A short story
Maya Keshari Tuladhar was born with mischievous eyes and a precocious smile. She emanated such airs that all her visiting relatives unwittingly placed that little extra money on her forehead as they filed by the bed where her mother Tara Keshari collected each offering with a grateful nod and a shy, exhausted smile.
Keshar Ratna Tuladhar, Tara’s beak-nosed father, stood by the bed and greeted every well wisher with a curt namastay and a nod. “Maiya will become Kathmandu’s biggest scholar,” he declaimed to everyone’s surprise, while his young son eyeing the growing stack of rupees stammered self-consciously, offering to pay for her schooling. The boy’s wife peered from behind, spellbound by the child’s wry pouts that—she felt—portended a troublemaker; but she bit her grin and resolved to help raise Maiya as her own. And throughout that evening, the visitors offered extravagant sums of money, transfixed by the child’s smile and by her knowing, mischievous eyes. Only her grandmother Roop Sova frowned upon the ceremony. She still mourned her three teenaged daughters who had once shared the family’s one-room shack in Chetrapati and who had succumbed to tuberculosis in the distant past. Those had been lean, debt-ridden years, willed through without any assistance from Keshar Ratna, yet Roop Sova still blamed herself for failing her babies. Yes, only Tara had survived, but look at how she had flouted all decorum and disgraced the memory of her sisters. “I can tell,” she fumed, “the child will turn into a good-for-nothing. What else can one expect of mixed blood?” Just then, little Maiya shrieked so malevolently that Roop Sova forgot her own name for a week and had to rely on her daughter-in-law to assist her.
Later that night as the neighborhood of Jyatha slipped into uneasy dreams, Motimaituhtaju the Jyapuni midwife lit a brazier and massaged Tara Keshari with warm mustard oil. She listened to Tara’s scattered thoughts, answered her every question, recounted stories of Jyatha Tole that she felt Tara needed to hear and offered advice when pressed.
After the flames settled down, Motimaituhtaju retired to a cot nearby while Tara nursed the baby at her itching breasts and totted up almost five thousand rupees. Her head still buzzed with the midwife’s coarse voice. She felt as though an errant dragonfly had climbed into her head now, blithely zigzagging through her memories, pollinating the rumors with facts, with dreams, with voices, with expletives, with neglected tunes … until, overwhelmed by an inexplicable, blooming clarity, Tara gazed through the window and shivered at the sight of the moon dangling like a luminescent crescent earring.
A year and a half ago, 22-year-old Tara had eloped with the Civics professor who was helping her prepare for the infamous I. Sc. examinations. Her scandalised family immediately shut their textile shop and cloistered themselves for three months. Keshar Ratna disowned her, his only surviving daughter, vowing eternal vengeance on anyone who dared help her. After all, Tara Keshari had run off with a married man from the wrong family: an oil-merchant by ancestry, he belonged to the lowly Syãmi clan, a Manandhar! Keshar Ratna strode up and down the wooden stairways, tortured by the thought, threatening to dismember that spineless son of a bitch, that beshyaka, if he ever laid eyes on him. He yelled so foully that a rapt crowd gathered near his two-storeyed mud-and-brick house, amazed by the versatility of Nepal bhasa.
“Haré bhagwan, my only girl, my precious hira who suffered so much while I was away,” he roared, remembering also the daughters who had passed away in his absence, during his long sojourn to Lhasa: “For whom I had such dreams… treacherous chandalni… and all this to her own wonderful, handsome, and brave father, too!” Taking a deep breath, he exploded into such ugly language that the women of the tole blushed and stuffed cotton balls into their children’s ears.
Keshar Ratna’s torrential obscenities attracted even larger crowds of people, who milled around the roadside by the house. “Feels like a carnival of the absurd, a gai-jatra around here,” a passing bureaucrat thought aloud, picking at a lint on his black coat. “Gai-jatra, gai-jatra, gai-jatra,” chanted a group of brightly uniformed schoolboys, ties askew, running all over the place. Workers on their way to the office, women headed to the Asan market, and even some policemen loitering in starched khakis, all lingered to take in the scene. One especially sharp-eyed tole resident rolled out a few hemp mats for tired feet and set up a makeshift teashop, where cups of hot tea sold briskly. The transfixed residents slurped their tea, shared food from tiffin carriers and cut jokes as they listened to the endless tirade blaring from the house with barred windows.
Roop Sova fuelled her husband’s rage with reminders of the family’s shame and the possible gossip circulating in the tole. She recalled the safe from which Tara had stolen gold chains, rare jewelry, leaving a note advising the family to forget her, threatening to flee the country if they followed her.
Recognising his wife’s manipulations and reaffirmed in his doubts about her fidelity, Keshar Ratna winked at her. “I wonder how Tara learned such cunning disloyalty.Muat have been while I was gone, huh?” he grinned?
“How can you? How can even think such things?”she sccreamed at him breathlessly, tears streming down her oval face: “Whospent all her time raising the children while you were failing at business and doing God-knows-what for thirteen years in Tibet, eh? Who?”
Keshar Ratna blanched and momentarily shut up. But their duel drew forth even more people, adding to the already sizeable and festive crowd.
“Don’t you see the gai-jatra you’re creating, Ba?” Juju Ratna tried to reason with Keshar Ratna: “look at all those people, Ba, gathered as if for a… for a… you know, for a freak show.”
“Do you think I give a damn what you or the rest of the idiotic world think, baucha?” he countered, glaring at his 17-year-old son. He with his ranting and raving which—interspersed with Roop Sova’s signature protests—began to sound like searing ragas. The daughter-in-law was spared the immolation, being as she was on the verge of womanhood and still residing with her parents. Only late at night did the Tuladhar residence withdraw into an exhausted, eerie quiet.
Three months later, Jyatha Tole awoke to an unbearable silence. The roosters slept through the dawn; the pigeons cooed soundlessly; the chickens forgot to lay eggs; and the tole residents intuited in their dreams the end of this strange drama. The incredulous gathering soon petered out and the people, aching with nostalgia, were left to ponder about the newly-purged house.
Keshar Ratna flung open the windows, and a passing wind swept out the malodors of past meals, disturbed dreams, stale sweat, and rancid breath. Fresh gusts ventilated the rooms with fragrances of the earth, the trees, and certain vines that smelled of semen—a smell that terrified Juju, who sensed inchoate links between them and his raging manhood.
But the store reopened as if it had merely closed for a festival and the customers flocked in for gossip. They purchased more cloth than they needed, asked after the family’s health and shared news of each other without mentioning Tara. Breaking finally from his long preoccupations with his dwindling savings, Keshar Ratna sighed with relief and offered prayers of gratitude to the god of the hearth, the Aagãn Dyuh, for heralding such a propitious beginning.
Meanwhile, Roop Sova gathered all her daughter’s belongings, stuffed them into a huge teak chest, and slammed the lid shut upon her memories. She heaved the chest onto a table in the rat-infested storeroom and vowed that life would remain unchanged. Thus, ignoring time, she kept busy cleaning about the house, washing laundry in the large clay pots, distilling liquor and preparing meals for Keshar Ratna and her son who toiled at the textile shop.
Juju worked hard to impress Keshar Ratna. He shouldered the janitorial-cashier-sales responsibilities without complaint and so entranced the customers by his efficiency that by the time he had measured and scissored through a length of cloth like a razor-blade ripping through paper, and even folded and packed it, the customers hardly noticed the few discrepant inches in their purchases. Amazed by the profit, Juju learned more techniques and applied them with such dexterity that even Keshar Ratna remained oblivious to the tricks of his son’s trade. The old man reviewed the accounts since his return from Lhasa three years ago and balanced the records to the last anna. In this manner, the family kept busy with their blissful routine and barely noticed the year darting by like a swallow.
No one mentioned Tara Keshari, nobody dared to. And Juju’s fears persisted, often culminating in semi-nightmares, where he grappled with vague feminine forms and turned into a shrub.
Roop Sova chanced to wind up the grandfather clock in the living room one morning and she jumped at the rhythm of its heart. She peered deeper, shocked and furious by the unheeding passage of time: every swing of the pendulum mocked her. She huffed and puffed all the way up to the terrace and sat down to lose herself in laundry, but her son’s caked under shorts disturbed her even more. She reluctantly held council with Keshar Ratna, who met with the bride’s family. Within a few weeks, after further wedding ceremonies, the daughter-in-law received the keys to the house.
The young bride, Sneha Lani Tuladhar, assumed control of her new home without offending Roop Sova’s authority, and suffused the drab, lonely air with her musical voice and glowing beauty. Not only did she calm Juju’s ever-burgeoning anxieties like a woman of the world—though she was barely 15—but she made short work of every household chore and waited on Roop Sova so attentively that even before the matron would begin to ask for something, the object would appear before her. But Roop Sova, still smarting at the grandfather clock, was never content.
“The sheets are too colourful for such an already brilliant day. Use something lighter,” she advised curtly, or complained: “The water is wet” as if Sneha were to blame. Having rehearsed back at home the worst tortures at the hands of a mother-in-law, the young bride, this bhamcha, bore everything with patient grace.
After long, heated arguments with himself, Juju Ratna decided the textile business was not generating enough money, and tried convincing Keshar Ratna, who had aged ten years in those tumultuous months, to look into the general convenience store business.
“The tourists, who’ve begun arriving like flies, pay three, four times the regular price, or whatever you charge them,” Juju explained to Keshar Ratna, who listened with a furrowed brow and measured nods. “They pay fortunes for strange things like canned frankfurters, luncheon meat, or awful-tasting stuff like vegemite and mayonnaise. And without any complaints too, so unlike the uncivilised locals who bargain over a mere five paisa. We can’t go wrong, Ba.”
White-haired Keshar Ratna kept nodding and growing red in the face. “Oh, so you want to tell me what I should do and what business to run, eh?” he finally thundered: “so you think these bhuyu white people are all donkeys, huh?”
Startled, Juju prayed against yet another attack of the ranting sickness.
“So you want to act like a man, but sell our family honour to kiss the bhuyu beshyakas’ rich butts, eh?” he continued, poking Juju’s chest with his thick forefinger. “Let me remind you, you little khwasah: I give the orders here. I make the decisions.” He took a deep breath and bellowed: “No, no, no; I say no to you henpecked, pus-brained, retarded son of the greatest, smartest, and handsomest father. Go sleep out in the gully if you disagree, you hear?”
His voice had so risen to the old pitch that some neighbors sleepwalked out by the house and attempted to sit on hemp mats—only to awaken on muddy backsides, the echoes of Keshar Ratna’s ire and snatches of his past epic outburst ringing in their ears.
Juju shuffled his feet and mumbled with downcast eyes.
“Get out of my sight before I disown you mampakha like your sisss …,” Keshar Ratna choked back the word, his Adam’s apple bobbing uncontrollably. “Out of my sight … now,” he ordered.
“It’s good you talked to Juju,” Roop Sova whispered later in the night: “He seems to be acting up these days, must be the bhamcha. We shouldn’t let that girl plant bad ideas in our son’s head.”
He remained silent.
“Haré Shiva!” she muttered and nudged his shivering back. Then shaking her head, she embraced Keshar Ratna while he sobbed like a baby.
That same night, the young bhamcha wept too, but silently, seething at her husband’s coarse love-making. She fumed at her karma for flinging her into an insane household, and studied the ceiling with such intensity that she discerned images of a sister-in-law she had known as a child. “Oh, Tara tuhta,” she prayed: “come back, come back.”
Sneha’s visions seeped into Juju’s dreams, and he too recalled a sister who had cooked for him, combed his straight black hair, read him Keshar Ratna’s letters from Lhasa, and sung him to sleep. Some old tunes and children’s rhymes, like “jhi nima pasa/yalay wonay nhyasa,” played themselves over and over in his head.
Under the weight of so much yearning, the wobbly table in the storeroom collapsed, and the teak chest crashed open, spilling memories like marbles that thudded across the quiet mud floors and exploded in a torrent down the wooden stairwell. The rats scampered in terror and Roop Sova briefly lost her bearings in her dreams. Keshar Ratna interpreted the incident as a distress signal from Tara and prepared to find her despite Roop Sova’s misgivings.
The next morning, Keshar Ratna presented some pomegranates and three yards of the best tas cloth to the neighbouring Guvaju before sitting down to consult him. The impassive Guvaju sprinkled rice grains and marigold petals at the orange sun, intoned incomprehensible prayers, and studied Tara’s astrological birth scrolls amidst thick incense smoke. For two hours, he chalked galaxies of calculations on a black slate before making the solemn pronouncement. “Straight down south, at the edge of the world,” the old Guvaju declared and advised him on the most propitious days for the journey.
After a week of questioning, wheedling, and bribing every bus driver for possible information on his daughter, Keshar Ratna headed for the border town of Birgunj in the terai plains. Shortly after arriving there, he recruited Jagan, an emaciated dehati rickshaw driver, and set out to first explore all the lodges, then the family pensions, and finally, the temple shelters.
Naked children played khoppi and rolled worn bicycle tires in front of a Buddhist vihara. Soon they flocked around the dapper old man and begged him for money with charming smiles. The exhausted Jagan described Tara for the sixty-eighth time and promised twenty-five paisa to everyone if they could lead Keshar Ratna to her. “Oye´, the sad woman from Kathmandu !” they cried in Dehati, pointing towards the travellers’ hostel.
After gaining permit from a rather overweight monk, Keshar Ratna ran up a flight of stairs, banged on Tara’s door, and entered breathlessly. Tara dropped her darning and jumped off the cot, but upon recognising her father, she bit her lower lip and looked out the one grimy window.
It was dark inside, dank, and aside from an oil lamp, a line of hanging laundry, and Tara’s metal suitcase, the cubicle lay bare. Tara’s gaunt face, bloodshot eyes, and her greasy blouse and sari shocked Keshar Ratna who cursed himself. Then he noticed her swollen womb.
“Haré sharanum! Haré bhagwan! What is this?!” he roared in horror, scratching his throat and blowing on his fingers.
Tara continued gazing out the window.
“Don’t you dare ignore your brave and handsome father, sneaky little chandalni you!” Keshar Ratna glared at her stomach, distracted by a passing thought. “I wonder if the khwasah will look anything like me,” he mumbled, caressing his beaked nose. “Don’t take after your grandmother, your aji, you hear!” he warned Tara’s belly.
Tara remained impassive, even as her left eyebrow began twitching.
Keshar Ratna glanced about him as a rat scuttled across the wooden floor. “Where’s that son-of-a-bitch?” he growled, veins sticking out on his neck like venomous snakes: “Tell me, my precious hira. I’ll skin that mampakha alive and pickle him in cayenne pepper!”
Tara Keshari stuck to a defiant silence, but eventually burst into tears, relieving on her father’s rumbling chest all the humiliation, suffering, and betrayal the Syãmi man had brought upon her. She sobbed so violently that it unleashed a two-hour fit of hiccups, which only abated after Keshar Ratna cursed everyone in Kathmandu for talking so incessantly about Tara.
“You’re coming home with me, maicha,” he decreed: “My first grandchild will not be born in filth and amongst strangers.”
She nodded blankly.
The next morning, a grinning Keshar Ratna helped her into the nascent sunshine, to the cries of the children. “Sad woman from Kathmandu, bye-bye, ta-ta,” they sang, and pestered the old man for more money. In a fit of generosity, he handed out five rupees to every child and dropped his gold ring into the rickshaw driver Jagan’s palm.
Homecoming was an awkward affair. Uncertain of her new role and terrified by the cracks in her heart, Roop Sova clung to the security of her resentment. She withheld blessings when Tara knelt at her feet, and then strode off to incinerate the ingrate’s horoscope.
But Sneha hovered around Tara and served her delicacies of swari, jeri, and marpa. She asked naive questions about the pregnancy and rubbed Tara’s belly in giggling curiosity. Tara chuckled and patted Sneha’s hand. The brooding Juju retreated into childishness and insisted that Tara comb his hair and sing to him like in the past. He only awoke to adult care in Sneha’s arms, amidst a new and tender passion.
Keshar Ratna appeared to grow younger every day, looking nothing like the 55-year-old grandfather he was about to become. He mumbled lewd tunes and flirted with the bored housewives who frequented the shop hoping to learn the secrets of regaining lost youth. “Oh, it takes much devotion and an unflinching adherence to my every instruction,” he declaimed winking lewdly, and basked in their laughter. He feigned interest in the Dhammapada, the Vedas, and heroically hinted at renouncing the world to enter into Sanyas. “No, sauji!” the women gasped in mock-horror, while Juju swamped Keshar Ratna with religious manuscripts purchased from the Guvaju.
But Roop Sova remained implacable. Obsessed by the memories of Tara’s thievery and the need also to preserve her own identity, she padlocked the safe and all the cabinets in the storeroom, and tucked the keys into her white cotton sash. Even in her dreams, she locked almost anything she encountered: young saplings, pregnant women, exuberant children, wells, schools, markets, and even bathrooms. She withdrew into the familiar contours of tradition and regularly visited Lord Ganesh’s temple nearby. And there, the devotees’ plaintive bhajans and chanting connected her to an ancient and secure past.
As the birth approached, Sneha swept, and decorated the house, rearranged it endlessly. Sandalwood incense burned twenty-four hours a day, holy water and flower petals from Janbahal were sprinkled in every room; the mud floors were cleaned to such perfection that cockroaches regularly died of nausea. Everyone tiptoed around the house like ghosts, except Roop Sova, who checked the locks with increased vigilance.
The Jyapuni midwife lay nearby and fussed over the nervous Tara incessantly, explaining the labour and birth processes with absolute authority. After all, Motimaituhtaju claimed to have manipulated nature and given virgin birth to a beak-nosed daughter. She prepared an aromatic potion, whiffs of which were at once appetising and repulsive, and had Tara drink that every few hours.
“This way the baby won’t be totally unprepared when she enters the world,” the midwife advised: “And it will also ease your pain and exhaustion.”
The family treated the seemingly ageless midwife with utmost respect, at least for the time being, and catered to the most whimsical of her wishes. It was their way of easing her path to retirement, as rumours said this lady (who had ministered to every birth in the tole) was performing her last undertaking.
On the morning of the auspicious day, the family members were all stricken with loose bowels. They waited in line, legs crossed, biting their lips, at the one bathroom on the ground floor. Only Roop Sova suffered no such ailment, but remained in her world where her locks clicked open at will, and where she stayed distracted, frantically running relays from one disobedient lock to the next. Like a wasp repeatedly slamming against a windowpane, she eventually grew exasperated by the deceptive reality.
The tension in the house vibrated with every breeze, like taut sarangi strings, transmitting waves of anxiety and summoning the nostalgic tole. They gathered by the house that morning, certain they would hear some new version of that tirade from the past. The sharp-eyed resident quickly set up his makeshift teashop again, this time bringing along containers of food and other drinks. Soon people stood at the roadside, drinking hot tea as well as thõ, and also slurping up gelatinous tuhkha and juicy mamochas from their leaf plates. Conversations caught fire everywhere, setting off blaze after blaze of laughter.
At seven and half minutes past five in the evening, after hours of Tara’s blood-curdling screams, the baby’s cry pierced the air. The child’s shrieks, the cheering and whistling of the people, and the temple bells all meshed together and hung like intricate but scrambled musical notes in the air. Four itinerant Gula Baju musicians returning from worship at the temple of Swoyambhu, plucked out those notes and moulded them into startling tunes.
Never had those big drums, those cymbals, and the haunting horns created a distinctly Newari yet foreign sound such as this. Tapping their feet at the revelation, the musicians nodded at each other and performed with moist eyes. Every sound they uttered turned into music, as an exuberant celebration broke out on the street. The atmosphere was set ablaze further when Sneha slipped bottles of Roop Sova’s most potent firecracker ailah to the crowd. The people claimed the prerogative to view the baby and welcome her to their tole.
“Haré baba, what kind of madness is this?” Keshar Ratna yelled at the clamorous crowd: “This is family business, you know, not some public spectacle. Go home and beat your wives, or whatever perversions you practice behind closed doors, and leave us the fuck alone!”
No: Keshar Ratna remained adamant, granting only the relatives entry into his house. After all the well-wishers had departed, he paced around his room, stung by the relatives’ sneaky, intolerant glances at his granddaughter and perplexed as well by the discordant Gula Baju and the neighbourhood’s fascination with Maiya.
“Lunacy, nothing but god-damned ignorant lunacy!” he grumbled: “And me, the only sane man in this entire stinking tole!” Little Maiya, he told himself yet again, would receive the best available education, and to hell with the Kathmandu Tuladhars’ narrow-stupid-vicious minds. “Fuck their storied mercantile histories as well,” he added, still fuming, and could have continued in this vein, had not the cavernous striking of the first morning hour diverted his thoughts to Motimaituhtaju, seemingly for no apparent reason: she appeared to be smiling rather coyly. Keshar Ratna shook his head violently and tried focusing on the noise outside.
The now drunken crowd continued dancing to the precarious, improvised rhythms, stomping and shaking the earth in a single-minded stupor.
Back in the house, a scowling Roop Sova sought herself in every corner, chasing memories that floated about like soap bubbles. She stalked the random echoes from the past until she wound up digging through the teak chest, certain that the answers lay within, but unable to conjure the right questions. Facing herself without the framework of her traditions, devoid of guiding memories, she felt like a lost child. She crumpled to the floor by the ancient safe and began weeping—softly at first, then in gut-wrenching convulsions.
Irritated by Roop Sova’s sobs, Juju—dreaming of rich mountain-gazing foreigners—nudged his wife impatiently. Sneha sat up with a start and glared at Juju, until gradually she became aware of someone weeping and hurried to the door. To her horror, she found herself mumbling some of Keshar Ratna’s crudest words, even as Roop Sova’s cries grew louder and Sneha recalled her mother-in-law’s many, unnecessary slights. “Beshyaka, mampakha, khwasah,” she muttered to herself, blushing uncontrollably and grinning from ear to ear. She vowed to treat her own future daughter-in-laws like princesses, not maid-servants, and little Maiya, she would grow into anything but her own invisible self, Sneha decided, bolting and unbolting the doors uncertainly. But her concern for Roop Sova’s strange forgetfulness and the musicians’ even stranger melodies softened Sneha’s heart, and she rushed into the storeroom to touch her reassuringly.
“My daughters, my poor suffering daughters, forgive me, your unfortunate mother,” Roop Sova babbled in delirium and embraced the bewildered bhamcha. Sneha walked Roop Sova to the matron’s bedroom, sat beside her and talked and talked and talked, until Keshar Ratna impatiently cursed them out with the crowing of the first rooster.
Earlier, while tiny Maiya slept soundly, Tara Keshari had awoken from a nightmare, wherein a grown Maiya and Keshar Ratna had been swearing at each other for three days and nights. Eventually, Keshar Ratna had hung his head, impressed by the little twit’s raging tongue. Tara whispered a prayer against the possible materialisation of the dream, and calmed herself by watching the crescent moon through the window. Stray dogs whined at the night and faint musical riffs wafted in from a distance.
She fished out a crumpled photograph from under the mattress and studied the handsome face. The past reeled through her mind once more, and she grinned at her unbelievable daring, the clandestine adventures, as well as the numbing heartbreak. And then the familiar bitterness, rancour and self-pity began burning her stomach.
Tara shut her eyes and dredged up those spirits into her constricted chest, where they swirled and swirled with increasing violence before bursting forth into tunes that had lain dormant for so long. “Jhi nima pasa/yalay wonay nhyasa …,” she crooned repeatedly and caressed Maiya’s brow. Eventually, after she had exhausted all the songs in her repertoire, even the Hindi film tunes, she nudged the dozing midwife and told her she could leave now.
A bleary-eyed Motimaituhtaju nodded and made Tara promise to summon her in event of trouble, however trivial. They clasped hands and looked upon each other with moist eyes before the midwife descended the creaky stairs with her bundle of gifts. The grandfather clock in the living room echoed the first morning hour, as Motimaituhtaju shuffled her way home, her duty done.