The factory looks like a heritage hotel.
As though it houses not drudgeries and machinery and yards of uninteresting linen but priceless artefacts.
Its exterior yellow, light and cheerful, with bay windows gleaming and inviting; the main door, intricately embellished with Ganesha, Shiva and Hanuman in terracotta; two trees – guava and orange – on each side of the building standing guard.
Ropes of Buddhist prayer flags strung high up between the two trees – blue, white, red, green, yellow – flapping, fluttering, almost flying.The inscriptions on them – symbols, sutras, mantras – sending out positive energy. Keeping evil forces at bay.
The cut-outs of the couple advertising the factory’s products on the garage door: once clad in Western clothes, now wearing Nepali outfits.
The male is in cream daura-suruwal. His top, the daura, button-, collarand cuff-less, the flaps in its front held in place by the only visible pair of strings across the chest.The trousers, the suruwal, snugcuffed, tapered, their excess length gathering at the feet.The woman, formerly depicted in a black dress, is now wearing gunyu-cholo, her green gunyu a sari whose loose end is tucked into the front. The blouse, her red-and-white rhombus-patterned cholo, bulging at the chest but otherwise similar to the daura.
The topiary on the marigold-covered lawn reads: NEUPANEY TEXTILES. The squash climbers on the trellis conceal stencilled inscriptions that reveal: NEUPANEY GARMENTS EST. 1984. A polished copper plaque by the entrance of the building announces: NEUPANEY APPAREL INC., KALIMPONG, GORKHALAND.
THE PROBLEM WITH REUNIONS
Blowing thick, circular smoke that mirrored the slowly accumulating cirrus clouds in the sky, Chitralekha surveyed the scene unfolding before her from the balcony. Her choice of cigarette – the kind that found favour among the servants, coolies and construction workers of Gangtok – confounded her doctor as much as the way she smoked it: she puffed on the tobacco wrapping held in an ‘O’ of her forefinger and thumb. Her technique may have been considered uncouth and the tobacco flakes in the beedi posed more harm than those inside an ordinary cigarette, but Chitralekha preferred relishing her poison the way she did. Like the ring that for more than seventy years had swung between her nostrils, stretching the septum, the beedi represented the familiar. With so much change imminent, she found comfort in the familiar.
Her grandchildren, who lived in various countries whose names she could barely pronounce and whose shores she had no intention of visiting, would be here soon for the Chaurasi, her eighty-fourth birthday, the preparations for which were in full swing. The garden around her cottage was abuzz with activity. The priest was not satisfied with the length of bamboos that would be used for the sacred kiln and expressed his discontent in a nasal voice together with a perpetual thudding of his walking stick. The eunuch servant, who swept the driveway more for Chitralekha’s comic relief than to actually contribute to the bustle around her, wasn’t happy with the priest and made her disdain known with loud off-pitch singing that drowned out the old man’s drone. A few painters, mostly oblivious to the disagreements surrounding them, lazily splashed the walls with vertical patterns that often became zigzags. Chitralekha did not like the look of the walls now.The chipping layer of red the workers were trying to paint over was too strong for a coat of white to dilute it; they’d have to paint twice, maybe three times. A jeep tottered a few days prematurely into the driveway with a thousand marigolds that the eunuch would soon have to sew into garlands to be festooned from the roof and to deck the windows.
‘We need competence around here,’ the Brahmin priest whined. ‘We all talk too much.’
‘Aye, the Brahmin thinks we all talk too much,’ the eunuch retorted. ‘A Brahmin thinks we talk too much. Soon, he will tell us we eat too much sugar.’
‘It’s useless talking to your kind of people, Prasanti,’ said the priest, while squinting at the terrace to lock his eyes with Chitralekha’s. He failed because she looked away. ‘All you do is talk, talk and talk.’
‘Oh, and I sing and dance, too,’ Prasanti shouted. ‘Sing, dance and clean while you stand there and order everyone around. Don’t forget I am a Brahmin, too, Pundit-jee.’
‘You should be out on the streets singing and dancing with your kind. Were it not for the generosity of Aamaa here, you’d not have a home.’
‘And were it not for the kindness of Aamaa here, you wouldn’t have a rupiya to feed that bulging stomach of yours, Pundit-jee. We’re both the same.’
The priest looked up at Chitralekha again. She knew he expected her to intervene, but she was enjoying the exchange too much to put a stop to it. She had taught Prasanti a lot of things, but the eunuch had taken it upon herself to puncture the Brahmin’s ego on a regular basis, and to mediate just when a performance this flawless had been delivered would be a shame. It was important that the priest be put in his place because every festival brought about a resurgence in his belief that he was irreplaceable.This translated into a general disregard for the opinion of everyone around him, finding fault with matters as trivial as the height of the pedestal on which he was to be seated during ceremonies and making purchases Chitralekha seldom authorized.
‘What has the world come to?’ The Brahmin shook his head. ‘A half-sex thinks she and a priest are one and the same.’
‘Yes, this half-sex has to prepare for the arrival of Kamal Moktan now,’ Prasanti said. ‘I am a hijra who knows important people – unlike you, Pundit-jee.’
‘Yes, to be sure, he must be coming all the way from Darjeeling to see you.’
‘To see Aamaa, but at least I get to greet him.’
‘He must be looking forward to that.’
‘As much as I am to seeing you leave.’
It was time for Chitralekha to make her presence felt.
‘Prasanti, show some respect to Pundit-jee,’ she said. ‘He will leave only after you’ve served him tea.’
This would do it. The hijra had done well. The priest’s selfimportance was sufficiently deflated. He would not insist on seven-hour-long ceremonies and outrageous donations. With this minor issue taken care of, Chitralekha could now prepare for her meeting with Kamal Moktan, who headed the new political party that promised the residents of the neighbouring Darjeeling district their beloved Gorkhaland, a separate state from West Bengal, of which they were now an ill-treated part. Moktan had infused the Gorkhaland movement, largely stagnant since it hit its crescendo in the eighties, with new hope. He probably needed to talk to Chitralekha about making the movement bigger and better.
Chitralekha would have preferred to meet with Moktan up on the terrace, but it would be too noisy. Prasanti had already laid claim to a makeshift storeroom in the west corner of the rooftop that now housed a huge cauldron of rice-flour batter prepared by her voluble recruits – two miserable, pitch-dark girls from the neighbourhood – that they would soon fry into sel–rotis, those crispy doughnuts that Chitralekha had no great fondness for and from which she could seldom escape during festivals and celebrations. It’d be interesting to see how the politician would react to his earnest solicitation for donation being punctuated with guffaws from the trio inside the storeroom, but the rare October drizzle that looked like it would arrive in a few minutes was as much a deterrent as the clanging of utensils and the giggling fits that had already begun.
Her office was a mess. Prasanti had wiped clean all the pictures on the walls but had conveniently ignored the hillock of paperwork that had built up on the desk. The ashtray was overflowing with beedi butts. The cleanliness of the office didn’t matter much to Chitralekha as long as the photos on the walls – two of her with the governor of Sikkim, one with the chief minister and a few with various important people – were spotless. She noticed with consternation that a picture she had long before relegated to the cupboard, the one with the ex-chief minister whose chances of coming back to power were as high as those of Prasanti’s giving birth, was enjoying pride of place between the photo in which she was shown receiving an award from the governor and another in which she and the tourism minister smiled gaily into the camera. Prasanti could be so useless.
‘Prasanti,’ Chitralekha called out, her voice echoing through the house. She repeated the servant’s name a few times, aware that the eunuch feigned deafness when she felt like it.
‘These sel-rotis are so round.’ Prasanti walked in, coughing, a few minutes later. ‘Even rounder than my head. But the smoke is killing us.’
‘Don’t talk too much, Prasanti. Why have you hung this picture up?’ Chitralekha rapped at the offending frame, almost knocking it down and wishing it would fall when the picture managed to stay put.
‘Was it not to come out?’ Prasanti innocently asked.
‘Why would it, fool? Why would you find a picture from the cupboard and hang it up?’
‘All these photos you’ve taken are with ugly men. I wanted a picture of you with a good-looking man. He is the only handsome man with whom you’ve been shot.’
‘And why would I, an eighty-three-year-old widow, want a picture with a handsome man, Prasanti?’ Chitralekha could feel her fury abate.
‘They are better than these ugly men. Some have no hair, and this one has more hair sprouting from his ears than he does on his head. This one could braid his nose hair with a rubber-band.’
‘So, you hung the other picture up?’
‘Yes,’ Prasanti answered impudently. ‘I want pictures with handsome men, so must you.’
‘But Basnett will never come to power. How would a picture with a loser like him make me look good?’
‘Good for you then – at least other women won’t take pictures with him.’
Chitralekha stifled a smile, ordered Prasanti to consign the picture to where it belonged, had her abort the task mid-way and asked for the photo to be propped back at its new home.
‘See, you like his handsome face, too, don’t you?’ Prasanti giggled.
‘No, I don’t. Go make sel-roti. You’ll waste a few hours putting that silly picture back in the cupboard.’
Moktan was late. The meeting was scheduled for three, and Chitralekha had specifically told the politician’s jabbering assistant that she didn’t like to be kept waiting. It would be another fifteen minutes before a fleet of cars slithered into the driveway carrying Moktan and his entourage, their black Nepali hats perched pharisaically on their heads.
The bell chimed. Prasanti had been instructed not to open the door until she counted to sixty twice. Chitralekha walked to the foyer so she could hear better.
‘Is Chitralekha Guraamaa there?’ one of the men asked.
‘She’s at a meeting,’ Prasanti answered.
‘I am Kamal Moktan,’ Moktan said.
‘I am Prasanti.’
She had been trained well. The men laughed. Prasanti giggled with them.
‘I have a meeting with Guraamaa.’
‘She had a meeting with you at three. She waited until 3:05, but when you didn’t come, she took another meeting. She’s busy. Why don’t you wait in the garden?’
One of the men was quick to quip, ‘The rain has stopped, sir.The sun might be out any moment. It’s better to wait out in the warm than inside.’
Five minutes lapsed and then ten. Prasanti brought the men tea and Good-Day biscuits. ‘She will be out in another five minutes. She told me she was meeting with only you.The others will have to wait here.’
Prasanti had done her job, once again redeeming herself in her mistress’s eyes. Kamal Moktan would be malleable now.
‘Namaste, Guraamaa,’ Moktan said sincerely, straightening his jacket, at the entrance of Chitralekha’s office. ‘Sorry I was late. The roads are bad because of the landslides in Rangpo, you know.’
‘Yes, I know.The last time our chief minister was here, he told me he always started an hour early to see me because he didn’t want to keep me waiting. Starting an hour early even when he lives in Gangtok is practical.’
‘I’ll take note of that,’ Moktan said, taking a seat. ‘I am sorry if I was late, but we enjoyed the tea and biscuits outside.’
‘So, why did you want to meet me?’
Moktan rubbed his hands together as though warming them.The action bored Chitralekha even before all the verbosity tumbled out.
She had had enough experience with politicians to know that this one had a long speech planned, and she’d have to find her way out of it. The Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling were stupid to rest their hopes on this man to get them a separate state.
‘You know the Gorkhaland movement sometimes needs elderly people to encourage the youngsters, especially an elderly person as respected as you in society.’ There’d be a lot of repetition, a little flattery, allusions to her old age and the wisdom that came with it, her generosity and how important she was. ‘You haven’t given us your full endorsement since we started. I understand that you are from Sikkim now, but we all know your roots are in Kalimpong, and that’s where you own your first and most symbolic factory. Unlike most people in Sikkim, you haven’t chosen to distance yourself from the great cause of Gorkhaland. We would be highly obliged if you’d give a speech about the importance of Gorkhaland and how I’d help achieve it because of my devotion to its people.’
‘Why me?’ she asked. ‘It’s interesting that you should ask me.’
‘I have a cousin’s cousin called Rajeev.’
‘I am glad I know his name.’
‘He completed his engineering degree from Manipal in Rangpo. All his friends from Sikkim have already got government jobs. He was among the top students in his class – got better scores than even the Bengalis. He’s yet to find anything.We just have no jobs in Darjeeling – no prospects, nothing.’
‘I can’t find him a job in Sikkim if he’s not from Sikkim.’
‘No, no, that wasn’t what I was going for. If in this speech you could ask people like him – educated and unemployed – to support the movement and tell them that they will find jobs when Gorkhaland happens, which we can attain only if we receive their full support, I’d be really grateful. There is too much cynicism among the educated.’
Sizing up the man before her, Chitralekha concluded that he wasn’t worth inviting to her Chaurasi – he wasn’t a long-term politician like Sikkim’s Subba was. He’d probably be blinded by power, do something stupid and spend his life absconding or rotting in jail. But at almost eighty-four, she didn’t need to think long term. She was already the oldest member of her extended family on all sides – her father’s, her mother’s and her husband’s – and she was conscious of her mortality. At the most, she had ten years to live. Currying favours with Moktan wouldn’t get her anywhere in the long run, but from now on, she was all about immediate gratification.
‘What do I get out of it?’ she asked.
‘What would you like to suggest? We keep hearing rumours that you’ll stop being directly involved in your business, that one of your grandchildren will take over, but aren’t they all abroad? I have a lot of respect for your decision not to step down even at this age. You are an inspiration to all of us, you see. But please do not ask us for money because we rely on the blessings of people like you to keep ourselves financially afloat.’
‘Just two months ago, I gave two lakhs to your organization. I am not donating any money unless I see a return on that.’ She lit her beedi. It was a habit no amount of amassed wealth would help her get rid of. She also understood that it intimidated most men of power when she smoked in front of them. Her white sari, the loose end of which demurely covered her white head of hair, and smoking just did not go hand in hand.
Kamal smacked his lips. ‘Do you have any suggestions on how we could help you?’
‘This Gorkhaland movement is going nowhere, Kamal-jeeu. We have waited long for something to happen. There’s too much vandalism, too much goondagiri. We need to inspire the people, inflame them. Ask any person from Kurseong or Kalimpong if they have faith in Gorkhaland, and they say no.’
‘Now, even if someone like you says that, we are doomed. We have been doing our best. Just last month a meeting with the West Bengal minister of—’
She cut him short. ‘Meetings don’t achieve anything. Look at us right now. We have met for the past five minutes, but we haven’t talked about anything useful.’
His forehead furrowed. ‘Do you have any suggestions then?’
‘Yes, we need to instil a sense of oneness in our people.Why don’t you mandate that everyone should wear the Nepali costume – daura-suruwals and gunyu-cholos and topis – certain days of the week, especially during festivals and important national holidays? Look at you – you wear a Gurkha hat, but where’s your daura-suruwal? You, more than anyone else, need to set an example. Let’s declare one date – how about the first day be during Tihaar, say sometime next week? – as the date for everyone to wear only Nepali clothes in solidarity.’
‘That’s a good idea. We would like to do that.’
‘Yes, another time for dressing up could be the day of the conference. And I’ll come to it, too.’
‘It’s a good plan – but perhaps next week is too early.’
‘It’s not. This movement requires urgency. It has to start now.’
He looked at her as though surprised at the lack of caveat. ‘Is that it then?’
She glanced at the clock and then at her watch. ‘That’s it, but by now you know that my factory in Kalimpong will be the supplier of all the Nepali clothes to the stores. The clothes are ready. All you have to do is make your announcements. We even have custommade daura-suruwal – no other factory has manufactured the outfit before. Your men will take care of all those stores that don’t buy their clothes in bulk from my factory, right?’
Moktan’s eyes lit up – Chitralekha couldn’t make out if it was in indignation or admiration. She procured a package from under her desk and unwrapped it. In it lay a set of cream daura-suruwal.
‘Yes, I can do that,’ he said.
‘Good,’ she said, wiggling the outfit out of its package. She untied all the four pairs of strings, even those on the inside, of the top. ‘And ten per cent of our profits will be donated to your cause – whether your cause is killing people or getting them their state, I don’t know.’ Next, she focused her attention on the trousers.
‘It’s Gorkhaland,’ Moktan said. ‘A few casualties occur along the way, which is unfortunate, but what revolution didn’t have people die for it? Those who die are either villains or martyrs.’
‘Yes, and you are the hero.’ She chuckled, while holding up the suruwal for her guest to inspect. ‘Your men down there make too much noise. The next time you come to visit me, can you come alone? Let’s plan a meeting three months from now.You could also pick up your donation then.’
Moktan brought his hands together in supplication and perhaps as a precursor to a long-winded speech that Chitralekha would have to prohibit.
‘Look at these nakshaas, Moktan-jeeu – what do you see?’
The politician turned around. His eyes fixated on the picture of her with the ex-chief minister, but he was quiet.
‘That’s who I am, Moktan-jeeu,’ Chitralekha said. ‘I am your friend for a lifetime if you’ve earned my trust. I don’t care if your party is not in power. I don’t care if you will never be re-elected. I’ll forever be faithful to you.’
Moktan listened in silence.
‘You’ll give yourself an opportunity to earn my trust, will you not?’ Chitralekha looked him in the eye. And then she broke into a smile, one that birthed a multitude of lines on her face. ‘You will see to it that your picture will be standing there among these, won’t you?’
Moktan nodded and told her he would have to rush to a meeting with I. K. Subba, the chief minister of Sikkim, who had publicly announced his support for the separatist movement.‘We Gorkhaland people have so much to thank for in people like you and him, Guraamaa,’ he said.‘For too long we’ve been under the oppression of the Bengalis. Gorkhaland as a state has to happen. We have to have a separate state just as you people in Sikkim do. Thank you so much for giving us hope.’
Once Moktan left, Chitralekha summoned Prasanti to banish Basnett’s picture to the cupboard.
‘She now doesn’t want to see a mere picture after she saw such a macho man in person,’ Prasanti teased, tying her shoulder-length hair, receding around the temples, in a chignon. ‘How old is he? Are you sure his caste is Moktan? He looks like a Newaar to me. His eyes aren’t small enough to be a Moktan’s eyes. By the way, the fatty priest is still around, retching poison into anything within reach.’
Chitralekha smoked another beedi. The meeting was a success. She would turn eighty-four in a week. For most of her life, age had meant nothing. In fact, like most women of her generation, she did not even know when her actual birthday was. But this was different. It was a slap on the faces of those diseases that killed you before you reached your prime. Eighty-four was special, for she was now among the very few who had survived that far. To most people, like her pathetic husband, living to that age was an unattainable dream. It was time to go now – maybe stick around for a few years and then die peacefully. Her biggest fear was outliving one of her grandchildren, and going by the surgeries, aches and pains they complained about, she wouldn’t be at all surprised if she lived to see at least one of their deaths. She didn’t want that. She had witnessed too many people dying – her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law. She wouldn’t be able to withstand another tragedy. She had bargained with God that at least this quarter of her life would be devoid of sadness. And she’d see to it that he kept his promise.
Bhagwati could have prevented the pot from toppling over, but her wandering thoughts had betrayed her.
‘Help!’ she screamed. ‘The spaghetti water spilled on me.’
She braced herself for the generous sprinkling of innuendos that would come her way in the distance that she limped between the dishwasher and the kitchen entrance. Brian, the bus boy whose presence triggered in her the same reaction as did the peccadilloes of the ruffians outside the refugee camps, was nowhere to be seen, but Bhagwati had become skilled at discovering creepy figures lurking inside walk-in freezers or behind bulky kitchen equipment, and even in her pain, she looked over her shoulder lest someone should jump at her. Two weeks before, when she allowed her thoughts to compare somewhat unfavourably the Dashain festivities in Bhutan to those in Gangtok, a mouth had come dangerously close to breathing hot, putrid air against her shoulders and neck. That’s what she got for daydreaming about Hindu festivals in Christian America. She had to constantly be on the watch, or she’d find her body parts and the bus boy’s coming together in unwelcome interaction.
The cook rushed to her as she fell to the floor. The smarting was unbearable.
‘Good thing the water hadn’t come to a complete boil,’ he said, grazing his hand over the burn. ‘Brian, could you get me a band-aid?’
‘It’s a burn.’ Bhagwati winced. ‘I think I need a cream – something with aloe – more than I need a band-aid.’
‘I don’t know where the fucking first-aid kit is,’ Brian said with a snigger and swaggered outside, only to emerge a few seconds later with a box. ‘I don’t know how to open this damn thing. She only works here like us, and now we’re all becoming her damn slaves.’
By now, a substantial crowd of kitchen staff had gathered around the reclined Bhagwati and the gently comforting cook, and each offered his own diagnosis and prescription. Between a suggestion to rub toothpaste on the affected area and another to use a pack of ice arose an idea that a long, passionate kiss from the cook might help alleviate Bhagwati’s pain. A raucous applause signified approval from the bystanders.
The cook handed her a cream from the box. Bhagwati concentrated on squeezing the cream out of a small tube and applied it to her ankle. The burn didn’t seem as severe as the pain was.
‘It’s just a first-degree burn,’ someone said, before the manager commanded the crowd to disperse. ‘She’ll be fine.’
‘Damn, refugee,’ the cook said, ignoring her grimace. ‘Damn, you can only be happy you weren’t hurt by a pot of fully boiled water.’ ‘Thank you,’ Bhagwati said. ‘Could you please ask Brian not to bother me today?’
‘Don’t worry about him. You be careful around boiling pots. Be thankful I was here.The last time someone from your world burned himself, he applied some butter. Crazy man.’
Bhagwati still had a stack of dirty dishes to negotiate, but the story about this other person from her world intrigued her. She wanted to ask the cook, whom she was still hesitant to call by name because of its numerous silent letters, if the man had been treated as badly as she was. The manager – suited, limp-wristed but otherwise a kind man – was already looking at her with impatience, so she dashed off to tackle the plates, which, in between the accident and its treatment, had trebled in number.
Days like today took her on an endless question-and-answer session about whether life had actually changed for the better since leaving the refugee camps of Nepal. When she and other Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were herded out of Bhutan because they weren’t Bhutanese enough to be Bhutanese, they wouldn’t let go of the hope that Nepal would take them in, but their ancestors had been gone from Nepal and been in Bhutan too long for them to be Nepalese.
Life in the refugee camps of Nepal was supposed to be better than living in fear of persecution in Bhutan, but it wasn’t. Day in and day out, she and the other refugees struggled as non-contributing members of society, loathed by the Nepalese outside the camps – the Nepalese from Nepal; the real Nepalese – because the saranathis’ desperation had attracted enough Western attention for countries like America to come to their rescue. The campers had survived years clinging to a thin line of hope that some day America, Australia . . . any country where life was better than in the camps would whisk them away. When America finally did, life didn’t get any better.
‘All that beauty wasted on a Damaai,’ her grandmother had said about her in more than one phone conversation, adding a colourful word or two to describe her husband’s low caste. But she was used to her grandmother’s barbs – they didn’t hurt her the way people’s behaviour toward her at work did. In the kitchen of Tom’s Diner in Boulder, Colorado, she was often invisible, which was preferable to being the recipient of uninvited caresses.The first female dishwasher, the waiters and cooks had cheered the minute she walked in. All this she bore for the low-caste Damaai husband of hers – a nameless, identity-less, stateless Damaai.
Refugees didn’t belong anywhere, but she especially belonged nowhere. Who was she? Born: a Nepali-speaking Indian with a dead father from Sikkim, a dead mother from Nepal and a live grandmother from Kalimpong who was married into Sikkim. Postmarriage: a Nepali-speaking Bhutanese who lawfully relinquished her Indian citizenship so she could belong. Post the ousting of 106,000 Nepali-speaking people from Bhutan: an inhabitant of a state of statelessness in the refugee camps of Nepal. Post America’s magnanimity: a refugee now in America with a shiny green card that would probably never land her a job commensurate with her expectations.
She could have gone back to Sikkim and exploited her grandmother’s connections to re-establish her Indian identity, but her husband was too proud to give in. In the beginning, he, like thousands of others, languished in disbelief that his country could actually turn him away, but Ram had done enough harm to the monarchy with his column in an underground Nepali newspaper.
Incredulity gave way to expectation, which was gradually usurped by hopeless resignation. After living that way for a decade and a half, Bhagwati had stopped questioning the purpose of life.
At least in Boulder she was making a wage and trying her best to become a functional part of society. Despite efforts ranging from picking up Dzongkha, that Bhutanese language so different from Nepali, to cultivating reverence for the king, Bhutan never felt like home, and these days even Gangtok seemed alien, as though it had decided to grow up and old without her. The shiny new city with the pedestrianized square, like Pearl Street here, wasn’t what she left behind. Now, when she saw pictures of her hometown on Facebook, she felt no familiar stirrings. It was like staring at a photo of her long-dead parents.
Brian placed a new stack of plates for her. The dishes had been piling up, and she was woefully behind. She’d have no time to drink her coffee, and she willed the bitter pangs of remorse stemming from the looks the manager flung at her to go away. She wasn’t about to peg the accident to her negligence, to her drifting mind – not today at least.
‘Hey, refugee, what’s going on?’ the line cook yelled. ‘Why are the dishes so slow?’
Bhagwati didn’t answer but hurried along to scour off a plate some breadcrumbs that an excess of maple syrup had rendered immobile. The old Christian bus boy, who usually scraped the plates before he brought them to Bhagwati while extolling the virtues of Christ, manned the counter today. She’d have to deal with Brian’s handiwork, and that entailed getting rid of every uneaten morsel of food off the dishes.
‘Plates not coming fast enough,’ someone shouted. ‘No food if no plates. Where do we put what we fucking cook?’
Bhagwati loaded some dishes into the washer, wishing someone would turn down the heat.
‘Damn, refugee, are we okay?’ Brian said. ‘We are running outta plates.’
She paid him no attention. Brian would probably do what he did three days before – tell the manager that she had been painting her nails.To corroborate his story he had obtained a bottle of nail-polish that he claimed to have heroically confiscated from her.
But he didn’t.
‘Damn, at this rate, you’ll be fired,’ he hooted.
A grain of rice clung stubbornly to a plate. Had Brian been doing his work instead of breathing down her neck, her workload would have been reduced by half.
‘Damn, girl, the rice don’t want to leave you.’
She stayed silent. And then, as he turned to leave, his hand touched her back, as if by accident. But Bhagwati knew better. She slapped him.
‘You,’ she shrieked. ‘Stop touching me with your filthy hand.’ Brian winced and yelped. A waiter, the line cook and the Christian bus boy came by to inspect the scene. Just the day before, Brian had gone past her deliberately brushing his arm against her behind. She had said nothing then. Last week, it was something else. She looked around, hoping at least the Christian bus boy would cheer her on, as he, too, had on numerous occasions complained about Brian’s disrespectful ways. But the old man’s face reflected disbelief, and his revulsion – like everyone else’s – was not directed at Brian.
‘Bitch.’ Brian walked away. ‘What’s this country come to, taking immigrants like you? You can’t take jokes, man. You don’t understand the language; you don’t do jokes.’
The next batch of plates arrived surprisingly well scraped, and complaints about the dishes not coming out soon enough abruptly stopped.
If this was how things worked around here, maybe she should continue behaving the way she just did. She wondered about how difficult life was for a barely educated refugee in this country. She had at least received an excellent English-medium education in Gangtok. Her husband had gone to a government school in Bhutan and was nervous about his English, so she forgave him for not being able to hold down a job for more than a few days. Often, she, who was confident in her language abilities, didn’t understand the way Americans spoke – did they really have to twist and turn their tongues all the time? Hardly had she celebrated the victory of having understood something when off they’d go, curling their tongues, making incomprehensible whatever little she had gathered until then. Fifteen years at the camp had rusted her brain.
‘These seem to be the last plates of the day,’ the cook said. ‘The boss wants to see you in his office after this.’
She looked up in surprise at the calm tone and found the absence of epithet strangely jarring. That’s what her life had become: she thought something was amiss when she wasn’t summoned as a refugee.
The manager treated her well, but his consideration toward her was always obscured by the others’ hostility. Perhaps he had called her in to apologize for Brian’s behaviour. Maybe he’d even get rid of the boksha.
‘There’s been a problem,’ the manager began, maintaining negligible eye contact.
She said nothing.
‘There were reports that you were violent with him, B. We’ve a zero tolerance policy toward violence. Here’s a message for you: do not come back. You can return your shirt when you pick up your last paycheck.’
If she were to look at the positive side of things, at least she didn’t have to disclose her profession to everyone she would meet at her grandmother’s Chaurasi. She wouldn’t be lying when she declared to relatives that she didn’t work.
The apartment complex where Bhagwati, Ram and their sons lived at Thunderbird Circle housed enough Nepali-speaking people to shatter the myth about Boulder’s monochromatic personality. The most resented of the various groups were people like Ram and her: the Bhutanese refugees who had decided to uproot themselves from Denver, where they were originally settled by America, to Boulder for better opportunities. A close second were the Diversity Lottery winners from Nepal. Then came the professionals – diligent graduates of American universities, working harder still to climb the immigrant ladder one visa status at a time – who maintained a safe distance from the first two categories, guided in no small part by a mixture of scorn and envy. A handful of South Asian students with the resources to afford the state university’s private school-like fees or the brains to lend themselves to the school’s teaching-assistant workforce comprised the remaining residents. Rumour had it that the two couples sharing the one-bedroom in 208 were illegal.
Bhagwati waved at the allegedly illegal wives sunning themselves in the courtyard and bolted for the mailbox before they could approach her with a question about her sons’ braces, which were paid for by some NGO. Today was the last day she needed to be reminded how lucky her family was for having so many things done for them by America. In the last few weeks, the tone of the letters from Chase and Citi had grown especially aggressive, so Bhagwati decided against opening her mail.
In 213, sprawled on the flowery bed-sheet that covered the carpet was a headphone-decked Ram repeating ‘Thank you for calling Doe-mino’s. How may I help you?’ over and over again. When he noticed her, he removed his headphones and smiled.
‘Got the Doe-mino’s job,’ he said in halting English and then, moving to the comfort of Nepali, added, ‘I am practising how to answer the phone.’
‘That’s nice.’ Bhagwati faked enthusiasm. ‘At least one of us will be working.’
‘You’re back early,’ Ram said. ‘Did you take a half-day?’
‘No, I quit,’ Bhagwati lied.
Ram was quiet.
‘It was getting too much. The man had begun touching me.’
‘What will you do when you get back from India?’
‘Look for a new job – something that requires more qualification than the kind of jobs illegals do.’
‘A hotel?’ Ram asked. ‘Front desk?’
‘Reservations perhaps. No standing up required. When do you start?’
‘This afternoon. “Thank you for calling Doe-mino’s. How may I help you?”’
‘That’s fine. Now change the “doe” to “da”. It’s not Doe-mino’s but Da-minos.’
‘Da-da-da,’ Ram repeated. ‘I’ll have to end practice soon. Aatish will make fun of me if he hears.’
‘You should tell Aatish you’re doing it all for him and Virochan. You didn’t have the good fortune to go to school in America the way they do.’
‘I’ll stop now. Will you join me to pray before I head to Doe-mino’s?’
How ironic it was that her husband, an untouchable, the lowest of the low castes, an upsetting by-product of the heinous system that her ancestors helped create and propagate, should be so full of piety. He knew the shlokas, memorized elliptical Sanskrit mantras, read the Gita and understood what festival was celebrated for what reason. He was combative when she, a Brahmin, dismissed Hinduism’s many superstitions, made her analyse and reanalyse these beliefs and furnished her with the scientific reasoning behind them, which she begrudgingly acknowledged. And yet, he could never become a priest. He’d never be allowed near the altar of most Hindus. He was a casualty of Hinduism who had chosen not to be a victim. An untouchable who had no shame about his low caste as much as he did of robbing his Baahun wife of hers on account of her marriage to him. A bigger Hindu, a better Hindu than she or anyone she knew. Ram Bahadur Damaai – whose kind the Christian missionaries had been targeting for centuries and whose family had stood firm in their devotion to Hinduism, naming their child after a Hindu god; Ram Bahadur Damaai – of the tailor caste, the father of her halfcaste children who would thankfully not be taunted in this country for carrying in their bloodline accusations of incest and consanguinity; Ram Bahadur Damaai – responsible for the biggest blemish anyone had brought on her family, for belonging to a family of tailors, of alterers and cutters, for altering family dynamics in a way that could never be unaltered, for ripping grandmother from granddaughter in a way they could never be re-hemmed; Ram Bahadur Damaai – who gave her two sons in whose DNA were Damaai blood and Brahmin blood, one infiltrating another, poisoning another, the two sons her grandmother would never touch, whose presence would desecrate her ancestral house; Ram Bahadur Damaai – the untouchable kicked out of Bhutan along with Brahmins, Chettris and Newars, the man for whom she had given it all up and never regretted it – was a better human being than any of her family members would ever be.
And as her husband stood in front of the makeshift altar – a part of their closet on whose surface sat a motley of colourful gods and goddesses – sonorously reciting the Gayatri Mantra, the Hanuman Chalisa and the Ganesha Mantra, chants coined by the very Brahmins who had determined his legacy and the identity of his sons and grandsons, Bhagwati Neupaney Damaai – with a bell oscillating in frenzy in one hand – prayed the hardest she had in her thirty-seven years. For a long period, she had put off thinking about the enormity of the impending reunion, but it was here now. She’d be seeing her grandmother after eighteen years – for the first time since the elopement – and she needed to fortify herself with all the prayers of all the religions in the world.
Excerpted from Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly. Copyright © 2014 by Prajwal Parajuly.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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