Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Zia Motel


Sushma Joshi

Albuquerque. 

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.”  

“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.”
***




Illustration for "The Zia Motel"

I found an illustration Vitasta Raina had done for my short story "The Zia Motel," which was published in Emanations in 2015. That is one of the most perfect illustrations I've ever had for my stories--it captures the heart of the story. 


You can see more of Vitasta's work here
http://www.urbanexploratory.com/2015_07_01_archive.html

Friday, December 23, 2016

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

KRISHNA'S MANDIR


The editors at ECS Magazine asked me to write about the Krishna Temple, and my experience there during the earthquake. This is what I wrote for the December 2016 issue.

KRISHNA'S MANDIR
Sushma Joshi


Lying on the bed of the B and B Hospital, I tried to explain to people what had happened to me in the Patan Durbar Square on the day of the earthquake. But try as I may, I didn’t know what had happened to me. “The Krishna Temple fell on her,” my mother said, by way of explanation. My nose and ears was stuffed full of the dry, dank smell of centuries old dust, making me feel I was encased in burial and death. My head was full of wounds and caked with blood. Doctors and nurses, breezing in and out and injected me with antibiotics via the IV drip, didn’t seem to think the wounds needed cleaning. They said airily: “Oh, don’t worry, that will fall out in a few days.” But in those few days, I slept with a giant ball of hair full of dust. The smell of decomposing blood got stronger as the days passed. At night, I would awake with the feeling that something very heavy was pressing down upon me, making it difficult for me to breathe. The women in my family finally found a pair of scissors and cut the hair off.

My father handed me The Kathmandu Post, and I saw that in fact the Krishna Temple had not fallen on top of me: the photograph showed the temple standing, intact, in the background, but another temple next to it was gone, like an uprooted tooth. It was not until I returned to my house, eighteen days later, and a friend of mine showed me a photograph she had taken of the Square. The Mangal Hiti water complex was buried in the detritus of the small pati that had collapsed on top of it. So that, I thought, was what had buried me. I felt relieved to see the Krishna Temple, where I’d often walked around the stone balustrades, was intact.

The Krishna Temple remains etched in my memory of that day, if only because something odd crossed my mind as I looked at it just a few seconds before the earthquake. I had stood beneath the Krishna Temple, and noticed that somebody had painted the stone cornices of the temple with gilded paint. I felt annoyed with what in hindsight appears to be uncharacteristic pessimism—who, I thought, had done that? This was a historical structure made of carved stone, and a glitzy paint of this nature showed a lack of historical and archaeological knowledge. Almost, I thought, as if the gilt paint was a way to mark the temple from some other location, from which it could be targeted. Then, as I looked at this gilded cornice, this very un-Nepali fear crossed my mind:
What if a terrorist attack is about to occur in this place?

Reader, I have no idea why that fear crossed my mind in that specific instance. But it did. As you will agree, this is a very unusual fear for a Nepali, since we don’t have terrorist attacks on religious places, as other countries do. Almost with reluctance, I took those steps towards the water complex. Then, of course, the quake occurred.

I have no idea why the very specific sense of unease arose in me in that instance. Talking to people later, it occurred to me that the quake was already in motion when I started to move towards the stairs—in other words, I must have felt the pre-quake, but it did not register consciously.

Perhaps Krishna gives precognition to his devotees. Whatever it was, it was clear the few seconds I spent lingering under the eaves of the temple made the difference between my life and death-a few seconds earlier, and I would be dead under the weight of the huge beams that fell on my ankle instead. As it was, I fell neatly on a broad section of the stairways, where the wooden beams made a little shelter for me, protecting me from the debris. This position also made it easy for my rescuers to pull me out.

It has taken me multiple operations and eighteen months for me to be back on my feet again. When I take my elbow crutch and go out for a walk towards a different Krishna Temple, I noticed how the people would react to me. First, the babies held by their mothers who turned and whose expressions change when they catch sight of me. Babies know intuitively when somebody has been hurt—after all, the boundaries between their own bodies and those of the other is still unclear, and for them, the hurt of someone else is the same as being hurt themselves. Humans are born with empathy, and this has been nowhere more apparent than in my walks, when I see the face of baby change from joy to an existential sadness when they see me. The moment I see the facial expression of a baby change from total happiness to sudden dismay, it reminds me of the Buddha and the moment he learnt about illness, aging and death. And this, I think, is also the reason why the baby Krishna is so revered: because at that age, there is no hatred and no fear, only love for the other.

Then there are the toddlers, who at two or three know something is wrong when they see me with the stick. “Oo!” they say, pointing. “What is that?” They are not saddened like the babies, but they are not going to walk past ignoring my injury either. The answer depends upon the diplomatic skill of the mother, who may try to hurry the child through, pretending to ignore what he or she has just seen. Other mothers are more kind, and will say: “Oh, didi has been hurt, see. She needs a stick to walk.” Often they will smile at me, teaching the child the all important lesson: “look, this is not so bad. She just needs a bit of support now.”

And then the human race starts to get darker as they head towards teenagehood. One day I heard hysterical laughter behind me and turned: a girl dressed in all black, in the manner of Angelina Jolie, could not control her laughter at the sight of me and my elbow crutch. Her laughter was so uncontrolled her boyfriend, embarrassed by her cruelty, separated himself from her and started to walk on the other side of the road. The teenager, seemingly oblivious to the ravages of time awaiting her pretty body--operations, broken bones, cancers and hospitalization—pulled out a mirror and checked her beautiful face, before being on her pretty way. There was nothing Radha-Krishna about this encounter, although in the height of her beauty this young woman should have reminded us about the beauty of love. Instead, she made me think about the cruelty of teenagers, and she made me wonder what it was about our society that turned loving babies into these monstrous beings.

Another day, I was minding my own business, walking with a bag of butter I had managed to buy after my first long trip to the dairy, when I saw two men being disgorged from a long distance bus. The men, big strapping young men with the face of those from the far or mid-west, then stared at me and my crutch with unabashed contempt, and made some sneering sounds. I looked back at them, amazed at their handsome oafishness. Did these men not know how dumb they looked, harassing a woman with an elbow crutch? But they seemed quite oblivious to how mean and cruel they looked. It occurred to me that where they came from, sneering at a woman with a disability was probably the height of manliness, and something that bolstered their status and prestige. I glared at the man, but he only looked back at me with the most startling emotion of all—a hint of hatred. They were only doing what had been taught to them by a patriarchal Hinduism. That day I got a taste of what it feels like to be a woman in a different part of my own country—the far-west, or the mid-west, where women are still treated like animals if they ever have the misfortune to ever need a walking aid. And this, I realize, is what is wrong with Hinduism, despite all the love Krishna tells us is in our culture: unlike the Christians, we never made a real effort to address disability, and to teach people that these misfortunes can befall anyone. Having a sports injury is a normal everyday part of life in America: even the worst behaved person in America would not deliberately target those with disabilities. And yet, in Nepal, it is obviously still something that we have not learnt to be practical about, and deal with in a compassionate manner.

I do not want to blame Hinduism for everything. If so, I would also have to blame it for the outpouring of love and concern that people heaped on me the first few days I was able to walk again. Strangers were stopping me on the streets to ask me what happened to me, and how glad they were that I was walking again. One day, my mother and I went out for a walk and a gentleman stopped me, said how he was in his seventies and could almost be my father, how his own daughter had suffered in the same manner and how she had finally recovered and gone to Australia, and how I should not stop doing physiotherapy. “Hai baba, don’t stop physiotherapy hai,” he said, before being on his way. Then a farmer carrying straw on his bicyle asked me if I was now fine, almost as if he knew me, then more people started to stop me on the way. “Humanity,” my mother said to me, using the English word by way of explanation, and making me cry.

A few days ago, I had that glorious moment when I realized I could stand up by myself and do a slow pivot around the vegetable market. Dazzled by the sudden freedom and the colors of the market, I took out my cellphone and was in the process of doing a 360 degree shot around the market when I heard this little voice say: “What is this?” It was a boy about ten, the mischievous Krishna age, and he was pointing to my elbow crutch. Caught up in my photography, I tried to shake him off. In that voice you use to two year olds, I said: “Oh, it’s a stick.”  When I looked down after my photograph was done, he was gone. Then I realized how I’d missed the opportunity: here was a little boy who was genuinely interested and asking me, “What happened to you? Are you okay?” And instead of giving him the answer he deserved, I’d brushed him off, much like the mothers who hurried their toddlers past me, muttering “Lets go.” I had missed an opportunity. To tell him that I was injured, but was now getting better. And that this stick was an implement that helped me to be strong and helped me to balance on my feet. And that yes, it could happen to him too, in the future, but that he shouldn’t worry, because when a human being falls down, the whole of humanity picks him or her up, and makes them walk again.

For those of you who can't get the hard copy of the magazine, here is ECS Magazine's table of contents:
http://ecs.com.np/issue/table-of-contents/188






Thursday, November 17, 2016

My poems in Kyoto Journal 87

The Kyoto Journal just published two of my poems from my series "Garden Poems". Please buy the journal--its a literary and artistic feast about Asia!

You can buy the latest issue here:
http://www.kyotojournal.org/current-issue-digital-edition/

And here is the PDF of my two poems, with beautiful illustrations.

Enjoy!

Friday, November 04, 2016

Kyoto Journal #87


KJ 87
Amazingly, Kyoto Journal is approaching its 30th anniversary—not bad going for an all-volunteer non-profit publication, in any context. Back in the pre-Internet days of monochrome cut-and-paste layout (art-knife and toxic spray-nori) we had no inkling that the magazine would last more than a few issues, or that it would continue to evolve over three decades into its current Asia-spanning digital format. Deepest gratitude to each and every one of KJ’s multitude of supporters: our contributors, subscribers, and editorial/production staff!
Our soon-to-be released fall 2016 issue, KJ 87(!), features excerpts from three exceptional new books, complemented by a wide-reaching ensemble of encounters with people engaged in extending creative boundaries in Japan, India, Kazakhstan, Cambodia—and North Korea. Marc Peter Keane’s forthcoming Japanese Garden Notes: a visual guide to elements and design, is a feast for the eyes in explicating behind-the-scenes aspects of this quintessential art; the always-thoughtful Alex Kerr’s newest publication, Another Kyoto, is equally rich in insights into the essence of classic Kyoto. Artist activist Mayumi Oda’s autobiography Sarasvati’s Gifts melds her Buddhist/feminist art and social commitment, revealing an intensely-lived life.
In two separate interviews we delve into the evolution of haiku and its world-wide relevance, with Richard Gilbert, a Kumamoto-based scholar and poet, and Kala Ramesh, poet and founder of an ongoing international haiku festival in Pune, India.Toyoshima Mizuho and Hara Masaru, a Kyoto Noh actor, discuss hidden depths of this ancient performance art. Remo Notarianni profiles contemporary Kazakh artists including photographer Almagul Menlibayeva, who documents cultural transitions through a fashion-style lens; George Saitoh interviews artist Tatsuta Tatsuya, who focuses sunlight through a Fresnel lens to transform his sculptures.Elle Murrel mingles with artists from East and central Asia, and beyond, who created installations in Nara for this summer’s spectacular Culture City of East Asia program, “A Journey Beyond 1300 Years of Time and Space.” Raymond Hyma presents the inspiring story of Nika Tath, an entrepreneurial blind massage therapist in Phnom Penh with “seeing hands.” Stacy Hughes joins a pioneering surfing tour in North Korea—the DPRK—helping set up an impromptu surf school; Ilyse Kusnetz visits Tomorrowland, located in Tokyo Bay, and Robert Brady farewells an era beside the shining vastness of Lake Biwa in Shiga. Plus poetry by Ami Kaye, Sushma Joshi, Leanne Dunic—and translations of ghazals by 19th century Indian poet Ghalib—new fiction by Sacha Idell, and a raft of topical reviews.
To be published digitally in mid-November, available by single issue or subscription. Track us on Facebook for updates as we go to press—we’re also fine-tuning plans for our anniversary party in Kyoto in January.




Saturday, October 22, 2016

Kathmandu Post review of "House of Snow"



The Kathmandu Post's review of "House of Snow" says:

The book crisscrosses genres, straddles ages and dissolves the boundaries of nations and cultures to bring together those who are bonded by the common desire to talk about their Nepali experiences. Alongside the works by the gems of Nepali literature (Bhupi Sherchan, Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, Lakshmiprasad Devkota, and Lil Bahadur Chettri) and popular Nepali authors writing in English (Manjushree Thapa, Sushma Joshi, Samrat Upadhyay) are the accounts of foreigners writing about the country. There is Michel Peissel with his story of Boris Lissanevitch, the Russian émigré who opened the first hotel in Nepal; an excerpt of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling  personal account about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster; and  Michael Palin with his trekking diaries. 

http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2016-09-24/many-cooks-sweeten-the-broth.html

http://bit.ly/2cTK3fu

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Far Cry Zine

And if you are into science fiction, do order a copy of the Far Cry Zine, which just published my short story "Orange Peel."

Here's their website: http://farcryzine.com/sample-page/



Thursday, September 29, 2016

Emanations: 2+2=5

I was thrilled to receive in the mail a jumbo copy of Emanations!


 As an earthquake victim buried under rubble for half hour, 
with seventeen days in the hospital for various surgeries,
then four months on my back as I tried to get up, via physiotherapy,
then more months as I realized I needed pins in my ankle if I was to walk,
then full body anasthesia again to remove the implement in my broken arm,
and to insert pins into my right ankle, and then more post-op recovery, exercise, 
and physiotherapy... I was feeling exhausted. 
 I had had no access to any reading material other than Twitter,
and the books that my friends bought me, during all this time. This includes 
a tattered copy of world poetry
that belongs to Wayne Amtzis, and a book about a dog written by Jack London, 
which formerly belonged to Sara Shneiderman's 8 year-old son Sam, if I'm not mistaken. 
Both of these were excellent (the Chetan Bhagat and Jhumpa Lahiri bought
by other concerned friends I declined to read, because I don't read Bhagat or Lahiri.) 
So I was very thrilled to see a jumbo anthology by my bedside,
in which my story had not just been published, but also seem to have a number of other works
which kept me reading throughout the blackouted nights. This was a good sign.
So I hope you will get Emanations, a copy thereof,
because there is a lot there you won't find in mainstream journals. 
And I say this not just because I am on the board,
but also because I think you will genuinely like it. 

(End of crappy poem #78. The great thing about having a blog 
is that you can write things like this 
and none of your 12 followers will mind, or even notice.) 


Emanations' blog:
http://iaemanations.blogspot.com/

House of Snow: An anthology of the greatest writing from Nepal


Dear readers! Please do order a copy of "House of Snow," newly published by Head of Zeus in London this August. The anthology looks big and fat, and I'm sure there will be something there for everyone! You can also find my short story "After the Floods" in the anthology. All proceeds go to rebuild a school in Gorkha, one of the districts most affected by the 2015 earthquake.

Thank you for your support, and I look forward to hearing your feedback!! -- Sushma
___________________

Amazon says: 

HOUSE OF SNOW is the biggest, most comprehensive and most beautiful collection of writing about Nepal in print. It includes over 50 excerpts of fiction and non-fiction inspired by the breathtaking landscapes and rich cultural heritage of this fascinating country.
Here are explorers and mountaineers, poets and political journalists, national treasures and international stars such as Michael Palin and Jon Krakauer, Laxmi Prasad Devkota and ManjushreeThapa – all hand-picked by well-known authors and scholars of Nepali literature including Samrat Upadhyay, Michael Hutt, Isabella Tree and Thomas Bell. All profits from sales will be donated to charities providing relief from the 2015 earthquakes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Quake in Setopati


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A rain of bricks.
I thought somebody was hitting me from behind with bricks.
Surprise, anger. What the…! 
My instinct was to turn behind, to look, to react. But the earthquake gave me no time. Everything happened in the fraction of a second. The next thing I can remember, I had slid down the stairs midway to Mangal Hiti, and was lying pinned on the ground. A latticework of heavy pillars of wood and bricks, the debris of a temple that had collapsed behind me, pinned me down. It took me a while to register this thought: “This is real. This just happened.” This wasn’t fiction. This was the real deal, the apocalyptic accident of unimaginable horror that we think will lie safely within the pages of books and on the screens of the cinema, but never experience in real life. The incident I’d imagined would never happen to me—until it did.
I could raise my head a bit, and I could see the light through the small chinks and openings. I had just eaten my samosa and in my left hand I held a jelabi wrapped in paper wrapping—one of those absurdist details that bring home the irrelevance of human concerns when one is face-to-face with death. My left hand opened and I let go of the sweet—I knew I wouldn’t be eating it that day.
I put my head down again, and noticed the drip-drip-drip of blood from my mouth. The blood was dark red. I put my tongue against my tooth, and felt it shake. I had no idea, in that moment, what had hit me, and what had hit my country. As the cries of the people rose around me in eerie terror, it felt like an attack of some sort—a military attack, perhaps, or a bomb. It didn’t occur to me that this was an earthquake.
I’m not a good practitioner of dharma, and my practice tends to be patchy, at best. But at this instance of gravest danger, I fell back upon the Tara Mantra, almost by instinct.
This is how I’d gotten to it: on a visit to Choeki Nima Rimpoche, I had requested his support to do a Tara puja. Rimpoche had said to me: “Why do you want to do the Tara puja? That is very complicated.” When I insisted, he’d said:  “Here, I will teach you the Tara mantra instead, and you can do it at home. After you’ve practiced for a while, come back and we can discuss about the puja.” Then he’d given me the mantra. Which was the same mantra I started to repeat in my head, over and over, as I lay buried under the debris in Patan Durbar Square. There’s something about a mantra that automatically calms the mind, gives solace and dispels fear.
I knew somebody would come get me—the Patan Durbar Square is usually full of people, and I imagined that people would start to come down the steps to get water from the stone spout at Mangal Hiti around 5 pm for their evening meals, if not before. So there was little chance I would be left behind, buried under a pile of rubble. I waited. The apocalyptic cries of despair around me did not cease. After about half hour, I started to panic. “Didi, didi!” I shouted, thinking of the handicrafts vendors who laid their wares on the left side of the water tap complex. “DIDI!” The more high pitched my screams, the more agitated I became. As if in punish my cries, the second earthquake hit. The shaking was extraordinary—everything on top of me and below me and around me shook and gyrated violently, like the wheel of the Kalachakra. It seemed certain I would die—it did not seem possible that anybody would escape this moment alive.
The shaking stopped. I lay quiet and supine under the debris. Making a noise and disrupting the atmosphere, it seemed, could bring certain death. And besides, there must be so many other people who needed more help than I did, I reproached myself. I knew I had to exercise patience, and I had to do was wait. Sooner or later, people would come get me. And this is when I went back to Tara’s mantra, and this when I made a promise to the female form of the Buddha: If I ever get out of here alive, I’ll spend my life spreading word of your teachings.
After another ten minutes, I heard someone climbing down. I imagined the person who scrambled down to be a child—a curious boy, perhaps. “Babu, I’m in here, please take me out,” I said, in what must have been a perfectly calm and casual voice. Then all of a sudden, a crowd was upon me, pulling the wood apart, trying to force apart the pile of brick and centuries old earth to get to the human body lying at the bottom. From their terrified voices, I felt everybody must be shaking with adrenaline and fear—nobody knew when the next quake would hit.
The instinct of the crowd was to pull me out as fast as they could. Which is what they did. First they tried to forcibly pull my body out, but the ankle was pinned. Instead of raising the big blocks of wood, they tore the leg out--mangling the ankle in the process. “Didi, let go of your bag!” somebody said, and I let go of the straps on my arm.
Then as they held me aloft in what must have been a spectacular rag-doll human effigy moment, I felt the crowd pull me to the left, then the right, as if I was the ropes of the Machindranath chariot—and then in that push-pull moment of Newar co-operation and competition, I felt my left arm snap, fractured by the energy of a crowd trying to pull me in different directions. I’m a Vipassana meditator, and can be unnaturally calm in the face of pain. But this thought occurred to me: “I better cry out, or I might be pulled apart by the crowd.” Which is what I did: “My arm! My arm! Please don’t pull!” I felt like something out of a jatra—held aloft, a mangled body covered with centuries old dust, a totem of some ragged victory. My eyes opened to blinding light. I saw what appeared to be the white ramparts of a fort, where people stood in a line, watching the rescue. And then I lost consciousness.
My first responders were kind and brave, and they worked hard to get me out. I will be forever grateful to them. I look back at the photographs my friend showed me later of the site where I’d been buried, I wondered how they’d managed to get to that pile of rubble, because the pile of broken wood and construction material seems impenetrable. I am alive today because my accident happened in the middle of an urban space, with a co-operative community of individuals who were ready to spring to the rescue, putting their own lives at risk to rescue me. My only motive in sharing the above anecdote is to hope that the UN and other agencies will provide first responder training to communities, especially ways to remove bodies from rubble, and to work in teams, so that next time the earthquake occurs, injuries of this nature can be eliminated.
An ambulance siren blew. I heard two men discussing where to take me. “She’s a bideshi,” one said. “Lets take her to B and B.” The ride from the site of my accident to the hospital took half a minute—it was incredibly fast, or perhaps I was injected with so many painkillers I lost my sense of time. A minute later I heard the man say: “Didi, here’s your bag.” That bag, with my cellphones, keys, and papers (and sadly, some rather lovely silver jewelry), was never found again.
Later, my father would laugh and say with amusement about a cousin traumatized by aftershocks, and her method of sustaining her sense of security: “Your cousin is walking around clutching a small bag. She has her citizenship and passport in it, and some other things, like a torch. Everywhere she goes, she takes this small bag.” And I replied: “Tell her the bag is useless.”
The much-hyped go-bag is in fact rather useless. The only thing that will save you from a situation like this, of course, are the networks of family and friends who love you, and who will eventually pull you out of this mire. I had months of painful rehabilitation and surgical operations awaiting me, but I did not know this as I was laid down on the ground by the hospital building, and from where I stared up at the giant concrete buildings, wondering if they would collapse on top of me, crushing me into the void after all, despite my rescue. Another after-shock rippled through the grounds that afternoon, sending the hospital staff into a state of anxious anticipation, as they had no idea if the building would hold up or collapse in the aftershocks.
I lay on the ground with hundreds of other injured people and their families. A triage situation was going on--teams of young medics swooped down upon me and injected me and bandaged me. “Amputation?” I heard one of the doctors say, unaware I could hear them. My drugged eyes flew open, and I rose as if from the dead and said loudly:
“No! I’m fine!” They left me alone after that. As the afternoon lengthened, a tent was set up, and people set up camp, as if we were a field of war injured.
My family arrived at the hospital at 6 pm--they wandered around calling my name, because they couldn’t recognize me lying on the pallet, my face swollen, my hair matted with blood and dust.
Dr. Bibek Baskota of B and B Hospital, and serendipitously also my cousin, drove back from the children’s camp he had been attending and came straight to the dressing room at 8pm, where he washed my wounds and pushed the bones back in place. Bibek had driven by himself, and he described how he’d seen houses rolling down the hillsides as he drove on the highway to get back to Kathmandu. “It looked,” I overhead him say, “as if a bomb had gone off.” As he talked calmly and worked expertly to bandage my feet, he made me feel perhaps my pain wasn’t so excruciating as I felt it to be—only later he told me that he’d pushed the bones back into place without anesthesia and that if left unattended, I could have died from my injuries.
- See more at: 
http://setopati.net/blog/13428/The-Quake/

Thursday, April 14, 2016

May Peace Prevail: A Memorial for Nagasaki


(Click on image to enlarge)

I made the collage above 20 years ago, as an undergraduate at Brown University. I was taking a class on digital design and art at Rhode Island School of Design. The collage brings together old photographs of Nagasaki after the atomic bombing. 

The yellow images at the top are of Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped on the city on August 9th. 

The bird is the fallen bird of peace. 

The blue gate symbolizes peace. We cannot go in or out of the gate till we have looked at the horrors of the past, and acknowledged our mistakes. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Art Matters: download your copy now from Pustakalaya!


Download your copy of Art Matters from Open Learning Exchange's Pustakalaya.



Art Matters was published in 2008, with support from the:


यसैमा फेरी खोज्ने

 The book is a compilation of reviews I did for the Nation Weekly Magazine as well as ECS Magazine between 2004-2008.