Print Edition - 2014-03-08  |  On Saturday

Tear open here

- Muna Gurung
Tear open here

Mar 7, 2014-

I his man was already someone else’s man. His arms were soft and hairless. Every time the tips of his fingers and lips wandered to quiet places on my body, he made sure to keep his eyes shut.

My baby nephew shuts his eyes when he tires of the adults around him; in his two-year-old mind, he becomes invisible.

Many years ago, when this man was still the stationary-newspaper seller, I used to call him dai, out of respect. I was fourteen. He was twenty-one. My family had just moved to Kathmandu from a smaller town in Western Nepal. On our first morning walk in the neighbourhood, Buwa and I had stopped at this man’s store. It was a punched-out hole with rolled up metallic shutters that revealed a glass display case lined with flimsy notebooks, cheap Chinese ballpoint pens, and rows of Indian bottled ink. On top of the case, spread like a freshly dealt hand, lay the morning’s Nepali and English papers. He stood behind all this with tightly curled oily hair.

Every morning, when I picked up the Kathmandu Times, he asked me if I’d taken my tea. He called me maiyya. Once a month, he threw in a free pen, or an animal-shaped eraser. When the Made-in-China sticky notes hit the stationary market, he pasted a message in each newspaper for me. There was never any writing, just smiley faces.

Fast forward ten years and three-semesters-at-an Australian-university later, I ran into him at a wedding in New Road. At first, I didn’t recognise him without the display case. I had memorised the shape of that upper body, but the legs threw me off; they looked rickety and unsure, and he appeared to be taller than the average Nepali man. But as we stood facing one another, I knew we’d been here long before I’d left or long before I’d arrived. He brought with him all things we naturally shared: the dust in the neighbourhood, the hollow high sounds of midnight trucks, the smell of Rajkumar’s samosas, and the columns of fabrics wrapped and ready to be tailored into a skirt, a blouse, some pajamas. His hair was fluffy and long. He had shaved his face to reveal deep dimples that burrowed into his cheeks. The time apart had somehow equalised us; he didn’t appear older to me anymore.

Oho maiyya! Chinyau? He asked.

Couldn’t forget you if I tried, I said. The reluctant and belated dai at the end of the sentence hid in the sounds of the brass band under the tent behind us.

He let out the kind of short awkward laugh you get from strangers who refuse to remain strangers. And then he said his name. He repeated it twice.  

Yes, of course. I said.

Then, after the party, he offered to give me a ride home.

Maybe it was the way our legs were stacked to fit on his motorcycle, or the thin poncho we were sharing, or how the monsoon tickled our backs and arms, or maybe it was the fact that I had just returned home after two years, or the glasses over glasses of rum and coke at the party, or the Nepali words that rolled out of his mouth, the familiarity of the language, its cadence thumping in my ears, waking a primary muscle in my body.

Or maybe, just maybe, it was because the light bulb that usually hung from a bent wooden post above the alleyway that led up to my house was broken that night and like magic, the rain whispered down to a drizzle just as I stopped to face him. I leaned against the brick wall on my neighbour’s side of the alleyway. Without a word, he leaned down to meet my face and we kissed for what seemed like rolling hills. The neighbour’s dog barked, sparking an orchestra of street dog sounds that echoed outwards across town.

Your high school friend… Gina, he said, pulling away from me. I’m seeing her. Kinda.

And just like that, the Australian boy in Melbourne, who smelled like a health food store and cuddled with me each night, slipped further into an impermanent corner of my mind.  

II

I found out about her when I was well into a year of lurking in dark alleyways and cheap motels in Kalanki, Kirtipur, Chabel with the newspaper man. I was a senior in college and had left the Australian, added my name to an airline’s promotional ticket listserv, and secured an extra job selling sheer high-end underwear at a mall in Melbourne.

When I first met her, I didn’t think she was anybody’s woman. She picked up my finished plates after meals and stacked them neatly in a red plastic bucket outside the kitchen. She washed my

clothes, sometimes scrubbing the collars too hard or hanging my jeans in the sun for too long, letting the threads lose their hues. On certain cold days, when she wrapped her head with a shawl, she looked like a younger and softer version of me. True to her name, Sangita, she sang while she chopped, cleaned and washed. She came by the house twice a day, once at 6 am to sweep the entire courtyard and wash our clothes, and once in the evening to grind masala for Aama’s curries.

Ever since Aama introduced me to Sangita as her daughter who lives in Australia where she is very busy, Sangita began to speak to me only in English. She told me, in English, that she was paying for college by working in three different houses. Every time I asked her how she was doing, she would sigh dramatically and say: Oh didi, miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

In between chores, Sangita would sit in the sun with her left hand on her waist, her right hand holding a phone, her thumb tapping the screen. She’d occasionally look up at me, sitting with a book under the bougainvillea tree, and ask for translations: How do you say mithaas in English, didi?

Sweetness, I’d sound out the word slowly.

III

My father, Buwa, used to be an angry man. When I was nine, I stayed in bed long enough for the sounds of banging drawers to simmer into a whisper. My cue to get out of bed was the creak of the screen door out back. During my teenage years, I spent time away from home, riding around town in motorcycles with boys and girls who bled from one Thamel happy hour into the next. While Buwa taught poetry in the afternoons, at night he became a figure that balanced a whisky tumbler in his hands as he waited for me to get home. Every time he spoke, the loudness of his voice sent ripples into my scalp.

Now I saw him once or twice a year, resting under the shade of his bhogote tree smiling at a text message. I’d sometimes find him whispering into the receiver an endless string of useless questions I too had asked late into the night when I wanted to find love: What did you eat? Who is at home? What did you buy at the market today? What are you thinking about? He tucked his phone in his breast pocket, but continued to check it every five minutes for a message, an emoticon perhaps, an image, a song.

I saw the first one when I was helping Buwa figure out the ringer on his phone. The text message blanketed the entire screen: Tomorrow when I make tea, I will add more sweetness in your cup. It won’t be sugar, not even honey.

It wasn’t the tomorrow, the tea, or the only English word in the message, sweetness, that made my heart stop, it was the you. The casual and intimate use of the word timi, you, timi. Aama had always addressed Buwa as the higher tapai. He was a dai, a father, a professor, a grandfather, a sahuji, an uncle, but timi?

It wasn’t long before I was sitting with a string of messages; a history of sighs and words unrolled before me like a softly lit alleyway.

He: Although your name appears to mean music, I’d say that sangita is actually the glue, the gap that connects each musical note.

She: You’re a crazy old man.

He: You’re the idea that’s waiting to be thought.

She: Is that what your poet Ambika Tamang would say?

He: Harey! When we finally see that Ambika was the true muse for the Mahakabi’s celebrated poems, you and everyone else will stop making fun of me.

She: If only you were the teacher instead of that old woman with sweaty armpits.  

He: I would make us read Ambika’s letters to the Mahakabi.

He: Do you find me old?

She: No, not when you text me.

She: What was that one line Ambika wrote, re?

He: “Don’t speak to me with a tightened knot over your heart, for if there are fifty-six kinds of love, ours is one of loyalty and I’ll find the fifty-five others elsewhere.”

IV

Inside his room, it smells like mothballs. He never wastes his time. As I enter through the screen door, he turns off the white fluorescent lights. I have to feel his face with my hands to know if he is smiling. He pulls me to his bed. His pillow is hard, but the covers are thin and soft—cotton, from years of sleeping. While his mouth travels to my chest and his fingers lock between my toes, I think about the million places his hands have already been. Around his belt buckle. On a bike handle. Over his sticky computer keys. Into his rice and daal. On his lower lip and then onto the thin pages of the daily paper. Through the strands of his hair, onto his chin, slowly scratching his neck. And especially, especially, on the mindless edges of her skin. Of Gina’s skin.

I cringe and pull away from him, falling off the bed and almost jogging towards the door.

Ke bho? he asks. Yahan aija na, he says. Come here and then the na—a gentle plea, a please, barely there, an imperative, yet so rounded. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed with sadness for the Australian, who from the beginning was betrayed by language; for there is no word, nothing like the na, that the Australian could have uttered in English to make me stay.

As I slowly button up my blouse, I smell his mouth in my clothes. Najaa na, he says from the bed and then walks up to me and clutches my fingers to a halt.

Gina and I aren’t close friends but to think that there is an intended meaning, an entire life behind each touch he chooses to share with her makes me sick and I say: Why can’t you just be responsible? I’m human too.

I reach for the light switch and after the bulb blinks and flickers; I finally see his steady face. My words have made it impossible for him to love me.

Outside, the monsoon rain starts again. There’s no time to linger, no time to drape over each other. I stand by the door with my arms crossed, tapping my fingers on an elbow, counting between lightning.

V

Aama was born when her mother was fifty, they say. While her siblings went to the only school in the village, she preferred to take the goats out to graze.

I saw her now bent over a patch of coriander leaves in the garden.

I had a plan.

With my Australian papers well underway, I’d open my mouth wide to tell Aama about Buwa’s new woman and the history taking shape behind her back—one organ at a time. If she wailed in disbelief, I’d remind her of her strength and tell her that she’s a free woman. That she and I can build our home in some foreign land. She’ll cook for me as I work to pay the bills. I’d quit idling with the newspaper man, she’ll live without the old poet. So, etcetera.

When I finally broke down my plans to her, counting them off on my fingers one by one, Aama slowly stood up, her joints cracking out from her squat. She shook the coriander leaves in her hand to get rid of any dew and mud, and then she headed towards the kitchen. As I followed her, I began to raise my voice: We can’t ignore things we see and know, Aama.

In the kitchen, she sat down on a low wooden stool in front of the stove and wiped her forehead with the corner of her dhaka shawl. Tomatoes in one hand, she reached for the cutting board, browned and curved inward by years of knife kisses. Aama, I won’t let you be treated this way, I said.

Then—Chup! The word came out from her steady lips with such force that little saliva dotted her chin. She turned up the flame and began to plop five ripe tomatoes, one by one, into the pot of boiling water.

Later, Aama served us lunch. It was like any other meal. While Buwa ate with his fork and spoon, I mixed my entire plate of food into a large mound of khichadi. Leaning against the sink with a calendar in her hands, Aama momentarily broke the sounds of Buwa’s silverware scraping against the plate with More rice? Maybe tarkari? Then she put on her reading glasses and studied the calendar as though it held coded answers. In the afternoon, she took a nap as the TV sounded sermons by an Indian guru unraveling to us the recipes of the universe, feelings, and bodies. I wanted to wake her and apologise, but instead I found myself under the bougainvillea tree reading the morning’s old news and watching a secret live out its life: Sangita whistling a tune while doing the dishes, and Buwa planting potatoes as he recited an old poem he’d written during his Darjeeling heydays.

When we finally spoke again in the evening, Aama initiated the conversation with a simple, What should we eat tonight? She had just returned from having spent time with her neighbourhood ladies. From how her skin relaxed over her face, gently pulling and softening her eyes, anyone could tell that she had just spent hours giggling with her friends—lying on the ground perhaps, with loosened hair, cushions under their necks, shawls and purses abandoned in a corner, surwals pulled up to their knees.

Who was I to say she was unloved? Why did I decide she was blindsided?  And how could I forget the recycled stories of Aama as a little girl?

That she ran so fast she could catch a flying bird.

I’ll cook for us, I offered.

Published: 08-03-2014 09:56

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