru I could imagine-he played the trumpet and the saxophone and to make a living he worked in Tower Records. But his words stayed with me, and perhaps because it came from such an unexpected source I began to wonder if people’s lives were indeed affected by the rhythm and movement of the planets. I was after all in New York right after 9/11, where jobs were hardest to find and I was trying to make a living teaching students at the City University in New York. Saturn was at its peak, and I could feel the planetary heaviness.
So what exactly was Saturn’s return? Saturn’s return, it turns out, is the amount of time it takes Saturn to do a full perambulation around the zodiac and come back full circle to the place where it was when a person is born. According to Matt, that was heavy but powerful moment of transformation. This got me thinking. Did the movement of the planets moving in their cosmic pathways have a powerful push and pull on human beings? Were we just stardust, connected to the constellations and the planets more intimately than we could imagine from our location of human supremacy and arrogance?
When I returned to Nepal shortly after, my brother printed out a kundali for me with his software. There was a great deal of talk about which software was the best one. I could see that this was a complicated program, with multiple functions for calculations of many aspects of time and space. The only problem was that I didn’t know what they signified. Also there was that sudden silence and the pursed lips when he looked at certain aspects of my chart, which vexed me. The only way to know what was going on, I thought, was to learn astrology myself.
Which is what I did. From 2009, I started to read all the jyotish texts I could find, including the Brihat Parasara Hora Shastra, the original text on which modern Vedic astrology is based. BV Raman’s Three Hundred Important Combinations is an easy read, and allows for beginning astrologers to quickly trace the combinations of planets on their charts, and how those “yogas” affect the houses in which they are placed. For those looking for a lucid and well-written book about the basics, Astrology of the Seers by Dr. David Frawley provides a simple introduction. With the advent of Youtube, the internet has also exploded with astrologers of all backgrounds teaching their subject. In particular, I find a young man called Kapiel Raj, who teaches with a refreshing mixture of humor and pop cultural pizzazz, to be bringing jyotish to a new generation of learners.
Jyotish is an ancient, vast and complicated subject, intertwined with many different texts and traditions from North and South India. It is disheartening for me when I find that most people dismiss it outright without knowing anything about its history, philosophy, and practice. For most people educated in the Western system, jyotish is a folk tradition rife with superstition and fear, who they associate with unscrupulous astrologers using the predictive techniques to extort money from gullible customers. As I started to provide readings more frequently, I realized there was a logic and reasoning to the “dakshina” offering. When my Newar physiotherapist asked me to read her chart, she brought me a small offering—Rs.101 in an envelope. I protested, she insisted--because, she said, the reading would not be effective unless I was paid for the service.
The logic of the “dakshina” became even more clearer to me when two British ladies who’d approached me via the web got a reading from me, treated it in an offhand and disrespectful manner (I was a “fortuneteller” from which they were having a bit of fun), then paid me a fraction of what I’d said my fees was. It occurred to me that in fact the reading wasn’t very fruitful for them as it could have been, and that they had missed an opportunity to think about their life’s meaning and purpose in a deeper and more profound manner. This may be the reason why the ancient texts warn that this subject must never be taught lightly, and never to a student who would abuse its knowledge or disrespect it.
During 2009, when I was 36 (the age when Saturn matures, naturally!), I came to meet an astrologer called Santosh Basistha. Santosh-ji reads the charts of everybody important in Nepal—once he had to run and hide from his overeager fans who were showing up at his house at all times of the day and night. In this unmarked new location we sat chatting with his neighbor, a shopkeeper, who was incredulous at the sheer number of celebrities who had shown up at his doorsteps, seeking the man. Guru Basistha is a folksy hero with an actual classical education in astrology from Benaras Hindu University, imparting equal parts astrological and psychological analysis, gossip, and folk wisdom along the way. He was an instant hit with all of my friends—including one who got a reading just as she was coming out of a brutal 18 year old Rahu dasha, to a more easeful and kind Jupiter dasha. “People may appear to be a certain way, but only we jyotishi can see their true nature,” he’d said once. “We can see them with the inner eye.” Over the years, I’ve come to understand what he means by that line.
As many of you reading this article know, I was buried in Mangal Hiti in Patan during the 2015 earthquake, and was bedridden for almost 4 months. During that time, what got me out of my depression was a jyotish reading—a friend of mine organized for me to do the reading for her husband’s business partner. Here was a real job and I was forced to get myself up on bed, inspite of the excruciating pain on the left side of my back. For the first time, I had to sit up: there was no other choice. As I wrote up my analysis by hand and recorded it on my cellphone, it occurred to me that the act of healing, which is often integral to an astrological read, was a two-way street. Not only was I doing an act of spiritual healing for my client, but I in turn was being healed by this process.
Later that year, this man asked me to do a read for another of his colleagues. What I could tell from this second chart is that he had suffered gravely in some manner, perhaps because of his health. “You have faced some torturous times due to your health,” I wrote in my 15 page report which I sent him. It turned out that this young man had had cancer, and been in treatment which required him to be put into a machine and in treatment for almost six hours at a time. When he showed up at my house, he said to me: “You know me better than I do.” It is in moments like this that the truth of jyotish rings true—that often the “science of light” looks far deeper into the realms of the human soul than x-ray machines ever could. Six months later, I received a letter of thanks from him which said that this reading had been very important for him, and he was still processing everything I’d told him. I hoped, in some small way, that the reading had provided a session of “complementary healing” to what he’d already received from medical doctors—and also provided him a little window to look into and face that darkest of topics, the fear of death.
After doing readings for almost 8 years, I have come to this conclusion: that there is an unnerving correlation between jyotish rules and how it manifests in the material world. One could argue that 9 planets, 12 houses and 27 constellations, tied to various vague possibilities, could in fact be applied to almost any situation and come across as halfway true. But in fact there are not just probabilities but also certainties, and the more I practice it, the more I can see that there seems to be some strange connections between the movement of the planets and our own infinitesimal selves.
I was trained in social sciences in one of the best universities in the world (Brown University.) I have my fair share of scientific skepticism and critical thinking skills. So that it perhaps I spend as much time as I do thinking about this: what exactly is the reason that a planet’s movement from one side of the zodiac to the next could trigger a completely farreaching change in a human being’s life? Lets think about it. If we agree that animals are in fact affected by the movement of the Moon, and the lunar tides, we can agree that perhaps humans are too (our emotions change during full moon, as research suggest.) Then there’s the Sun, which also rules the lives and rhythms of plants and animals. This we can see and document and agree upon. Why not then that the other seven planets also have a similar impact on the lives of animals—including humans? To me, this doesn’t seem as absurd and farfetched as Western science would like us to believe.
Saturn is the heaviest planet and while it passes through the house where the Moon is placed, as well as the two adjoining signs, this is the considered by the jyotishis to be the most difficult time. This time is known as “sade-sati,” or the 7.5 years it takes Saturn to pass through these three houses. I don’t see why that should seem so absurd—considering that Saturn is the heaviest planet, no doubt exerting a powerful gravitational pull on our puny physical bodies. Almost everyone I know who has left an impact on this world on some material level, a famous scientist, artist, writer, philosopher, etc, tends to have either an exalted or a retrograde Saturn. Saturn is the karaka for hard work and discipline, an exalted one is particularly powerful and retrograde makes it even more extreme. In other words, the weight of Saturn is often transformative, says astrology.
Mars in Third House is supposed to show athletic powers. During the Olympics, I found that those who excel in athletics do have Mars in some powerful position, or conjunct other planets which magnify its power. Invariably those with Mars in Third are athletic in some form or fashion—if they were born in a country where they are not allowed to practice athletics, you can be sure they find ways to be competitive in some other way! Does the planet Mars somehow trigger certain sections of our bodies and brains, since it was exerting a certain gravitational pull during our birth? I don’t see why this hypothesis should be dismissed outright—after all, even Western scientists have very little idea of what goes on at Mars, let alone all its gravitational fields, and spectrums of light, and energies it is beaming into our planet and into our miniscule bodies in the moment of our birth! So why would we reject this idea outright? But Western education, oddly, does just that—reject the idea that these powerful revolving grahas above us have absolutely no push-and-pull in our lives and the way certain events manifest into our lives. The stars are separate from us—inert bodies in the sky, not the powerful, pulsing forces of divinity as the Hindus worship them as being.
On a visit to Dhulikhel, learning of my interest in jyotish, an elderly Newar friend of mine brought out a kundali, the kind which I’d never seen before. It was a paper scroll, rolled up about 30 to 35 feet in length, written up not just with the divisional charts I was used to reading, but also markings I had never seen before. What were they? Who knew? I would have to do make a copy and send it to different astrologers to see if they understood it. He said that the scroll had almost been cremated with his maternal uncle’s body, as is the tradition with birthcharts (once your life story on this life is finished, so is your chart), but then he persuaded his relatives to let him save this magnificent chart. I asked him if the detailed readings that had been predicted for his uncle had come true. He said it had, and that he’d died quite close to the age in which his death had been predicted.
Life can be predicted, but can death? One woman told me a jyotish told her father that a “khadgo” time was upcoming, and that he had to be careful. His father did not believe this astrologer and went on the trip—and then died on the month his death was predicted. “Do you think it was psychological?” I enquired. “Perhaps he feared subconsciously he would die, after hearing this prediction.” She shook her head. “He was bitten by a mosquito and died of meningitis,” she replied.
After looking at people’s charts for almost 8 years, I can say with full confidence that there are freaky “co-incidences” which our limited Western educated brains would simply not feel comfortable handling. Which can open up, if nothing else, an understanding that the cosmic system is larger than our human-centered understanding of it, that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to time and space, and that the world we know through our limited senses and knowledge systems is bigger and vaster than we will ever know.
This then is the fruit of studying jyotish in many ways—a broadening up of the consciousness, a humbling of human arrogance and certainty, and a certain giving up of agency to the divine powers that be which can often bring incredible relief when people are going through their toughest moments, which happens to the best of us. Out of nine planets, four are benefics and five are malefics—meaning that nobody is going to be spared the human griefs and tragedies that beset everyone at some point or another in their lives. Jyotish allows and accounts for these moments, predicts it beforehand, and readies people to think about life in a more mutli-faceted and complex manner than the linear, modern ways in which we now parse the darkness and lightness of life.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Read my short story "Ming's Defense" in Southward, the Munster Centre's literary journal, this July. Its about a talking tiger--a short story which I wrote in 2003 while living in Harlem, New York.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
Saturday, March 25, 2017
The Greyhound bus finally arrives, but my box of books is lost in transit. Three people, including me, sit there arguing with the manager about how this has been the consistent principle of Greyhound, and how its time they took responsibility. After three days in the bus, this is the final straw. I would have spent about the same amount of money if I had tried to get a cheap airline ticket, I realize belatedly, instead of spending another hundred dollars in transportation and hotel charges. But there is nothing to do. Here I am in Albuquerque, a day before school started, stuck in a small town of superb suburban sprawl and no public transportation. I call up the Yellow Cab, and I call the Zia Hotel, prominently displayed in the Albuquerque's information booth.
“You are Indian?” the very Indian voice at the other end asks me.
“Nepali,” I answer.
“You are alone?” the woman says, with the curiosity that tells me I am once again stepping into a very small, very surveilled world.
“Is that a problem?” I snap. I am in America, for god's sake. People are not supposed to be asking me that question.
“No, no.” says the voice at the other end, hastily. “I just wanted to know how many people there were.”
The Zia Hotel, I realize too late, is a dilapidated motel with flaking blue paint and rickety planks nestled in-between downtown and the posh area. Three straggly characters are hanging out in the stairs – a Native American woman who doesn't look towards me; a young white man, in his twenties, his eyes peering out to the world with the haunted look of the abandoned; and a thin, weedy man reeling drunkenly in a red t-shirt splattered with white paint.
I push the smeared glass door, but it will not open. “The bell. The bell.” The three of them yell at me. “The bell!” they say, as I fail to grasp that the door is locked from the inside. I look around desperately, trying to see the bell. Finally I locate it, on the side of the plank of the wall.
The door is opened by a middle aged Indian woman with broken teeth and a warm smile.
“Come in,” she says, giving me a conspiratorial look. “Bring your bag in here.”
She makes it sound like somebody could make a snatch for it in the five minutes it will take me to check in. But I drag my heavy bag two feet into the room. It is a long passageway, converted to a convenience store, stocked with bright, clean bottles and tins with colorful labels. It is a contrast to the dingy, drab porch. A long counter slices the room in half, horizontally. The Indian woman stands behind it.
“You are staying one day?” she asks me.
“I'll leave tomorrow morning.”
“I'll charge you twenty then.” It is more than advertised on the billboard, but I do not ask any questions. She gives me a key marked 203.
“I've put you in the back, so you won't be disturbed. This key is for 207,” She says, looking at me meaningfully. I do not ask her why the key for 207 says 203. I am sure there is an explanation, but it seems like not the time to ask about it.
I give her the three dollars for the key deposit, and am about to leave.
“Twenty dollars,” She says, eyeing me grimly.
“I'm sorry. I didn't realize I had to pay right now.” My voice trails off as she looks at me as if she suspects that I will walk off any moment without paying the bill.
“Somebody will help you put your bag away.”
A man in a pink cotton shirt, with strange still eyes and long blonde hippie hair carries my bag up the rickety wooden stairs. He had just been standing in the office. I assume he is a resident.
“Over here.” I beckon to him as he starts walking off towards 203. He puts it down outside 207 without a word. There is something about his eyes that make me feel like I am staring into the eyes of a man on the run.
“Thank you.” I say effusively. Thoughts of serial murderers and young women disappearing from motels cross my mind. He looks at me and can read the thoughts in my eyes.
“Don't worry about it,” he says as he leaves. His voice is a deep cultured East Coast voice.
I put my bag down and look around the room. A smell of urine, like it has been seeping into the dingy brown carpet and the old furniture for the last three years, hits my nostrils. It is acrid, and makes it painful to breathe. The heat has been keeping it in gentle circulation in the room. There are five grains of dried rice on the table with the telephone. The lock in the door has apparently been cut twice, and the chain hangs limply, with no metal implement on the doorjamb to receive it.
I decide I cannot stay here for the night. I have to call the Yellow Cab and get out of here, even if it means forfeiting my deposit. Now I know why the woman had insisted I pay today, and not tomorrow. I lift the receiver and try to dial out. A cheerful dial tone trails off into dead silence each time I hit a number.
I decide to go down and see if I can find a bank. I need to withdraw some money if I am to plan an escape from the Zia Motel. I walk out of my room, and lock my door. In the next room, I can see a man with terribly thin limbs lying on the floor, leaning on the bedframe. He looks straight at me with a glazed, terrified look in his eyes. We stare at each other for a few seconds, and then I walk away.
The Native American woman, the man with the haunted eyes, and the drunken man in the red t-shirt are still sitting on the stairs.
“Do you know where I can find some food?” I ask them.
“Over here. El Paso,” say all three, eager to be of assistance.
Then the man says: “What kind of food place? Do you want a restaurant?” He looks at me intensely, as if he suspects that I am one of those rich broads who frequents fancy restaurants. I am dressed in my sleeveless brown dress and green bangles.
A burrito is fine, thanks, I say.
“Over there. I'll show you.” Says the Indian woman, walking with me.
“What's your name?” I ask as we walk.
“Shelly.” She says beaming, giving me a hand to shake.
At the edge of a major highway, she stops and points across. “Over there.”
The burrito is dripping with yellow cheese.
“Do you know a bank around here? An ATM machine?” I ask desperately. The young woman behind the glass window pops her head out, looks at me blankly, and says with a heavy Spanish accent: “Oh, maybe down there. I'm not sure.”
I ask three people walking down the street. Nobody knows where the nearest bank is. I wonder whether people survive on a barter economy here, or they are so used to cars they can only drive to their nearest, most intimate banking institution.
I walk back to the Zia Motel, resigned to my fate. The three people are still hanging out in the stairs.
“So where you from?” I ask Shelly, the Indian woman. She said she is half Cheyyene, half Navaho. She had left Phoenix fifteen years ago because there was nothing there, and it was hot. So she came here, and looked after the office when the owner was not around, and made sure the residents had toilet paper.
As I stood there eating, I noticed a faded sign on one of the posts. Halfway home for young adults, it said. I was a bit confused. Did the motel also functioned as a half-way home during off seasons? My understanding of motels was that they were institutions for temporary residents. This house seemed to be full of people who looked like they had been living there since the bomb went off in Hiroshima.
An older woman with big blonde bangs and a bright pink blouse came out and sat on the stairs with me. She was followed, very quickly, by a long woman who was so thin her t-shirt hung on her body, and the huge frames of her glasses hid her face. I had a sense that the two of them were coming to suss the new resident out.
The blonde shakes her head in silence as she sits there on the steps and counts a huge handful of quarters with the painful concentration of somebody who is counting out a very important amount of money. “Angel, do you have enough?” The long woman shakes her arms out and asks the blonde.
Angel shakes her head anxiously, then puts them back on the ground and recounts them all over again.
“Hello.” I say.
The long woman looked at me. There was a moment of silence. Then she said: “The federal attorney was shot and killed and they finally realized that they made a mistake, but since the Indiana federal judges did not want to admit their mistake, they kidnapped me and took away my military uniform - I was in the Army, where they do brainwashing and other experiments, and put me in the federal court in charges of killing the attorney, but since there was no evidence they could not let me off because there was no evidence, and therefore it proved that the federal court had been right to prosecute and the American judicial system and the psychiatric system was a big scam, and the federal attorney had been killed and they were still after innocent people without proof and I know that people are out there dressed as military to harass people who did not kill the federal attorney…”
This was addressed to a man with military pants and a big, built body who arrived briefly in a racing bike, disappeared into the building, came back and unlocked his bike, gave the federal attorney's murderer a dirty look, and then left again.
“What do you think of the federal judges?” I ask Angel, wondering if she can enlighten me about her friend. The woman seemed to make complete and logical sense with each sentence. And yet, when I listened harder, all of the sentences did not link together. Her story was a bit like Escher's drawing of the house that looks like it leads somewhere and seem to make complete sense, until you look really closely and you realise that it actually leads nowhere. The woman, like the drawing, was making me doubt my own perception. Maybe she was a fugitive of the McCarthy Era, still hiding because she didn't realize that it had been over for the past four decades.
Angel shook her tinted blonde curls and started counting her quarters again. “There she goes again,” she muttered, as her friend started looping her story in incredible, brilliant logical sentences that encompassed everything from the US military system to the loss of modern sanity, without a beat. “Telling the same story over and over and over again.”
A malnourished man came limping down the verandah in a red tracksuit. A car stopped and disgorged a flamboyant couple, an Indian man with a cowboy hat and a blonde straight from a B rated Western movie. Only she came nearer and I realized she had a white plastic implement on her throat. It looked like a upright plastic capsule and appeared to have a hole that she could close off with her finger, like a flute, after which she proceeded to speak in a whisper.
“I paid her fourteen dollars but I still owe her nine,” she whispered. “Where is Daisy? I need to talk to her.”
“ Oh, she just left, then. She left to go to church. To her mosque.” Shelly replied. She talked about Daisy in the hushed tones that people usually reserve for Very Important Persons. In the tone of Shelly's voice I suddenly saw how they must view Daisy: as a woman with a small empire, riding around in her car and her fur coat, all of her minions waiting for her beck and call. Shelly has a black fungus like growth on her cheek, and having shaken hands with her and then eaten a burrito with the same hand I am gripped by paranoia. I can feel the black fungus slowly spreading in my stomach linings.
The motel, I began to realize, was peopled by people on the margins of life - junkies, alien kidnapees, Indians with lost souls and schizophrenics.
“And why are you here?” I ask Angel with mounting anxiety. The place makes me feel like how my bus-seat companion Sarah had described her childhood in Arizona. "I felt I would never get out of here," she had said. They will suck me in here for ever.
“I am here because I happened to be here,” She replied.
That's a good reason as any, I reply.
I had a brief moment of paranoia as I wondered if the owners were dealing in heroin, and if so, I was going to get framed and busted for something that I would never know about as I ended my life in a maximum security prison in the state of New Mexico.
I take out my chupi, a small knife that I had bought from a Tibetan nomad in the mountains of Mustang, and stuck it by my bed. The shower scene from “Pyscho” was not far from my head as I got into the tub and opened the rusty taps. I left the door open, in order to have easy access to bite any aggressors who might show up at any moment. The door had one flimsy lock, and it looked it had been broken in already.
The phone rings, shattering the urine saturated, stuffy heat silence of the motel room.
“Hello, Tara?” The bright voice of the owner. Instantly, all my anger falls away. They should warn people about this place, I was thinking. They should let unknowing people walking out of the bus-station that this place is a transitory home for disturbed youth. But as I hear the kind voice of the woman, benign, completely uncomprehending, I realise that I am on a different plane.
“My daughters are going to the mall.” Her voice continues. “Would you like to join them? They are a little bit younger than you, but they are good girls.”
“Thank you so much.” I say, all my anger melting away. I sincerely appreciated anybody who would take me away from this urine smell at that moment, for any length of time. “I will come right down.”
I walk down. Shelly is still sitting on the steps, the left side of her face powdered by some dark fungus, her eyes furtive as she looks at me halfway. I try, without success, to start up a conversation with her when I see a red car arrive. There she is, says Shelly. A teenage girl in a short bob drives up. She gets out of the car, looks straight ahead, and gives no acknowledgement of our presence. I try to catch her attention, but she gets out and rings the bell without looking at me.
A woman in her mid-twenties, with shoulder length hair and flowing mauve cotton pants, opens the door. She is brown as henna, with a smile that reminds me of small towns baking in the heat of India, bread frying in hot oil, bangled hands clapping out the rhythm of large weddings.
“There she is,” she says, a smile breaking open her face as she sees me. “Tara, this is my sister Ruhi. She is coming with us to the mall.” She informs her sister.
“Oh really.” The teenager is cool, slightly curt. She is crisp as a potato chip in her short bob and a no nonsense denim overall dress.
“Hey baby! Give me a ride, give me a ride.” A man starts yelling from the balcony. Ruhi looks straight ahead, with no sign that she has heard any of the commotion, gets in the driver's seat and drives us off.
She is nineteen, I find out. In college in a biology program. She wants to be a doctor.
I am confused by the sudden shift from a halfway home to a causal, suburban reality that pervades the car as we head out to the mall. Do the sisters ever talk about the people who live in their motel? Are they even aware of the poverty, the mental illnesses, the welfare lifestyles that surround them? Or is this complete denial one way to create a transparent, plastic boundary that allows a teenager to live in the ghetto and still go to medical school?
My first instinct of irrational anger and confusion wants to blame these two women for the poverty and misery of their mother’s tenants. How could they not see the unsanitary depths of poverty that their tenants were living in? How could they make their livings from such direct exploitation? Zaida looks at me and talks about her grocery store with such warmth and openness I feel silenced. What could I ask her: By the way, have you noticed that half the people who live in your motel seem to be mentally ill, and living in abject poverty? And by the way, how do you feel about that?
“Dad was saying the milk had run out. He was asking me where he could get some more, so I gave him Jeff's number and asked him to give him a call later.”
Zaida turns to me and explains: “We have just started a convenience store, you know. It's so difficult, the business. We started that three years ago and still we have no profit. We just break even.” She looks at me directly in the eye. I have barely met her for half an hour and already I feel like I have known her all my life.
They are from Kutch, in Gujarat. Their grandparents moved to Kenya. They had grown up in Kenya before moving to the US eight years ago. They have that warmth of people who grew up in a tight-knit community, and who can radiate a sense of inclusion without even trying.
The business is hard, she explains. A friend of hers was supplying the convenience store with milk. They put a sign saying: $1.49 for three gallons and the milk ran out in two days. So now they had to get some more.
We stop at the mall. “We are going to a birthday party after this. I hope you will come with us.” Zaida says causally. I am charmed by their easy, informal inclusion.
The two of them head towards Gap Clothing. They start browsing in the sale section. Eventually, they pick a grey shirt. “I think he has one of these grey shirts, Ruhi. Are you sure he's not going to be wearing that tomorrow?” says Zaida.
“I can't remember.” Says Ruhi.
“How do you guys know what he will be wearing tomorrow?” I ask. This omniscient knowledge strikes me as incredible. I didn't know what I would be wearing tomorrow, how could these two girls know what their friend was wearing on his birthday party?
“Well, you see, we see them all the time so we know what they wore yesterday, and we know what they will wear tomorrow. We also know that these three brothers share their clothing, and one of them is moving out to college, so we are getting him this grey shirt even if he has one like this already since he's going to lose half his clothing in a few days.”
We drove up to a glitzy diner with red neon sign saying: COME HERE FOR FOOD. We walk up the wooden partition, and behind the screen is a long table with twenty Indians. Ruhi and Zaida say hello to Hasina, the wife of the birthday man. It is going to be a surprise party, so he is not here yet. I walk behind them and sit down at the table. There are hugs and kisses. Ruhi sits next to a young boy and talks with him intensely all night long. Zaida holds conversations with everyone, talking on her cellphone every once in a while. The men ignore me completely. I feel conspicuous in my tattoo and short sleeved shirt.
I start talking to a couple from Kenya with the desperation that overcomes uninvited guests when they find themselves in a strange party. She is a community nurse, working in mental health counseling. She had a pointed pixie face, and henna red hair. He is in hotel management. He is wearing his safari hat, and looks like a South American. They are Ismaelis, she tells me. They are East Indians from Kenya.
Hi, I'm Salma, says a beautiful young woman who sits next to Zaida and sits chatting with her. We are best buddies.
Zaida tells me that there is pressure from her parents to get married, that they said she could always marry now and go to school later, but she wanted to set herself up first, have her business before she got involved with anyone. Yes, she knew all the men here, they had grown up together. She felt like they were kids, always going to clubs. One of the men had recently gotten married, to a woman from Vancouver. Her parents wouldn't mind if she chose her own husband, as long as he was a Shia Muslim.
Finally, Ruhi decides to drive home, and I go with her. “Salman and I are in the same class. Its good to have him there, so I can have someone to study with. I want to have fun too, when I see all my friends going off to have fun. But when I know he's studying, I know there's somebody out there who's studying with me.” She drives with the consummate skill of a born American. Her sister, on the other hand, still doesn't know how to drive.
“Now I can't study if he goes home. If he leaves, I go too.”
She drops me off. “Well. It was nice to meet you. Keep in touch and come down and meet us during the weekends.”
“Pest control! Pest control!” somebody bangs on my door the next morning. I wake up, my throat sore, having dreamt terrible dreams that my best friend from college, Naomi, was being murdered by her boyfriend. I open the door to see the friendly face of Daisy, the owner.
“Wait. I'll leave,” I say, as I see the two fat men waiting behind her, with cans full of pesticides. A sudden horror washes over me. All the tenants, lying wasting in their roach and urine infested apartments, were going to be cleaned by pesticide. They were too stuck in the place, like dogshit brought in on dirty shoes. They were going to be sprayed.
I drag my bag out and ask the pest control men: Can you drag my bag down?
Wait, says Daisy. Let them spray the place first.
So I wait, holding my breath and trying not to inhale any chemicals as the men spray around the bed, and then shake off the drops of pesticides at the end of the rubber pipe into the floor. One of the big men, a beefy man with a kindly face, finally drags my bag down the stairs.
“What is it?” I ask, pointing to the big metal container with the rubber pipe that he was holding in his hands.
“It is Conquer.”
“An orthophosphate. It attacks the neurological system of cockroaches, and kills them,” he says. I have a sudden vision of all the malformed bodies of the tenants in the house. Most of the people in the building wandered around, looking like they had gone through a metamorphosis, transformed into misshapen beings with limp hanging arms and twisted joints. How did the orthophosphate deal with human pests?
“We also use Baygon.” The man speaks hesitantly, seeing the horror in my face.
Daisy comes back, and pays them their twenty dollars. “Thank you, maam,” says the man before he heads off. I make a phone call to the Yellow Cab company to come pick me up and take me to the airport.
“Tara,” Daisy says to me. “Do you drink coffee?”
“Yes,” I answer. “I would love a cup.” I am suddenly overcome by a huge hunger.
“Come on in. We can sit down and have tea more comfortably inside.”
I drag my bag into the small apartment inside their store. There is a windowless kitchen with white formica kitchen cabinets, a big white fridge, and counters. There are giant jars of margarine and peanut butter on the side. Inside is their drawing room, another windowless room full of leather couches, a big television, and a dining table set covered with fake white leather. A chandelier with many glass pieces hands a feet away from my head as I sit down.
The couches are covered with big brown cardboard boxes full of Marlboro cigarettes.
“It is a mess in here. I haven't had time to unpack yet.” She says, as she fixes me some toast. She puts the food in front of me. I eat as if I am starving, which I am after my three day trip across the country. She starts cutting up a papaya.
“You like papaya?” she asks.
“I love papayas. I was just remembering how much I loved papayas. My grandmother used to put them in rice husks and let them ripen.” She puts the plate of fruit by me, then sits besides me.
“It is hard living in the US. We have lived here for nine years now. It has been hard. We cannot send Ruhi to school, she is working and paying for it herself. And Zaida - she wanted to join the pharmaceutical school, but the store was not doing so well so she said she would stay in for a few years and help her father.”
She points to the big TV.
“We get footage from India. And how much it has changed! So many people. And competition, competition, competition. We cannot do competition anymore. Even here, it used to be much less business. But now its starting to be competition.” She looks worn and tired.
“Do you think you will stay here in the US?” I ask her.
“I want to go to Canada. Ruhi is a citizen of there. But she wants to stay here. She wants to make it here.” She says. “We have already spent nine of our years here. It takes long time to get business started, so we have to keep it going.”
The bell rings outside. Daisy leaves to answer. I sit there, looking at the mess on the counter. There is a half sliced bread on the table, and bags of wilting vegetables. I suddenly realize that the unsanitary conditions are not striking in these circumstances. Both the kitchen and the living room have no windows. They are simply partitioned cubicles from a larger room. I can understand suddenly why this family can tolerate the residents as much as they do. The crowded, unsanitary conditions are part of life.
She comes back to me and says: “Let us sit outside. People are coming and ringing, we can sit out there and talk.”
A dashing young man walks in. He has big muscles, and a rakish cap over his head.
“Daisy!! Love the dead cockroaches,” he says, smearing the room with his charm. Daisy smiles at him. He walks in and takes a Coke out of the cooler. “Can you put it down in the book?”
She glares at him. “Again? What if you run away and you never pay all this?”
The man laughs nonchalantly. “Yeah, Daisy. I'll do that.”
Daisy looks at him steadily for a moment.
“Then I guess if I'm gone, I'm gone,” he says. And smiles.
She takes out her book from beneath her cash register and writes down the credit that she has issued him. He leaves the store whistling.
“Are most people here long term residents?” I ask cautiously.
“Yes. Ours is a local business, you know,” she says. “Otherwise we would be all empty. Tourists come sometimes, and students, but it would be empty otherwise. Our business is with local people.”
“What do most people do?”
“Oh, they are all kind of crazy people, you know. They are on welfare, social security and all that, mostly. Here you can get money for food, hundred and twenty dollars, even two hundred dollars without doing anything if you know how to fill out the papers.” She says. “People are lazy here. They do not want to work. They want to get their paycheck. They pay their rent with that money. The rest they use on food and cigarettes.”
The woman accused of killing the federal judge walks by at the moment, skipping behind a small black dog.
“In America, its not like our country, where families take care of each other. Here, people are very lonely because they have nobody to listen to them, so they become crazy. But most of them pay their money in time, so I like to not lose the business.”
“What about her?” I ask, indicating the woman who killed the federal judge.
“Oh, she likes dogs and everything. But she is crazy.” Says Daisy, tapping her head to indicate the extent of damage. “She thinks she knows everything. When you first meet her, you think she is a very smart woman, but then you realize that she talks and talks the same story many times. One day, she was calling up the police and everything, and they came and took her away with handcuffs, but not to the police station. To the hospital. But she was good - she called me from the hospital and said she would like to rent the room again, and I could put her things in the basement for two weeks. When she came back, she paid me all the money that she owed me.”
Daisy looks at me, hesitates, then confides: “I think she was beaten when she was a child, you know. And her father and her grandfather was probably angry at her, and told her bad things. That's why she is the way she is now. But she pays her money in time, so I do not like to lose my business. So when she talks, I just humor her.”
I look at Daisy as she talks and realize that this woman has far more tolerance and understanding for the lifestyle and foibles of the people who live in this tenement than any middle class American ever would. For her, the residents were people - lazy, crazy, dirty, but still comprehensible people. She could imagine doing business with them in a way other people never would. My first instincts, to run far away as possible from this environment, returns to me as I watch her talk to an old man who comes in at the moment, buys a loaf of wonder bread, and walks out.
“People here wait for payday, then they all come in, one by one, and pay the rent. The rest of the money they spend on food, and Coke, and cigarettes. Most of these people, they keep moving, from one motel to another. But I try to be nice, in order not to lose the business. Some of them have stayed here for three years.” Daisy explains to me.
Angel walks into the room.
“Daisy! It is so good to see the cockroaches falling…” she makes a dramatic gesture to the floor, “Down to the ground, instead of crawling up on the wall. And now I have fixed the fan on the windowsill with some tape, and now it actually feels cool. I am such a happy camper.” Says Angel, doing a little pirouette.
“And you won't believe this - today I got a call from a buffet company, and I am going downtown to work for three days at the convention center. I am going to be serving the buffet, handing people coffee and all that. Doesn't sound bad. I don't mind doing that. And on top of it all, they pay me for it, can you believe it? All I have to do is supply the pants and the shoes, and they will give me the shirt and the tie. So I have three days of work.” Angel is so happy she cannot stop talking. She sticks her finger into her ear, and scratches her hair once in a while. Already I see why she would be fired after three days. There is an odd consistency to her tics, inspite of her seemingly calm and strong exterior.
“And this afternoon, I am going down to Taco Bell to have lunch at one. See, everything eventually falls together. Everything comes together, I knew it.”
I am so glad, says Daisy.
“Taxi!” yell the three people sitting in the stairs. The Yellow Cab has finally arrived. Daisy, with the help of the woman who killed the federal judge, and Angel, drags my bag and drops it in the boot.
“Thank you.” I say to them. “Thank you.” The woman who killed the federal judge waves triumphantly, then limps away. Angel waves to me kindly.
Daisy says: “Come down on the weekends and visit us now.”
This story was first published in Emanations, a literary journal.
I am also on the board of International Authors, which is associated with Emanations.
I am also on the board of International Authors, which is associated with Emanations.