© Divya Adusumilli
Khem K Aryal
For the first couple of days after landing in Kathmandu, Lokraj seemed to be proud of his displacement. While his mother, his wife, and their two daughters continued to pray—back home in the outskirts of Nepalgunj—that the Maoists would not rough up the womenfolk for God’s sake, Lokraj bragged in front of street-level party activists that he’d been forced to leave his village because of Maoists rebels. As if being displaced were an accomplishment, he boasted, “I’m Lokraj from Nepalgunj, I’m a displaced”; “I have a rice mill in Nepalgunj, I’m a displaced.” It seemed as if he were showing his missing enemies his worth: See, I’m displaced, too. Fuck! When would the Maoists ever force his poor neighbor, the nondescript Tikey Badi, to leave his village? Why would the rebels fight against his other neighbor, Dayaram, who struggled day and night to make ends meet? Yes, his cousin brother Jagannath and a few other extended families could have been forced to leave the village had they not already migrated to Kathmandu. But not those poor villagers. As if his displacement had made him equal to his relatives who’d done better than himself, Lokraj seemed to celebrate it. Nothing gave him as much pleasure as standing outside Gulmeli Teashop on an early January morning, a steaming glass of lemon tea in his hands, and commenting on national politics—“King Gyanendra’s stupidity will cost him big”; “Maoist terrorists ruined the country”— always adding at the end, “I’m a displaced.”
This folly didn’t last long, though. A week after he’d left his village, his wife urged him on the phone to return home without delay. The Maoists were threatening to raise their demand if he continued to evade them. As he hung up the phone and entered his hotel room, Lokraj thought what the rebels could’ve done to him had he really spied on them for the government forces. He sat on his bed in his ten feet by ten feet by ten feet room of the Kantipur Guesthouse and stared at the charred spots on the covers. “M o t h e r f u c k e r s!” he said, his eyes wide open. Why would he pay the sons of whores one million rupees to acquit him of a crime that he never committed? They had intelligence that he’d spied against the rebels? How mean a trick! How dishonest. How ungrateful. Where did their fathers’ katto that he’d given them all those years go?
He stroked his balding scalp and sighed. He could possibly pay the rebels one million rupees, he thought. He could take some loan. He could sell half his land. Or do something instead of risking his own and his family’s safety.
But no. One million rupees! On top of what he’d paid them all those years. How could he be certain that they’d leave him alone after he paid them this time?
His second week in Kathmandu: Lokraj met with Neta-ji, the leader who had represented his constituency until King Gyanendra had scrapped the parliament two years ago. He pleaded for help to avoid paying the rebels, and the leader assured him they’d fight against the Maoists together. Lokraj telephoned Jagannath but ended up just telling him he was on a visit to Kathmandu and he wouldn’t perhaps have the time to visit the cousin’s place. He visited a party office in Balkhu, hoping that he might see some people who could help him. He had, after all, worked for the party until a few years ago. But he was discouraged by the unfamiliar faces and a squad of young men who looked more like street fighters than party workers. He called on a couple of relatives who’d moved to Kathmandu to provide their children with a better education—their version of the story, when in fact they’d moved to the capital to avoid Maoist extortion—and there he ended up just congratulating them for their comfortable lives that they boasted of.
As he wandered the streets of Kathmandu, the rebels increased their demand to two million. In another couple of days, they captured his land and announced that they’d now distribute it to the poor, obviously to the people like Tikey Badi.
A gust of wind surged into his room before a windowpane hit hard on the frame and closed. The frosty water on the windowpane with a layer of dust on the outside and stains of sputum and what looked like traces of snot and speckles of chewing tobacco on the inside broke randomly into pathless trickles. Behind the windowpane the sun, blurred by the fog, looked like a reluctant traveler to a hopeless afternoon. You never know life’s intricacies. You don’t know what it’s got in store for you until you get it. You can only do so much. Beyond that you are only a puppet, a puppet in the hands of dark forces.
His index finger scratched a stubborn stain that occupied half of a white square in the checkered bed sheet. It felt cold and dirty. He withdrew his hand and looked around the room with a vague desire to wash the finger. The room was empty except for his travel bag in a corner, his shirt, a pair of trousers and a sweater that needed washing, a pair of slippers that lay beside the door—he didn’t want them there (after using them in the toilet) but he was not allowed to leave them outside; he’d tossed his Nike shoes under the bed—and the bed itself, a twin-size, too short for his height. At night he had a hard time making sure the blanket covered the undersides of his feet.
He kneaded his finger on the bed. And as if suddenly aware of his too self-conscious moves, he briskly positioned the pillow against the wall—the blue paint peeling off at places and showing the white primer—and reclined, his stretched feet covering the ugly stain and the scorched spots, like renouncing their existence. The Maoists were playing a dirty game, he thought. He claimed he didn’t support their politics, but he’d donated to them numerous times. He’d sympathized with the rebels that they were fighting against those who he thought he was fighting until a few years before as a party activist, and against those relatives who regarded his father—disowned by his grandfather because he’d married a lower caste woman—as a disgraced man. But how could an idealist coating justify violence? He saw what exactly was wrong. Violence hurts when it occurs at your doorstep, and the romance of rebellion dies a miserable death when you’re at the receiving end of the sword’s blade. Only when it’s waged in a distant land does war sound valorous, or in a story. Lokraj knew his vulnerability; war had arrived at his doorstep.
That morning Lokraj felt an involuntary affinity with a young woman he’d first seen at Gulmeli Teashop on the first day he visited the teashop. In response to a suggestion made by the teashop owner she’d said, “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced? You go file a complaint, they’ll rape you, instead!” But he’d neglected her as no business of his. He’d seen her a couple of times since then, but he hadn’t cared. He’d believed that he was different; he could still work his way out. But that morning when he saw her again, he felt like approaching her, listening to her stories, and sharing his own. Also, he felt a strange sensation in his body—he needed human warmth. A fucking displaced! Her aura had stimulated Lokraj in such odd ways that he knew he wouldn’t be able to look at her eyes for many days to come.
That very afternoon Lokraj chanted slogans in a protest rally in Ratnapark—Reinstate the parliament! Down with dictatorship. The rally was protesting King Gyanendra’s takeover of the country’s executive power, and it gave Lokraj a much-needed refuge; it gave him an illusion of a protest against the Maoists. As he flowed with the crowd, he was convinced that he was doing something of worth.
Lokraj was still deep in his indulgence when the protest rally advanced toward the Royal Palace and the riot police started charging with batons. The slogans changed into desperate calls to flee, to attack the dictator’s agents, to smack the sons of whores, to kill the motherfuckers, and lengthy promises of vengeance as the protesters retreated into Kathmandu’s narrow alleys.
Lokraj squeezed himself into a corner of a momo-shop, a local dumplings restaurant, and, by depressing his guts and raising his shoulders so that he could tilt his head in the midst of the crowd, he examined his body. His limbs still shook, and his heartbeat felt like it was pushing its way out of his ears. But he was unscathed. Assured, he glanced at Neta-ji, who’d convinced him that the only way of solving the nation’s problems was forcing the king to surrender to the political parties. The leader stood triumphantly beside him despite a bump on his forehead. A young man at his side looked at him apologetically, as if he himself had hit Neta-ji.
“We’re going to win this battle!” Neta-ji said.
Lokraj’s face displayed hope rather than conviction.
“Only our party can cure the country’s ills!” the leader said as he inspected the faces of other demonstrators who’d swarmed the momo-shop despite the owner’s effort to block them out.
Lokraj was hopeful.
When the streets returned to normal—the police taking to the corners, a few three-wheelers readying themselves for passengers, and pedestrians returning to their natural pace—the protesters walked out of the restaurant and dispersed. The protest was over for the day; they would assemble at the same place tomorrow.
Lokraj followed Neta-ji. He hoped to convince the leader that his problem was really serious and it needed immediate attention. He started by clarifying his conviction that Neta-ji was always ready to help his constituents and that he never doubted the leader’s intention, nor his ability to do something for him. But even before Lokraj could touch upon his point, Neta-ji expressed his confidence that the king would very soon surrender to the political parties, and his party would hold the country’s reign. Then everything would change for good. The Maoists would no longer be a problem.
But the protests were going nowhere, and the Maoists continued to intensify their operations. “Neta-ji,” Lokraj pleaded with the leader at the end of his third week in Kathmandu, “today the rebels ordered my mill closed, forcing my assistant to join them. How long can I wait? When will the government act?”
“I know, I know,” said Neta-ji. “We will succeed one day.”
It was only after this that Lokraj visited his cousin brother. “What the hell is wrong with asking an able relative for help?” his wife had insisted. But he wouldn’t tell Jagannath about his problem yet. Oh, this Jagannath! There’s no way he can help me. He’ll rather laugh at my condition.
At an early age, Lokraj had been made aware of the differences between himself and Jagannath and other kids born into the family. While Jagannath lived in the three-story building of his grandfather, Lokraj lived in his single-story house at the edge of the land that his grandfather had afforded his father. Everybody treated Jagannath as the prince of the family, but Lokraj was often reminded of the “disgrace” of his parents. Lokraj wouldn’t even be allowed to enter the house until one day the old man showed pity on him, saying, “Stop punishing the boy for his father’s recklessness!”
Only then had the kid started becoming somebody. His charming personality quickly won favors for him—some gossiped that the cross between two castes always produced good-looking kids, though it was not something to be desired.
Jagannath, on the other hand, was a boy who even Lokraj doubted would ever become a man. He was short and thin, almost malnourished despite every effort of his mother to fatten him up, and his jawbones seemed to be pushing out even at an early age (now they made his face look like a disfigured triangle). As a student, Lokraj had fun bullying him. Jagannath was a less than mediocre student, and when he’d said in class that he wanted to become a hakim in future, a government officer, everybody had laughed.
It felt like just yesterday. Now, although Jagannath had in fact become an officer, lived in his own house in Kathmandu, and was said to have good connections, too, Lokraj was not sure with what gravity to vouchsafe his worry. Sipping on thin milk tea, he said at last, “The Maoists ordered my mill closed,” and waited.
The detail didn’t seem to bother Jagannath at all. What the hell? Lokraj then told him everything in one breath—from the way he struggled after his father’s death to how the Maoists ended up capturing his land and ordering his mill closed, and his wandering in Kathmandu. By the time he finished his story, his eyes were wet.
“I didn’t know you were such a great fool, brother,” Jagannath said. “Coordinate with Ramesh Silwal instead of rallying behind Neta-ji.”
“What’s there to coordinate with Silwal, a displaced like me?” asked Lokraj. “He’s also wandering the streets begging for help.”
“Yes, but he’s the leader of the displaced,” Jagannath replied. “Coordinate with him; you may receive a few hundred rupees of displacement allowance every week.”
Lokraj’s lips trembled. Then the words came out: “Do you believe I’m here expecting a few hundred rupees from the government? My land has been captured, my business has been closed, and my family is in danger, the rebels want me to pay them millions of rupees, and you tell me I’ll get a few hundred rupees a week? Do you think I’m here asking for alms?”
The cousin smirked. “You expect the government to send troops to save your land?”
Lokraj asked what the hell the government was doing to protect its people from Maoist atrocities. He name-called Prachanda, the rebel leader, Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, and then King Gyanendra. “The head eunuch,” he christened the king.
“Hey, hey, no defaming the King, okay? He’s the one who’ll save the country, okay?” Jagannath blurted. Then he turned to the kitchen and yelled, “Hey, look at our miller cousin. Look at our miller cousin! He wants King Gyanendra to send troops to save his property. Look at him! Look at him!”
Jagannath’s two sons giggled in the kitchen. One of them said, “The miller uncle seems to be interesting. How could the Maoists be so cruel to him?”
More giggles followed. Lokraj started taking off his shirt as if in protest. The white underclothes he wore displayed traces of sweat.
“I’ve asked Silwal to coordinate with the displaced. All the support goes out through him,” Jagannath said.
Lokraj grabbed his shirt and stared at the floor, unsure if he’d heard Jagannath correctly. But he didn’t want to ask him for clarification; he never thought an ass like this cousin would one day be in a position to help him out, and he was correct.
But it turned out, as a government official Jagannath had been charged by the head of a small unit at the Home Ministry with listening to the grievances of the displaced and supporting them to survive the cold winter of Kathmandu and, as Lokraj could understand it even if Jagannath didn’t say it specifically, covertly instigating people against the rebels. Silwal, a self-appointed leader of the people forced to leave their villages and small towns, had become his de facto liaison.
“You know I can’t deal myself with every displaced person,” Jagannath said, as if he were shouldering all the responsibilities of all the victims of the bloody conflict.
Lokraj refused to dine at his cousin’s. He grabbed his bag and said, leaving, “I’ll figure out if I can do something myself. You’ve become too important to help me.”
“I have reports that you supported the Maoists. Why this drama now?” Jagannath said as Lokraj got out.
It felt like a dream to Lokraj that he’d once revolted against his own family and fought against the king’s totalitarian regime. It wasn’t long ago, but things had changed so much. It was humiliating to be asking for Jagannath’s favor.
Lokraj had a plain naan and mixed vegetables at Lumbini Tanduri Restaurant near the prime minister’s office, and when he found a hotel near the Bhimsen Tower in Sundhara—not even trying to get a room at Kantipur guesthouse, where he’d stayed before—it was ten at night. Tired and dejected, he wished for the sky to fall and crash on everything that gave an illusion of justice in the world. He was so ready to be part of that force.
The sky didn’t fall. Instead, a teenage boy had forced his door open. “Dai, you need something?” he asked. “Only one thousand, dai,” he continued, as Lokraj took a few seconds to think if he really needed anything. “Okay, seven hundred. Five for her and two for this poor brother,” the boy bargained. “It’s hard to do this business, dai. The sons of whores are always preying on us.”
Lokraj wished it were the widow, the “fucking displaced.” But she happened to be a teenager—thin, almost malnourished, and poorly clad—and the encounter ended miserably. As soon as Lokraj uttered a few words, she said he spoke like her big brother who—she said—hoped she’d one day become a big, big singer. Had the brother not joined the Maoists and been killed by the army, she lamented, she wouldn’t have to work in a garment factory that paid her so little, forcing her to sell her flesh to survive in the city. She threw herself into Lokraj’s lap and wept, our Lokraj staring in the air like an embattled hero left alone with a dying princess.
After she left with her money, Lokraj looked out the window, as if to shake her off of his thoughts, yet another character in the harrowing story of the Maoist war.
Across the street were a few restaurants with neon lights flashing. At the entrance of each restaurant was a brightly lit signboard that said either “dance restaurant and bar” or dohori sanjh, restaurants for traditional folk songs mixed with alcohol and, as the night matured, occasional sex deals—as he’d heard, and it seemed quite plausible now. In the street there was a consistent commotion—cars, taxis, and motorbikes dropping off or picking up people. At one point, a young man and a girl briefly scuffled, and another man forced her into a taxi. Lokraj continued to observe, puzzled. It was hard to believe that he was in the same country where people were being displaced from their houses and villages and cities each and every night, in the same country where fighting was a ritual and the number of the dead was growing day and night. Untouched by those calamities, Kathmandu was feasting just fine.
The following morning, Lokraj told his wife over the phone that he was meeting with important people in Kathmandu, and he would return home soon. “Just tell them I’ll be home as soon as I manage my money.”
After he hung up, he spent a long time in the small cubicle from which he’d phoned home. He picked up the old phone book and flipped its pages, looking over the names and numbers without a particular person in mind. Some names in the book had become so old that he didn’t even recognize them—where might all those people have gone? He recalled some of his old friends with whom he had fallen out of touch, especially after his marriage. It felt as if they had different routes and different destinations. They had progressed and made names, while he’d been stuck as a miller. It was especially painful that so many of them were his inferiors, including that ass of a cousin.
The more he scanned through the phone book, the ruddier his face turned, and he became restless. How come everybody was fighting and progressing, but he was looking for somebody to have pity on him? It had just been a few years since he’d bullied many of them, but now he seemed to be a real coward. Even the ones who owned nothing were fighting and living with dignity—who were the rebels, after all? They were now dictating to him, a man who had once fought against the king himself.
Lokraj found the cubicle to be too small for him. He pressed himself into a corner so that he could open the door and step out.
“The Maoists have ruined the country. We need to fight,” he said to the shopkeeper, paying for the calls he had made.
“Is that it, dai?” the young man at the counter asked, as if he didn’t know anything. But the dismissal in his tone was apparent.
“Why? Can’t you see that? They’ve ruined the entire country,” Lokraj said.
“It goes like this, dai. Whoever has the stick owns the buffalo—no comment!” said the young fellow, his face displaying the arrogance of an upstart.
Lokraj didn’t agree. How could the young man be so indifferent to the plights of the people? “That is irresponsible as a citizen,” he said.
Those words unnerved the salesman; he shut his lips tight, counting money.
“You want to fight the rebels the army is fighting? With your bare hands?” he asked, handing Lokraj the change. “Okay, go and become a martyr. All the best!”
Lokraj stepped out, regretting how coldhearted the Kathmanduites had become. The country was burning, people were being killed or displaced, but the capital city continued to play its flute.
That afternoon he didn’t participate in the Ratnapark protest. Instead, he went straight to meet with Silwal at Bajeko Sekuwa, a small barbecue restaurant near the airport.
“I’m serious about it, Silwal-ji,” Lokraj said.
“Serious about what?” Silwal asked, munching mutton barbeque.
“About the fight. We must resist the rebels,” Lokraj said.
Silwal chewed for a while more and said, “Anti-Maoist protestors are being attacked everywhere. You know that, don’t you?”
“But it’s the capital city!”
“You think Kathmandu is clean?” Silwal said, putting down his beer glass. “They are everywhere. They may be right here in this restaurant.”
It had a numbing effect on Lokraj. For a moment he forgot why he’d come to Kathmandu in the first place. Then he realized that the situation had already gone out of his control. At what cost would the Maoists allow him to return home and do his business? He recalled Neta-ji, who’d asked him the last time they met, “Do you think the rebels will allow you to return to the village?” When Lokraj replied he’d done nothing wrong, Neta-ji had asked, “Then why had you run away from the village?” Lokraj had replied that Neta-ji already knew it, but the leader had said, “The rebels don’t want you in the village, comrade. They’ve done everything according to their plan.” “I’m doomed,” Lokraj had said. “No, not yet!” Neta-ji had declared, and said that they’d continue to fight.
Continue to fight! As if the country knew only fighting, nothing else. Everybody talked about fighting. The Maoists were fighting, the proclaimed fighters. The political parties were fighting. The king was fighting. And people were fighting either from this or that camp.
“Aren’t you afraid of incarceration, Silwal-ji?” Lokraj asked, wondering at the relaxed Silwal, the so-called leader of the displaced, who was supposed to be organizing the people like himself against the rebels, but he would only guess about rebels sitting in the same restaurant where he was drinking beer. Lokraj lowered his head and chewed mutton sekuwa and puffed rice, occasionally biting on pickled ginger to help his mouth water. Silwal for him embodied yet another mysterious face of the city. What was Lokraj actually doing by opening up his heart to this Silwal? Silwal so far had been just one more displaced person in the city, struggling to find a way out of Maoist threat in the village, like himself. But now he seemed to be much more than that. He looked comfortable, and easily accepted the Maoist presence around himself.
“Killing me will have bigger consequences. They know it,” Silwal said, still calm. “They don’t want to provoke the government and rights activists too much, just like the government doesn’t want to provoke them unnecessarily.”
Lokraj’s heart sank. The deaths of different people meant different things. Who’d care if a nondescript Lokraj died that very evening? In Silwal’s equation the people like Lokraj carried no value. That was the politics of the day—you’d become either a self-appointed leader who commands the fate of the mass at his will or a nondescript follower whose needs and aspirations are trampled by the leaders’ ambitions. There was such a huge disparity between being a leader and being a follower.
Silwal was proudly speaking from the position of a leader, no matter whether the displaced acknowledged him or not. And Lokraj? He had spent a few days protesting for Neta-ji, in Ratnapark, and now here was another leader to follow.
This was not who Lokraj had been.
His parents’ effort—by sending him to a college in Kathmandu after he’d passed the SLC exam—to make him a “big man” and not to let him fall behind Jagannath had failed. He had been forced to return to Nepalgunj when the Amrit Campus, where he’d been enrolled, closed as part of the state’s effort to contain the student protests against Julfiker Bhutto’s execution in Pakistan. He’d then joined a local college—wasting hard-earned money by sending him to Kathmandu didn’t look quite right at that time.
As the country prepared for the referendum on the country’s political future that the 1979 student protest had resulted in, his campus became more a political theater than an educational institution, like most other colleges in the country. Lokraj bunked classes, mobilized local boys, and distributed pamphlets in favor of multiparty democracy, despite his grandfather’s insistence that the King, not communists, knew what was good for the country and its people. After the king won the 1980 referendum, Lokraj found himself working for an underground party. He gave up his studies and continued to work for the party despite his father’s continual pleadings—for the sake of his grandfather—that he stopped the nonsense. Lokraj replied that he’d already glimpsed the rays of democracy, and he couldn’t turn back. His parents hoped that he’d become a family man after his marriage, but he continued to think that he was doing something important, something that no Jagannath could ever do. Lokraj maintained this political affiliation until King Birendra conceded his defeat in 1990, when the party activists swarmed into Bhadrakali’s house, forced the octogenarian out into the yard, smeared his face in soot mixed with mustard oil, and took him around the town on the back of a starving mule, a garland of worn-out shoes around his neck.
The old man didn’t survive beyond a month after that humiliation. Even his father, who’d lived the last three decades with a deep chasm between himself and his father and a never-ending want for fatherly warmth—on top of the disgrace he was living with—showed signs of resignation that would end his life soon. Lokraj’s family implied that he was responsible for all the disgrace in the family, and some neighbors blamed his second daughter, born the week his father died, for the death. His mother wouldn’t tell him a word, but the silence of a widowed mother couldn’t be more troublesome. On top of that, the same democracy brought nothing but corrupt leaders, lawlessness, and chaos. He was effectively silenced as soon as multiparty democracy was restored in the country.
All those years wasted in the name of democracy, and he’d been left with nothing but the land that his father had preserved for him, while Jagannath had continued his studies and “progressed.” Hence, one day, he’d decided to settle for a mill, something regarded as progressive by the standard of those days. At age thirty-three, he had two daughters—one five and the other three years of age—and his widowed mother to care for. He was now a family guy stuck in his small world. When the Maoists launched the armed rebellion in 1996, Lokraj was busy making sure that his mill husked rice properly.
With the mill closed now and all the hopes of getting any assistance to stay safe back home and do his business dwindling, he decided that he’d now fight his own war. He’d not just follow Silwal, but become his co-traveler. He’d rather lead.
If Silwal could, why couldn’t Lokraj?
The small park in Baneshwor was full of people making the best of the winter sun and killing time. Young men had spread newspapers, Union Jacks, and American Flags on the scalded ground and sat on them. Some reached out their hands and plucked whatever grass remained nearby, as if they were weeding the park. Some ground with their thumb and index fingers the leaves that they plucked from the small pine plants. Some broke peanut pods and threw the shells around themselves. On the pavement along the park, a couple of barefooted children kicked a stuffed sock—their soccer ball—and shouted obscenities.
Lokraj waded through the men and women, placed a wooden chair, which a teenage boy carried for him, in the middle of the park, hopped onto it, and clapped his hands as an invitation to listen to him.
A few pairs of hands clapped after his, like spectators of a magician’s street show.
Then Lokraj began his speech: “Respected mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters!”
He paused, looked around, and corrected himself, “Respected brothers and sisters!” Then continued, “The country has been crippled. People have been killed; people have been forced to flee their homes, but the government is sleeping with mustard oil in its ears.”
A few members of the audience giggled.
Then he saw a young woman beside a trashcan poke another girl and grimace, like she was making fun of yet another so-called leader on the street talking big to fool the poor. Lokraj’s spirit failed for a moment when he realized that it was the same woman who’d expressed her frustration at the teashop: “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced?” But at the same time he felt a strange sensation and an urge to do something for himself, for the woman, and for the others like him, if he really could. Was she challenging him?
He continued. He said that the rebels had to stop their attack on the common people, the government had to provide security to the displaced, and so on. Most passersby slowed down as they approached, pricked their ears for a while, then resumed their walks. But some of them pressed onto the walls, curiously eyeing the speaker. He spoke of the people’s suffering. He criticized the government for its failure to provide security to its people, not to mention other needs like drinking water and acetaminophen tablets. He disparaged the Maoists for making people’s lives hell.
When Lokraj finished his speech, a small crowd surrounded him in appreciation. He shook hands with strangers, patted unknown shoulders, asked them if they were in good health, as if he’d known them for years and he cared about their condition, and as if it really mattered that he asked. A young man offered to carry the chair for him. A middle-aged man wearing a cross-khukri on his black cap held his hand, as if they were known to each other for ages, and proposed Lokraj to have a glass of tea with him.
A couple of similar performances. A new leader was born, like many others in the country.
The next time they met, Silwal greeted Lokraj with a protest plan for a full month—demonstrations, letter of memorandum to the prime minister, sit-ins outside the prime minister’s residence in Baluwatar, complaint letters to major political parties. And if the government didn’t heed them yet, a Kathmandu valley closure—a strike in the capital. Lokraj was appointed as the second man to Silwal and made responsible for the coordination of the protest plans. When their protest plan was carried by the press the following morning, Lokraj’s cousin brother called him and said, “I hope you’re not angry anymore. Why do you need to stay in a hotel while I have the whole house here?” (And in fact, Lokraj returned to Jagannath’s.) After the displaced showed their presence at a few places, especially after the sit-in outside the prime minister’s residence, Neta-ji told him they now needed to form a strong alliance and participate in each other’s protests. “After all, we have the same ends,” he asserted. “Defy any kind of dictatorship, and restore democracy.”
Lokraj was not ready to listen to his wife’s pleas to return home even when the Maoists threatened to vacate his house if he continued to evade them and rally against the Maoists “as a puppet of the reactionary forces.” He told her that he, instead, planned to bring the whole family to Kathmandu for a few months. He would arrange for their move as soon as he found a suitable apartment. It was not just his property that had been captured; the whole country was suffering. Once the Maoists were defeated—it wouldn’t take long to eliminate them if the political parties and the king were committed—the land would be there where it was now and the house wouldn’t go anywhere, either, he insisted. Although his wife begged that he think sensibly and return home before it was too late, he silenced her by asserting he knew better.
Jagannath, however, didn’t seem to think so. One evening, in a restaurant, he said that he had a small piece of advice for his cousin brother.
“What advice? I’m open to any,” said Lokraj.
Jagannath said Lokraj needed to slow down a little. “I’ve been told that you’ve become too aggressive, and certain people are not happy,” he added.
Lokraj defended himself. The displaced were fighting for their rights. The Maoists had to listen to them, and the government had to provide them security and protect their lives and properties. “Certain people? Who the hell are those certain people?” he asked.
Jagannath said Lokraj knew it well.
“You once blamed me that I supported the Maoists. Now you’re asking me not to protest against them?” Lokraj demanded.
Jagannath looked thoughtful but not worried. He seemed to be saying, I know I know!
“But the issue is a little complicated.” He spoke like a real bureaucrat. “Hasn’t Neta-ji told you about the ongoing negotiation between Maoists and the other parties?”
“But you support the king, don’t you?” Lokraj asked.
“That’s not the issue,” said Jagannath, annoyed.
Despite the agitating parties’ disagreement with the Maoists on many issues, there were efforts to aggregate their strengths to fight the monarchy. After King Birendra’s murder in 2001, regardless of his brother’s crowning as the new monarch, the Maoists had declared that the country had already become a republic. Although the rest of the political parties didn’t aim to eliminate the monarchy, they were getting increasingly fed up with the new king, especially after July 2002, when he’d deposed the elected prime minister, assumed executive power of the country, and cancelled parliamentary elections scheduled for November the same year. The political parties were negotiating an alliance with any force that might help them confine the king within his ceremonial role as the head of state. Although their own local leaders and activists were being killed by the Maoists, the top leaders were courting the rebels, which was intriguing to many, and which explained the complexity of the ongoing conflict. It was hard to tell who was fighting against whom. Lokraj had to learn how he could possibly manage it.
“I mean, you’d better be less aggressive against the Maoists,” Jagannath said. “You don’t know what’ll happen tomorrow.” Then he sympathized with Lokraj’s troubles.
“Are you my cousin?” Lokraj asked spontaneously. “Or what?”
Lokraj suspected Jagannath’s lack of sensitivity. Did he care that the rebels had captured his cousin’s property and threatened to displace the family altogether? Did he care about that? Lokraj was not ready to listen to Jagannath’s explanation. He asked him at least not to interfere in his work, if he was unable to help him out. Jagannath begged him at least to try to understand what he meant, but Lokraj said it was enough. He knew what he was doing.
But how could he be so foolish? His wife pressed him the following morning. Wasn’t it outright stupid to take to the streets against the rebels while the whole family still lived in the village? When would he understand that and return home? Now the Maoists had given him a week’s time, and if he failed to show up, they would force the family—his wife with two young daughters and his aging mother—to the streets. Or, they threatened, the family would have to pay an even higher price.
For a moment he thought about dismissing her, too—she might be speaking Jagannath’s words—but no! He was truly running out of time. He decided he must have a final talk with Neta-ji.
With a resolution that he’d force the leader to act or tell him clearly that he was unable to do anything, Lokraj entered the leader’s residence. Then he became skeptical of his own sanity. How do you know that your senses are still working properly? And when do you know that you’ve lost your mind? Was what he saw in Neta-ji’s residence his fancy? A young man who’d fled with a young woman’s necklace in front of his eyes in the broad daylight two days ago was dusting off Neta-ji’s Prado in the garage.
That day he was returning from Ratnapark after a protest. When he got into a bus, he saw a young man who occupied a whole seat supposed to accommodate three by stretching his leg. Lokraj eyed the seat, hoping the young man would remove his leg and let him sit, and the young man glared at him like an angry bull. He then moved to another seat in the back. By the time the bus stopped at the Baneshwor stop, it carried passengers twice its capacity. Those who wanted to get off pushed their ways through the standing passengers, swearing and grumbling—Don’t you have your eyes? Stepping on my foot! My bag, my bag it is. Watch out, you motherfucker! Then a woman cried that her gold chain had been snatched from her neck. A moment’s silence, and then a burst—There he goes, the thug; grab him! Punch, punch at him! Don’t, don’t let him escape! Amidst a bustle at the door, a young man scrambled to free himself, and once he snapped off the bus, he ran a few meters and turned back to ensure no one followed him. Lokraj saw the same young man who’d glared at him before, now a knife in his hand, warning the passengers not to give him chase. The looter took a combative position for a few seconds, and once he was safe enough to escape, he dropped the knife and fled.
The passengers complained about the lack of law and order in the city and tried to console the woman. One suggested that she report the incident to the police. And many others denounced the police for their worthlessness and said that the city was no longer a place to live. Lokraj had then gotten off the bus with a sense of guilt over his inability to do anything, not even spare a few words, to comfort the woman he thought he knew but couldn’t quite recall.
And now, the same young man stood in front of him, live.
No doubt, he had lately been spending a lot of time thinking—thinking a little too much. He had once mistaken the route to Pashupatinath Temple for the route to Singhadurbar; he had been speaking in his sleep—Jagannath’s son had made fun of it just two days before; he had been reminding himself at times, No, no, she can’t be my daughter. I’m in Kathmandu, how can I see her here? But how could he be dreaming about this young man? Was it possible he was so disturbed that he couldn’t see anyone but the scowling young man everywhere? Was he mistaking one face for another?
No, that’s not true, he thought as he gaped at the young man who threw a scornful glimpse at him and continued to run a piece of cloth over the side of the car.
“Neta-ji’s inside,” the young man announced, wiping the windshield. He sounded confident and neglectful as though he were a different person. By not paying attention to Lokraj, he seemed to be asserting that he didn’t know the visitor—No, I’m not the guy you think. Why don’t you mind your own business?
Neta-ji was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that he’d do it very soon, as soon as the king gave in to the political parties. He’d then hold a good position—might become a minister, no joke—and it wouldn’t take him long to meet the aspirations of his constituents. A half dozen expectant faces followed the leader as he moved from one corner of the living room to another. Neta-ji grinned at Lokraj and signaled him to sit on a shapeless couch.
Where would he start the talk? Tell the leader that the Maoists were threatening to expel his family from his house? Plead with him to request and even bribe somebody at the Ministry of Home Affairs so that his property and family would be protected? Would that really work? How much influence would the leader have, in fact?
Or should he board a night bus that very evening and surrender to the rebels? Would anybody really be able to do anything for him and his family?
Or what of that bastard, the thug? What the hell was he doing there?
Or the poor woman who had been looted? Oh, here he recalled—the woman dressed differently, in a sari and full make-up, was in fact the same woman. “Who’ll listen to the fucking displaced?” Hadn’t she looked at him with pleading eyes, as if she knew him? Shame and guilt overcame him as he recalled how he had talked about the suffering of the people in the park just a few days back, in front of the same woman. She must have laughed at his cowardice and his insensitivity toward a poor woman. Why couldn’t he spare at least a few words of consolation?
Neta-ji bid goodbye to the rest of the visitors, promising to take up their issues seriously—they were the bloodline of his politics, he said, and added that he hoped to see them at Ratnapark in a while.
It discouraged Lokraj. Did the leader do anything other than make promises and stage protests?
“Lokraj-ji, it’s very wise of you to be part of these protests,” Neta-ji said. “It’ll pay off soon. I’m happy.”
Oh, really? I wish it were true, thought Lokraj.
“But I think you need a bodyguard now,” the leader went on.
“A bodyguard for me?” Lokraj sounded utterly vulnerable.
“I mean it’s good to have somebody who joins you as you go around,” Neta-ji said. “There are boys who just want to escort leaders. No need to pay.”
Neta-ji looked out the window. “See, I already had two. The other day that boy came to me—actually, one of my assistants introduced him to me—and said he’d be glad to be my bodyguard, or assistant, whatever you wish to call it,” he explained. “It makes sense to have these boys. In fact, you can’t do politics without them. Frankly, you can’t.”
Neta-ji also explained why he would rarely be arrested in the protests. He said he might not need to explain it—there were always those boys protecting him, helping him get out of any mess.
Lokraj ended up saying he had nothing to say. “Just thought I’d stop by and say hello,” he added.
Neta-ji didn’t forget to hope to see Lokraj at Ratnapark in a while.
When Lokraj broached the idea of a bodyguard with Jagannath that evening, his cousin said it was not a bad idea. The times had changed. Party leaders trusted those boys more than they did the police.
Lokraj resisted. His conscience would not allow him to be protected by street thugs. “Where is the state? Where the hell is the state?” he asked. And he said he was losing his mind.
Despite his waning faith in himself and the local protests he’d been part of, and the increasing risk, Lokraj led a team to make effigies of the rebel leaders, Prachanda and Baburam, to be burnt during the anti-Maoist protest on February 13, the ninth anniversary of the launch of the “People’s War.” While the Maoists elsewhere prepared to celebrate the completion of yet another “glorious” year of revolution and devised newer techniques to fight the Royal Nepal Army, Lokraj and company made fun of Prachanda’s wicked eyes and Baburam’s crooked nose as they worked on their effigies, though they hardly knew how the rebels looked—they were still underground. It gave Lokraj a strange sense of authority over the rebels as the anti-Maoist activists carried the effigies—some of them spitting at the rebels, others punching them spontaneously, and most of them showering curses on them—during their protest on the thirteenth. When the protesters threw petrol on the effigies and set them on fire, Lokraj had the loudest voice in the crowd: “Down with the Rebels!”
The slogans stopped when Silwal clapped and readied to give a speech. He said the protest was a good blow to the rebels, who would face quite a loss if they failed to listen to the Maoist victims. Encouraging his fellow activists, Silwal said that he would fight Maoist atrocities till his death. There was no way he’d back down from his mission despite the rebels’ demand to close his Kathmandu office or be prepared to face death.
With a renewed hope, Lokraj thought that the next time his wife called him he’d assure her to bring the whole family to Kathmandu as soon as he found a reasonable place to live. The anti-Maoist protests were gaining ground; the government seemed to be intensifying its operations on Maoist strongholds.
But two days later, on the evening of February 15, he called his wife, instead, and announced, “I’m returning home tomorrow morning; I will face the Maoists whatsoever.”
That afternoon two Maoist cadres had shot Silwal dead in front of his office, forcing Lokraj to believe that his wife had been right all along. There was nothing he could do other than compromise with the rebels to save himself and his family. The government had been so ineffective and unresponsive that it could not defend its people even in the capital city.
He said he’d negotiate with the rebels and surrender whatever they might want. He had his family, and they wouldn’t die of hunger. As if to convince himself, he said to his wife quite a few times, “We have our beautiful family. I’ve done nothing wrong. Why should I worry?”
But Lokraj worried the whole night. By daybreak, he was fully aware of the trap he was in. He was no longer the Lokraj who was said to have left the village to arrange for money to pay the Maoists.
As if longing for the days when he’d just come to Kathmandu, as if wanting to start it all over again so that he could take a new route and get out of the trap he was in, Lokraj went to Gulmeli Teashop early in the morning and ordered a glass of lemon tea. But unlike those early days, he avoided talking with the curious party activists who’d readily engage themselves in any issue—from corruption in the country to the twin-towers attack in America. He sat on a bench at the entrance and thought No, the state can’t abandon its people. Then he felt helpless; he had been abandoned. There was no place he could go, there was no one he could talk to. He had exhausted his energy, and he was in a worse position than he’d started. He wished he could bury his head into somebody’s lap and cry like a baby, letting his heart come out.
He cupped the glass in his hands, too careful not to let it fall as well as to keep his hands warm, and threw his forlorn eyes at a woman in front of a temple two blocks from the teashop. The young woman, a baby slung on her chest, was sweeping the street. Lokraj watched her intently, preparing himself to move if the dust came his way.
The broom ruffled the dust, paper waste, and plastic bags that lined the pavement where there still lay brick mortars from the previous day’s protest—after hearing about Silwal’s shooting, Lokraj was hurrying to his cousin’s when the protest erupted in Baneshwor. As the pedestrians passed by the sweeper, she paused and glanced at their faces, although none of them would care about her; they only hopped past her to avoid the dust. Once, the woman smirked at a teenager who looked terribly offended by the dust. Lokraj’s eyes followed the boy, who continued to cover his face with both his hands long after he’d moved through the dust cloud.
“What’s the time, dai?” the woman stood in front of Lokraj, asking.
Lokraj returned to himself, and only now did he realize that he’d been observing the young woman all along. As she stood in front of him, he could only hear, “Who’ll listen to a fucking displaced?” There she was again, as if she were an embodiment of his displaced self that would always roam around himself, like a ghost, they say, around the body after one’s untimely death.
Almost apologetic in his tone, he told her the time—it was eight.
“Already eight? So, she cries,” the woman said and stood her broom against the wall of the teashop. She loosened her sling that held the baby and sat on the steps next to the bench where Lokraj sat, still observing the woman. It was the first time he’d seen her with a baby.
The woman, in her late twenties, had a creepy smile. As she adjusted the baby in her lap and ordered a glass of warm milk from the teashop, she looked more curious than affectionate toward the months-old baby. She hit her palate with her tongue and cajoled the baby into smiling. Then she jerked her upper body as if to adjust her blouse, displaying the size of her breasts. Lokraj quickly removed his eyes from her—he’d been wondering all along why she was not breastfeeding the baby—thinking that he must have looked lewd. To justify his position, he murmured something without meaning.
“This is not my baby,” the woman said.
Then Lokraj noticed her watch as she fished a cell phone from her waist. Oh, even a cell phone! Then he saw she wore jeans inside the sarong. He finished the remaining lemon tea in a gulp. The woman was mysterious.
“Where’re you from, dai?” she asked, reading on her cell phone screen.
Lokraj thought for a moment if he really had to reply. But there was something alluring, something warm in the woman. Something that he needed desperately. He said he was from Nepalgunj and thought about telling her he was visiting Kathmandu for a few days. Then he remembered she already knew who he was.
The woman started feeding the baby.
“Whose baby is that?” Lokraj asked, this time sounding like a guardian.
“My sister’s. She’s away for a few days,” the woman replied. “I’m also working for my sister as a neighborhood sweeper, an hour a day.”
Lokraj’s appearance changed from that of a guardian to that of a puzzled onlooker.
“Don’t you drink milk tea?” asked the woman out of the blue, staring at the empty teacup that had a few lemon seeds with the dregs.
It was an odd question, given the pun the word “milk” carried in the local language.
“Yes, I do,” Lokraj said. And as if reading the pun, he tried to strike a positive note by repeating, “Yes, I do.”
One thing led to another. Within the next ten minutes, Lokraj was sitting on a bed in the mysterious woman’s single-room apartment behind the nearby temple. His heartbeat raced, and a new excitement relieved the stress he’d endured the last few weeks.
“There’s no milk for milk tea,” the woman giggled, after putting the baby in her bed.
“I know where it is,” spoke Lokraj, a strange man to himself. Then he stripped off the woman’s blouse. Just minutes later, both of them promptly dressed, they stared at each other as strangers. Each looked like they were asking the other, What the hell are you doing here?
“Give me some money,” the woman said.
Lokraj said he could not believe her, as if she’d proposed him sex out of love.
“Give me money,” she repeated.
Surely, Lokraj thought, he’d been cheated. He took out a five-hundred-rupee bill and tucked it in her blouse.
“Who do you think I am? Your rundi?” the woman asked.
Rundi, a whore—Lokraj never thought he’d ever touch a whore, at least a woman who so openly attributed herself to such a disgusting word, especially after he’d had that encounter with the girl who claimed to be a rebel’s sister. Better get rid of her as soon as possible. He fished for another five hundred bill.
“You promised me five thousand,” claimed the woman.
Lokraj’s head reeled. Five thousand! For a whore that he didn’t look for himself. Five thousand. That much money could buy everything the woman had in her room: the cheap bed on which they both sat, a disfigured table in a corner, a kerosene stove, a few utensils, a fourteen-inch, surely black-and-white television on the floor in another corner, a few clothes hanging from a nail on the door. Why five? Two thousand rupees would buy everything. How could she demand so much? Oh, yes. The cell phone. How did she get it?
“If you refuse to give, I will shout,” said the woman.
At this point, Lokraj’s eyes watered. He took out his wallet and surrendered it to the woman, who counted all the money, kept two thousand rupees for herself and tossed the purse with a few hundred-rupee bills in it onto his lap.
“Keep it! You may need to eat,” she said.
As he exited the front door, the stench from a nearby toilet made him feel like throwing up. A middle-aged woman washing clothes in an aluminum basin—indifferent to the public display of her bulky breasts and thighs—gave him a suspicious look. It was no secret that he’d visited a whore; there was no need to show any deference to him, such an ass. The woman looked confident, even threatening. Would he even think about visiting a whore again? Impossible, he thought. Why had he fled to Kathmandu, and what was he doing? An urge to return home safe almost made him collapse once he was out in the open.
But that evening, the same day, he found himself sitting on the same bed with the same woman, fondling her breasts. In front of them lay two glasses filled with gin, mixed with hot water and lemon cuts. The woman was calm and apologetic, and Lokraj seemed to be playing a guardian, albeit an exploitative one.
That morning, after recovering from a near collapse, he had wandered the roads in Baneshwor for an hour, not knowing what had happened—it had been like he could not stop himself from drifting in the air. Then he’d headed to Babarmahal. After crossing the bridge at Bijulibazzar, he turned right and walked all the way to Singhadurbar, the prime minister’s office. He stared for a long time at the building that housed the prime minister’s office, and then he turned to Dillibazaar and finally reached old Baneshwor and then Gaushala around eleven o’ clock. He had no intention of worshipping at the Pashupatinath Temple, though. He crossed the Bagamati River and climbed the steps, turned left, and sat on a bench overlooking the temple and the cremation stalls across the river. By that evening he’d counted seven cremations, some more performative than the others, but at the end all the dead had faced the same fate. They all had been turned into ashes and thrown into the murky water that would now take them down, down to the unknown caves of the earth. Life at the end was nothing.
After sundown, Lokraj returned to his cousin’s. As soon as he entered the house, Jagannath’s wife asked, “Do you care that the killers have forced your daughter to join them?” She informed him about his wife’s call after he’d left home that morning and said, “Tikey Badi swarmed into the house with a squad of goons and yanked her out. Don’t you even bother to call home when they’ve ravaged your house?” She accused him of failing altogether, as a husband as a father, and as a son, and said she was ashamed of him as a man.
Lokraj left the house like a newly castrated bull, without a word.
He didn’t have the courage to call home. He returned to the same teashop as that morning and sat on the same bench, his head hung like in a trance. Around him were discontented party activitists, who equally disparaged King Gyanendra, the Maoists, and all other political parties for the ills of the country. Lokraj had a feeling that they all complained for nothing; they had no idea what real suffering was. Without realizing that he was speaking, he murmured in contempt: “Tikey Badi! Sala Tikey Badi!”
When the same woman appeared at the teashop, Lokraj glared at her as if to challenge her that he was ready to face anything. He was not going to be a coward anymore. The woman smiled at him, like someone she intimately knew. It was unbelievably comforting to Lokraj. Within the next few minutes, they were in her room, with the two glasses in front of them.
“Why do you look so scared every few minutes?” the woman asked.
“Scared? No, I was only thinking about crimes and all in the city,” Lokraj said, attempting to sound normal.
The woman laughed it off.
“What’s there to think about?” she asked.
“I mean, you don’t know when a bullet will pierce through your head.”
“Fuck your childish talk!” she said as she removed his hand from her chest. “You pretend to be a leader, but you talk like a coward.”
Lokraj asked her to forgive him; he wanted to leave. Then he murmured that he didn’t know what to do about his daughter and that his head was about to burst.
“I’m sure your veins contain no blood. Start rambling after a single shot?” the woman said. “I knew you were a coward when I saw your face the day the gunda snatched my chain. You were damn scared.”
“I’m sorry you lost the chain.”
“No, it’s okay. It was fake.”
Lokraj gawked at her.
“Do you expect me to wear real gold in this city of looters?” said the woman. “But I expected you to do something. You talk big, no?”
Lokraj stared at the woman’s chest and said he’d had enough blood. “I’ve never before sat with a woman drinking, though,” he said.
“This fucking city will teach you all kinds of things, even to fuck your mother,” said the woman.
“You talk like a dangerous woman,” Lokraj said.
“Dangerous? Yes, I am dangerous,” said the woman. “What do you expect from a widow with no one to care for her? Huh? What can you expect from a helpless widow other than being dangerous?”
Lokraj almost jumped out of the bed.
“Wait, I won’t kill a coward. I want nothing from you. When I saw you, I only felt pity for you. That’s all. I doubt that you can survive in this city.”
Lokraj rose. “I need to go. Sorry. I need to go.”
“Not so easily.” The woman tugged him onto the bed.
“Why? I don’t want anything from you. I didn’t come here myself. It was not my fault,” Lokraj said. “Please let me go, my daughter is sick.”
“Who is not sick in this country? Everybody is sick!” said the woman, pushing him into a corner. “Who said it was your fault? I want nothing from you, either. I won’t rob you.”
“Just let me go! If you want nothing, why all this?”
The woman thought for a moment, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know. But you wanted to come, no? Why did you want to come with me? Just to fuck? Then fuck me and get lost!”
“No, I want nothing.”
“Yes, you are a coward, I tell you again.”
Never before had anyone called him a coward so comfortably, except his mother, who used to goad him to overcome his fear at night when he was still a child, afraid to go to the toilet across the backyard. But there was so much comfort and such a sense of safety—maybe too much safety—in that derision. He examined the woman’s face as he reflected, and said, “You look like my mother.”
“What? Nonsense! You see your mother in my face this moment and fuck me the next. That’s the problem with you cowards. Motherfuckers!”
“You spend a whole day with a lonely widow, you see this abject condition, and yet you don’t ask a word about me—where I’m from, why I’m so deranged—oh! dangerous, right?—what happened with my world. You’re afraid to ask. Yes? You’re afraid even to ask, you coward!”
Lokraj went dumb momentarily. Why hadn’t he asked her anything? Then he thought maybe it was none of his business.
What was his business then? Why was he there? Lokraj wanted to leave again.
“The butchers kidnapped my husband, threatened to kill me if I reported to the police,” the woman said, and filled the empty glasses. “I still did, and they dumped his beheaded body in the village well the following week. Then they wanted me to join their army if I wanted to live. What could I do? I ran to Kathmandu a year ago, pleading with everybody for justice. But—can you see that?—everybody here is too busy with their own businesses. Can you see that? Who has the time to listen to your sorrows? Nobody. Do you hear that? Nobody.”
“This thing is a miracle,” she said, lifting her glass of gin after a pause. “I don’t know how I’d survive if I didn’t know it.”
“How did you start drinking?” Lokraj spoke at last, finding no risk in asking this.
“How did I start? I started working in a cabin restaurant where my sister worked, and drank. Isn’t that easy?”
Then the woman narrated how a customer had forced her to gulp nasty-tasting beer—her second day on the job—how she’d started enjoying intoxication, and how she’d found a new life in the chaos of the city. She also revealed that the sister with whom she stayed in the single-room apartment and worked alongside at the restaurant had been arrested in a midnight police raid three days before.
“It could be me, but they got her instead, along with two other girls,” she said. “Luckily I was at the counter after gratifying a bull.”
With one foot on the floor and his body slightly bent toward her, Lokraj looked as though he were fighting his urge to flee as much as listening to her.
“The restaurant has been closed since then,” the woman went on. “Those sons of bitches come and fuck you today and arrest you tomorrow. Treacherous!”
“When will they free your sister?” Lokraj asked, as if out of concern for the baby, who’d started crying in her bed.
“Here you ask about her, you whore-fucker! Need yet another woman?” she asked as she drank more. “Looks like she won’t ever be free. They’ve charged her as a Maoist supporter. Maybe she was—she was fucking a rebel who sometimes slinked into the restaurant. Even this bastard belongs to that bull.”
“Stop this nonsense,” Lokraj yelled, and jumped off the bed.
“Okay, then, what the hell do you want? To fuck?” the woman asked, blocking his way with arms akimbo and her chest almost bare.
“For God’s sake, let me go,” he shouted, “you whore!” Then they ripped off each other’s clothes. The child continued to cry in the corner.
When Lokraj woke up the following morning, he found himself alone with the baby in the room. Instinctively, he wanted to flee, but he had no courage to step out. He fancied that the whole world had seen his fall; there was no way he could save himself now. He could no longer show his face to the world. The world knew how rotten he was. There was no place for him anywhere. When he remembered his kidnapped daughter, he buried his face in the bed until he could convince himself that he was still a responsible father and a responsible husband.
He looked at the baby; she was asleep. Where was the woman? Had she gone to fetch milk for the baby? Had she gone to sweep the street for her sister? Had she abandoned the baby to him? Oh, he couldn’t be fooled. He couldn’t be fooled anymore. He had to get out of the room right then. Before the baby awoke. Before the beguiling woman reappeared.
He pulled on his trousers and straightened his shirt. He put on his jacket that had been lying on the floor, wrapped his muffler around his neck, and opened the door.
As if he’d opened the door for somebody else, a stranger entered the room, bracing her shoulder against his, as he struggled to slink off. The young woman didn’t look surprised, but her words were harsh: “Widow-fucker.”
Lokraj tripped over the doorstep and hopped over a basin—the woman who had been washing clothes yesterday was busy in her work also today as if she always washed clothes in front of the room as an excuse to observe who laid down the lonely widow. She shouted at him, “Are you blind, you dirty bull?” As she spoke, her legs were set apart and her hands were stretched out as if she were ready to hunt for Lokraj. She was so negligent of her bare thighs and poorly covered bulky breasts that Lokraj had a fleeting urge to ask her to cover them up.
Once he was in the open, out on the road, he slowed down. But he’d lost the courage to look in anyone’s eyes. What would he say if he encountered the widow? Every female figure threatened to castrate him, and this fear thrust him into the fire of guilt and shame. Oh, what a quagmire he’d fallen into! He wanted to get rid of the whole business as soon as possible. But the farther he went the more vividly he recalled: widow-fucker, dirty bull. Was he such a dirty man? No, they were wrong—he tried to console himself. He thought about the displaced widow, her sister, and the illegitimate child born of a guerilla. Were they all dirty? The woman washing clothes, all the time washing clothes, the display of her private parts, or rather, her negligence—why was she so careless? Was she also a displaced? Was she also dirty? Did the house shelter only the displaced and the dirty?
He had no answers, and he saw only the displaced in all the faces on the street. So many people—what were they doing there? The streets were full of people every day. Those hungry people from remote districts. What were they doing in Kathmandu? Who’d rescue him from his displacement in this city full of displaced souls?
His pace increased, and after a while he started trotting.
Unaware of what he was led by, Lokraj went past the abandoned trolleybus station in Minbhawan, turned left at Shantinagar, and headed to Gaushala and the Pashupatinath Temple. Gentlemen on morning walks, with sticks in their hands as a sign of authority, smiled at him as they passed. Young boys and girls glanced at him and continued at their own pace. Shopkeepers’ curious eyes followed him suspiciously as long as he was within their sight. A few dogs barked at him. At one point, he dropped his muffler. Somebody wanted to point it out to him, but he only quickened his strides.
“Thief!” a boy, burning trash in an empty lot to keep himself warm, shouted.
A couple of boys ran after Lokraj, who now dashed like crazy. But not long after, a boy grabbed him by the shoulder, at which Lokraj turned back, stared at the boys and burst into laughter, as if he were mocking them: “Thief, huh? Ha, thief! Thief?”
The boys were vexed.
“Thief? Ha, no thief! Displaced. Yeah, displaced!” Lokraj kept laughing, pointing at the boys.
It didn’t take the boys long to dismiss him. They must have thought he was just yet another harmless lunatic in the city.
Lokraj’s speed slowed after the boys returned. But his walk was erratic, as if he were not sure where to put his steps, an inch further or right there where he’d almost put them. By the time he reached Gaushala, he seemed to have found a new rhythm in the erratic movement. He briefly paused at the crossroads, thinking which way to go, and headed to the Pashupatinath Temple in the same fitful manner. A few meters toward the temple, he suddenly stopped, one foot on the other for lack of coordination between his mind and the body. On the other side of the road he’d seen Jagannath and Neta-ji returning from the temple, talking. Lokraj’s mouth opened automatically, but no words would come out. He continued to stare at the duo until they came close, right across the road from him, expecting them to stop and talk to him.
But they didn’t stop. They greeted him without surprise, slowing down just enough to acknowledge his presence.
“I thought you’d already returned to Nepalgunj!” Jagannath said, and they resumed their normal walk, talking as they’d been doing.
Lokraj was not sure whether to be happy for not being caught after the night with the woman or sad for being treated as so insignificant. His eyes followed them all the way to the intersection, past Maharaja Sweets, past Gauri Stationary, past Mitra Communications, and stuck to a pole with tangled wires as the duo disappeared around the corner.
Lokraj thought that he once believed he was a displaced. And he laughed out loud.
Khem K Aryal is the author of Epic Teashop (Vajra Books, 2009) and Kathmandu Saga And Other Poems (NWEN, 2004). His fiction has appeared in Poydras Review, Qwerty Magazine, Of Nepalese Clay, The Kathmandu Post, Madhupark etc. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.