That night, Indra Bahadur could not sleep. In the orange streetlight that came through the window, he studied his lottery stub; the red boxes for the numbers 4, 7, 2 and 8 were shaded carefully. Those were numbers given to him upon registration in Kathmandu – after the physical check, the endurance test, the run up a 600-metre-steep hill with forty kilos of rocks in a basket. 4-7-2-8. His name for fifteen years in the Singapore Police Force. He had arrived in the newly independent Lion City as a young Gurkha recruit with tender blisters from his first pair of boots. The Sikh regiment had packed their bags to go home after Indian Independence and the Nepalis now took their place. After all, the Gurkhas were known for their bravery. They fought the British with just their khukuri knives. Indra remembered feeling like a fraud when he first arrived. He had been nothing more than a farmer’s son in far-western Nepal. His family worked, harvested, and ate.
And here he was on this night, wide awake with Subha sleeping beside him, her wrist across her forehead, and Joon their eight-year-old sprawled in between them, her hair plastered, sweat wet on her cheeks. 4-7-2-8. He wasn’t too old, he wasn’t too young; he was just the right age for a Gurkha soldier before becoming unable to serve. So, Indra was retiring and going back to Nepal but he wasn’t just moving back to his village, he was going to settle in the capital instead, the big city where only the wealthy could build homes. He hadn’t moved that far up in the ranks since he was still living in a small apartment in Block S where most families lived. Although he had dreamed of living in Block T, he knew that whatever little he was making in Singapore translated to a lot in Kathmandu. Indra had secured a large piece of land in Lazimpat where he could build a house out of imported brick and cement, and bring his mother to the city. His home would have many guestrooms so that people from his village could stay a night or two and experience the luxuries of his life. The kitchen would be separate from the dining room and the living room. And of course there would be a prayer room for Indra’s mother and Subha. Maybe even a small car. A car! Who would have thought that a barefooted boy from the west could afford to dream of cars? That he could drive in style and not have to push through people and pickpockets for a damp seat on the three-wheelers and minivans of Kathmandu. He would still have to be careful of thieves; he’d heard that conmen often disguised as pilgrims and donation collectors looted homes. He would have to get a dog, he thought, a big dog. He would make a sign outside his gate: “BEWARE OF DOG”, in red. But there were also stories of robbers hurling poisoned pieces of meat at guard dogs to lure them away from the gate. What then? He would have to build bigger walls, a taller gate, maybe even find a gatekeeper like they have at the Camp. Could he afford someone like that? It sure would prove to everyone that he had done well abroad. The gatekeeper would open the door when he drove his shiny car, he would interrogate strangers, and take messages if they were not home.
4-7-2-8. The number shone real and clear between the Chinese characters on the stub. He felt a smile animate his numb, sleepy cheeks. What luck! It seemed like this foreign land was thanking him for his service. Giving him a little farewell gift. A kiss.
Earlier in the afternoon, Indra had walked into the new Singapore Turf Club with some friends. While they bet large sums of money on horses with obscure names, Indra had risked a dollar on a 4D slip and shaded 4, 7, then 2, then 8, and had won 5000 dollars at the simple draw.
Some time in the morning, Indra fell into a light sleep. He could hear Subha’s glass bangles jingle as she sat up on the bed to knot her hair in a bun and built a fortress of stacked pillows around Joon. It was the clicking of the gas stove that eventually woke Indra. Once his eyes adjusted to the daylight, he remembered the lottery stub. He looked for it to make sure it hadn’t all been a dream. He found it on the floor; pale pink and wrinkled from his clutch. There it was, 4-7-2-8. Walking to the door where Subha had ironed and hung his shirt for the day, he folded the stub and slipped it in his shirt’s breast pocket.
Outside the room, in the empty kitchen, Subha had made tea with condensed milk, cracked half boiled eggs in pepper and soy sauce, and spread green kaya jam over edgeless golden toast. She looked young with her wet hair down, like back when they had just moved into their two-bedroom apartment in the Gurkha Camp in Singapore, their own Little Nepal made for Gurkha soldiers and their families, gated and tucked away in a quiet corner of the city. In those days, when Joon had not yet been born, Subha woke up earlier than Indra each morning to wipe the kitchen tiles spotless clean, and sweep the entire 500-square-feet of apartment space. This was Subha’s first home, a home where she could decide where the plates would go, where the plants made sense, where the sofa looked good. In those days, she washed her hair each morning and wrung it to the side – water dripped down to the tips of her hair and left dark patterns around her waist on her shirts. As she handed him his plate of food, Indra could smell the same chemical sweetness in her hair and it took her voice to bring him fully back to the kitchen where he stood.
“So, you’re taking me shopping, right? To Mustafa?” she asked.
“But I also have to take the boys and Li Bao out for drinks,” Indra said, between sips of his tea. When Subha pulled a face at this, he put his teacup down and changed his tone, “But tell me, what does my kanchi’s heart desire?” He hadn’t spoken in poetry or called Subha by her nickname in years.
She knotted her hair in a bun and said with a smile, “Well, maybe a gold chain with a pendant, the kind that Urmila didi has.” Then with a long face, she said, “All these years, I’ve never worn a single thick necklace for Dashain parties, but I want to go back to Kathmandu wearing one.” She took his hand and continued, “And we should also get Joon a pair of shoes. Something that lasts. Nothing lasts beyond two days in Nepal.”
Indra imagined walking out of the airport in Kathmandu and being welcomed by his mother and his uncles with garlands of marigold. He would wear a suit, Subha would wear her red sari with a new necklace, Joon would walk in her new shoes, and Gopal? Indra couldn’t picture what his son would wear.
“Where’s Gopal?” Indra asked.
“Probably sleeping still,” Subha said, rolling her eyes. “He hasn’t packed his room yet. Perhaps he doesn’t want to leave?”
Gopal was Indra’s first child from an earlier marriage. When Gopal was just two months old, his mother ran away to Kathmandu with another man’s wife. Indra’s mother called it the ‘Cursed Year’, a time when the village saw wives disappear, school girls drown in the river and female cows die of overgrazing. But Indra knew it was lodged in the way his wife looked at some place behind him, away from him, each time she spoke. As soon as he found out she had left, Indra hopped on a jeep to Kathmandu to look for her. He was determined to live in the city, find a job if he had to, and only return home with his wife. But on his first night in the city, he ran into a tall Scottish man in Jawalakhel who spoke better Nepali than he did. We are looking for young, able Nepali men for the Singapore Police Force, he said. Do you have the brave Nepali Gurkha blood in you? Three weeks later, when Indra returned to his village, he was no longer Indra with the runaway wife, but Indra who was going to be the first from the village to fly to Singapore on an airplane!
After breakfast, Indra walked into Gopal’s room. The ceiling fan was spinning on high and Gopal was at his desk scribbling on pieces of paper. His clothes were still in the closet and on the floors; his walls were covered with torn pages of newspaper photos of white men with long frizzy hair and guitars. When Gopal saw Indra, he stopped writing and quickly threw the notes into the drawer.
“It’s just me,” Indra said. “Why haven’t you packed yet?” He sat on the edge of Gopal’s bed. “You know we’re leaving in two days, right?”
“I will, soon,” Gopal mumbled.
“Your Subha aama says you don’t want to go back to Nepal, is that true?”
Gopal put both his legs up on the hard wooden chair and began doodling on an empty sheet of paper. “I’ll be ready,” he said. “She won’t be able to leave me behind.”
In recent months, Gopal said things that Indra didn’t know how to respond to. They would come at him like cold fingers around his ankle, or like a sharp wind that made him blink. The scratching of Gopal’s pencil against the thin piece of paper on his desk continued monotonously. “Ok, well, we are leaving for Mustafa now, can you look after Joon? You can take her to Urmila aunty’s later,” Indra said and turned the ceiling fan off before walking out of the room.
Whenever Indra traveled around the city, it was mostly for work, so he rode in the Camp’s police cars. When anyone in the Camp got sick, the daily van, equipped with an English speaking Nepali nurse, drove to the clinic on MacPerson Street. When he went shopping with Subha and the children, he tried to keep it cheap by walking to places that were closer to the Camp. They hardly went beyond Aljuneid market, where he claimed one could buy anything from flowers to exotic pets. Subha preferred to go shopping with Urmila didi or other Camp wives – together, they went to Bukit Timah Shopping Center, Beauty World Center, World Emporium, and one of the tallest buildings in Singapore, Shaw Towers, where Subha could only afford to look, not buy.
The bus passed through Orchard Road where new hotels, restaurants and stores had begun to mushroom. “Do you know that they are going to build the world’s tallest hotel in this area soon? Urmila didi said she heard it on the radio. It’s going to be over 200 metres tall! I can’t imagine anything taller than the Shaw Towers,” Subha said. She shook her head and then let out a little laugh. “If I told my father that I live in the city with the tallest hotel in the world, he’d think that I’ve sold my mind to the voodoo man.”
Indra had also heard about plans for the city to build underground trains. “They would slither below the city like snakes. And people will ride in them!” Indra screamed. Subha shook her head and said she would never trust something underground; for one, how would she be able to breathe?
As the bus took them through the city, through parts where Indra had once got lost but now could trace through scents and sounds, he felt a desire to stay behind. He had arrived at a time when old white colonial houses were slowly turning into post offices and government buildings. Now everything was rising upwards. Even in the Camp, there was talk of a ten-floor apartment building! And the new zoo had opened up just two years ago, where Joon loved going on monthly outings that the Camp arranged for children to watch dolphins and penguins play with a colourful striped ball. It seemed like big things were finally starting to happen in Singapore and he was leaving this for a smaller town, with smaller buildings, and small-minded people.
Subha expertly rang the bell for the bus to stop and nudged Indra to get up from his seat. They walked to Mustafa, the new 24-hour shopping complex where one could find everything from food to jewellery to household wares. Mustafa had also quickly become the place where Nepalis felt free to eat with their hands, using their fingers to shovel rice and curry into their mouths. But Subha was pulling Indra by the arm up the escalator, away from the food. They had to go to the fifth floor where the jewellery lay burning golden behind glass shelves.
When they got to the fifth floor, Subha let go of Indra’s hand and walked around the edges of the large room, her eyes fixed on the glass shelves. Indra couldn’t make out each individual necklace hanging from the showcases on the walls; after a while they looked like a single wavy gold curtain, fluid in shine. Every now and then, he caught his own image reflected on the glass and he was surprised at how much older he looked – when had the curl that hugged his right ear become so gray? In the reflection, Subha appeared taller than Indra; she was walking slowly, never once stopping, her chin parallel to the floor and her eyes steadily moving from one display to the other.
“Maam, can I help you?” A woman in a blue suit asked Subha in English.
Subha turned around looking for Indra, who was trailing behind her. “Tell her to show me necklaces and pendants, Indra. The kind that Urmila didi has.”
Indra had never seen Urmila didi’s necklace but in his market Malay, he told the lady he wanted to buy a necklace: “Saya nak membeli rantai…boleh?”
But the woman just stared at Indra and shook her head. “No Malay. English, can?” She asked, widening her eyes.
Although he didn’t speak any English, Indra had no problem getting around Singapore because everyone spoke Malay. In his first year as a Gurkha recruit, after a long day of physical training, Indra sat through night classes of conversational Malay. Physically drained, the only thing that kept him awake was his excitement to learn words that were close to Nepali: sabun for soap, maafi for sorry, mukha for face and kerusi for chair. The Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Sikhs, the Malays, the Tamils, the Indonesians, the Europeans all spoke Malay. Noticing the familiar red tika on the woman’s forehead, Indra
The woman smiled and swung her head side-to-side in agreement. She showed them all the gold chains and Subha picked out a long thick one that looked like braided hair. She put it around her neck and asked Indra, “Nice, no?” Then, after looking through all the gold pendants, Subha picked the one carved into a golden rose, with a large ruby in its core.
When Indra turned over the tags and added up the two prices, it came to 345 dollars. He had never spent that kind of money – there had been no need. Once every two weeks, a large red ration bag appeared at their doorstep; rice, daal, bread, butter, sugar, tea and salt. And they got coupons for seasonal vegetables that an old Malay grocer brought in his Volkswagen. Schooling for the Gurkha children in Singapore’s public schools was free. The Camp also had what Nepalis lovingly called bhitra school, an ‘inside school’ where Gurkha children could learn basic English and Nepali. The seamstress lady in the community tailored Joon and Gopal’s school uniforms. Otherwise Subha went out to second hand stores in Geylang to buy Gopal his pants, shirts, shorts. Indra quit drinking when he realised how much money he was throwing away, and he switched from cigarettes to chewing tobacco. He didn’t go out, didn’t eat out, didn’t buy new clothes. He saved every cent he could for his retirement, so spending 345 dollars for a necklace? “It’s so expensive,” Indra said. “It’s how much I make in two months, kanchi.” He was thankful that the woman in the suit didn’t speak Nepali.
“But every Dashain, I’ve worn the same gold earrings I wore on our wedding day,” Subha said. Every Nepali family looked forward to Dashain. Even if one didn’t eat meat everyday, one ate the most supple mutton pieces on Dashain. Children sang songs about eating good food, wearing new clothes. In Indra’s village, boys and girls set up tall swings, gambled, drank, sang and danced all night. But Dashain in the Camp was about attending a three-hour long dance performance put on by new Gurkha recruits; Joon and Gopal looked forward to it each year to find out which Gurkha recruit made the most convincing woman. For the Gurkha wives, it was about the saris they wore to the performance, the gold chains and bracelets and earrings they decorated themselves with.
Subha held the necklace up against her chest, looked at the handheld mirror, and then looked down at the pendant.
“I really want to show my parents that I didn’t make a mistake by marrying you,” she said.
For the longest time, Subha’s parents had accused Indra of casting black magic on their daughter. They said that no normal girl, going about her normal day would stop at a fair and fall in love with a man who already has a child from a runaway wife and lives in some foreign land. When they got married, Subha’s parents disowned her. She was the flower that they proudly wore behind their ears, they said, a flower that had now decided to wilt. But Hira helped them out during those days. Hira, also known as Tees, or 30, was Indra’s numberi. They had registered for the Gurkha army at the same time from the same recruitment center. Hira’s family lived in Kathmandu and in exchange for some housekeeping and cooking, Subha and Gopal, who was almost two then, could stay in a room in Hira’s home. The boy wasn’t her own, but Subha grew to love Gopal as they became companions of the same fate, tied to the same man. It was only after Indra arranged to bring Subha and Gopal to Singapore that she heard from her parents. Once in a while, a letter would arrive for Subha. Her parents wrote to her through a village teacher, updating her on everyday life: one of the buffalos gave birth, someone’s son’s friend’s brother drowned in the well, the corn season was ruined by disease and that they wished her well. Once Subha knew where to shop and what to buy for how much, she began to send little presents home.
“All of this is going to be Joon’s one day when she gets married,” Subha said picking up the pendant and rubbing the ruby with her thumb, as though reluctantly saying goodbye to it.
Indra had saved enough to build a house and his pension would come from Singapore each month, multiplying forty times over into Nepali currency. Subha was right; gold was an investment, like money-solidified yellow only to yield more when the right price struck. He looked at Subha, who was a new bride all over again – she had married him while the village still giggled behind his back. She had left her home, lived with strangers and cared for his son in the way his mom never had. He turned to the suited woman, and with a lump in his throat, said to her in Hindi, “Ok, we will take it.”
Four-eyed Kishor was on duty at the gate and he waved at Indra and Subha as they were entering the Camp. “Oh ho, Atthais,” he called Indra by his last two digits, 28. “You can’t run away without buying your friends some drinks, hai!” he said, nudging Indra a little too hard with his elbow. Then, as if she had appeared out of nowhere, four-eyed Kishor turned to Subha and brought his palms together at his chest and said, “Eh bhauju, Namaste!”
“Where are the boys meeting up tonight?” Indra asked.
“We don’t know yet, but Tees had mentioned something about gathering at our hi-fi Officers’ Mess Bungalow,” Kishore said referring to Hari.
“I’ll see you guys there tonight,” Indra said walking away with his Mustafa bags. He was already down to about 4500 dollars by now he was sure, and didn’t feel like buying expensive drinks.
At home, they found Gopal in his room with the ceiling fan on high, reading over his letters.
“Same thing, over and over again, Indra. I’m tired, you tell your son!” Subha said. “Eh Gopal, where did you put Joon?”
“She’s at Urmila aunty’s,” Gopal said, not looking up from the letters. Subha walked out the door to the neighbours’ downstairs, carrying a Mustafa bag with her.
In Gopal’s room, the air smelled like musty linens and teenage secrets. Indra turned back the dial for the ceiling fan, “I tell you to save energy, you never listen, it’s so expensive,” he said. “Are you still writing to her?”
“I stopped this morning.”
Subha had made a big deal about the letters Gopal wrote to his mother. She had found them accidentally while she was cleaning his room. Oh, the things he writes to her, Indra, she had said shortly after confronting Gopal during dinner. He tells her everything – what we do, where we live, what we eat, what we say. Why does she have to know? This is not right, I am not going to stand this, please tell your son to stop writing those letters. You know that woman is crazy. She will come and harm us. I’m telling you. But Indra couldn’t say anything to Gopal. Subha’s pain came from a place of betrayal, but Indra didn’t feel any of it. He looked over at Gopal who stood with his head lowered as large droplets of tears gathered around his feet on the linoleum floors. Indra knew that Gopal had no address for these letters. They sat in a rolled up stash, bound by a rubber band in his drawer.
“Are we going to see her?” Gopal asked looking up at his father. Indra saw that the scar on Gopal’s nose, the one he got at age nine when the beak of a hot iron kettle dug into his face, had stretched further up towards his brow, flattening and merging into his skin. It was the first time in a long while that Indra had looked so closely at Gopal; he always left for duty before the children were up. And he didn’t like to admit that Gopal looked exactly like his mother. The eyes that slipped downwards on the sides like a sad frown, the skin dark and velvety like hers, the lips full and so red they looked dark brown. Sometimes, Gopal’s face reminded Indra of days when he would hear villagers gossip behind his back, another man’s wife can keep his wife better than he can. He shifted his gaze to Gopal’s walls.
“Make sure that you don’t peel the paint when you take them off,” Indra said pointing at the posters on Gopal’s walls. Against the rhythmic sounds of the fan blades cutting through moist air, he mumbled, “I don’t think she’s in Kathmandu anymore.” He hadn’t heard from his first wife. “I heard she went to Dilli and is working there, don’t worry, you won’t see her.”
“If I see her, I’m going to give her the letters,” Gopal said. He rolled them up again and tied them with two rubber bands. “I want to tell her that I don’t want to be her son anymore.”
Indra wanted to walk up to his son and hug his scrawny fifteen-year-old body, but he stood at the door and opened up a Mustafa bag instead, “I bought you a shirt.”
“Well, that’s exactly what I plan on doing,” Hira was saying when Indra walked into the Officers’ Mess. Seeing the three men in their white shorts, white collared t-shirts and sneakers, seated there in rattan chairs on the orange ceramic floors of the gazebo at the Mess, hearing them talk loudly into the thick hot air; all this made Indra think that he would miss these men.
“I think it’s genius,” Hira continued. “Gold in Singapore is so cheap right now, it would be worth so much more later.”
Indra walked around shaking hands with his friends and sat next to four-eyed Kishor. He ordered a Fanta. “Atthais, listen to this,” Hira said looking at Indra, “there’s no way you would get caught at the airport for gold. Who checks? I mean think about the times we’ve gone home on breaks, we get on our chartered flight, fly home, get out. Worst-case scenario we’ll have to bribe the officials at home who go through our items with their hands. You know they are just looking for something.”
“So we’re talking about gold, I gather?” Indra asked.
“We’re talking about Pandra, the genius he is,” four-eyed Kishor said, referring to the two digits of Shyam Lal’s number.
“But first of all, let’s talk about you, numberi,” Hira said slapping Indra’s thigh. “I’ve picked four numbers every month… But I never win! And you surprise us? 5000 dollars for a measly single? Wah, wah! Congratulations!” As he spoke, Indra wondered when he would ever see Hira again. After his retirement, Hira was planning on marrying his Filipina girlfriend and moving to the Philippines with her; anywhere but back in that hellhole of Nepal, he used to say.
“But numberi, really, your win is my win, so cheers!” Hira raised his glass.
“It’s the way our Atthais here took such a long time shading those boxes, like he was in art class,” Li Bao joked. He was the only Chinese person who could speak fluent Nepali. As the Camp’s accountant, he visited once a week, and more if free Tiger beers were involved. He was a scrawny pale man who wore gloves in the hottest Singapore weather, protecting his hands from the sun that fell on the steering wheel as he drove around town.
“I missed what Pandra did,” Indra said taking a sip of his Fanta, getting back to Shyam Lal.
“Oh what didn’t he do?” Hira said. “He apparently took a ton of gold with him to Nepal last week and didn’t get caught!”
“Ha! But we are allowed to take gold with us, aren’t we?” Indra asked thinking about Subha’s 345-dollar necklace and looking at Li Bao. He wasn’t sure how much he could disclose around the Chinese man. As though dismissing his worries, Hira waved at him.
“Of course, of course, but after a certain limit, the taxes are ram-naam high! You have to show it to the officials, they call it declare. But not Pandra, no. He stuffed them in his jacket, in his suitcases, in his wife’s blouse and then nothing happened. No one caught him. He’s building a hotel back in Pokhara now, by the lake,” Kishor said, jumping out of his seat a little.
“Well, count me in, I’m following Pandra’s foot steps. What’s security, if we are part of the security, you know,” Hira winked at Indra.
“What happened to leaving your money in a bank account here? And are you going to take it back to Nepal? You’ve always said you don’t want to go back home. Eh numberi, your whiskey talks more than you do,” Indra said shaking his head.
A couple of years ago, Hira and Indra had planned to leave half their savings in a Singapore bank for emergency, or in case they came back, or their children came back as Gurkha recruits or families. Their hard-earned money would be much safer in Singapore than in Nepali banks that were mere dilapidated buildings. Before the decision was made, Indra spent weeks arguing with Subha. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t take the money back home. Why would it sit overseas away from Kathmandu where they would be living? But he just told her that she wasn’t educated when it came to money. He earned it, so he knew best what to do with it for the family; it’s always good to have money spread here and there in different forms.
Hira laughed and choked on his sip of whiskey, which sent him into a coughing fit. Clearing his throat, he suddenly became serious and, without making eye contact with Indra, said, “Forget about this money-soney talk, do you want to leave Gopal behind? Maybe have him complete his school here.” Hira appeared nonchalant, as though he hadn’t just admitted to loving his numberi’s son as his own; as though in his casual offer, he hadn’t taken Indra back to their recruit days when their friendship thickened over sleepless nights discussing Gopal’s motherless-future. Hira poured Kishor more beer. The foam rose to kiss the rim of the glass threatening to spill over. “Get your lips to it, you mule!” Hira shouted. “You need to learn from Indra’s son. Gopal’s been drinking our beer foam for as long as I can remember.” Li Bao smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He put his gloves in his pockets and said he had to drive back home and shouldn’t drink more.
Over beer, scotch and peanuts, they recounted old forgotten stories of their recruit days. They teased four-eyed Kishor, who years ago had accidentally brought a Chinese woman home, only to find out she was all man under her clothes. They joked about the first time Indra ate durian – the creamy tropical fruit that sat inside a hard, spiky shell. He had gagged on the smell, but even years later, Indra still felt the need to defend himself, “It smelled like someone was playing a trick on you. It smelled like… like crawling into a sewer with your mouth open,” he said.
Then they talked about the new recruits; how they are required to have graduated from 10th grade, and must be able to read and write in English. Indra felt lucky that he didn’t have to go through that. “Otherwise we would all still be shoeless and chewing on straws as we stood behind an old bull, hitting it with a stick to plough the earth,” Hira joked as he slowly stood up on his chair and began whipping an imaginary animal with his unlit cigarette. He burst into an old Nepali tune, of a man and his bull: Hariyo daanda maathi, halo jotne saathi. Ho ho maale ho ho, Ho ho kale ho ho!
Indra laughed so hard his eyes teared up. “You are like your name, Hira. A diamond,” he said.
“What is it, numberi?” Hira asked leaning towards Indra, placing his arms around Indra’s shoulders. “We were being silly and romantic just a moment ago, and now you are all senti,” he said. Hira was facing Indra, but his eyes were half-closed. His upper lip was dotted with perspiration and he let out a gentle sigh, a breath of pure scotch that flirted with the salt in the peanuts.
Indra was sure that the lottery was a coded miracle. Life had been good to Indra after his wife ran away; it was as though she had taken the cursed parts with her when she fled. He had Subha now and maybe she was right about not leaving money in Singapore. The new idea of money resting as gold, in your own house, as it multiplied in value sounded like a better investment. He also had to talk to Subha about maybe leaving Gopal behind. It would be good for his future. All the risks he had taken in life had served him good; of running to a city like Kathmandu to find his wife; of flying to an unknown land; of buying a lottery ticket for the first time.
When he got home, Gopal and Joon were watching TV. “Where’s Aama?” Indra asked. Joon was wearing her frilly Mustafa dress. Her short hair was tied up and it looked like a windblown spout of a fountain. “She’s at Urmila aunty’s,” Joon said, not looking up from the screen. It annoyed Indra that Subha would leave the children and run off to her friend. Sometimes he worried that she was spending too much time with Urmila; always starting her sentences with Urmila didi said this, Urmila did that… He tried not to think about it.
Indra picked Joon up and placed her on his lap, “Your dress looks beautiful,” Indra said. She leaned back on his chest and wedged her head under his chin. “Are you excited to see bajai aama?” Indra asked Joon about seeing his mother.
“Is she going to buy me coconut again?” Joon asked. When they visited Nepal two years ago, Joon had a toothache from chewing dried coconut.
“Joon, if you’re going to talk to Baba, give me the remote control. I want to watch the Liverpool game?” Gopal said prying the remote control from Joon’s fingers.
“Dai, you always watch football,” Joon began to wiggle out of her father’s lap. And tried to grab the remote control back. “Today was the only day I got to use this control!” She began to whine.
When Joon was born, Gopal was the happiest kid. Now that a little sister was in the world, he was sure that he would never have to help Subha in the prayer room or the kitchen. He had a sister to do all of that! But Joon had grown too slowly for all of that to happen in a day, and Gopal grew to love Joon like one would a beloved pet – giving into her whims, combing her hair for her, cooling her hot chocolate drink in the morning by pouring it into two glasses, back and forth.
Gopal was standing on the sofa with the remote control over his head. Then suddenly, Joon stopped fighting and turned to Indra. “Baba – Gopal dai said that he won’t come with us. That you and Aama will leave him behind because it makes sense for us in the long run. That it is going to be just the three of us from now onwards, is that true?” Suddenly Gopal threw the remote control on the sofa and began to sit down.
“Gopal?” Indra whispered. “We would never— ”
“Baba, Joon is just making these stories up,” Gopal said.
“Do you really believe that we—?”
Just then, Subha walked in through the door. “What is this, everyone’s done packing?” She asked, looking at Gopal, who got up to go to his room. From the time Subha found the letters, the two had become silent ghosts, talking to each other through Indra; when one entered the room, the other left. Now that he was retiring, Indra felt like he could spend more time with Gopal. Hira’s idea of keeping Gopal behind to give him a better education had to be shelved. Gopal wouldn’t understand. Not after what Joon has just said. Indra imagined father and son sitting under the rainbow-striped parasol at the blue picnic table he had shipped as cargo a couple of days ago. They would talk about life like men.
“Where were you?” Indra asked Subha. He already knew the answer, but he wanted to change the subject.
“I was giving Urmila didi the last of our plants from the balcony,” she said, playing with her new ruby rose pendant. She was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, and a blue wrap-around skirt, the one that she insisted Indra buy for her after she saw the Singapore Airline flight attendants wear that fabric. Her hair was down, her eyeliner had made little wings on the sides of her eyes, and it made Indra uncomfortable that she would look so beautiful in his absence.
“Was Pachees there?” Indra asked after Urmila’s husband, referring to him by his last digits.
“He’s on night duty at the office today. Why?”
Indra suddenly felt silly and possessive. Instead, he gestured Subha to sit down on the sofa next to him, as Joon picked up the remote control and pressed different buttons that cast shadows of changing screens on Subha’s face.
“I need to talk to you,” Indra said to Subha. “We must go back to Mustafa tomorrow.”
“The boys told me about Pandra tonight, you know, Shyam Lal,” he said, stroking Joon’s hair as he spoke, “I want to tell you all about him.”
In the airport shuttle, Indra’s suit felt heavy. He should have worn the lighter suit, but instead he had gone with the tweed because he knew it would be cold in Nepal. But the heat in the airport shuttle was turning into sweat under his shirt and curling into his collars and armpits, creating dark salt residues. He had several gold chains taped to his arms, a few around his chest and he had lined the inside pockets of his jacket with bracelets and rings. To make sure that he wouldn’t jingle as he walked, he had generously wrapped the gold in tape, creating a cushion between the edges of the metal. He made sure to keep his arms slightly lifted, in case a bracelet taped to his sleeves fell out. It’s fine, they won’t catch me, he told himself with each step he took. There were at least a hundred other Gurkha soldiers flying out to Nepal that day, all equally suited and with large hand drawn luggage. Some were leaving for good like him, and others were taking their entitlement of once every three-years break.
“Carry me, Baba,” Joon said as they entered the airport and a cool air greeted them.
But Indra had to fill out departure and declaration forms and the Gurkha Contingent had sent a Nepali man who could fill the forms in English. “Joon nani, stay with Aama and dai ok? Baba will be back and will carry you when we go through those gates you see over there?” Indra said pointing to the row of checkpoints with Singaporean immigration officers sitting and stamping pages of passports. Subha and Gopal had found an empty bench and had dropped their load. Joon walked over to them and crawled onto Gopal’s lap and spread her frilly dress about her legs.
“I checked ‘no’ for everything. That’s what everyone was doing,” Indra whispered to Subha when he came back from filling out the forms. “Now, we just need to walk past the immigration guy confidently. Just like all the other times we have done, Subha. Don’t worry, they don’t really check our group.”
Indra scooped Joon up in his arms and gave his suitcase to Gopal who was also dragging a small duffel bag. The immigration officer looked through their passports and they smiled, nodding their heads, although he wasn’t saying anything. He waved them goodbye and gave Joon a purple see-through candy.
Lastly, they had to walk through security before they sat in the waiting room to board the plane. As they walked down a carpeted walkway along duty-free shops, Indra noticed Subha slowing down. “Are you ok? Did something drop?”
“No,” she said scanning the duty-free items, “I was just thinking that maybe we should buy that whiskey with the skinny man and a walking stick? I saw it in Urmila didi’s place and she said she had brought one back home to Nepal and her father-in-law loved it so much that he’s made a bottle last for five years!”
“So what? I don’t plan on drinking any of it,” Indra said, a little too loud. Joon had her arm around Indra’s neck and he put her down fearing a gold chain might fall out. He wanted to get through security and be safe and Subha’s dreamy shopping wasn’t helping.
“I know. I was thinking, maybe, we could get one for my Baba, I think it would be something nice we can gift him the next time he visits us in Kathmandu,” Subha said looking at her hands. “It would make a good impression on him.” Subha had packed a present for everyone, including little trinkets for future neighbours she had yet to meet. It was a quality that Indra loved and loathed. It reminded him to be more generous, but it also made him worry about money.
Indra studied the prices of each bottle. The cheapest one was the one in the black box, “Black Label,” the saleswoman had said. He dropped 40 dollars for the bottle and as soon as he paid, he realised that he had just spent close to two thousand Nepali rupees in less than ten minutes.
Just then Joon came up behind him and said, “Baba, can I have this?” She was holding a stuffed Merlion, the mythical caretaker of Singapore, half lion, half fish. He wanted to say no, that she was going to grow out of it soon anyway. But he realised that Joon might never come back to this city.
“If Joon gets to buy something then I also need something,” Gopal said.
Subha shot him a look and said, “Gopal, you’re the older brother. You can’t act like an eight-year old.”
Indra had seen the look on Gopal’s face in the morning, as he threw away all his cutout posters of musicians. When Indra gave him some necklaces to put in his duffel bag and told him not to pull them out or mention them to anyone, Gopal had looked confused and concerned. Are you getting these for her? he had asked. No, son, no. Just keep them in there and don’t open your bag until we are in Nepal, ok? Indra had said. But Gopal had looked away, like his mother used to when she was upset or sad.
“Gopal?” Indra tried to get his attention. “Go pick what you want. But under five dollars, ok?”
Gopal dropped the handle of the suitcase he was pulling and dumped the duffel bag on the ground and walked towards the shelf where they had miniature versions of the new cable cars installed over Sentosa Island. Taking Joon’s stuffed Merlion, Indra looked at the price tag. Ten dollars for a stuffed piece of cloth.
Indra walked out of the duty-free shop a little lighter, but the gold in his pockets and those lining his shirt and pants physically weighed him down. He walked slowly towards the security gate, where many other Nepali families were already in line. Right outside the duty-free shop, Subha was trying to place the duffel bag on top of the suitcase so Gopal could push both of them at once. As Indra came closer to the security line, he decided to sit down on the chairs along the wall to wait for the line to thin. Subha and the kids caught up with him and the four of them sat down. They all breathed deeply and stared at their feet. Gopal turned around, kneeled on the chair and peered through the glass window into the waiting room, where there was a small TV screen showing the UEFA cup championship games.
“Come on, we should get in line now,” Indra said after a while.
As Indra stood in line, he looked ahead of him at the way the guards were letting people pass; a quick look at the passports, then the boarding passes, then the faces, the headcount and then off they filed into the waiting room. Hira and Kishor were right. He checked his right coat pocket for the three gold bracelets that he would bribe the Nepali official with. Joon was standing beside him, talking to her new stuffed toy, “I’m going to tell everyone in Nepal about you,” she said. Gopal was telling her that she didn’t know anything about the Merlion. He had actually read about it in school. He asked her questions about where the statue was in the city. What the myth was about. Where it was first seen. Who saw it. What it did for the country. Joon wrinkled her forehead and said, “I know about all of that. I just don’t want to tell you.” She shrugged her shoulders and held onto her stuffed animal.
“Eh lah!” Indra heard Subha whisper behind him. When he looked at her she was biting her tongue. “I left the whiskey at the shop! Because I was trying to help this Gopal here with the bag!” She said pushing Gopal’s head with her palm. “I’ll go get it.”
Indra sighed. Was Subha nervous? Why was she being stupid? She ran to the duty-free shop and Indra waited for something to fall from under her petticoat, her sari, maybe from her blouse or even her handbag. She was running like a film actress – in graceful disarray. Gopal looked at Indra and asked, “Who are we carrying these necklaces for, Baba? And Joon said you put some more in your pockets.”
Indra looked at Joon who was shaking her head. “I didn’t say anything to him,” she said, covering her mouth with her stuffed animal. When had his children learned to ask these questions? Why did it matter to them what their parents did?
“This is an adult matter. You don’t need to know. If you ask me these silly questions one more time, I will leave you behind!” Indra whispered harshly at Gopal, spitting all over his forehead where the kettle beak marked his skin. Then turning around to Joon, Indra said, “And when have you begun to move your mouth like that?”
Subha came back with her duty-free bag of whisky. “I’m so glad I remembered!” She said, a little out of breath.
“Ok, ok. Shh… shh… Keep it down,” Indra said. Joon walked to Subha and tried to hide inside the folds of her sari. “Joon, can you stop doing that. You’re not a baby anymore!” Indra shouted at her. Joon looked at him with large teary eyes; her mouth curled downwards and began to quiver. Subha tried to push Joon away from her gold-loaded sari and that’s when Joon began to cry. Her Merlion toy was wet with tears and saliva.
The line was moving along, so Indra grabbed the whiskey bag from Subha and gestured her to soothe Joon. He took a few steps ahead towards the security gate, a couple of families more and then it was their turn. He knew he was going to be fine. They were going to pass through easy. Subha, who was now carrying Joon and bouncing her gently in her arms to soothe her crying, walked up behind Indra. Then Indra turned around and saw that Gopal hadn’t moved up along the line with them. He was standing with the suitcase and the duffel bag, his shoulders hung low, his eyes looking at some place behind Indra, away from him.
~Muna Gurung is a writer and educator based in New York City.