Monday, December 07, 2015

Setopati: Kachin-Gorkhas

Read my travel essay about Burma: "Kachin-Gorkhas," in Setopati, Nepal's digital newspaper.
It was published on December 7, 2015.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Setopati: A Visit to the Vihar

Read my travel essay on Burma: "A Visit to the Vihar." It was published in Setopati, Nepal's digital newspaper, on November 30, 2015.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Emanations: 2+2=5

Read my short story "The Zia Motel" in Emanations, Issue 5. 

Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as "the truth" exists. ... The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, "It never happened" – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.
            -- George Orwell, "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1943)

The quote above from editor Carter Kaplan's blog:


Two past lives plus two past lives equals five past lives. Two hand grenades plus two hand grenades equals five hand grenades. Two votes plus two votes equals five votes. Two speech crimes plus two speech crimes equals five speech crimes. Two laurel wreaths plus two laurel wreaths equals five laurel wreaths. Two genetically modified organisms plus two genetically modified organisms equals five genetically modified organisms. Two celebrities plus two celebrities equals five celebrities. Two political parties plus two political parties equals five political parties. Two decapitations plus two decapitations equals five decapitations. Two pandemics plus two pandemics equals five pandemics. Two financial crises plus two financial crises equals five financial crises. But two volumes of Emanations plus two volumes ofEmanations equals FOUR volumes of Emanations. The addition of the fifth fake integer is embodied in this volume, and all it contains are real emanations.
Buy the fifth edition of Emanations here:

Monday, November 23, 2015

Setopati: A Visit to Myitkyina

Read my travel essay "A Visit to Myitkyina" in Setopati.

Interesting note: Himal South Asia published an abridged version of this essay on October 2011. A day after it appeared online, Burma cancelled the dam contract with China and for the first time since the death of Bogyoke Aung San took the side of the Kachins, with which the state of Myanmar had been at intermittent war for almost 65 years.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Asialyst: Interview regarding the Constitution

Népal : la nouvelle constitution
 dans l’oeil des artistes

Check out this interview with six artists and writers about Nepal's new Constitution in Asialyst, a new publication. I am featured in the interview.

You have to create a username and password to log into the site.
Interview by Ingrid Chiron, in French.

You can find Asialyst here:

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Setopati: Gasoline by Sushma Joshi

  Published in Setopati on: Wednesday, November 04, 2015 10:24:35  
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It was going to be a nice, relaxed baby shower video shoot in Edison, NJ. I was the videographer. Sammy, originally from South India, was the photographer.
Before we drove off, the driver of the rented van, a small, stocky man with an abrupt way of talking, asked Sammy: "Now did you forget anything? Cameras? Directions? Cellphone?" The man was organized, I could tell at first glance.
"I got everything," Sammy mumbled.
"Per-fact directions? Per-fact directions? It has to be per-fact, otherwise we waste lod-of time."
As we cruised down Queens, I asked the driver, "Are you a Sai Bhakta?" A small picture of Shriddi Baba, the previous incarnation of Sai Baba, was on one of the cupholders. Sai Baba, afro-haired guru of the Indian subcontinent, has millions of followers who believe he can perform miracles.
"My wife. She believe too much. Every year, she go to see him. She takes a flight from New York to India and then goes by train and car to his place. Every year."
"Why does she believe too much?" 
"Because she always get what she ask for. She pray, and then she get all she asks."
I had read about this wish-fulfillment factor of Sai Baba worship. When I had been nine, my great-aunt had come back with a richly illustrated book that showed in great detail how devotees always found their lost suitcases and recovered from polio when they followed him.
"Which wishes did she get fulfilled?" I asked. I wanted the nitty-gritty. Did she wish for cauliflower curry for dinner, or were her wishes more high maintenance?
"She want a son, because we had two daughters only, and it was granted. So now she give ten percent of all we earn to poor people. She sent it to her sister in India to distribute so that all our wishes will be fulfilled."
I was disappointed. Same-old, same-old subcontinental obsession. I had hoped the wife had asked for something more extravagant. At the very least, I wanted a couple of miracles - healing of blindness, parting of rivers and oceans, multiplying fishes, that kind of stuff. Something other than a baby with a penis.
The driver, it turned out, was an accountant in 7-11 during the weekdays. I wondered why he was freelancing as a chauffeur during the weekends if he was already a corporate money machine.
As we drove by Long Island City, he gave us a tour in his dry, precise voice: "This here is the warehouse of Bloomingdales. This big building, all six floors, is Macy's. That is the warehouse of LIRR." The whole industrial derelictness suddenly took on the delicious underhand flavor of insider knowledge.
Soon we were in midtown Manhattan.
"My company rents a store in the Empire State Building. The rent is $90,000 a month," the driver said.
"Monthly rent, or annual rent?"
"But its okay, we make $100,000 in one day."
More fascinating stuff flowed out of him. There was a man from B and H photo store who spent $40,000 on lottery tickets every month. He wired over the money straight to the lottery store's account. The Empire State Building, with 103 floors, was the second largest in the country - the Sears building in Chicago, with 108, was the first. Macy was the biggest retail store in the world, with six floors - except they had to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy over their store on Queens Plaza because there were no customers.
Sammy, who was from Gujarat, started to talk to the driver in rapid-fire Gujarati. The syllables, rock-hard, rolled round every other line, but I could still understand fragments of it.
"Are you also from Gujarat?" I ask the driver.
"Gujurat, from Baroda," he replies. Both of his daughters are going through medical school. His sister's daughter just graduated from law school. "She make $150,000 straight out of school," he says. "Lod-of money."
"Lod-of money straight out of school," I agreed. Sammy, who had confided in me that his daughters would be married after high school, looked discomfited.
As we got to Edison, it transpired that Sammy didn't have per-fact directions. The highways soon turned into narrow cul-de-sacs and dead ends, and we spent a fruitless hour leaving messages for the man arranging the party.
"We will ask directions at Royal Al-bart Hall," said the driver. "It is owned by the Indian man. Everything here is owned by Indian people - Dunkin' Donuts is owned by Indian. Seven Eleven is owned by Indian."
Finally, we turned down the driveway into a large, white mansion-like building that had little sugar-icing, Islamic turret-like structures at the top. The glitter-from-99-cent-store look predominated. There was a gigantic black statue of an Indian man in traditional outfit in the front.
"Royal Al-bart Hall," the driver said impressively. "Million dollars to build. It is possible to hold five-six weddings in the same place. There are many halls here." He was clearly pleased at the bigness of the ambitiously titled Royal Albert enterprise.
The two men stood in front of the massive statue of the benign man in his Indian outfit and asked me to take their photograph. I framed them carefully, and hit the shutter. "Now your picture," Sammy insisted. I declined politely. Indian nationalism, especially of the large and expansive variety, is something that Nepalis always try to steer clear of.
We drove up to the entrance, where a wooden gateway decorated with flowers stood. Hundreds of men and women in elaborate outfits walked in and out. Inside the massive hall, a bride and groom covered with gold jewelry on a brightly decorated dais were being shot by a videographer and ten photographers. A thousand relatives sat back and fanned themselves, watching the proceedings with genteel tedium. The children ran around, screaming and chasing each other with manic energy. Sammy tried to get directions from the wedding videographer, unsuccessfully. The man, absorbed in catching every moment, glared at this interruption and shrugged Sammy off like an irritating bug.
I went to wait in the car. "Whose statue is this?" I asked.
"Sardar svdhvrddddmnmv Patel," the driver answered.
"Sardar who Patel?"
"Sardar svdhvrmnmvvrddd Patel."
"What did he do, Sardar Patel?"
"He was one of the great leaders. He did good things for our country."
"I've never heard of him," I say, ashamed of my lack of historical knowledge.
"Oh," he says disapprovingly. "He provided a solution for the Hindu-Muslim problem. Whenever there is problem with Hindu-Muslim, he provided answer."
Was Sardar Patel some sort of Gandhian figure? I cursed my Nepali education which had given me zero knowledge about our neighbours’ histories.
"When Hindu-Muslim fight starts, he get really fed up and said this time I am going to take care of it. So he go to the bazzar, and he says to people he will bring water to put out the fires. He come back and people think he bring water." Here he pauses and looks at me consideringly. "But he bring gasoline."
Oh, I say, stymied. Was this supposed to be some aphoric morality tale, some metaphor of explosion awaiting society? Was Sardar Patel going to demonstrate, like some wily fox in the Panchatantra, the literal quality of infernos that could destroy the fabric of society in order to knock sense into his followers?
"So he tried to negotiate peace by bringing gasoline…?"
"He said we have to deal with the Muslim problem once and for all. He said they cannot do bad things like take down temples and build mosques in their place. They are minorities, they cannot do what they want."
My instantaneous thought - but it’s the Hindus who are trying to demolish the mosques these days, not the other way around. Aurangazeb the temple-destroyer lived and died centuries ago - is left unsaid. The man, who had seemed eminently reasonable only a couple of minutes ago, suddenly took on the aspect of a caged tiger, somebody I would have to walk around carefully, offering no sudden movements. This was not the interfaith loving Sai Bhakta I had been imagining. This was the tip of the Gujarat inferno that killed hundred of Muslim men, women and children. The Gujarat massacre had been coolly calculated and pre-planned with cellphones, computer print-outs of Muslim houses and businesses, and SUVs. They had had per-fact directions. They had not wasted any time.
"Oh," I reply, unable to respond. My very silence seemed to communicate my sadness. For the first time he lost his numerical, factual calm.
"Muslims are minority, their leaders lead them, but their leaders are bad anyway," he said. "Sardar Patel told them they have to agree, or else they would be taken care of." Had George W. Bush had gotten his "if you're not with us, you're with them" ideology from Sardar Patel?
"India is a country for Hindus, for all people. But Muslims are minority, they cannot go around doing what they want."
As a Nepali, I was in a minority myself. Since the rights of minorities was being articulated with such unambiguous generosity, I kept my mouth shut. The silence lengthened. The tension in the car became taut.
"A lot of Nepali people come to Baroda to do business," he said abruptly. He had made the same minority connections between Muslims and Nepalis that I had done in my head. Being disagreeable, meat-eating Hindus apparently didn't win any brownie points. "They sell sweater in wintertime."
"Oh really?" I say brightly, as if I am oblivious to the fact that this has been couched as a grievance. I don't want to hear his opinions on one more minority. "What is that store over there? I've always wondered."
The conversation successfully deflected but not resolved, we drive down in crackling, electrical silence to the baby shower. On the way, we stopped for some gasoline at a gas station. "Fill up the tank," he said. When the gas station man, who sounded like an Arab, took out the pipe without filling it up, the driver told him in a dismissive and rude tone, "The tank fills up automatically, then it stops. You don't know?" The gas station attendant shrugged at this accusation of ignorance. It looked like his first day at work.
"Building number Tir-ple Five?" Sammy asked as the cellphone rang. The baby shower we were contracted to film was being held in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Everybody was lavishly dressed, and a preponderance of gold jewelry was in evidence - the Gujarati community, with prolific business links, tends to be affluent amongst Indians. As I walked around, I wondered how many of these gentle, vegetarian folks held the same views that the driver had expressed, and how many of them, if asked with enough conviction, would send back money to buy that gasoline.
(This piece was written in 2002 while the author was a graduate student in New York)
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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ms. Joshi wrote a short story in 1996 that seems to echo the plot of "Force Majeure."

Strangely enough, Ms. Joshi wrote a short story in 1996 that seems to echo the plot of "Force Majeure." The film, shot by Ruben Östlun, is about a man who leaves his wife when an avalanche descends on a French hotel while the family is on a family trip. Ms. Joshi's story "The Best Sand Painting of the Century" has a similar moment. This is not uncommon for Ms. Joshi, she often finds that her stories get echoed by more famous Western writers and filmmakers with greater access to finance and distribution. Thankfully, "The Best Sand Painting" was published by Emanations in 2012, so she has proof her work predates the Swedish film. The story also appears in her book "The Prediction," published in 2013. Read on...

            May  we take your coat, madam? The head waiter had on a maroon bow tie and a benevolent smile. A group of young men hovered like a brood of black and white butterflies at his side. They swarmed around them, helping them off with their coats, gently, firmly maneuvering them through the huge hall. The walls of the old hall was covered with mediaeval French tapestry, and there were pink Persian designs beneath their feet. When they got to the table, the brood of handsome young waiters slid them into their seats, and stood around waiting, their hands folded on top of each other, identical smiles on their faces. 
            It's a pleasure to see you, madam, said the head waiter to the woman. Alex couldn't believe people still spoke like this in this day and age. Marie inclined her head graciously. She took out her glasses from her leather case and looked at the menu. She wanted to try the new aragula salad. She conferred with the waiter, who suggested the salmon to go along with it. I’ll have the plat du jour, said the younger boy, not looking up as he put his napkin on his lap. A young waiter scarcely older than him inclined his head politely and said: Plat du jour, sir. Alex rolled his eyes and looked out of the windows. The mountains were so near he could walk out of the big glass windows and climb through and disappear on the other side.
            “Well Alexander ? Are you going to be pleasant and talk to us or are you going to sulk all evening?”
            "I don’t see the point of this whole trip, dad."
            The woman leant forward, rustling in her silk and tweed outfit and addressed him in a hushed voice, as if what she had to say could only be heard by him: “David wanted to spend some time with you, Alex. He felt you were becoming distant from him. He wanted to take you and Phil skiing so that you could spent some quality time together.” It was embarrassing to watch her when she tried to avert a confrontation between them. Somehow, she always made it worse.
             Alex did not look at her. He had always felt nothing but contempt for this woman with her tasteful outfits and her vapid smile. She was a dainty ornament that his father sported on his lapel. He wanted to ask how spending his spring break skiing with his father and stepbrother would ever heal that chasm that had  been widening for the last fifteen years. He looked at the faces that surrounded him: Marie, with her  eyes  anxiously darting at his father, who sat there with his double chin and eyes snapping with cool anger at the arrogance of his older son, Phil who was turning out to be a carbon copy of his dad, filled with the knowledge of his own power. He looked at them all and realized the hopelessness of ever making them understand. He lowered his eyes, picked up his water glass and gulped, and replied in an expressionless voice:
             "I would appreciate it if you stopped calling me Alexander, dad. My name is Alex.”
                                    *                                  *                                  *
             Alex sat across from his father, watching the man eat. He watched him wrap the spaghetti around his fork, and put it in his mouth and swallow it as neatly and economically as he could swallow up small countries in real life.  His father was the driving force behind several corporations that exported food from small countries: bananas and coffee and chocolate and sugar, all the sweet things of life that people took for granted in North America. He had started out as genetic researcher in an Ivy League institution, and then had  expanded and expanded until now he owned the whole fucking world. Sometimes Alex felt tired even just looking at him, looking at the arrogance that swelled his frame until he felt like he was looking at a grotesque caricature of a human being. 
            “Alexander. How are your grades? I hope they are worth all that money I am spending on you.”
            God, how he hated him. He had only agreed to come on this trip because his mother had begged him: she could not afford to pay for his school fees, and he needed to maintain diplomatic relations at least until he graduated. Alex hated the feeling of having to crawl for the sake of money, but he could see where his mother was coming from. He sat there in the big echoing dining room on the Louis XV chair with the pink satin and the  tassels, and his anger with the whole situation slowly ebbed away. It required too much effort to maintain it. It could not stand up to the magnitude of this place, this time, this moment. The whole atmosphere came towards him and smothered him in its velvety grip.
            He watched them as if they were colorful fish floating past in an aquarium, his father with his slightly balding head throwing his head back to laugh, a playful carnivore of some sort. Marie twittering like a little green and gold angelfish by his side, Phil snapping his fingers at the waiters, a little eel with an electric sting.
            It’s my pleasure, sir, he hears the waiter saying to Phil.
            The voice comes across in a distorted blur, as if he is hearing the voice coming through water from fifty thousand miles away. It is all so ridiculous. He would not have been surprised if the whole scene had disappeared before his eyes at that moment: it all seemed so unreal anyway.
                                    *                                  *                                              *
            “Attention deficit disorder? That does not happen to anybody in our family, Alexander. You better straighten out that while you’re at it.”
            Alex felt his face flush. He would never have brought up the topic anyway, but his father was so gently ironical about his grades he had to defend himself. He turned away, and stared at the T.V that the waiters had placed discreetly out of view behind a wooden screen, where people could check out the tennis semi-finals if they wanted to. He could hear an excited commentator going on about Agassi.
            There is a gentleman who wanted this handed to you, sir, says the  waiter, as he puts a tray with a piece of cream-colored paper on the side. Alex’s father picks up the note and flicks it open. He reads it, and then glances to his right. Its Anderson, he says, and waves. A sharp faced looking  man sitting two tables away inclines his head and comes over.
            “Small world,” says Anderson, smiling and taking the scene in with his shrewd eyes. Alex watches him shakes hands with his father.  “Mr. Anderson and your father used to go to the same golfing club when we lived in New York.” explains Marie breathlessly in a pleased aside to Alex. The man is charming Marie, kissing the tip of her fingers, admiring her pearls. He tries the bluff genial tack on the boys. Phil answers with private school polish. Alex glowers at the man. Unfazed, the man turns back to David, murmuring “Charming boys.”
            “Frank  is a well known critic in the art world. He researches for Christies. He thinks I should invest in some sculptures that he is convinced is going to fetch a lot of money in a few years' time. Weren’t you, Frank?”
            “It would look absolutely stunning on the walls of your living room, Marie. Dave, this is an insiders tip. If you buy those things now, their value is going to triple in a few years time. It's a bargain.”
            “I’m interested,” says David, looking Frank in the eye. “I’m definitely interested.” They get up and walk away.
            What a great family bonding trip, Alex thinks as he watches his father and Frank talking by the window. They have clinched a deal of some sort: they are both smiling and pumping their hands up and down. The T.V screen has switched from Agassi to some news commentator calmly talking about a missile from China that is hurtling down to the earth and might survive the reentry into the atmosphere. Great, thinks Alex. We can all die right here and I wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Frank has left his party and joined their table. He is sitting besides Marie, entertaining them with stories about the most famous art robberies of all times. “When the Mona Lisa disappeared for the sixth time...” A sudden crackle of static rises up like a harsh cough behind them. It is the head waiter turning up the news.  He is watching it intently, with the stealthy surreptitiousness unbefitting to a head waiter.
            They all turn to see where the noise is coming from. “Another news junkie. Even faultless French waiters have their sins,” smiles Frank and is about to resume his trend of thought when he lets out an involuntary "Shhh.." as he snaps back and listens intently. The voice continues: “..An out-of-control, two ton Chinese spy satellite could fall out of orbit as early as tonight, and there's a chance it could survive reentry and smash into the ground, the Air Force said. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has been tracking the FSW-1 Chinese spy satellite since it was launched on Oct. 8, 1993.  It was only expected to be up there for about 4 years, said Major Justin Boylan. Now its finally coming back." A crackle of static obscures the rest of the sentence as everybody waits, without knowing what they are waiting for.
.           "...weighs 4500 pounds and is the size of a small car. The satellite has on board a diamond encrusted button commemorating Mao-Tse Tung's 100th birthday  and a 24 carat gold mold for printing U.S banknotes, according to a report last year by China's Xinmin Evening News. The report said the items were among the souvenirs put abroad the satellite in hopes the space trip would increase their value.” 
            Frank turns back, his eyes glittering with an almost insane gleam in his eye: God. If that thing were to survive reentry, that mold would fetch the biggest price of the century.
            Maybe you could make more money by using the mold to print your own banknotes, suggests Alex.   
            Frank looks at Alex for a moment, almost as if he cannot believe what he has just suggested. "Alexander. Apologize!" snaps his father furiously. Frank smiles, regains his composure, smiles again and sighs: “Boys will be boys.” Then he closes his eyes, smiles, and says dreamily: “But things like that never happen in real life, do they?”
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Alex is getting tired of listening to his father. Money. That’s all he ever talks about, with Marie accompanying him his passionate performance like a tenor on the side. When it comes to money she can summon up as much enthusiasm as his father can. That’s why they have stayed together. They share the same overwhelming passion in their lives. He turns away from the voices going on: “The Horsteins have brought a Vermeer. We could buy some of those old ones, it would be a good investment...” He is bored. He wants to be back in his grungy college apartment, with his friends who are all working at five dollar jobs. He stares out of the window, hoping for something to break up the sense of deja vu he feels whenever he starts listening to his father and Marie talking. He stares at the mountains, willing the stillness to break, willing for something to happen. The sky retains its sunny brilliance. The snow sparkles on the peaks. Nothing moves.
            Phil snaps his fingers at the waiters. He hates Phil. If he does not stop doing that, he will have to tell him to stop it soon. He wants to go out. He is beginning to sweat. It is too hot in here, or else it was all that fancy cheese and strange fish that he ate that is making him feel dizzy and nauseous. He is beginning to see weird things. Marie’s face floats towards him, distorted out of proportion, its angular boniness accentuated as he stares at the specks of powder on the tip of her nose. The bald spot on his father’s head shines like an upside down bowl. Phil is like a little monster sitting at one end, snapping and snapping his fingers, an evil gnome with a smile wrapping him up in his own smugness. That is when, glancing out of the window in desperation, he sees a small white cloud gently moving down from the peak towards the hotel.
            The cloud gathers momentum. As he watches, it gets bigger and bigger, a whiteness of elemental force rushing down towards the hotel at the speed of a runaway train. He says: “Dad. I think its an avalanche.” His father continues to talk. The sound builds up over the crackle of T.V, an ominous howling that picks up decibels as the white cloud gets nearer the hotel. A wierd ohhhhhhhhh...Confusion. People getting up, half out of chairs, what the... The avalanche hits with a sound that if it were to be reduced to a simple crunching would be the sound of the World Trade center falling on Manhattan. It dumps five tons of glacial  snow and ice on top of the hotel, and then continues on down the hillside.
                                    *                                  *                                  *
            Screams. He can hear the screams in his head. He knows he has to get out before the snow compacts. He stumbles towards the light, cutting himself on the broken glass as he heads out of the French windows.  Outside, there is a stunned group of people crawling out of the debris. Marie is holding Phil and babbling hysterically about her lighter. As he stumbles out of the snow, he can see his father desperately pawing out of the ground. A stranger helps him out. He staggers over towards them.
            “I’m cold.” Alex had never known that Phil could whine like a snivelly kid.
            "Cold as a popsicle," says Alex, laughing through his chattering teeth.
            They settle down in the snow for help to arrive. The sky is the intense ultramarine of the Northern skies.
            “Dave. Do something.”
            “I don’t know. You’re the man,” Marie replies acerbically. It was the first time Alex had heard Marie replying to his father with spirit.
            David has the cornered look around him. For the first time in his life, he does not know what to do. "Dad, this is turning out to be the greatest family trip I have been on for a long time", Alex says from between his chattering teeth. Shut up, his father says, too tired to say more.

Thursday, March 19, 2015



I did not think I would live to be 75. But here I am, in 2050, walking through the burning trash piles of Kathmandu, the fine mesh of Super-Medtex face mask failing to keep away the dioxin and the carbon monoxide from my lungs. I draw in that smell of burning plastic with a shudder: I must enter the Pharma Kiosk on the way back home, and take a double dose of asthma spray, and a fifteen minute hook-up to the Easy-Breath Tank. Otherwise I would have to call the ambulance to get me home.

The sun sets over the horizon—through the black cloud that hangs overhead perpetually, I can see the sun, like a pale moon, slipping down the mountains. For a moment, the smell feels particularly acrid, as if its weighed down with lead. I feel faint, all of a sudden, and wonder if I panic if I will fall into one of those red, glowing piles of garbage. I can see a body or two, people whose lungs have collapsed as they walked, tossed carelessly amongst the plastic Wai-Wai wrappers. I wonder who that hand belongs to, with the elegant gold bangle. The person who tossed the body into the smoke did not even bother to remove the metal bangle.

Perhaps the young did not realize the value of that yellow metal, I thought. Then I realized: its all plastic now. The money is allocated by the Central Bank in New York, and everyone gets their monthly allowance piped straight into the card. These boys who mind the garbage piles worked for the Nepal Government’s Kathmandu Municipality,  and their job is to keep the fires burning, piling up the dead bodies and the instant noodle wrappers and plastic bottles till the streets are clean. This is not an easy job—Kathmandu has 40 million people, and they generate multiple tons of trash. Everything comes in plastic—each grain of rice is wrapped in plastic, which is then removed by heating it in the microwave. The plastic cases pop off, leaving a bowl of rice. The Corporation that grows the rice grows it like this—they are genetically modified to grow with a fine plastic covering over each grain, to protect them from weevils, rot and drought. These rice casings pile up, and each family dumps a sack of it in the garbage each month.  In a single day alone, a trash heap the size of Nagarjun Hill piles up in Tundikhel. That place used to be a green field at one time, I marvel, as I looked at the garbage mountain that people jokingly call Everest, because it is the tallest trash heap in the city. I watched it burn. How strangely enticing it looked, for a moment-the red embers glowing amongst all the rice casings and plastic bottles and orange peels and…

 Orange peels?

Looking around surreptiously, I moved closer. Were those really orange peels? Even though I hadn’t seen orange peels in two decades, I could still recognize them instantly.

Orange had long since been replaced by a hybrid fruit produced by Mondieu, and which everyone had to eat. The fruit looked like an apple, but has the strange taste of bananas, oranges and strawberries all mixed into it. It is called Elixir. It has a powerful chemical smell, rather like the Gatesade of yore. This fruit had all the Vitamins, minerals and daily trace minerals needed for a human being, and it fulfills all our nutritional requirements. Anybody who tries to plant the old trees that sprouted from cuttings nad branches are jailed. There are rumors some people who still try to hold on to their farms in the rural areas, or who farm secretly in their basements, have been tortured for resisting the Corporation. We don’t know if this was true, or a myth, since newspapers now only print Corporation news. The Corporation has the exclusive contract to distribute all grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and other food supplies. But of course, we in the Third World never get to taste other things except Elixir, although for purposes of roughage we also receive a bowl of rice with our rations. Without rice, there will be mutiny, the anthropologists of the Global Anti-Terrorism Council had warned, so to appease the two hundred billion people of the Third World, they have designed this Eternal Rice. Behind the high walls, farmers still grew other food, people say—grains, legumes, fruits. But all land now belongs to the International Investment Board, which leases it only to foreigners, and all produce is exported. Nepali workers who have stolen some of the produce and brought it out to feed their families have been disappeared.

I move closer. And bend down, with my hand on my hip, as if I’m tired. Then I pick up the peel. It was peel. I feel it, for a moment, that texture of something alive underneath my hand. The cool citric feel in my palm overwhelms me. I close my eyes, and feel as if I am in another era, one I thought had been lost irrevocably.

“What you doing, Grandma?” The young municipal worker grins as he looked at me. “Stealing somethin’?”

“Well, I’m thinking of Pineapple pickin’,” I joke, and the young man guffaws. He stands up, puts his wireless shovel down, and says: “You want a Pineapple? What for?”. I put my hand in my pocket, casually. Stealing from the trash can bring a jail sentence. That law came into effect to protect the dead bodies. There are so many deaths each day that the Municipality can no longer deal with the corpses, and therefore the easiest way to dispose of them has been through this method: put them in the trash, incinerate. The elite families did not want people rifling through bodies and picking out the Wearable Pineapples. Wearable Pineapples are stitched to the body’s epidermis with lasers, and signal the wealth of the corpses. They are flexible, bendable, a second skin—but they cannot be removed. Thieves, of course, still try to remove them—leaving the corpses skinned and bloodied, which is why dumpster-diving is a crime publishable with a jail sentence.

“For the news,” I say. “Maybe the Pineapple will tell me the news.” And we both laugh, he with a hoarse and hacking cough, because despite the Pineapple buzz-feeding in a trillion tetrabytes of information to the wearer each second, we both know that no real news ever gets reported. The only news allowed is the one authorized by the Corporation and the Central Bank.

I have not been online in years, so I have no idea what goes on in the outside world. People said Europe is completely full of people, and there are armored vehicles on the streets, with snipers ready to shoot anyone who dares to enter the borders. There are also rumors Europe still had some trees left, and water too, although nobody has returned from there in years to verify if this rumor is true or not. I have not seen a tourist in Nepal since 2030, when the air got so thick with black smoke and the sound of ambulance sirens the Europe Delegation finally banned its citizens from coming to the country. Those who came surreptiously did so with full body suits and tanks of super-refined oxygen, but even then there were deaths amongst the most daring of those adventurers, I heard. About 100 to 200 Europeans died every year in Nepal, trying to breathe long enough to get a story for their newswire. And then they stopped coming.

I hadn’t felt this orange peel texture in almost twenty years. The fruit nowadays is covered by a fine glossy outer skin that looks, and tastes, like plastic. In fact, it is plastic. Scientists have come up with an advanced way to genetically modify the fruit’s exterior to become an invisible weave of plastic, to make it resistant against all pests, droughts, and disease. The plastic breaks down in our guts in small granules, and because the body’s digestive system can’t handle it we are given a special chemical mixture after each meal which allows the plastic to liquify and exit our bodies.

 “I’m talking shit, boy. Human feces used to smell at one point,” I say to the young man who is poking the hand with the bangle absent-mindedly.

He smiles at me and says: “It still stinks.” And he points to the other side of the trash heap, where a tall tank of sewage had been collected by mobile vans that go around the city all day, siphoning off waste from toilets. From this waste, our drinking water is extracted. For a moment, I hear that sound of water falling through the giant tank, and I feel a faint gratitude that in this city where everything had collapsed into chaos, the water still flows, and we still get our one liter a day. Forty million liters of water flows through that tank every day, I marvel. The whine of ambulances make it difficult to hear what he said next, but I could dimly hear: “And I’m glad I won’t have to shovel my own body in this pile here. I got a friend to do it. Seems I’m not going to last much longer. Doc’s given me two more days to live… lung is on the point of collapse, he says.” The young man smiles, almost relieved, as if he was glad to leave this job, finally.

I looked at him for a moment, and note the sadness around his eyes, as if he’d grown up without love. He was around 19, perhaps, and he was ready for the pyre. “You have a lovely smile,” I tell him.

The smell of plastic burning almost chokes me. I peer down and see two young boys even younger than the one I had been chatting to. They are inside the pit, almost ringed by the trash. They were laughing as they tossed in a giant ball of plastic bubble wrap, as if it was a joyful prank. For a moment, I felt a peculiar sadness. I was witnessing the joy of being young, which I would no longer feel again.

Then I walked closer to the boys and said: “Boys, you better put on your masks.”

They had taken it off, the better to smell with. “Why?” They say, grinning. “We love this smell! Draw a deep breath, Ama. See how fresh it smells!”

“Because its going to kill you.”

“We are all going to die one day, Ama! Not to worry, we’ll put on the mask in a little bit. Well, I think mine slipped and fell into the depths of Everest.” And the two young boys howled delightedly, as if they had made the wittiest joke.

During my conversation, I had slowly slipped the orange peel into my pocket. To be found with this contraband could mean torture—there were security guards posted at all junctions, going through people’s bags to make sure they were not carrying food. The Army shut off the lanes unexpectedly, block by block, to trap people. Then they marched down in their uniforms, looking like machines, and often the dogs with the long noses preceded them, growling and barking. If a unit like that closed off the lanes, I would almost certainly be attacked by the dogs.

A young man who had found the an egg in a crow’s nest, and who had decided to take it home to feed his young daughter, had been shot on the spot. I’d heard that through the underground rumor mill. “He recognized the egg instantly, even though he’d never seen one before,” the old woman who told me the story winked at me meaningfully. “See, they may try to erase our memories, but somehow, we always remember.”

Somehow, we always remember. I felt the texture of the orange peel beneath my hand, and I pressed and squeezed, feeling that little spurt of citric nectar in my fingertips. When I got home, I would smell my pockets—smell that wonderful, wonderful smell that no longer existed in the world.

By the gate of our thousand storey building, I saw our doctor. He was waiting, patiently.

“How are you, doctor,” I said. “Visiting a patient at this late hour?”

“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

“Oh.” For a moment, my heart thumped. “A new vaccine?”

“Well, you’ve already taken the forty-two vaccines for this year. I was waiting for you because the drone saw you by Everest.”

The thumping of my heart got louder.


“It noticed that you picked up something.”

“Yes,” I said, smiling uncertainly. “It was something familiar. I wanted to take a closer look at it.”

“I am afraid the Corporation wants me to check you. If you are holding contraband, we have to sanitize you in the theatre.”

I turned white. “No, doctor!”

Our eyes met. His eyes were weary, I thought, all of a sudden. It had lost that hard edge of a man doing a job for the government. All I could see in his depths were enormous suffering. For a moment, I looked into his eyes, then I got close to him and said to him in a low voice: “I got an offer for you, doc. I’ll give you an inch of this orange peel I got in my pocket. Will you let me go, then?”

The doctor face changed, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. Then his eyes lit up. He was silent for a moment. “Orange…?” He half whispered, then looked around, as if to make sure nobody had overheard.

“Orange,” I say, with a giggle. “Orange peel.”

 “I may lose my job, Granny. Or they might take me to the torture house.”


For a moment, he looked at me, the longing so intense in his eyes. Then he whispered:

“How did you pick it up? You knew they were watching.”

“Yes,” I said. Then I shrugged. “Sometimes you have to take some chances.”

For a moment, I saw the faintest sign of a smile linger by the wrinkles of his eyes. Then he said, whispering: “I’ll take the peel. The drone may be watching me, but I’ll take my chances. I’ll have to pretend to check you now, since the cameras are watching.” I put my arms up and let him pat me down. He opened my bag. He rifled around. Then he gave me a thumbs up: “Good to go, Granny.”

I take my hand out of my pocket. I shake his hand with both of my hands. To the surveillance cameras, it looks like I am giving my doctor a warm goodbye. Then he feels that hard edge of something small and rounded digging on his palm. He looks at me, almost white, and he mutters: “Is it…?”

I nod. “A seed.”

A seed! Anybody caught with a reproducible seed was instantly shot. The doctor smiled, tensely.

“What do you want me to do with it?” He asked, with a tremor in his voice.

“Try to get it out of the city. Put it inside one of your vaccine containers. I hear there are still some areas outside where people are farming in secret. This may be one of the last remaining seeds of a live plant. They’ve killed off almost everything else.”  An intense campaign to spray Agent Green over the entire continent had left the land completely denuded of any life. The only thing now planted in these hills were Elixir. Slaves worked on the plantations, day in and day out, picking the Elixir. I heard some of them went mad and jumped off the cliffs.

The doctor clenched his fingers over mine. For a moment, we stood there, his hands over mine. Then he said: “It shall be done.”


Thursday, February 05, 2015

Reviews: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Its always fun to find reviews of your work online. As I browsed the net on this beautiful morning with the Himalayas shining in the sunshine, I came upon these two. And thought I would share it with you.

PageTurners: Wonderfully Short Wednesdays found me "a bit" boring. It was slow. Nothing happened.

He/she also found the illustration of the meditating man to be unrelated to the story. I always wondered why they selected that image to illustrate this story, myself.

The Blockade by Sushma Joshi
I chose this short story this week because I really liked the picture used to advertised it. I can't help but look at that man meditating with a view like that and wish that I was him.
Unfortunately though, the story didn't really do it for me. It based around the blockade of the Nepalese capital by Maoist rebels. Hasta's family and village are starving, so he attempts to find a way of keeping them alive through the blockade. He attempts to find the secret of a man who claims not to have eaten for months, and he also has a request to make of the political leaders. He accomplishes neither of these missions, and returns to his village almost empty handed, to find that his family has passed away and his wife absconded with another man in the hopes of improving her situation.
Ultimately, it's a very depressing story, but to be honest I just found it a bit boring. Not much really seemed to happen. I know objectively that this is probably some of the point - this man was trying to hard to save his family, but there was nothing he could do. Perhaps the story seemed to move slowly because it would have moved slowly for him given the barriers he continued to meet along the way.
In any event, although I accept that this story has a valid political message, I just couldn't enjoy it.

The purpose of Wonderfully Short Wednesdays is to review short stories, it is as simple as that. Short stories are a very special medium of story telling that I feel I don't read enough of and I hope that this encourages me and others to read more of them.

The Guttery felt like she found a gem in "The End of the World." Here's her thoughts on writing, below: 

I am certain that everyone has stories. I’m equally convinced that everyone is capable of writing these stories up into novels, short stories, articles, letters, notes, emails, blogs, texts, bumper stickers, billboards, songs, or graffiti. Writing is the legacy of our opposable thumbs and our ridiculously labyrinthed brains.
However, just as not all runners are equal, nor all athletes, all writing is certainly not equal. At some point during my college years I promised myself to never, ever waste my precious time reading junk. Never. Unless it’s a magazine. Then it’s all bets off.
For several years I only read the classics. Only the names bound in those Literary Anthologies you read in college: Hardy, Whitman, Woolf, Shakespeare. Under my definition of “classic”, Steinbeck was a bit of an upstart. Then after living in Nepal, I went through a long bout of only reading Indian writers—preferably ones who used magic realism. Do you know how difficult it was to make a steady diet of this writing? Salmon Rushdie hasn’t written that many things, nor has Gita Meeta, nor Tagore. It was like eating a very limited diet of only orange vegetables.  Yummy, but limiting.  My creativity, like a body on such a diet, was grinding to a halt.
Then I befriended someone who existed on a diet of everything, with a generous helping of sweet reading candy. Marianne read several books a week, reading them to sleep and waking to them before work. She read whatever was in front of her, whatever she found, whatever, whatever, and loved it. Marianne was a sweet novel addict and, as such, had the enviable ability to talk books with whomever she met. She called me a book snob and I called her a book whore. We were best friends. We parted—listen up Red and Blue voters—by mutually respecting one another’s views.
After meeting Marianne, I expanded my views. Here’s my adjusted creed: If for entertainment purposes only, and if (this is my caveat) the reader is intelligent enough to know the difference, and game enough to throw in superbly written novels, then the average reader may read crap.  The aspiring writer, though, is an exception.  To become exceptional, a writer must read more like an Olympic athlete in training.  A great writer must, like an Olympic athlete, read a well-balanced, varied diet. I know, I know: it works for Billy Bob Thornton to only eat orange food (okay, to set the record strait, he eats only raw food, not necessarily orange. Big difference), but not for the writer.  Sorry.  Even a straight genre writer should cross train.
With my new creed in mind, I joined a book group. It was kind of like the Nutrisystem for me. A prescribed diet of someone else’s food, just enough to pry me from my old habits, and get me on the road to a healthier diet. I’ll admit that I didn’t like all the books my group chose. I don’t care if he does write a pretty sentence; Jonathan Franzen struck me as a pubescent boy stuck with a nasty god complex. Mostly, though, I read wonderful books I never would have chosen with my own sensitive nose.  I was introduced by Mandy to Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea, by Maureen to Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America, and by Tracy to Jennifer Vanderbe’s Easter Island.  The camaraderie of a group to gush over or trash a book is added fun I didn’t take into account when I joined.
Like many people who have kicked an eating disorders, I maintain my Nurtisystem support group, but I also go on my own hunts. These days I’m like a reformed meat-eater who now leads groups on urban mushroom foraging. I will spend my late hours on the Internet searching the Independent Publishing sites such as Dranzen Books, Algonquin Books, Other Press. This search has led down some strange paths, such as The Mullet: Hairstyles of the Gods, or Shitting Pretty. It has also put some gems in my hands.  On these excursions, I have found Galore by Michael Crummey and The End of the World by Sushma Joshi.
While most of my college promises to myself (big hair, stonewashed jeans, cheap beer, Nihilism) are better off dead, my promise to stay away from bad writing has solidified like cement beneath the post of my own writing.  I have many coaches.  Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf will always be there, but so, too, will Louise Erdrich, Orhan Pamuk, Gao Xingjian, and Cormac McCarthy.  I may not make great art yet, but with the help of these Olympic coaches, I can strive for more.  Who knows, with time, practice, and lots of good reading, I could break the record–or put a deep scratch down it so it won’t play on the record player any more.
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