Blesok no. 64, January-February, 2009
During the Festival
Ganesh lay on his back in bed, one hand behind his head, his legs dangling off the side, while his wife rummaged through the dresser for the sari to wear that evening. He watched her plump body in petticoat and bra, her fingers lingering on one sari, then another, finally pulling out one of red chiffon. When she turned and saw him watching her, she asked, “What's the matter? You don't want me to go?” “No. You go,” he said.
She asked him to help button her blouse, so he went over to her half-naked body, his heart hammering in his throat.
He went down to see her off through the courtyard, and climbed the stairs back to their apartment. He could imagine her walking down the street, her neatly combed hair pulled back, a tika on her forehead. He could imagine the taxi driver peeking at her in the rearview mirror, unable to take his eyes off her faintly powdered face, wondering what kind of a husband she went home to, how it would feel to lie next to her and hear her sigh under his caress. Ganesh could see her entering the wedding tent, adjusting her sari, her eyes appraising the crowd, familiar faces lighting up when they spotted her, a childhood friend of hers coming to greet her proprietarily, introducing her to guests, the men eyeing her from behind their wives.
He opened the door to the small balcony and stepped out. Four stories below, in the courtyard, two boys were playing marbles. In the opposite house, the new tenant, a young, bald man, leaned against the window, surveying the courtyard. When their eyes met, the bald man smiled. Ganesh didn't like him; he was too friendly, suspiciously friendly So Ganesh barely nodded. The boys' arguments echoed amidst the frantic cries of the evening birds. The setting sun cast a saffron glow on the houses surrounding the courtyard. The evening, though beautiful, seemed alien to him.
He had recently told a friend at work that he did not understand his wife. He had said it casually, as if it were a joke. His friend blew into his cupped palms, as he always did when considering a serious matter. “Do you think your wife has a secret life?” he asked.
“There's something about her,” Ganesh said, shaking his head. Lately he had been studying her; he watched her while she slept, tried to imagine her thoughts when she stirred eggplant or beans in the kitchen. He also wanted to know what she thought about when he wasn't around, what areas her mind lingered on. He suspected that her thoughts excluded him, and this possibility filled him with dismay, with pain.
They'd been married for three years, and Ganesh had not worried this way the first two years. Before he married, he lived on the second floor of a small house in Chhetrapati with his mother. Ganesh barely remembered his father, who died of a brain disease that no doctor or shaman had been able to cure. And there were rumors that Ganesh was really not his father's son; that he was the son of the man who had been his mother's lover for many years. It was his mother who had arranged Ganesh's marriage. She'd sung the praises of his future bride – “She has the most beautiful eyes”; “She's known in the neighborhood for her faultless manners” – until he too began to think she would make a wonderful wife, even though he'd not yet met her. When she first came into the house, he had been surprised by her beauty. He'd seen pictures of her, but in person she was ten times more striking. Her jet-black hair made a lovely contrast with her fair complexion, and she had a long, slim nose from which a diamond glinted whenever she smiled. A mere glance from her made his heart beat rapidly, and when she laughed, the tiny gap between her two front teeth made her irresistibly charming. “Your daughter-in-law's face glows like the sun,” he heard relatives tell his mother, and everywhere he and his new bride went, people commented on how his wife's beauty would usher in good luck for the rest of their lives. He had basked in the warmth of these comments, but later, that pleasure had given way to wariness, for he couldn't believe that such beauty could be enjoyed at no cost.
He tried to recall the exact moment when he first had doubts about her; it was, he thought, when they were at the eastern wall of the temple complex of Lord Pashupatinath on a sunny day, looking down at the dirty Bagmati River. A young man standing near them said to Ganesh's wife, “Look how filthy the river is. Look there” – he pointed to a couple of women washing themselves contentedly, letting their soap suds drift into the blackened water – “how uncivilized these people are. Look there” – he gestured to a mass of garbage on the river's edge – “our holy Bagmati River.”
The man laughed, and Ganesh's wife laughed too, with an abandon that Ganesh had found disconcerting.
“No one is doing anything about it,” she'd told the young man. “The politicians are more interested in their fat wives.” And then her laughter seemed to ring throughout the temple complex, mixing with the bells, reverberating with the chants of the priests. When they left the temple, Ganesh asked her, “Do you know that man?” And she said no. As they walked home that day, he compared his body with hers, and decided that he was a tight man, with muscles that were closed, restricting. He realized that he hardly moved his arms when he walked, whereas she constantly swirled her arms, sometimes scratching an itch on her face, at other times playing with her sari. Suddenly a phrase that had plagued his childhood echoed in his mind: “Mama's boy.” That's what his friends called him whenever they saw him cling to his mother, his fist clutching the end of her sari. “The boy needs a father,” he'd heard his relatives whisper among themselves. “Mama's boy,” they'd called him, although they did so with affection. That day, walking away from the Pashupatinath Temple with his wife, he wondered whether his muscles were so constricted, and his body so closed, because he'd watched the world for so long from behind his mother's sari.
On his way home from work the next evening, he saw women in brilliant saris walking with their husbands, strolling down the street or rushing to keep appointments. It was the time of Indra Jatra festival, the eight-day festival in honor of Lord Indra, the ruler of heaven. Eons ago, Lord Indra had come down to the valley in disguise to steal scented white parijat flowers for his mother's annual fasting ritual. The powerful god was apprehended by the people of the Kathmandu Valley, bound with rope, and thrown in jail. Only after Indra's mother descended from heaven in search of her missing son did the valley inhabitants realize what they had done. As an apology, they initiated a great festival in his honor. They donned masks and danced, acted out folk dramas, and marched in celebratory processions. Everywhere around him, Ganesh saw people's faces filled with joy and excitement. He knew he should have enjoyed that excitement; instead, he felt as if a giant bird had descended from the sky and spread a shadow over the city.
Ganesh was in bed by the time his wife came home, and her cool skin startled him. Her petticoat brushed against him, her perfume wafted around him. Humming a tune, she played with his hair. After her breathing slowed, he slid out of bed and quietly went downstairs.
In the kitchen he turned on the lights, opened the cupboard, and poured himself a shot of the strong local liquor. The drink burned his throat. Under his breath he sang the song she had been humming. The warmth of the liquor spread to his thighs. He put on his coat and trudged down the stairs to the street. The knowledge that she was upstairs, unaware of his absence, filled him with excitement. The cloudless sky, the cold, shimmering stars, granted him a strange freedom, an expansion that came to him as a release in his lungs.
Just as he was walking beneath the clock tower in the city's center, it began to chime. Looking up, he discovered that it was three o'clock in the morning.
He climbed over the fence surrounding the Queen's Pond, took off his clothes, and dived in, not caring whether a police squad would approach. The chill of water invigorated him as he waded through the lilies floating on top. He wondered how long it would take, if he allowed himself to sink, for the water to fill his lungs. He thought of monsters with long tentacles that supposedly lived at the bottom, and he imagined them tearing into his flesh. Would his wife be able to recognize his body?
He heard the clock tower ring out four times, and he swam to the edge. When he reached his house and slipped under the bed covers, she murmured but didn't wake up.
Sunlight assailed his eyes when he woke the next morning. The late-morning heat on his bed had made him sweat, and his pajamas were sticking to the hairs on his chest. He reached for his cigarettes and lit one, propped up a pillow, and leaned against it. The light of day made last night's swim seem almost unreal.
When he turned the latch to the balcony door, he heard a steady thump-thump-thump. His wife was down in the courtyard, near the tap, beating a bundle of clothes against the cement slab. A few women stood close to her, talking, waiting to fill their pitchers. A small girl, her thumb in her mouth, watched his wife's movements while clinging to her mother, a widow who lived in the house opposite. He suddenly imagined climbing over the railing and letting himself fall down the four stories, his clothes swirling upward as the air pressed against them, the sensation of dropping underneath a clear, well-lit sky, the little girl spotting him in midair and excitedly reaching for her mother, her mother slowly turning her head, and, finally, splat, his consciousness fading, his wife's horror as the tap water steadily gushed into a brass pitcher.
Now his wife looked up and, seeing him lean against the railing, shouted, “The railing is weak!” He moved back a step and noticed the bald man across the courtyard watching them, the muscles on his arms protruding as his elbows rested on the window bar. The man smiled and nodded.
Ganesh quickly left the balcony.
He went to the cupboard and found a large black-and-white framed picture of their wedding, his wife looking directly at the camera, as if trying to stare it down. He looked happy; his head was tilted to one side, the beginning of a smile on his lips. It occurred to him that she may not have been happy on their wedding day; perhaps she had secretly wanted to marry another man, someone with more money, better looks, a prestigious family.
As he set the wedding picture back in the cupboard, his fingers brushed against another picture, one of his mother. He took it out. She was standing on the footsteps of a temple, which he recognized as Boudhha, the city's Buddhist temple, where hundreds of pilgrims congregated each day. It was an old photograph, probably taken right after he was born; the paper had yellowed at the corners. His mother was looking directly at the camera, the same way his wife had done. Maybe that's what women do, he thought. The photograph of his mother reminded him of people in the neighborhood whispering, when Ganesh was young, that he was the child of her union with her lover, not with his father. Throughout his childhood he had been haunted by an image of this so-called lover: a thin man with stick-like arms, sad eyes, and an aloof manner. One day when he was seven, he'd asked his mother whether she knew a tall man with sad eyes, and she had, with curiosity, scanned his face, then ruffled his hair and said no. He watched for such a man in his neighborhood and at the carnivals his mother took him to, carnivals with games and swings and giant wheels, but no one resembled the image that returned to him, again and again.
His wife cooked lunch, and while they ate, she brought up the wedding. “The tent was huge,” she said. “It could have held a thousand guests, but there were only about a hundred. A woman was wearing a necklace with thirteen – no, twelve – big diamonds. Imagine wearing that! What a burden on your neck, and the fear you'd have while you wore it. A man there asked about you, said his office is down the hall from yours; he does the revenues or something like that.”
She talked of the evening as though assured of his interest. Her words filled his mind so that his own thoughts clamored for room. In time, he grew angry and shifted his feet. Tm not hungry,” he said and walked out of the room and down the stairs.
His head throbbed with anger. She hadn't even asked what he'd done while she was away last evening. He felt humiliated. Outside, he took to the small road and alleys, with no direction in mind. He imagined going to his friend's house, standing beside the bed, where his friend would be reading a silly magazine, and declaring, “My wife is having an affair.” Of course he didn't know whether that was true, but he wanted to reach the truth, no matter what it was, even through a lie.
The streets were crowded, and brightly dressed children chased one another through the throngs of people. In Durbar Square, Ganesh came upon a group of people playing drums and cymbals. A small boy, his face painted white, taunted a large man wearing a mask with wide, thick Hps and large, glaring eyes. Peacock feathers rose from the back of his head, and frills on the seams of his vest flew in every direction as he waved his arms in circles. The little boy danced near the man and made faces at him. The masked man, also dancing, attempted to strike the boy – whether as an act or in real anger, it was hard to tell – at which point the music reached a crescendo and then resumed its normal beat. The masked man swooned with the powers of a deity, and the onlookers gave him wide berth.
Ganesh leaned against the side of a house and watched. People appeared at windows, and the crowd around the performers thickened. Every time the boy's darting figure came close to the masked man, the spectators let out a collective gasp, and drums threatened to crack the narrow sky above. And every time the boy approached the man, Ganesh clearly saw the boy's apprehension, the danger, the thrill of being so close to a deity whose slap could send him sprawling across the brick street. When the boy escaped punishment, however, Ganesh watched the masked dancer, saw his humiliation, the lack of appreciation from the crowd, the maddening fury of his not being able to silence the teaser.
At one point the masked man, his legs apart for a second's break in rhythm, threw a wild look right at Ganesh, who flattened himself against the wall like a shadow, a thrill running through his limbs.
She waited for him, circles under her eyes, at the front of the house and demanded to know why he'd walked out like that, where he'd gone. “Everything is all right,” he said. “It's just that lately my heart's been restless.” He went inside and lay on his bed.
She came and set a serving of dal-bhat on the side table, then put her hand on his chest, as if to calm his heart. “What's wrong?” she asked. “Is everything all right at work?”
He nodded and closed his eyes. Her hand on his chest felt good, but he feared that if he let it stay there, he would feel even weaker, so he got up and rubbed his eyes. “I'm hungry,” he said and lifted the plate. He ate quickly, and realized only after he'd finished that she was not eating with him.
That night, after he was sure she was asleep, he draped a shawl around his back and moved to the balcony. The big moon hung above the courtyard. There was a light in the bald man's window, but the curtains were drawn. Ganesh could see a figure, fading and reappearing, and he sat on the cold floor of the balcony. The figure moved about the room, its silhouette becoming clear, then disappearing.
He awoke, just before dawn, with the chirping of birds, to discover that his feet were cold. Shivering, he went back to bed.
In the morning, she asked for some money so that she could go to the market. He reached into his pocket and quietly handed her a fifty-rupee note. She said, “But I also need to buy rice and kerosene.” He pulled out another fifty-rupee note.
That evening, when he came home from work, the stove was empty, and she was nowhere to be found. There was a musty smell in their bedroom, as if someone else had been there. His body grew limp, and he sat on the bed.
Ganesh went to a bar with his friend. They squeezed themselves onto a bench in a corner, ordered rum and spicy minced buff, and talked of work, colleagues, the city, and food. The other conversations in the room buzzed like flies near their ears. Soon, Ganesh's head started to float.
“So, how is your wife?” the friend asked, chuckling.
“She has a lover,” Ganesh said, attempting to be grave, but somehow laughter rose from his throat. His friend stared at him for a moment; then he, too, broke into a smile. They both fell into a fit, stamping their feet and spilling drinks on the table. And suddenly, as if the laughter had been a necessary prelude, Ganesh found himself crying. The customers stared in his direction, and the owner came over to ask whether he was all right.
Ganesh simply shook his head and repeated, “How could she do this?”
After he calmed down, he and his friend talked about the festival of Dashain, only a few weeks away, when they would slaughter goats as sacrifice to appease the Goddess Durga. “I wonder how many of them I can slaughter,” Ganesh said. “The last time, I killed four before I had enough” The friend called for more drinks.
“I can't drink anymore,” Ganesh said. His stomach was burning, and the room had become hazy.
“Mama's boy,” his friend said, laughing. “I thought you were stronger than this.”
“Don't call me that.”
“What? You're a mama's boy.”
“Really?” he said. “You want to see how much I can drink?” He asked the owner to bring another jar of the local liquor, and he drank, his eyes on his friend, who was now having a hard time keeping up with him. “So, who's a mama's boy?” he said. “Huh? Tell me, bastard.” His throat and his belly were on fire, but he kept drinking and needling his friend, who finally said, “All right, all right. I take it back.”
The hours passed, and they were the only customers in the bar, so they staggered out, clapping each other's back and singing songs of friendship. The street lights shone on them, exposing their delirious faces. When they saw a wedding procession on the way home, they joined the crowd, dancing behind the band.
His wife didn't bring him tea the next morning, and Ganesh staggered to the window. There she was, in the courtyard, talking to the bald man, whose back was turned toward him. Ganesh waited, his head throbbing from last night's alcohol. The man laughed and his wife followed suit, covering her mouth with her hand. She called to one of the kids playing in the courtyard and pointed at the man, who shook his head vigorously and laughed again. Ganesh retreated. He went to the bedroom, where he found some aspirin, and swallowed them without water.
Later, when she came inside, he was lying on the bed, his face toward the wall. She sang in the kitchen, and he listened, trying to detect a new tone, a foreign melody.
She appeared with a glass of tea. “Isn't it time to wake up now?” she asked him.
He glanced at his watch; it was nearly time to go to the office.
On the bus his mind kept replaying the courtyard scene, and with each repetition he felt tiny stabs in his stomach. He tried to tell himself that she had merely been talking to the man, but an aura of secrecy, of deceit, surrounded the scene, and he could picture them kissing on the bald man's bed, her fingers feeling his muscles.
At work his friend approached and said, “It was fun last night, eh? I haven't drunk like that in a long time, not since last year's festival.” He paused. “What happened? Was your wife angry?”
Ganesh shrugged his shoulders.
“She'll be all right,” the friend said. “By the time you get home.”
That evening Ganesh went by the pond on the way home. He shivered; it was hard to believe that he actually dived into that dirty water the other night.
It was dark when he reached his house. Walking through the courtyard, he nearly bumped into someone. It was the bald man, his muscular arms shining in the light coming from one of the windows. Ganesh thought, He's going to kill me. The man's voice floated toward him in the dark: “I know your wife.”
Ganesh couldn't see the man's face; it was half in shadow. “I saw you together,” Ganesh eventually said. “Laughing.” He walked up the stairs to his apartment.
His wife met him at the door. “Who was that man? Was he drunk?”
He answered, “Your lover.”
“Don't joke. Who was he?”
“No joke,” he said. “You should have told me.”
She turned and walked to the kitchen, and he followed her. “How long has this been going on?” His breath was stuck high in his throat.
Her back to him, she began slicing tomatoes.
“It doesn't matter now,” he said, his hands shaking. “I won't get angry. I won't shout at you. I'll let you do whatever you want. That way, I may get some peace.”
She uttered a sharp 'Aiya” and put her index finger in her mouth. He went to her, pried out the finger, and inspected it. The cut was small, right above the second joint. He fetched the rubbing alcohol and patted her wound. She. didn't look at his face but watched the cut with growing dismay.
“Here. I'll slice the tomatoes,” he said.
“You are jealous, suspicious. You think I have a lover?”
“I don't know,” he said. “I really don't know.” He waited for her to say something.
“Would you kill him if you thought he was my lover?”
“Who? The man downstairs?”
She seemed exasperated. “No, no,” she said. “My lover, any lover.” Something occurred to her. “Who was that man downstairs?”
He didn't answer her and finished cutting the tomatoes.
Dust rose inside the bus, tiny particles glittering in the afternoon sun. The bus lurched toward its destination, the temple of the Goddess Durga on the outskirts of the city. His wife was asleep, her head resting against the window. In front of them sat a man with four hens, their feet tied together. With every jolt, the hens tried to rise in the air, cackling insanely, sending feathers floating up and down the length of the bus. The kohl on his wife's eyelids trickled down her cheeks. Ganesh smiled and stretched his legs. He looked forward to the ceremony at the temple, where his relatives would ask him to kill goats because he was good at it. And Ganesh would hoist the khukri knife high in the air, its sharpened edge glinting in the dusk, amid the appreciative cries of the onlookers.
Another vision came to him. He was sitting in the middle of a field, his mother in her petticoat leaning over him, smiling and whispering. Blood was running down his nose, soaking the front of his shirt, trickling down his thighs and into the earth, where his friend was waiting with an open tongue. Then his wife leaped out of a photograph and shook her finger at him, and the dancing bald man had a face that looked much like his own. Everything grew silent, a bird cried – and he opened his eyes and looked around. The bus had stopped, caught in a traffic jam.
He was tired, as if he'd been walking for a long time. He woke up his wife.
“What?” she said, her eyes bleary, sweat like dew above her upper lip.
“I'm not sure,” he said.
“Whether I can kill a goat today.”
She searched his face. “What's the matter? You've never complained before.”
The hens once again rose in the air and sprayed them with feathers.
“Look,” he said. He lifted his hands. They were shaking.
She picked a feather from his head and ruffled his hair. Then she dabbed the sweat on his cheeks with the end of her sari. 'You don't have to kill a goat if you don't want to.”
Her hand on his face felt good. “But what will everyone say? They will laugh at me.”
“Who cares?” she said. “What can it do to us?” His eyes closed; he felt her lips brush against his cheek. “My mama's boy,” she whispered. “My sweet, sweet mama's boy.” Now her lips were nibbling at his ear, and he opened his eyes. The man with the hens was staring at them, and he felt embarrassed, but he didn't stop her; her words were soothing.
The bus came to a stop. They got out, clutching the bundles of rice and fruit they had brought to offer the gods. In front of them was a large field filled with cars and trucks, and, in the distance, the temple's pagoda.
As they joined the crowd moving toward the temple, some of Ganesh's fatigue vanished. He stopped to take off his shoes; the grass felt good beneath his feet. He shifted the bundle of rice he was carrying, and as they walked on, he touched his wife's hand with his free hand. She looked at his face quizzically, then took his hand in hers. The sky was bright blue, and the sun shone on their faces. The temple bells sounded, a clear ding-dong that reverberated inside his body, then expanded into their surroundings.
As the crowd around them chanted songs praising the Mother Goddess, he briefly thought of his wife's lover, but in this crowd, with its fervent devotion, the man had become inconsequential, faceless, dissolving into the crowd in which Ganesh was moving.
From “Arresting God in Kathmandu”, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
© Samrat Upadhyay, 2001