She says she is not feeling great, that she had this nightmare where a friend of hers turned into a ghost.
“He had white hair all over his chest, and he was undoing the strings of his black-and-white pinstripe shorts. And he kept grinning at me.”
“What’s that for?” she asks.
“For your friend’s poor choice of clothing for such an important venture.”
“I had a bad dream and you’re laughing at me,” she says, stiffening her petite figure. “That’s no way to comfort a distressed wife.”
It’s Sunday, the day we laze in bed till late in the morning either arguing or telling stories and wishing we had someone to bring us tea. Kabi and I got married about two years ago, exactly eight months after we had our first argument as strangers. A ten-year-old girl had jumped into the Thimphu River after the midterm results and I was talking to some teachers and students in the school about it. She was a decent girl, the teachers sighed. But she didn’t have many friends, the students said. She wasn’t the kind who would throw herself into a river because of poor result, the parents wept. She didn’t leave a suicide note. Some passers-by fished her out of the raging monsoon currents. She was brought dead, said the doctor at the emergency ward. Poor results could have spurred her decision, said the psychiatrist. But we need a more in-depth understanding of her personality for a proper prognosis, the psychiatrist added, for instance, the home environment, the school environment, and then we can judge her mental condition. Boy, the kind of English doctors use – you could as well be reading some medical manual.
Suddenly, one of the teachers shouted at me. “You news people,” she said, “You always glorify suicides, always see the negative side of things.”
“This is a part of my job,” I replied, and left.
The teacher and I bumped into each other a number of times till I worked out the courage to ask her out. On our first date I took her out to a restaurant run by a friend of mine. Over dinner I told her what it meant to be a reporter in Thimphu, and how you had to face people’s ire for what they perceived as ‘wrong’ stories or ‘one-sided’ views. She listened sympathetically and sipped her red wine. In a month’s time we were dating. We hit it off immediately. We married soon afterwards. She quit teaching after we learned that she was pregnant.
“I guess it’s the anxiety that is giving you the nightmares,” I say. “You’ve been unnecessarily worrying about too many things ever since we saw the doc.”
“What do you mean?” she says. “You don’t expect a woman to worry when she is pregnant?”
“I didn’t mean that,” I say quickly. “There are things that you could forget about for the time being.”
“Like… my income or your job.”
“Isn’t money important, now that an extra mouth is on its way? Isn’t my job important? Or do you expect me to babysit forever? And do you know you should be earning more from now on? And do you know that pregnancy diet is costly? And…”
“Stop it, honey,” I say, and try putting my hand on her shoulder. But she turns her back on me. “Baby,” I say, shifting closer to her, “We will do alright.”
“Alright is not enough,” she says moving restlessly underneath the sheets, “and I will soon have nightmares about alright not being enough.”
At that moment, the woman next-door starts her rant. The woman drinks all day long and curses her little son every minute of the hour. I have never understood what she has against the boy. “You son of a pig…you monkey-faced donkey…” and the litany goes on till she runs out of words. The little boy apparently unperturbed by what his mother says is always sleeping on the windowsill. One time I almost asked the mother what she had against her little boy but decided otherwise, fearing she might start shouting at me.
“And when do we move out of this filthy place with filthy neighbors?”
“Soon,” I say, stroking her hair, “soon.” And I know that soon will never come. I also know my reporting job will never bring me what Kabi considers enough. And I think of quitting Bhutan Inquirer sooner than later. But then, what else can I do; I feel I don’t have too many options. I think of going to Australia like many young Bhutanese are doing these days. Go to the Oz and work your butt off delivering pizzas, waiting tables, picking berries, or, if worse comes to worst, cleaning public toilets.
Suddenly she turns towards me.
“You should hear more of what I saw in my dream,” she says.
“Go ahead, as they say, I am all ears.”
What a funny little phrase, I think, and imagine myself turning into a gigantic ear.
Towards the late evening, just as the sun begins its journey down the flaming horizon, and darkness floods the world, a mother and her toddler walk up the winding road on the green hills of an unnamed town. The hills are gentle and rolling, and countless homes dot the undulations on the land. Lights are beginning to appear in some of the houses. This is when working men pick up rum from the liquor shop, wrap the bottle in an old newspaper, and walk home in hope of a hearty evening, and woman of the house starts preparing dinner. It is the time when dogs begin to bark, mourning the dipping of the sun only to go quiet again when they recollect that the sun will rise tomorrow. Also when truck drivers switch on the headlights of their roaring monsters and drive faster to be home in time with their wives and children.
It was at this hour that this mother and her toddler walk up the winding road. The mother holds the boy by his hand. A young man walks close behind them holding a rolled-up evening newspaper. A truck barrels down gathering speed and belching dark fumes. The driver honks when he sees the mother and child on the road. But he doesn’t slow down. The child is excited at the approaching truck. Gibberish pours from his mouth as he points at the barreling truck, and pulls himself free from his mother’s hand. The mother panics and runs after the little boy. The young man behind, he rushes towards the boy. The truck closes in as it rumbles down in speed. The driver exclaims in fear and panic as he desperately floors the brake and slams the horn. Through the night haze he had not seen the child running towards his truck. He was in a hurry to get home to his wife and children. The mother screams, “Come back,” but the boy has already disappeared under the double rear wheels of the truck. The truck stops some distance away and the guilt-laden panic-ridden driver jumps out of the door ready to accept a mother’s curse. “I didn’t see through the haze, forgive me if you ever can, please,” he pleads with his wild eyes. The mother is on the ground beside the crushed body of her son, wailing like a mad woman, berserk in a deluge of tears. And then she passes out.
A few minutes tick by before she gains consciousness, sees her son, and passes out again. But when she finally sits up again, there is a strange strength in her. She doesn’t cry any more. She kneels beside her son. The young man helps the mother pick the child up. Together they lift the still boy. Only the little torso is in their hands – waist-down, which has become pulp, remains on the road.
That’s when Kabi woke up in a cold sweat, shivering, her temples throbbing, and her heart pounding.
“I open my eyes wide, it is pitch-dark. I clutch the blanket in fear because in front of me stands a man, actually a colleague from my school,” she says.
He is of medium height, fair, and with light grey hair. His torso is naked. He bends a little and tries to take off his pinstripe shorts.
“I can clearly see him, the hair on his chest, his high cheekbones, large forehead, gleaming eyes, and his hands nervously working his short-strings,” she says. “I can’t move. I try to shout but no voice comes through my throat. The man continues fiddling with the strings and staring at me. I make a great effort to move my hands. Somehow, they move.”
Never taking her eyes off the man, Kabi stretches her right hand to the bedside drawer and nervously fishes out a matchbox, and with trembling fingers strikes a matchstick. There is a tiny flood of light. The man has vanished.
“But then, soon enough the matchstick flickers off. The man appears again. I am afraid. I don’t understand what is happening. With my trembling hands I strike another matchstick. The man has bolted. The match burns off. Darkness reigns. The man stands there, still fiddling with the strings. Feverish, I decide to meet the man face-to-face. With great effort, my legs shaking all over, I get off the bed with my eyes still on the man, light a match and feebly walk towards him. The man disappears. I light more matches and walk around. Exhausted I come back and lie down on the bed.”
“And then,” I ask.
“That’s when you kicked my shin,” she says. “Thanks for the kick, otherwise I would have surely died.”
“That was an ordeal of a dream,” I say. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I think I do, I think I must,” she says slowly. “That man, that colleague from my school was real. Do you think something has happened to him?”
Suddenly there is concern in her voice. She rises up and rests her shoulders on the headboard. She pulls her knees up, and says a prayer.
“I think you are tired and have been thinking a little too much. You must learn to relax now that there is another life inside you. And if you want me to check on that colleague of yours I will do it.”
She reaches for her cell and gives me a number. I dial the number.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” says the man.
“How are you?”
“I am fine, thanks, and how are you?”
“I am fine, thanks,” I say. “You sure you are alright?”
The man hesitates, seems a little lost for words.
“I am alright,” he says. “I guess I am fine.”
“Thank you for keeping yourself fine,” I say and hang up. “Your colleague is fine,” I tell my wife.
“I knew he was fine,” she says.
“Why did you want me to call him then?”
She doesn’t respond. Instead, she stares vacantly at the ceiling of the bedroom.
“Your stars are dying,” she says after a long silence.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“I don’t think you are headed for anything big in life,” she says.
“What makes you think so?”
“I just feel it. I feel your stars are dying.”
“I don’t think you’re doing me any favour by saying this,” I say.
“I wanted a different life,” she says. “I wanted more, I’ve always wanted more.”
She is depressing me. But I say nothing. Instead, I wonder if pregnancy leads to such a state of mind.
The clock on the wall says quarter to midday. One of us should be getting up to do something about lunch, I think, and I think it will be me. She has the tendency to dramatise things sometimes, like she just did, about my not going places and her destiny to remain a pauper’s wife all her life. The first time she learnt of her pregnancy she refused to enter the kitchen, saying the smell of food almost made her puke. She never puked once, though. And then I notice them, the stars. The family that lived in the apartment before us had put up a solar system in the ceiling of the bedroom. How come I had never noticed it before! I feel a little better thinking my wife was referring to the stars in the ceiling that actually had a fading air about them.
“Say, you get out of the bed and make a tour of the kitchen,” she says. “I feel the baby move in there,” she points at her belly, which is gaining the bulge by the day.
I fix a decent meal and bring it to the bedroom. We eat in silence, listening to the neighborhood dogs working up an ungainly chorus. These dogs cry every night. One of them starts with a long-drawn doleful wail and the rest join the alpha crier. Soon it is a miserable chorus, an overwhelming life-annihilating dirge.
“Even in defeat there have to be heroes,” she says suddenly. “Someone has to lead the surrender. And by the way, the dignity of surrendering is a sublime process of unburdening the soul of its earthly yoke which chiefly consists of self-righteous pride and the need to constantly feed one’s ego.”
“What are you talking about?” I say.
“About the need for hero worship or you may call anti-hero worship,” she says. “That’s why we need adversity, we need enemies, we need pain, we need suffering. Imagine an ideal world where everyone is happy and equal.”
“You mean a utopia?”
“Ya, something like it, where everything is perfect and where we would have no heroes. We wouldn’t need them.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“That’s why inequality must persist, and the phenomenon of life must continue to be unjust,” she says. “Chaos must chiefly lead the world, or else the quest for perfection will stop and we will fail to progress as a civilization. The idea of beauty will cease if chaos ceases. Similarly, falsehood must exist to afford relevance to truth; otherwise, truth, which is absolute at the pinnacle of its flawlessness, stands the risk of becoming an obsolete idea.”
I am amazed that this pregnant woman delves into metaphysics, right after sobbing over her husband’s poor income.
Later, I carry the dishes back to the kitchen, sweep the floor, kill a few stray cockroaches, and pour a juice for her. She switches on the TV and is flipping through the channels. I hope she doesn’t stop at some stupid Indian dance show, and as if reading my mind she settles for Al Jazeera. I keep the juice on the side table and join her in bed. It’s been one hell of a Sunday morning so far, I think to myself.
“And now,” she begins, with her eyes on TV, “tell me one more thing.”
“Shoot the Q,” I say.
“Why on earth did you decide to rent an apartment in this horrible neighborhood?”
“I didn’t have too many options,” I say. “You know what they say of Thimphu these days, it’s easier to find a wife than a decent apartment. But I have been lucky, I found both.”
“Hmmm, but then this wonderful neighbour of yours. How can any decent landlord accommodate a woman who calls her own son things like ‘son of a pig and monkey-faced-donkey’?” She bursts out laughing at ‘monkey-faced-donkey’ and says it again, slowly: “If I were you I would have packed my bags and left this filthy place long time ago, but you decided to stay on and brought me here as well. Not that I am unhappy here, it is the values I care for that are missing in this part of the town.”
I just listen to her. I guess that’s the best thing to do, really.
“Should I tell you about one of the major disappointments of my life?” she says.
“I was a little girl. Must have been four or five. I spent most of my time alone. I don’t know why but I was never crazy about our neighborhood girls. One evening I was swinging by the little flower garden my grandpa used to maintain. I fell down and I thought my hands landed on something slithery. It was a lizard. The lizard escaped but I had the tail in my hands. I was not terrified or anything. But I suddenly started crying. I wailed and hollered till my mother came to me asking what it was. I just killed a lizard, I said, and handed over the little tail to her. She looked at it and gave me a big smile. Silly, these lizards grow their tails all the time, she said, and threw it away. I didn’t believe her and continued to cry till my father came and said the same thing. Now I had to believe. But I was suddenly angry at myself. I wondered why I had cried so much for snapping off a lizard’s tail that grew back. This haunted me for a long time until I realised something. That evening, as I lay crying with the lizard’s tail in my hand, I understood that all living beings lived an insecure life, shedding parts of them to escape danger and death which ultimately caught them. That is what we do all the time – shed a part of us as we continue to live this futile life.”
I agree with her worldview.
“I agree to what you just said about our insecure selves running away from danger, and death eventually rounding us up,” I say.
We sit out a ten-minute silence, each lost in our own thoughts, when I realise that she has already closed her eyes.
“I’ve said all there is to say,” she says distractedly, turning towards the wall. And then, instantly she falls asleep.
~This short story was first published in our print quarterly ‘Fact & Fiction’ in September 2016.
More readings on Bhutan
Our explainer on the 2018 parliamentary elections in Bhutan.
Aletta Andre on Bhutan’s 2013 elections and the struggle of stateless Lhotshampas. (October 2013)
Reena Mohan on the challenges faced by filmamakers in Bhutan. (September 2013)
T P Mishra on resettlement and naturalization for Bhutan’s Lhotshampas. (January 2015)
Dawa Gyelmo on how collection of a fungus known as cordyceps, or ‘fungus gold’, generates both cash and controversy. (February 2016)