We spent the evenings before the People´s Movement in that hotel, killing time. It wasn´t much of a hotel, despite its name: Pashupati Hotel. Even the signboard that hung above its black, smoke-charred doorway was rusty, sub-standard, and ill-matched with the rest of Kathmandu. The address on it, beneath the hotel´s name, had been scraped off; the board had been used before, somewhere else.
From the first evening we went there, we saw that the hotel traded in sex. The women who sold their bodies came after dark and vied for some earnings in the dark, cave-like room upstairs. That was the only real room in the house. The landlord lived somewhere in Tahachal and came only at the end of the month, to collect rent.
The men who came to exchange their money for some plea¬sure with these women were mostly soldiers from the barracks, or policemen, or drivers who had arrived in the valley after dusk. Local hooligans and impressionable, newly-teenage boys also came to the hotel to debauch themselves. The hotel also attracted a steady stream of people who came to eat their meals and drink their afternoon tea, and, at night, to drink liquor. Load carriers, workers, cart pushers, and alcoholics came, had their fill, then returned to the city. The hotel was usually teeming with people.
When my friend and I began to go there, I was unemployed. I lived in the lodgings of this friend, a newspaper editor who had none of the skills of an editor. He could talk very eloquently, but he couldn´t write a correct sentence. I thrived on his incompetence; I did all his newspaper´s work by myself, and wrote, under different pen-names, about politics, sports, worn en´s rights, and the latest films. In a sense, I was the paper´s underground editor. In return for my work, I got two meals a day, enough liquor to get me drunk every now and then, and a chance to sleep in a much-used, dirty bed.
The owner of the Pashupati Hotel was a Gurung from around Pokhara who drove trucks, a rude man who drank heavily and neglected his work, and who had, over the years, caused almost twenty large and small accidents. Somehow, none of them had killed him. But he´d had to change trucks over a dozen times because each new truck owner fired Gurung as soon as he got to know his ways.
Gurung was known for having changed as many wives as he had trucks; I no woman ever stayed with him for longer f than fifteen days. His latest wife, though,who stayed at the Pashupati Hotel, had been with him for over a year—this said quite a lot about her.
Regulars to the hotel called Gurung´s wife Susma Bhauju. Gurung was Susma Bhauju´s second husband. She had eloped with him when her first husband was jailed on trafficking charges. At that time, Susma Bhauju had operated the Pashupati Hotel in Butwal for about two years. When she came to Kathmandu with Gurung, she brought the signboard with her.
When the Peoples´ Movement started, the editor and I began to go to the hotel as soon as evening fell, and we came back to our lodgings only late at night. There was a reason for this: policemen searching for those involved in the movement often arrested ordinary people walking in the streets, and we saw no better way to avoid being arrested than to don the guise of alcoholics.
Among those who came to the hotel each night was a poet with a long face and a thin build, who always looked flushed with emotion. He must have had another name, but everyone simply called him the poet. The editor and I befriended him; we formed a regular group of three.
Then Susma Bhauju also started to join us. The editor and she discovered that both of them were originally from Arghakhaanchi. Susma Bhauju was elated; I suppose any woman in her position would be, to meet someone from her maiden home district. Within days, the two of them became familiar enough to call each other Didi and Bhai. After this, Susma Bhauju stopped bantering in her bawdy way with the other customers, and a hint of politeness crept into her manners. She would excuse herself by saying, “I´m actually not that kind of woman. Circumstance brought me to a place like this—must have been fate. If I was fated for this kind of life, how could 1 have avoided it?”
It became clear, soon enough, that Susma Bhauju despised her husband. One day, she cursed her past, saying, “Fate must have tied a bandage around my eyes. Why else would I have run off with a monster like him?” “Why, doesn´t Gurung Dai love you?” I asked. “Love?” she cried, “Is there any space in that hustler´s heart for love?”
I goaded her on, “Then why not run off with someone else? Why stay with him?”
“Better to die young! What guarantee is there that a man who´d take a fallen woman like me would be a god? What if he were more of a bastard than my husband? I´ve already gone through one hell, what´s the point of trading it for another?”
I wanted to continue, but saw that the poet, listening to her reply, had became aroused with emotion. One day the poet rested his eyes on Bhauju´s and said, “Susma! I will gaze upon you until I´ve had my fill. The anguish in your eyes is the emotional terrain of my poetry.”
His words surprised the editor and me, but moved Susma Bhauju. She and the poet took a liking to each other. She began to join us as soon as we came to drink. Then she began to sit by the poet´s side and swig a few shots with him. Their intimacy grew. One evening, after two glasses the poet said to Susma, “I can decipher peoples´ happiness or un happiness from their eyes, Susma. I have read the agony in your eyes and I have transported myself to its unknown depths. My own soul has gained endless peace in this.”
Susma began to sob into her arms. The editor and I looked on, amused. “Are all poets like this?” I asked the editor.He said, “I think it is dispositions like this that lead them towards poetry.” Gurung was out of town, and the romance between the poet and Susma progressed unhindered.
There was another woman who helped out in the hotel, who I began to notice. She was about forty, and full of energy. While it was light, she exchanged raunchy jokes with the customers, and at night, she sold herself to them. Her manners were a bit more blunt than most women´s. When a customer asked for meat, she would ask, “Cooked or raw?” She kissed men on the cheek, in everyone´s view, if she liked them. She wouldn´t even look at those she didn´t like. I named her Jangimaya.
“A fitting name, friend,” the editor said, watching her antics.”She´s an iron woman,” I said. “The man who makes a wife of her will be extremely fortunate.” “I wonder if you´re beginning to love her?” the editor said. “Have you begun viewing her in the same light the poet views Susma in?”
“If I marry, I´ll give first priority to a woman like her.” “Which means you´d want your wife to earn a lot, like her?” “What more profitable dream for an unemployed youth like me?”
After somedays, Gurung dragged back his battered old truck. He realized, soon enough, that his wife was beginning to devote herself to another man. One day he got drunk and beat Susma until her bones gave way. She cried all night and broke out in a fever´.
When the poet heard about this, he flew into a rage. Even before he finished his first glass he cried, “I can no longer tolerate Susma´s suffering. Either I should flee the city or I should rise to the challenge of tying the wedding knot with her.”He went on to drink three times his usual amount.
It was a week before Susma joined the customers again. When she met us, she unleashed her hatred towards her husband. “I´m not going to spend any part of my life with that monster! If I have to be a whore, why not do my trade openly, in Ratna Park? The hell of freedom is better than the hell of disgrace.”
Her eyes watered in anguish. The poet, tormented by her grief, got drunk and began to cry. My own life wasn´t charged with emotion, like Susma Bhauju´s and the poet´s. Nor was it full of grace, like the editor´s. I was different: a boy from the far west hills whose calves were sore from job hunting, for whom that un-found job had become like an enemy´s secret weapon, a weapon I´d never be able to possess. I had scraped by in Kathmandu for four years. My aged father and mother in the hills lived on false dreams that their son would become a big man one day, make a house in the city, and call them on a pilgrimage to the Pashupati temples. From time to time I got a letter from them. In response I wrote, “Your dear son will surely succeed one day.” I wrote so, but saw no moment ahead when this might become true.
One day, I said to Jangimaya, “People trust you because you´ re still young. They see your radiant eyes, and they´re ready to enslave themselves to you. But what is to happen when you grow old?” I was actually asking myself: what will happen to me when I grow old?
Jangimaya just said, “I don´t live on tomorrow´s dreams. I live today, I eat today, I enjoy myself today. Tomorrow is in God´s hands. Whatever God does, I´ll do.” “You´re not scared of the future?”
“What good will fear do? It won´t solve any problems! Aaa… why fear? I´m not just living off the desire of men, or for the price of meat. If anyone really likes me, and respects me, I return their affection and respect. I´d give myself up in a priceless embrace to someone like that. To those I don´t like, I wouldn´t sell myself for a thousand rupees. God has seen my inner purity, so why should I live in fear of tomorrow?” Listening to her, a few rays of sunlight began to glimmer in the darkness of my heart.
And time raced by, unnoticed. In the beginning of March, when the year´s cold waned, the Peoples´ Move¬ment became more active. Demonstrations took place, and the government arrested thousands of people. The shots that were fired martyred hundreds. And the fervour of the movement passed from students, political workers, and intellectuals to each village, each neighbourhood. Even local hooligans began to say that the Panchayat was doomed.
At the end of the month, talk of the Panchayat rose in the hotel. The poet spoke up, impassioned, “There´s no possibility that this system will last. Even the strongest dictatorship shortens its life when it plays holi with the blood of its people.”
Jangimaya shrugged. “What difference does it make whether the system stays or not?”
“I don´t know about anything else,” a customer, the hawaldar from Sorha khutte jail, called out from the crowd. “But our own king is right for us.”
The others became agitated. The poet cried, “I don´t like it when policemen get too clever. Who said anything about the king?”
A flood of dissension swept through the room. Soon, every-one was on one side, and the hawaldar on the other. The hawaldar couldn´t counter the shrill cries directed at him. He finished off two glasses and left.
At ten, when we left the hotel, we were arrested. Whether or not the hawaldar from the Sorhakhutte jail was responsible for this, we never found out.
The Peoples´ Movement lasted seven weeks, and we spent twenty days of it in jail. When the three-way agreement to end the Panchayat system was reached, the editor, the poet, and I were released. That day, we went towards Pashupati Hotel. We had survived the barrenness of jail, and we planned to quench our twenty days1 thirst by drowning ourselves in liquor.
It was getting dark by the time we reached Kalimati Chowk. People were returning home, tired after celebrating the restoration of democracy. We walked along a vegetable market, into a narrow alley. Past the vegetable market, it usually took about two minutes to reach the hotel. We rushed along and reached our destination, and all three of us stopped, lost. The house that lodged Pashupati Hotel no longer had that signboard, and the dark, smoky door was dead still.
The poet was distressed. “Since when did the hotel close?” he asked a nearby shopkeeper. “Four days before the curfew. The police said it supported anti-Panchayat activities. They came by every day and pestered them to leave.”
The editor and I exchanged glances. We hadn´t thought our past rulers to be as foolish as that. The poet turned towards the wall of the old Pashupati Hotel and started to wail. “Where do you think they went? How is Susma living? Is she still with Gurung, or did she go elsewhere? Will we ever meet them again?” But no matter how emotional he got, no matter how eloquently he expressed his grief, we didn´t get any answers to his questions. There was no option but to return in emptiness.
When we passed through the alley and reached the main street, night had embraced Kathmandu. In that darkness, the memory of the hotel that had shared in the suffering of our lives began to erase itself from our hearts.
Dhakal is the author of Irfan Ali (Lahar Prakashan, 1994) and the Vice-Chairman of the Kathmandu District Development Committee. This story was translated from the original Nepali by Manjushree Thapa, who is the author of Mustang Shot in Fragments (Himal Books, 1992).