It is a distant day since I last watched a sunrise through a window. I don’t remember when it was that I last witnessed that miracle, but there is a sight that floods me whenever I think of sunrises—a delicate arm sleeping in my palm, my daughter’s fist spread to bathe in the first gossamer rays of gold, her head breathing with the life in my chest. To cut through these clouds the sword of the sun will not suffice, but the brilliance must come from elsewhere—where light meets darkness in an abrupt dance, and the yearning for life is aptly answered with a deafening silence. No, I am not talking of death, so vulgar in its eagerness, but, of that listless place I am pushed to where the sun hangs still and the sparseness of an infinite universe sits empty in my chest. I had to come to this harsh gray of things molded by man’s hand—this cacophony of trinkets and gaudy manners, this incessant river of neon words, this flashing stretch of sterility—I had to come here to be reminded of my darkest demons. With every breath the smells and calls of Mohanpur leave me, and instead, I begin to hum an American tune.
In a while, the morning will stir my lover awake. I will pretend to be sleeping still, and Fatehma will steal away to the kitchen. She can’t have shaken off that habit yet. Perhaps she won’t get out of bed. When she awakes, perhaps she will put her hand on my chest and smile, and bind me once more, tie me into disorderly knots. I wait for the moment of her awakening as if a single moment can be so pivotal. I want to look at her face, but if I turn and stop breathing, she will know that I am awake. Then she’ll say something, or make a gesture, or look in a certain way. How small things become, ripening in their threats.
The early morning caution of a sleepless mother stealing away to her morning shift has become the soul of this building. Acne-faced youth in the hallway throw hollow punches and elbows at each other even in the dimness, and make silent noises of the morning’s greetings to a kin or a friend, squaring shoulders and bracing their brothers to disappear into yet another day. Some shoes drag through the hall, some run lightly, chanting under their breath the names of their children left in bed, snug in a warmth that is not from the departing mother. There is a mother and daughter pair of black women who leave behind a pair of wailing babies with a high-spirited voice of a pubescent girl to chase after the babies’ hunger and cooing laughter. Every morning, when they run to the elevator on light feet, I close my eyes and I can smell my daughter’s hair. I would hold her to my chest, and she would close her eyes, falling asleep in my arms. When she was nineteen months old, she was thin and fragile and she had been playing in the mustard field, losing her way in that yellow maze. She laughed in that yellow sky of petals and ran into my arms. I could smell her playful sweat, flowers crushed into her dress, and the dampness of earth on her feet. The sun breaks pale and ghostly this morning, but that afternoon was illuminated in another light. What is the miracle in every abrupt moment of awakening, if not the reminder of all else that could have been? And, what is the curse in it, but the same! I am unmanned with such violence in this moment that I can’t muster the courage to touch my daughter’s laughter that I left adrift in mustard terraces in Mohanpur.
Fatehma moved in her sleep. I have to decide now if I really love her. If only I had the guts to sneak away as she sleeps. If only I had the guts to abandon her without a word. I was a coward when I couldn’t refuse the beckoning of the glitter and gold that was employment in America, and readily abandoned my child in her sleep. I was a coward when I couldn’t muster the tears in my eyes that would have let my wife know how much I loved her still; and I was a coward when I staved off my mother and refused to see her love for her only child even while my own daughter swelled in my chest. I was a coward when I couldn’t find the strength to abandon all dreams of a future filled with stuff—dead, cold stuff that only distances people from people. Now that I want a return to the prattling of my daughter who must even now be watching the demise of the same light that will swell and overwhelm the city sky in a while, I am a coward that I can’t sneak away.
It is not that I have no love for Fatehma. But she is not my wife, not the mother of my child. It was a gray day when I first saw Fatehma. Noorjahan—that is the name the mullah of her father’s mosque in a village outside Karachi gave her. I have enormous love for that luminous face that stared at me briefly, quizzically the first day I saw her. I had just finished my shift at the restaurant and needed to rest my legs and my back before returning three hours later to close the place when I saw her for the first time. I did not see in her brief gaze what knotted promises slept.
Fatehma should want to kill me with her tears. Or she will bear upon herself the thick, impregnable fortitude of silence and make a heavy tombstone of it to bury me, for I have seen that blanket that she puts over her memories, only selectively recounting her woes, placing gingerly the moments of bliss she had earned and cherished into a soothing, repeating pattern. I will abandon Fatehma just as surely as I have loved her—for her Urdu ghazals, her passionate guarding of her fallen womb, her gaze always directed westwards, imploring to the setting sun. I was no less a man before she touched me, and even through the months of her molding, I am no more a man than the coward who left his village. But she has been to me that single fountain of comfort, that untiring spring of vitality that I have touched my lips to drink from, that salty taste of fecundity that still flames in me. In that brief gaze, enveloped by a herd of children who had no claim to her love, Fatehma stood like an apparition, fixed by the charming fluidity of a mediocre world. Her desolate gaze pleaded for a quiet room, the pliant, comforting womb of darkness, a particular brand of almond oil for her head, the time in a week to sit with henna in her hair, that errant, quixotic burns on her fingertips, begotten through making chapatti over a hot pan, an intrigue of masala smells that once lived in the folds of her mother’s garments. Her large eyes reminded me of my wife, and other women, whom I have loved and abandoned. When I learned eventually of the child she had conceived and never borne, I thought the knowledge was aimed at me, a stinging reproach, a punishment like so many other that women devise for the men they love. Although, I know that I have only deception to give her. There is a discord—between the frenzy racing through my veins to escape as a scurrying, worming swarm of thoughts in my head, and my body lying with the exaggerated stillness of a person pretending to sleep. If I don’t get out of bed now, this tension will break me into brittle shards. How will I pick, with bloodied and apologetic hands, the pieces of me that love this woman, and those pieces in me that are a husband to that other woman?
I roll off the bed, not quietly, but amidst a carefully orchestrated charade of early morning normalcy—a few grunts, a bedside stretch, one clearing of the throat and one Urdu tune to hum. Fatehma prefers another Mehdi Hassan song—one that speaks of what is my plight at the moment—how the singer is remembered both by the lover he can’t visit, and the wife he has been betraying. There is a bit about how it is his reflection on the mirror, but it is a stranger that stands before the mirror. Fatehma always says those lines speak to her, but I know that those lines speak to her only to be relayed to me. She speaks of her dead husband when Mehdi Hassan pours his soul into those lines, and she looks at me imploringly.
She used not to ask so many questions. I used not to have anything to say to her, but my hands and my mouth and my skin eager for touch overwhelmed the silences and raised it to a sensuous roar. But, even in the most sacred and undefiled, the decay is never absent. What would have passed as the playfulness of new lovers soon acquired ire, and became sinister in its capacity to sneak into the most innocent moments, into the least significant matters. I had turned to Fatehma because her presence alone brought confidence in me and made me less of a constant stranger. I enjoyed being in a country where affection is not immoral. But, that also populated our love with spooks. I wanted, more than anything else, to know if I was allowed to be jealous of her dead husband, and if there had been any other man between then and now. I had thought my irritation would remain confined to my complaints about the absent people that walked in the apartment as we made love and tried to avoid talking of an unreasonably distant future. But, the temptation to watch her get hurt and turn to me as the only solace became an intoxicating notion, and the longer the thought brooded in my head, the more I began to see the smaller things between us that became ripe with threat. She would no longer listen to what little I had to say, and when I would complain to her, I’d be reminded about my own indiscretion towards her. She did not like Razma as I prepared it, she sulked if I complained about her cooking, and gradually she settled into a tidal mood, exorbitantly affectionate at times and sullen, accusing at other. She started to leave marks of her presence in the apartment, discarding things that I picked for her, and replacing it with something of her liking.
As I stand in the narrow, sparse kitchen, I recognize the trinkets that came with Fatehma. Some through necessity and nostalgia, and some for the simple affection they inspire. A picture of a pair of hands painted in henna designs—something my wife wouldn’t have known much about; but a bride’s hands for sure, and therefore hands waiting for the attention of the man who claims her love. I even remember the day I spoke to Fatehma for the first time—Pasang, the Dharmashala born Tibetan American who runs the restaurant, always plays the same set of Hindi songs as we close for the day, and a Pankaj Udhas’ song for the estranged sons of the soil was tugging at our hearts. Although the song washed over me after the first few weeks, I couldn’t help but wonder why the toiling men would want such desperate words to rend open the gashes they nursed. But, again—after the initial envelope of indifference, the same songs about heartbreak and nostalgia for the rain and the dusty wheat fields and idyllic kites in the slow rise of a March breeze would catch me off-guard as I would be standing before the stove or pushing the mop on the restaurant’s kitchen floor. In the singer’s strains, the feeble and wizened complaints of aged parents, and a youthful wife rendered desolate and unappreciated through her husband’s absence—the twine that tugged at my heart did become a real and fiercely knotted reminder. Fatehma walked up to the counter where I counted the credit card receipts for the day, and startled me because, for a second, I remembered only the fixed apparition that I had seen stoic against the gray flow of purposeful people endlessly marching to somewhere else. She looked at me and asked me if she could speak to the manager, then said immediately that she didn’t really need to speak to the manager. Then she spoke to me in Urdu—“Hindustan se hain aap?” Are you from India? I told her I wasn’t from India, rather from Nepal, but I spoke a passable Hindi, and, did she have any comments about our service? She had no comments, but wanted to thank the manager for playing the particular song.
It became a secret pleasure for me to wait for Fatehma’s presence in the restaurant. I hadn’t yet acquired the American gaze, and I was easily embarrassed if caught looking at a woman. Also, it took me some time to get used to the color of the skin to actually start seeing the features of the women around me. During that period, I longed for a graceful woman with dark hair and brown skin. When I saw elderly Indian women dressed in saris, usually with a puja-basket with incense and flowers and other colorful offerings to the gods, I remembered the smells and colors of my mother worshipping of the goddess mothers. But, Fatehma’s presence in the restaurant appealed to the man beneath the layers. Once, I caught her eyes as I wiped a table near her. I saw myself unmasked in those eyes, and I saw her naked desire for me. But I took that for the product of my feverish lust. I had been insomniac for over a month by then—constantly worried about the politics back home, constantly scanning the news for a fire, a blast, an encounter, ravishing of entire villages, ravishing of the women of an entire village. Scanning the news on the computer in Pasang’s office had become my only concern during those days. I read of my friends being arrested in the streets of Kathmandu, and of other friends being hunted down in the remote northern mountains. The government seemed just as interested in robbing me of my friends as did the Maoists. I was still very angry at the tedious fact that fate doesn’t listen, and at such a time, Fatehma’s inroads into my daily routine were a welcome escape. On a Sunday morning, she came to the restaurant dressed in a pleasant green and drank two cups of coffee before lifting her head from the book in her hands. As I stooped to pick her cup, she looked up. Not only were her eyes lined thickly, she also wore a bindi. A tear shaped piece of black velvet on her forehead, between her eyes. One Thursday afternoon she came especially early. I had just finished making the tomato base for most of the curried dishes to be cooked over the day, and I was perplexed over my next task—preparing a spicy mixture of fried soybean and garlic, because I still hadn’t learned to make it as good as Narayan dai does. I was also a little worried about the smell of onion and cumin that clung to my apron. Fatehma sat back in her chair and said in English, “You smell of cumin.” I only laughed, because, although I could understand even Americans speak among each other, I wasn’t confident about my own capacity to make a conversation in English. I also have affection for eloquence, and if I can’t say something in a manner that pleases me, I’d rather not speak it at all. Then she switched to Urdu, and said cumin always reminded her of home. Before I could say anything, she started on a story about how she had had to stop cooking just before going to work on mornings, because a child had complained to her parents that the new baby-sitter smelled strange. Now, she cooked in the evenings and heated the leftovers in the mornings. Or, easier than that, she came to Pasang’s restaurant. “I must be the most faithful patron this restaurant has,” she added in English, which made me rather awkward. “Yes, you are,” I said with a grateful bow, just as Pasang had taught me. “Thank you!”
It took her three months, long conversations over her lunch, and sixteen CD’s from the restaurant before she indicated to me that I ought to pay more attention to her. I was stirring a large pot of onion sautéing in turmeric and salt, when Bishal, an Indian fellow worker, winked at me and said the Pakistani Beauty was waiting for me. I wiped my hands and cursed the woman that she would bring me out of the kitchen, which was where I felt best at home in this city. She handed me a CD of Sufi music and said in a bemused voice—“They exchange phone numbers in this country.” I was taken aback—because I did not have a phone number to exchange with her, and because her boldness unsettled me. Bishal snickered and was convulsed with laughter just beyond Fatehma’s sight, but, not hidden from me. He made obscene gestures which earned him a thwack on the side of his head, with a wet kitchen towel. She suggested that we lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby—I could ask Pasang for an hour, which he would certainly not deny as I would have finished most of my important chores by then, and it would be somewhat of a change. Pasang reminded me that the restaurant was likely more expensive than our restaurant and that I shouldn’t be surprised if she offers to pay for herself. I remember sitting before her and thinking only of the aroma of mustard in one of the curry sauces, and how Pasang ought to use the oil of roasted mustard for the appetizers, and how that restaurant seemed to have better lighting and artworks on the walls. We must have accidentally touched each other and only after the touch realized that we had been greedy for just such an accidental brushing; we must have paused mid-sentence in our conversation about recent Bollywood movies that I had caught just before leaving home for this city and wondered what we saw in each other’s eyes that unmasked us and stole our words. We must have been struck, like every other pair of would-be lovers, by how beautiful the face looked in a certain light, and how the fickleness of other lights betrayed a face that revolted the pining romantic in us. But I remember only the napkin, clean, but an unpleasant checkered in yellow and white, the single stem of tulip in a slender vase, and the irksome sniffling of the cashier just out of sight.
After a month, a set of colorful pillow-cases saw our first lovemaking. There was a strange well of silence between us—an abyss where unasked questions fell, and no answers crept out of. There was an animal fury to kill the void between our clasped skins—when I closed my eyes, I thought of and saw everyone and everything that I needed to push into that well of silence, and that reflected, in leaping phantoms of those who populated her thoughts. For a fortnight, I was lost between the extremes of my own understanding of her expectations. Then she began showing unexpected tenderness. When she whispered my name, it did not always come accompanied by a furious rise of sensual reward. Instead, she started whispering my name even when she seemed certain that I couldn’t hear. In my selfishness, I hadn’t really gauzed her expectations of me—perhaps because I had a single expectation from her. I wanted in her the fathomless pool of animal comfort, a raging playground where I could hurtle myself to pick hurt from the dust and to spill the dark blood of my beasts of melancholia.
When the first swelling of lust was quelled, I began to be increasingly eroded by the unfamiliar names that must lurk behind her face. I was jealous of what I did not know. But the small things she kept pouring into my tiny apartment—that same smell of cumin and garlic, the same music and Hindi movie songs that filled my mountain home, the same chiding warmth of an attentive woman—when she filled my space with her colors and smells, I found it increasingly easier to pull myself together, to actually look at and hear the bustling play of life around me, instead of being the walking shell that had left its viscera in the crisp sun of a land now painted only in my desperate recollections. Instead of trying to recall my mother’s face, I watched the bangles on Fatehma’s hands as she prepared dinner, standing before the stove. Instead of my daughter’s palms, I closed my eyes and saw Fatehma’s face. I began to look forward to the slow late evening stroll between the restaurant and my apartment. Even after so many months, I have been afraid of sleeping at her place, because that space feels twice foreign to me—an uncomfortable den in the cement womb of this city that called me as a reluctant outsider, and never made friends with me. But, this apartment is illuminated with stolen light. To counter the massive misfortunes of both of us, Fatehma has reached with a woman’s graciousness into fate’s pockets and fished out reasons to ground me here—a small statue of Ganesh despite her own religion, a framed calligraphic picture of Mecca, an ornamental knife of the Nepali make, a Laughing Buddha cast somewhere in China—she had shown the sun where to spill, in specific luminosity, that the ever-reducing void between our thrashing skins would be conquered even with Fatehma’s giggles or my silly pranks, my clumsy Urdu and her eagerly expanding bickering of Nepali words.
She calls my name with that captivating playfulness the mornings give her. I am intrepid that she will walk to me, with the ravishing plainness begotten from her sleep, and slip into an embrace of her askance, then judge me, measure me against a woman’s sense for the amiss, and smell out the deceit that lurks in my thoughts. I should say nothing in reply. It shouldn’t be a crime to keep a silence, and I have never probed into her silences. I should have told Fatehma weeks ago about my daughter. I should have told her of the phone calls on Sunday. I should have hugged her and cried about the news from home. I kept a silence, instead. I can’t keep calling it a silence anymore, because it never was anything but deceit. The longer my silence has lasted, the thicker the foulness of my crime. If only mirrors could show how I am razed and torn into bloodied and humiliated slivers flung out for the vultures to feed on, it would make just such a sight of horror to jolt me back into being human. Then I would cry for my daughter, and then I would throw myself upon the ground and cry for Fatehma. But, that is not to be. And, that eager thief, that greedy toll-collector with his thumb pressed over our throats—what if he flees with my daughter before I reach her sick-bed? I want to be with my daughter’s mother, who must now be cursing the night that brings with it the threat, and she must even now be smothering my daughter’s head against her chest. Curse the Maoists, who have destroyed the repeater towers for the only telephone in the village, and curse them some more for burning the only bank three days’ walk away. What is the furor in a message repeated by thirteen friends, over six days, carrying the message of one child’s illness? I am the father, and I need the crippling, dazing blow of immediacy to melt before the words, the speculation about the feebleness of my daughter’s breathing life.
The city is waking up. The kitchen sink has its own morning song—the plumbing in this building doesn’t deserve much merit, but makes up for that folly by taking the sounds from a sink to every other sink in the building. Even in its still dryness, the sink hisses with varying intensity. I used to sit here and listen to the sink attentively, especially during the first few months when my body missed my wife before my heart did, and I missed the air and the lull of my village. I stopped noticing the sink by the time Fatehma’s frequent visits nourished this space. I know I can buy some calm from it. I can mute the maggoty flailing of my thoughts with the simple, unpredictable play of strangers standing in absolution before their mornings, opening the tap to boil water for coffee, to clean junior’s mess, to wash yesterday’s dishes that had to be piled into the sink because there were other, more worthwhile, things to do. I can hear of silent blades washed in cold water, of silent and tired faces staring at the easy clarity of water that is kindness and escape from all corruption that stains the face.
I want to watch the grayness of the city being dispelled by the sun, and another grayness—more of man’s making, more filled with a sapless, shriveled groping of time robbed of its nourishment by people—swell to become the day. I remember the sad light that harkened me away from my village after the Maoists killed my cousin for disagreeing with them, and humiliated my mother before the entire village for being my mother, for bearing a son who dared defy them. My wife and my mother had cried upon seeing me, and I had mistaken their tears for the warmth of happiness alone, but buried in those tears was a curious blend, a tart taste of relief and fear. I couldn’t go to the village teashop to tell stories about the big city, or even to meet my sister in law, a girl I have known since the day of her birth and sought her hand in marriage for my cousin. My mother looked at the shawl and cried and called it a shroud, and I knew that the palpitations of my heart knew much better the homelessness that was my only escape than I would admit to the women with the only claim to my love. Later in the night, I shrouded myself in the warm Kashmiri shawl and visited my cousin’s widow and she wailed when she saw me—her head shaven, a dirty white dhoti around her young bereavement. I gritted my teeth and bit my lips to bleed them because I was angry enough that I would want to spill blood, but there is something as a crippling helplessness, and its cry is a piercing muteness that tears the chest open with gritty, blunt claws. The very next day I had to hurry downhill, through glades with streams of my adolescence games, recounting the faces that had become bloodthirsty enemies because fences had been built with borrowed words, the cold, insurmountable stones of ideologies that wouldn’t stand together. The sun was sharp that day, the forest green as ever and the clouds just as listless—there wasn’t a single speck of gray there, no glaring reflection off towering structures, but a scarlet promise of ruination and slaughter seething under the shimmer of the day. Those shadows that had been like fathers were lurking pools of dread and death, and I wasn’t hurrying to a mirthful rendezvous, but fleeing from everything that I held dear. Let this gray equal that desperation.
Fatehma just called me again. She likes me to hold her in the mornings when bad breath makes us dig our faces into each other, but the thoughtless bask in the night’s cumulative smell and the slow awakening of the body is always comforting. In the smell of cattle that hide in my wife’s hands as she touched my face, and in the smell in Fatehma’s touch, I see equally the man of their desire and devotion. And to see myself so naked before the glare of a prayer, and a song of lust becomes an unbearable ordeal. When, at times, my wife’s ghostly face conjured by my guilt sullenly watches me from a corner of the room as Fatehma sorts through her sheaves of crayon drawings, or reads aloud the various allergies and illness corrupting her ward of a dozen cherubic five-year olds, who am I to decide what my wife means to me? She was written to me at the dawn of her sixth day, just as I was written to her by Karma, that omnipresent dispenser of merits and trepidations, and I am answerable only to my unending cycle of rebirths.
Fatehma wants me under the quilt, in her embrace, but I am afraid she will squeeze the truth out of my shell. I only lightly trace her lips with my fingers and sigh and look out of the window and squint my eyes with a vacant gaze to the horizon, as if I see something there that vaguely interests me, and as if this show of removal doesn’t involve ignoring her. I want to stand by the window again, but I remember instead the envelope under my pillow, with a letter from my wife, carrying a few grains of rice colored in vermillion and a pair of sacred threads. I want to read her words again, although she writes nothing of herself, except that she is happy to look after mother and our daughter. Daughter was happy to chase and lead the goat all the way to the temple of Mankamana mai, where they prayed for my well being and happiness in a land so far away from home. Mother was happy to learn that Pasang had kept his word about work in the restaurant, and that since I cooked Nepali food for people to eat, I was myself perhaps not missing the food so much. Daughter had only just learned her alphabets, and in crude pencil scrawled “Baba” at the bottom, calling me her beloved father. The scribe who had written the letter for my wife had added a few sentences of his own, about how things were getting worse by the day, and how I must be very happy in Kathmandu. I had implored my family to keep it a secret that I was working in America. I dread to think what the Maoists will do to my family if they find out where I am. They did kill a man from another village for spying for the government, and being in America would amount to being a traitor to their cause. They would brand my mother the mother of an imperialist agent, my wife a capitalist whore, my daughter a threat to the revolutionary ideals!
I have to decide soon. If the sun lights this city, it is only because it has pushed my mother and wife into yet another night where benign sleep gives them light shrouds, and death coaxes my daughter away from their dim shared hallucinations. The colors that will come alive to combat the grayness of this city will have to be distilled from the colors of my daughter’s dreams. Every awakening this city wombs, every picture that will find speech, every touch of wonderment on an innocent face is a treasure plundered from my daughter’s breaths, and I must decide. I will silently sneak out of the apartment, race to the stairwell, run down to find a cab that will take me to the restaurant. My wife and my mother are in Kathmandu now, burdening a group of bachelors from the village. Perhaps my mother cooks for them and sends them off to throw stones at the King’s army, or perhaps they sit huddled in a hospital corridor, shooed away by boisterous but well-meaning nurses, soothed by the words of pale, diminutive doctors with kind hands and eyes. Perhaps, even at this very moment, my mother pleads to a guard to let her fetch the sick girl’s mother her dinner. My wife has to feel both the emptiness of hunger, and the emptiness wrought by that dark foreboding, but I can stand here and breathe quick and shallow and pity myself.
Fatehma doesn’t know that she sleeps over tomorrow and the hurt it will gift her. I have decided that I have nothing of value that I ought to take home—I never got around to acquiring the essentials that people here seem to hold so dearly. The first morning that Fatehma woke up in my apartment, she asked me where the toaster was. I did not have one, because I did not eat bread. That was not the only thing I did not have—I had refused the building manager’s request to pay for a telephone line. “If for nothing else, you’ll need a phone to dial 911,” Fatehma had said, but she never complained about not having a telephone in the apartment—I am not sure if that is because she has no one to call, or because she never thought it necessary to let me know of her other acquaintances.
She sleeps over the box where I have saved whatever I deemed worthy of saving from this chapter in my life, and the plane ticket that will transport me back to Kathmandu. I have saved the first picture I took here. Bishal absentmindedly dangled the cord of his camera before the shutter, so dark fuzz borders the photograph on the left. Next to it is Pasang, slightly shorter than me, in a pale shirt and blue jeans, his short, strong hand gripping my shoulder in a brotherly embrace. I stand holding a long ladle with a wooden handle, the funny white hat on my head, a smart white scarf tied around the neck, clean shaven and dressed in a white shirt and a pair of black trousers. The trousers were Pasang’s idea—if I discarded my apron and simply threw on a black waistcoat and a Nepali hat, I could wait tables if I’d finish my chores for the day. Waiting tables would allow me to speak to the Americans, and help me with my spoken English, Pasang constantly reminded me. In the picture I also hold in my hand a stuffed animal which Pasang received from a group of school children whose baking he showcased at the restaurant counter, alongside a gallon jar for donations. If one looks carefully at the picture, Narayan dai’s right shoe appears in the bottom right corner, just exiting the kitchen. Along with that picture, I have a picture of myself standing with my back against the horizon where a choppy gray meets a luminous gray, with the waves lap up to my bare feet, my work shoes hang from my right hand while my left hand rests awkwardly on the waist. Then there’s the newspaper clipping of an advertisement that Pasang bought in a newspaper of the University nearby—it features my name as the “Featured Chef . . . All The Way From Nepal . . . To Tantalize Your Taste Buds . . .” The outline of Everest appears in the background, and a discordant superimposition of Buddha’s introspective eyes hovers just above it. There is no picture of the city, or of Fatehma. I am sure she was always anxious to not allow for the survival of a record of her days with me.
It is time that I made the descent. Fatehma is still in bed, perhaps smiling at the first warmth of the morning sun, perhaps revived by the bright blindness induced by light that dispels what has passed. Of my mother and my wife, I can only speak of what they don’t have, where they can’t be and what can never become of them. But, I am tired of confronting the quelling atrocities of ignorance. I can only think of reaching them before my daughter dies. I can imagine the wrenching hurt in reaching Kathmandu to see my daughter bundled in a white shroud, resting atop a pyre too small to be credulous, but I don’t want the task of imagining the grief in my wife’s heart if she has to wait for me to reach her, with news that will be the conflagrated consummation of our union and Fate’s cruel game. What words will my mother well in her heart that she may console her child on his bereavement? I can sense the perversity required of her if my daughter dies—won’t she have to be a little happy that it is her son’s child that died and not her own? It is time that I made the descent, but shackles forged in the knots of their waiting hearts become just as much of restraints as the intimacy of knowing Fatehma’s presence in the next room.
Surprisingly, the city rushes to me as I stand in my kitchen. Now I know I have not been blind while I walked the hallways of this building and the streets through which I walk to work. I never paid any attention, but now I can recall the color of the doors, a picture of a cat pasted to one of the doors, the building-manager’s bulletin board where he posts comic strips from dailies, the pot by the blind man’s door where a plant sits wilting, the astounding glare of the outside and the endearing coolness of the indoors. Perhaps I carried too much disdain for the taint of green over gray—that sheen of money over everything of man’s making. Perhaps I arrived ready with the nostalgia for what I had left behind, and therefore never paused to accept the surrounding. Perhaps I punished this city just as it sought to accept me. There must be streets here that are just as colorful as the streets in Kathmandu, with the same ring of children’s laughter and the same play of chasing smaller joys. I never paused on the streets to look at the people, but I can see them—those thousands that I passed, and many more that I never encountered. I remember walking around tall buildings and marveling how the giants morphed with the light and the direction, how there was an ever shifting horizon with jagged ribs of concrete and steel, reflections off the glass faces hiding the core of an introverted culture. Even when I walked with Fatehma, somewhat awkward that I had to hold her hand or allow her to lean against me in public, I always looked at her, or at the protective nothingness of the sidewalk under my feet, or the patch of sky seeping through precious space between taller buildings. I brought with me the disdain for everything that wasn’t from my home. I still feel angry that providence plucked me so mercilessly from my hills. That ominous ring! That sour pinch of having to blame fate for everything! I ought to be angry that history bleeds my hills and makes a cowardly fugitive of me, so splendidly buried in the tainted gold of this land while my childhood friends cut each other’s throats. I ought to be angry that my small nation is a pawn in a great game wrought by invisible men, and in the singeing wake of its ravaging I have to be torn as a father and as a son, a husband duty-bound and a miscreant, deceptive lover. I am but only a man, and the hands that shape and slap and salvage me belong to the potent and enigmatic machinations of the unquestionable, the unapproachable.
The city is waking to its gray fate once more, and only the idiosyncrasy of the clouds paints the sky gray even while the sun makes a feeble entry from the east. If I breathe deep, I will perhaps compensate for the air that must be gradually escaping my daughter, and perhaps with the earnestness of my heartbeats I can plead to the faithfulness of her heart. And, still, my name that was spoken twice—in a litany of lust, and in a fervent prayer—will ring not as echoes of the shades of me, but as two competing serpents embroiled in a passionate consummation, biting and swallowing whole the other, and this city and those hills will cry in triumph that I have been banished two folds. What has passed has already entered the absolute. I feign indecision about what was decided in the dark dens of Karma, and I hover as a hollow presence, a dimmed ghoul in this city at the shores of the world, and there is no heart in me to feel the overwhelming hurt.