The Sharma family’s trip to Bombay didn’t go well. The Royal Nepal Airlines plane (before the Royal was taken out of it) started acting funny after half an hour—a strange sound choked the left wing, and the plane began to hiccup—so they had to land in Patna, where the passengers were forced to stay in a hotel for the night. The mishap would have been tolerable had not 21-year-old Nilesh sauntered out of the hotel after dinner to “check out the territory” and within two minutes got mugged in an alley, where two hoodlums pocketed his wristwatch, his gold necklace, and the 20,000 rupees Indian currency stashed in the inside pocket of the coat he had on that warm evening.
“I told you to get traveler’s checks,” Mrs. Sharma shrieked when Nilesh came back, his face bruised and the arm of his coat ripped off. Mr. Sharma slapped him, for that was what he often did to his children in situations where he felt helpless.
Their 18-year-old daughter, Nilima, fat and smart, said, “Maybe this is a sign we should turn back.” She had strongly resisted the trip, saying she needed to study for her A-level exams, whereas everyone knew she didn’t want to be away from her Jitendra, who was so stunningly handsome, with a sleek body and a puff of hair on his forehead, that Mr. and Mrs. Sharma often wondered what he saw in their fat daughter. Mrs. Sharma was convinced Jitendra wanted to marry Nilima for her parents’ money, which didn’t make sense as the Sharma family wasn’t super rich. Mr. Sharma thought Jitendra wasn’t right in the head, and that the puff of hair hid an anomaly in his brain.
Fortunately, the cash wrenched away from Nilesh wasn’t the only money they’d brought for the trip. Mrs. Sharma had another 20,000, which they hurriedly converted to traveler’s checks at the bank before boarding their plane to Bombay the next morning. Throughout the ride, Mrs. Sharma berated Nilesh, who had recently dropped out of college and spent all his time in cinema halls, dreaming of becoming an actor. “Who will marry you like this, huh? So irresponsible. You’ll lose your wife during the wedding procession.” She mimicked him, “‘Oh, I lost my wife. I don’t know how it happened. One moment she was in my pocket, then these hoodlums came and snatched her away.’” Mrs. Sharma laughed loud at her own impersonation, and a flight attendant signaled to her to keep it down.
Nilima was engrossed in a Stephen King novel, ignoring her mother’s rantings and her brother’s sullen face and timid objections. Mr. Sharma was reading the brochure on emergency steps to be taken should the plane plunge toward the earth. Yesterday’s jolts and screams had frightened him. He didn’t want to die yet, at least not before making love to Kanti, his neighbor’s maid who smiled at him coquettishly and didn’t mind his sexual jokes.
At the airport in Bombay, no one came to pick them up. They waited. Mr. Sharma called Ahuja’s home, but no answer. Nilima saw this as another indication that they should hop on the next flight back to Kathmandu. Nilesh got into a staring match with two big, unshaven Indian boys who appeared ready to come over and do something to him, had Mrs. Sharma not scowled at them. After two hours of waiting, the Sharmas decided to take a taxi to Andheri, where Ahuja lived. Mrs. Sharma said that they should take the train, but Nilima outright laughed at the idea. She said she’d rather spend the night at the airport than take the crowded, smelly train. So they took a taxi.
Mr. Sharma wondered what it’d be like to visit Bombay with Kanti. They could run away together and live in one of the numerous shacks scattered throughout the city. She would wear skimpy clothes, her midriff showing, and he’d make love to her all day long and into the night. Mrs. Sharma worried about how she was going to get her fat, smart daughter and her stupid son married. A couple of offers had come for Nilima, but the boys had balked once they saw her, and Mrs. Sharma never heard anything further about the proposals. As for Nilesh, he’d acquired a reputation as a no-good loafer, so no proposal had even come his way. In her mind, Mrs. Sharma saw Nilima married to Jitendra, which gave her a shudder, and she saw unmarriageable Nilesh roaming the streets, getting into drugs and fights, ending up in jail.
As the taxi crawled along the congested Bombay roads, Nilesh replayed last night’s mugging in his mind over and over, but this time as soon as the muggers approached, Nilesh’s left foot shot up like lightning, instantly cracking open one man’s jaw; without looking, Nilesh whirled and slammed the back of his right fist on the second hoodlum’s nose, shattering it so a fountain of blood sprang forth and drenched a crowd of onlookers, who had miraculously appeared to see this brave young man in action and who now applauded as the two muggers crumpled to the ground. Narrowing his eyes, Nilesh asked, “Anyone else?” Nilesh fast-forwarded and rewound this scene over and over, perfecting his kick, making the muggers beg for mercy, and replacing the “Anyone else?” with a howl.
Nilima turned another page of the novel. The family dog, it turned out, had supernatural powers. But was Rusty going to use it to ward off the evil forces? Or was he going to join the dark side and destroy the family?
Ahuja lived in a nice neighborhood in Andheri, on a quiet, tree-lined street. But no one was home—there was a giant padlock on the door. “They must have gone to the airport,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Let’s wait.”
It was only after they’d waited for nearly two hours that a neighbor came over and told them that the Ahujas had gone on a vacation to the mountainous Nainital for two weeks.
“But that can’t be,” Mr. Sharma said. “He knew we were coming. I talked to him on the phone a week ago, and I sent him a message from Patna about our flight’s delay.”
“You’re not the first one,” the neighbor said. “The Ahujas do this to their relatives all the time.”
The Sharmas dragged themselves into a taxi for a ride to a nearby hotel in Juhu Beach, which they knew would be heart-chillingly expensive, but they were too tired and hot to go hunting for a reasonable hotel.
They stayed in Bombay for only three days, not only because money was running out but also because Ahuja’s betrayal had soured everything. Nilima showed very little interest in the sightseeing they did, except for the Hanging Gardens, which she thought were “fabulous.” Nilesh became obsessed with the transvestites who roamed the city in groups. He stared at them, commenting upon their “manly” features. One time he laughed loudly as they passed by, and the hinjadas circled the Sharma family and made threatening gestures. Only after Mr. Sharma handed them a hundred rupees did they leave, singing and clapping. Immediately Mrs. Sharma took off her sandal and smacked Nilesh on his head.
On the flight back to Kathmandu, they hardly spoke to one another. The trip had made Mrs. Sharma even more apprehensive about her children’s marriage prospects—they were either stubborn or stupid. Mr. Sharma could hardly breathe in anticipation of touching Kanti’s midriff, which he knew he had to do the next time they were together alone. Nilima was devouring another book she’d bought at the Bombay airport, a romantic thriller by Danielle Steele. Nilesh woke up from a short nap, scared. He had dreamed about making love to a transvestite and now had a terrific hard-on. He put the airline magazine on his lap so his mother, sitting next to him, wouldn’t notice.
“That’s the last trip we’ll take as a family,” Mrs. Sharma declared as they entered their house. Mr. Sharma immediately went for a walk, hoping that he’d catch a glimpse of Kanti, hanging laundry or dusting a blanket on her balcony, and that he’d quietly approach her. Nilesh went into his room to practice his drums. This was another of his dreams—to become a rock star. He’d tried guitar, but he couldn’t change chords fast enough, and his fingers bled. With drums, all he needed to do was bang away, and there was a semblance of a beat. In his mind, women screamed and men danced as he played. The King of Drums, he was called.
Nilima didn’t come home that night. She’d gone to see Jitendra soon after they reached home, and the two of them decided they missed each other so much that it was time to consummate their bond. “Let’s stay in a hotel tonight,” Nilima said. “It’ll throw a real scare into my parents. Maybe then they’ll stop bad-mouthing you and get us married.”
“But they’ll be so worried,” Jitendra said. He was a sweet boy; he really loved Nilima and, by extension, her parents. But Nilima was too persuasive for him, and they ended up in a hotel in Thamel.
Mr. Sharma did spot Kanti, not on her balcony but outside a shop in the neighborhood. She was talking with a man. Their body language told Mr. Sharma that this was more than a casual conversation. The man was young, about 25, the same age as Kanti. With pangs of disappointment and anger, Mr. Sharma approached them.
“How was Bombay?” Kanti asked when she saw him. Laughter was etched around her lips and her eyes.
“Don’t you have work at home?” Mr. Sharma asked sternly. “Why are you chatting here?”
“I just came to buy something,” she said.
“Go home, go home,” Mr. Sharma said. “Who is he? It’s not good to be standing here, chatting. It doesn’t look good.”
The young man appeared indignant. “I’ll see you again,” he told Kanti and walked away. Kanti and Mr. Sharma began walking. He used his soothing, intimate voice, the one he’d never used on his wife, to mollify Kanti’s anger. “You shouldn’t do these types of things in public. It’ll only bring criticism from everyone, and might even get you fired. I’m a good man, so I won’t tell your employer. But someone else might not be so nice. I am nice because I like you so much. You’re a nice girl. And I’m a nice man. That’s what we have in common, and when people have things in common, they can do many things together. I can teach you many things you didn’t even know existed. Who is that man? What can he give you that I can’t, huh? Tell me, what do you want? Just utter the word, and it’s yours.”
Kanti, who was no fool, said, “What gift did you bring me from Bombay? I want a gold necklace.”
They were nearing Kanti’s house. Mr. Sharma had to think fast. “Is that what you want? You are my queen, so you’ll get what you want. But you also have to do what I ask.” His hand touched her midriff.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Let me see the necklace first,” and she slipped into her house.
Nilesh knew what his father was up to. His room was on the third floor of their house and commanded a view of the surrounding alleys. He saw his father talking to the maid. Remembering his father’s slap in Patna, Nilesh wanted to go down and usher his mother outside so she could witness her husband’s desire. But Nilesh also remembered how she had berated him throughout the trip, and he thought, Let her be ignorant of this; it’ll be fun to watch her face when she finds out. Wouldn’t it be spectacular if the maid became pregnant by his father and demanded a share of their property? He envisioned a little half brother looking exactly like his father—the same prominent Brahmin nose, the long earlobes. Nilesh laughed and went back to his drumming.
By dinner, Mrs. Sharma had begun cursing Nilima. “At her age, she should be helping me cook dinner so that when she gets married, she won’t be an idiot in the kitchen. We’ve got to put a stop to this, do you hear me?” she addressed her husband, who was wondering if Kanti would be able to tell the difference between a gold-coated necklace and a real one. He concluded she would, and ate another mouthful of rice.
“I don’t trust that Jitendra. What are you going to do about it?” Mrs. Sharma asked her husband, then turned to her son. “And you, loafer supreme, how can anyone call you an older brother when you don’t take care of your sister?”
“What can I do?” Nilesh said.
“Leave him alone,” Mr. Sharma said. “And leave us alone, at least for tonight. I don’t care what our daughter does. Just be quiet.”
Mrs. Sharma was going to retort, but she thought better of it, and they all ate their meal in silence.
At 10 o’clock that night, Mrs. Sharma called Jitendra’s house, something she’d never done before. When she identified herself, the man at the other end said, “Oh.” No, Jitendra wasn’t home; neither was Nilima. Jitendra had called and said he was going to a late-night party. Had he gone with Nilima? The man didn’t know. Mrs. Sharma didn’t ask him who he was—probably the boy’s father.
She went to her bedroom and woke her husband, and the two of them made phone calls to Nilima’s friends. Then Mrs. Sharma woke Nilesh violently from his sleep, and sent him out to search for his sister in the neighborhood. They talked of going to the police station, decided against it; they talked of skinning Nilima alive were she to appear at the door shamefaced the next morning. Mrs. Sharma called Jitendra’s house again and argued with the sleepy-voiced father, telling him to keep his son away from her daughter.
By one o’clock, they were exhausted. Mr. and Mrs. Sharma sat on the couch, Nilesh on the floor leaning against the wall. He really wanted to go upstairs to sleep but was afraid of his mother’s tongue-lashing.
Nilima received a slap from her mother when she entered the house the next morning. “I want to marry him,” she told her mother, nursing her cheek. “I don’t care what you say—I won’t marry anyone else but Jitendra.”
Helplessly Mrs. Sharma looked at her husband.
“You’re still too young to be married,” Mr. Sharma said. “Why don’t you finish your A-level exams, and then we can talk about it? But you can’t spend nights with him in hotels. People will spit at you, and tomorrow if he finds another girl, who’ll marry you?”
“If you won’t marry us,” Nilima said, “we’ll have a court wedding. We’ve already decided.”
Mrs. Sharma stepped forward to dole out another slap, but her husband stopped her. “Wait, daughter, what’s the hurry? Finish your exams first, then marry him. That’s all we’re saying.”
Nilima considered. “Okay, but get us engaged now. And we’ll marry after my exams.”
Mrs. Sharma left the room in a huff. Nilesh folded his arms and watched the back and forth between his father and his sister. He knew he was expected to be angry at his sister, probably even shove her around a bit, threaten to beat up Jitendra, but all he felt was admiration. She had a sense of defiance he himself lacked. She’d really shown their parents that they couldn’t push her around.
Later he went to her room. She was sitting in bed, doodling. “What did you do last night?” he asked.
“What business is it of yours?”
“Good, very good. My little sister is really grown up now.”
“I’m glad you noticed,” she said.
“Did you… really…? You don’t have to answer.”
“You’re a strange brother. But yes, I did.”
“Just to spite them?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Now go and do your stupid things.”
Mrs. Sharma called Jitendra’s father, Changu, and arranged for a meeting. That evening Mr. and Mrs. Sharma went to Jitendra’s house, a nice-looking building in New Baneswor with a large yard and two cars. Mrs. Sharma told Changu what her daughter had said. “Frankly, we don’t think she should be married right now,” Mrs. Sharma said. Before, she would have added, “Especially to your son,” but the family’s obvious prosperity had softened her stance toward Jitendra. Instead, she said, “But what to do? Their eyes are fixed on each other.”
“These young people,” Changu said. “Once their minds are made up, even Lord Indra’s dad Chandra can’t shake them.”
There was silence while they contemplated the mysterious ways of the young. Changu was smoking from a hookah. He took a long drag, then said, “Well, you’re a good family, and we also don’t have a bad name in town. If they want to get engaged, let them do it. If we don’t agree to this and they decide to elope, our noses will be cut.” His index finger mock-serrated the tip of his nose as illustration.
On the way home, Mrs. Sharma said, “Well, at least they’re not poor. That was a nice house, and he seemed like a nice man.”
Mr. Sharma nodded absentmindedly. During the hustle-bustle of the engagement, he should be able to siphon off a few thousand rupees for the gold necklace. Perfect, oh, perfect, he thought. That damn Kanti. She had been avoiding coming to the balcony, as if challenging him about his gift. He had to get that gold necklace for her if he wanted to make any progress.
The engagement date was fixed for three weeks later, with a promise from both Jitendra and Nilima that they would spend nights in their respective beds and that Nilima would study for her exams at least a few hours a day. Jitendra had to study for nothing. He’d failed his School Leaving Certificate exams twice, and everyone expected him to fail the third time, too. That her future son-in-law, like her son, was academically inept bothered Mrs. Sharma. “What is he going to become without even an SLC? A peon? How is he going to feed Nilima?”
“She’s going to feed him,” Nilesh said. Lately, taking courage from his sister’s actions, he’d become bolder in talking to his mother.
“Look who is talking,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Loafer, good-for-nothing. And what are you going to become? Who is going to marry you?”
“If someone like you could find a husband,” Nilesh said, “why wouldn’t I find a wife?”
Mr. Sharma laughed, and Mrs. Sharma tried to smack her son, but he made a scary face and said, “Don’t you dare.” And Mrs. Sharma didn’t dare—she was losing control over her family, and she didn’t even know about Kanti yet.
The incredibly handsome but SLC-failed boy got engaged to the fat, smart girl. Nilima was already pregnant, a fact she hid from everybody, even Jitendra. What she herself didn’t know was that the baby would be stillborn, and that it would break her heart, starting her on bouts of depression that would last a lifetime, and that Jitendra, the ever-devoted husband, would stick by her side until she died. They would not have another child. “I’m dry, I’m dry,” Nilima would cry late into the night, and Jitendra would soothe her with his soft voice emerging from those delicate lips. But for now Nilima was pregnant and happy, and she knew she would do well in her A-level exams because she was smart and knew everything.
Mr. Sharma made love to Kanti two neighborhoods away in a small room that belonged to a carpenter who’d done odd jobs in his house. For his “hospitality,” the carpenter received 500 rupees, with a strict warning not to divulge Mr. Sharma’s secret to anyone. Kanti had already received her necklace, a 10,000-rupee affair he’d found in a shop in New Road. Mr. Sharma hadn’t felt so alive in years, certainly not all those times he’d slept with his wife. Kanti was adept at pleasing a man—her tongue did wonderful things to Mr. Sharma’s aging body. Loud noises—laughter, coughs, groans, and moans—emerged from his throat that afternoon, and he knew he would do it again and again and again with Kanti, and feel younger and younger. Little did Mr. Sharma know that he’d gotten Kanti pregnant right on that first day (the condom had broken during penetration), and she’d give birth to a baby boy who looked exactly like his father, as the other son had so faithfully intuited.
That afternoon Mr. Sharma also didn’t know that Mrs. Sharma would eventually divorce him, something he couldn’t ever have imagined. She’d put all their property in her name, then file for divorce, forcing him to live poorly with Kanti and their new son, shunned by friends, relatives, and even the carpenter on whose bed he’d manufactured his lookalike progeny. Mr. Sharma would deal with this ostracism with laughter on his lips and happiness in his heart, even though Kanti’s midriff would sag after their son’s birth. Mr. Sharma would walk the streets with swagger. He would be proud of this incredible turn his life had taken.
Mrs. Sharma worried about Nilima. The A-level exams were only two weeks away, but Nilima had taken her engagement with Jitendra as license to spend all day at his house. Mrs. Sharma cursed Changu for being so lenient, but she didn’t say anything for fear of spoiling the new in-law relationship. In a way, she was relieved about Nilima’s impending wedding. Jitendra was foolish and immature, but he doted on Nilima. Despite herself, Mrs. Sharma had grown to like Jitendra, who was always polite and sweet. Not like Nilesh, whose sullen face only aroused her anger.
And Nilesh? What was going to happen to him? Defying everyone’s expectations, and surprising even himself, Nilesh would become one of the leading movie actors in the country. He’d haunt the dreams of young girls and boys, who would cover their bedroom walls with his posters and pray to him more than they prayed to Lord Ganesh. He’d ride in a fancy BMW, and he would star in movies that would not only become blockbusters but also win him accolades from even the most bitter of critics. He would end up owning his own production company that would make one hit after another. No one could have predicted this, but this is how the world works. One moment, you are stuck, and then the moment expands, as if God were forcing it open with his pretty bare hands, and you find yourself in another dimension, and you are still you, but the world around you has suddenly changed colors.
Mrs. Sharma’s colors would change, too, but right now, wrapped in worries about her children while her husband explored Kanti’s body in the carpenter’s bedroom, she didn’t know that after her divorce, she would discover in the temple of Swayambhunath a swami whose soft words would make sense of the suffering inflicted upon her by her husband. She would see in a millisecond of remarkable clarity (God’s hand at work) that she had invited the suffering upon herself, that all suffering was self-induced, and—this is where her spiritual evolution would begin—that all of life was suffering. This insight would lead her to a place deep inside where she would no longer feel her physical self. Her body would turn into air, and she would fly over the city, glimpsing the lives of her one-time family, their suffering: “I want to die,” bedridden Nilima would say to her husband; Nilesh would laugh at a film clip in the air-conditioned auditorium in his luxury house, his arm around another man’s shoulder; Mr. Sharma would accompany his lookalike son to his first day in school.
© 2017 by Samrat Upadhyay