Fiction / May 2008 (Issue 3)


by Sushma Joshi

Betrayal is one of those things that you can mull over, replaying over and over in your mind like an old cassette tape, shifting through the events that led up to it and trying to piece the blatant signs that you must have missed, puzzling over the image that somebody presented and the totally contradictory reality, but no matter how hard you feel the anger and the pain and try to rework memory, nothing about betrayal will ever, perhaps, make sense.

For instance, take Mahesh. My best friend. At least, so I thought. I was ready to give my life for him at one point. But then our friendship had unraveled one fine morning at the Tribhuvan International Airport. No matter how hard I tried to piece my scattered facts and half-remembered feelings together later, I still can't understand how it came to the point that it did.

In the loud, humid nights of Bombay, we had spent enough time together reminiscing about our lives in Nepal, our hopes, dreams and slowly fading aspirations, enough time to reach a point where we could talk about things like love and betrayal, to realize that we were going to be life-long friends. We had reached the point where we could talk about the torturous unspeakables that hurt us and brought us the most pain, without feeling vulnerable.

He told me about his girl who had run away with the Kashmiri carpet merchant a day before their marriage. I told him about Radha, my wife, who had run away from her previous husband to be with me and now had eloped again, this time with a police officer ten years younger than her. "The man massages her feet every night, Mahesh!" I told him in that first agony of discovery when I called one night to my own home and heard, alas, the deep voice of another man picking up my own phone from the other end. Radha, unlike her faithful mythological namesake, had the temerity to tell me that she was with this police officer now, and that he massaged her feet every night! Telling me this as if I am her fucking confidante! Then, without a pause, she asked me to sign over the house to my son as if I didn't even have a say in my own house, my own wife, my own children. That bitch. I should have known better, I should never have married her. But I am running ahead of myself.

We were both working as construction workers in Bombay when I first met Mahesh. Our tekhdar had put us in the same cramped room where the cockroaches ran around like a brown and shifting army and the room smelt of unwashed clothes and dried cum as the men massaged their youths and dreams away in the dreary wetness of their own tired hands. I slept on the floor on a piece of dari. He had been in Bombay long enough to have his own wooden bed, his own green bedsheet, his own wall full of posters of Sridevi, his own small radio that crackled like an loud and angry polythene bag all night and kept us awake during the early morning. He loved that radio, and spent hours and hours in front of it, listening to music and advertisements and propaganda and the static from the faraway world of BBC and Radio America. Of course he did not know a word of English, but he did not seem to care as he sat over it, hour after hour, listening to the staticky excitement and roars of a world which was quite beyond his reach or comprehension, except in this aural dimension. "Shut the fucking radio off, Mahesh!" I would growl, but he would pretend to be deaf and keep turning that dial. Of course I did not know then, when I heard that static late after a tiring day at work and cursed that madman Mahesh and his accursed radio, that in another ten years I would learn English and travel abroad and even make enough money to build another house. Miracles do happen, and I always knew I was going to learn to read and write. But that again is another story.

That was fifteen years ago. After many shoddy architectural edifices and near death experiences, we both left the construction business and our questionable tekhdar to a more lucrative and cushy job in the hotel industry. It was Mahesh who convinced me to leave. "Netra fell off the scaffolding off the new building. The tekhdar doesn't want to give the money for his body to be sent back home," he told us one night after work. He looked haggard.

"Bichara!" Homraj, the oldest of us all, exclaimed. "The poor man's wife is expecting a third child. Now how will they all live?"

We all knew, without being told, that Netra's wife might end up in Kamathipura if her father's family did not take her in. We all raised a hundred rupees somberly, so that his body could be flown back home to be cremated. "I guess the only way we can get on an airplane is as a corpse," Homraj joked as he collected the soiled notes from my hand. None of us had ever flown, but the urgency of the situation demanded the body be flown back as quickly as possible.

That night, lying in his bed, Mahesh said to me, "Gautamay, I am going. And you're coming with me."

Where?, I said. I thought maybe he had a sudden craving for cigarettes at midnight, and needed company.

"If we stay with this tekhdar, the only way we will get home is wrapped in a white shroud." His voice was matter-of-fact as he said this. I got the chills hearing his voice in the dark.

"I don’t know where we could go," I said. I had arrived at seventeen, and been in Bombay the last four years. I didn't know a thing about anything else besides mixing cement, carrying sand, and laying bricks.

"I have a friend we can stay with," Mahesh said. "Many people from our village work in the hotels in Colaba."

"Where's that?" 

"It's down by the sea. You'll see."

The next morning, Mahesh and I took a train down to Colaba. When we got to Victoria Station, men started flying into the train before it had even come to a halt, hundreds of them flowing in perfectly synchronized rhythm into the compartment like trapeze artists. I stood there amazed, trying to understand what was happening. The men, it appeared, were flying into the train to reserve a seat for the long train ride. By now the school of men had forced me up on the seat, where I stood, gawking like a village bumpkin. Mahesh grabbed me by the arm and told me to start marching. We walked down to Colaba, which it turned out, was the area where all the rich people lived. The Taj Hotel shone like a palace. Right in front of it was the Gateway of India, leading out to the empty sea. Birds flew in graceful flutters around the gateway, splattering the stones with white birdshit. I felt my heart lift at the same time as I felt the panic of surviving in this new world.

"Are you sure we can find work, Mahesh?" I said. "Perhaps we should go back."

He smiled at me then, a sardonic smile that was classic Mahesh. "Don’t be a fool," he said. "What would you rather be—a caged bird, or one of these?" And then he threw a piece of bread at a gull, which flew down and snatched it up before flying away with a loud honk.

We stayed with Mahesh's cousins, who put us up in their dera. There were already eight people living in the room, so two more was not a problem. I managed to get a job as a security guard in the Oberoi, one of the bigger hotels on Marine Drive, where the hiring manager took a liking to my smiling Nepali face. Mahesh, with his darker face and big eyes, was disadvantaged in Bombay. In spite of his inability to speak Hindi and his marginal grasp of filmi knowledge, there was still a question mark on his claim to be a honest smiling Nepali who would not stab his employers to death when they were asleep. Finally, his naivete and disingenuity marked him out and the manager signed him on as a reception boy at the Grand Wheatley's Hotel. Grand Wheatley's Hotel was a venerable institution with marbled stairs and Colonial era furniture that catered to romantically inclined Continental tourists who came to fulfill their obligatory pilgrimage to the subcontinent and to stock up on cheap clothes and also, more importantly, to taste the quick and instant packages of recreated Sahibdom.  

Mahesh and I, temporary visitors, soon become the ninth and tenth roomates of his cousins. The room was a bit crowded, true, but this did not deter us from our night discussions. Mahesh and I had by this time established a mutual habit of nocturnal guff-gaff, based less on our national origins than our previous history of brutally frank talks about life, love and its existential questions. All of this would be trashed out in the tired, zero watt light of the kitchen where the sink was full of dirty dishes, and where food was gobbled down quickly and without ceremony to leave room the mouth and tongue free for more important activities. "Will you two shut up? What do you think you are, politicians?" the others growled from their pallets as we, two insomniacs drunk on too much radiowaves, discussed our country, Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, the legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, yes, even that—and how our dreams of becoming educated was going down the drains with the leftover food as we saw our youth seeping away in the piles of concrete and garbage that was Bombay. Then later we would go back and obsess about the women, once again, always the women, sapping our energies and filling our dreams with hot, wet desires, unfulfilled even when we went to visit the sweet didi-bahini who lined the streets of Kamathipura and who gave us their bodies and their thighs and even their sweet tasting cunts but would not condescend to give us anything beyond that, damn them. 

Mahesh used to call me Bhai, in deference to my chronological age. I was a month younger than him. I was born in the full moon of Baisakh just like Gautama Buddha, so they named me Gautam. I was pleased to have the Buddha as my namesake, even though he managed to reach enlightenment much earlier than me, comparatively speaking. But I was always a late bloomer—always finishing everything later than everybody else. I was in my mother's womb for ten months, a very long time. Rumors that my mother was going to give birth to an elephant were circulating when I popped out. Then I did not start to speak until I was four. My seriously worried mother got the jhankri to come and cut a chicken over my head. Only when the blood dripped on me that I in rage and anger screamed out my first word—"Na!" Always saying no, no, no, that's all you ever did your entire childhood, my mother complained to me.

My voice cracked later than everybody, I received my first signs of facial hair about three years later than all the boys of my age, and I was even a foot shorter than the rest—although I must have dreamt about women on my mother's back. I was well ahead of the other boys in that department, to the extent of sleeping with Mina Didi when I was thirteen. Mina, my best friend's sister, seemed to have found her husband's four years disappearance to India intolerable and had been known to sleep with half of the men in the village. I had the distinction of being the man—well, okay, boy—that she chose from my age group, please note. Even though I was a foot shorter than everybody else, and my voice was still uncracked. I guess she liked my little boy's looks. There is no accounting for the taste of women. They're all erratic crackpots, all of them, but this of course I would only discover, bit by painful bit, later, later, later—then I was just happy to straddle Maili on top of the millet field and feel the scratchy sod beneath our bodies and to see her panting and moaning like a bitch. And what a bitch she was! The finest, but I am running ahead of myself again.

Well, anyway so Mahesh and me. We used to go to Kamathipura together, and by and by we started to feel that our dreams of being satiated by sex were going down the drain, like our youth, and finally Mahesh figured out that what we were missing in our lives was not sex, of which we had plenty, but love. But this beast is of course much tougher to find in that big behemoth sprawling complex of despair and alienation known as Bombay. Mahesh, taking his life into his own hands, offered his hand in marriage to the women that he liked on Kamathipura several times. They kept rejecting him, without animosity, over and over again. We have just paid our debt and don't want to be owned by anybody again, thank you, they said. He begged and pleaded and said he just wanted to love them and make them happy for the rest of their lives. They gave him their enigmatic smiles and told him Sorry Love, we are happy to have you over for the night but we can't imagine an entire lifetime. So this is the despair that had finally driven us both back to our home country, the thought of pure, unimaginable loneliness.

So we returned home to Nepal, and tried to rebuild our lives. Lots and lots of things happened in-between, of which I will spare you the details, except for the pertinent ones. We both settled in Kathmandu, even though our families remained in the village. Mahesh and I bought land, build a small house, and started a small restaurant with our savings. The newfound partner, a fast-talking man who I had warned Mahesh to be careful about, but who had swept Mahesh along on a tide of facts, figures, and future projections, ran away one fine summer day. He had taken not just the petty cash from the till, but also three lakh rupees he had managed to get as a bank loan, after putting the land of our restaurant down as collateral. After a month, the fledgling restaurant went bankrupt.

I got married to a sweetly rounded dumpling who called herself Devi and whom I adored like the dumpling goddess that she was until small marital discord involving nasty fiscal things started entering our perfect married lives. I went to the astrologer, at Mahesh's behest. The astrologer said that it was the year of my Saturn's return. He told me that a woman had come into my life, but she was not the one. I would have to wait another 29 years before everything was resolved again. I paid him my hundred rupees and said Thank You politely, then said Fuck That! to Mahesh as I walked home. Whereupon I came upon my rented house emptied of all its furnishings and even the beds stripped of its sheets, and was told by my neighbors that my Devi had run away with a Malay Gurkha returnee with a motorcycle.

I was heartbroken. I set fire to her photograph that I carried in my wallet. I shred my shirt to bits. Then, not finding relief, I kicked over the potted plant she had left by the door. "You can't take this so hard, Bhai," Mahesh consoled me. "Dukha-sukha are the same thing. They come, and they go."

"But why does it have to be that way?" I raged. In the English language, which I had started to learn, happiness and sadness were not stuck together at the hip like Siamese twins. "Why?" I yelled in a rage.

He shrugged. He put on some water to boil. "You can't have one without the other," he replied, handing me my tea. "Its like making tea without water—is that possible? No. You can't know happiness without feeling sadness. Same principle the other way around." I could not help hating Mahesh when he gave me these pat answers.

I moved in with Mahesh, and we lived together as brothers again for more than five years. Then the Democracy movement hit fever pitch, and somehow we both found ourselves handing out the leaflets of the Marxist-Leninist communist party without realizing we were in the thick of it. Only when we found ourselves surrounded by two million people chanting and breaking glass outside the Royal Palace did we realize the full import of what was happening. "We-Want-Demo-Cracy! We-Want-Demo-Cracy! We-Want-Demo-Cracy!" the people chanted, and all the old Newari men dozing behind their windows wondered why all these people were screaming their heads off and rioting for demokwasi, demokwasi, demokwasi, which to the old geezers just meant the plain and simple testicular organ of the male cow. Democracy, hoofed and horned and snorting, had arrived and slapped us on the head like a bull's testicles, but we couldn't realize the full import of it until six years later.

So Mahesh joined the United Marxist-Leninist party. I meanwhile, sat on the fence. Did I mention I was a late bloomer? Or maybe I was just a bit more enlightened than him, having more caution and less faith than my passionate friend who liked to jump head first without thinking. I, having been burnt by too many women and knowing the taste of betrayal, was not going to put my hands in anything quite that sticky again. There is no safe politics, just as there is no safe sex, and I wasn't going to put my life on the line for some questionable, virus ridden parties. Six years later, when nothing had changed and the political parties started to fight like packs of street-dogs and there was even more corruption then when there was no Democracy, underground whispers about the Maoists started to float by us, and we both decided to enlist. Becoming an insurgent sounded like a good idea, especially in our present, deplorable conditions of unemployment where our status as political activists had been undermined by the sheer hunger and misery of our conditions, which had reached an all time low that could not even be compared to the memories of what, in rose-coloured hindsight, seemed like an Utopian, nostalgically lost Bombay existence. Lost Utopias can usually never be regained, and the only thing to do in such case is instant dismemberment of memories and hopefully, of the corporeal mechanism that makes memories possible. Hence, enlistment.

So there we were, up in the beautiful hills, surrounded by trees, with fires and the first full meal I had had in a while and beautiful women dressed in tight outfits around us that night. Insurgent Camp. I took a deep breathe of the pine trees, and smiled to myself. Almost Heaven, Argakhanchi. In the daytime however, carrying this huge and awkward gun and dressed in a tight, tight outfit, marching like some bloody soldier, I started to have second thoughts. What was I doing? I thought. Of course I had read all the literature about The People's War and the Revolution and comradeship and it had sounded good, from the city. Now here I was strapped in with a gun and a hundred other individuals burning with ideology, and I, being the late bloomer, started to feel uneasy. After all, being a revolutionary was no mean feat, and I, a foot shorter than everybody, and having started later on facial hair than everybody, could not really hope to compete. Something inside me told me this gig was not for me. I turned to Mahesh my old buddy and said: "I think its about time I left this camp, yaar." But he gave me this big frown and whispered: "Stick it out, Bhai, and you will be happy." So here I was, unwilling recruit, and I did my damned best to be happy—you know what I mean? I mean I really tried to be happy.

So the long and short of it of course is that we attacked a Police Post, and there was lots of blood and dismemberment and screaming, and all I can remember is that I am  holding onto my gun and running as fast as I can, slipping away to hide behind the nearest hill because—did I say this before?— I hate the smell of blood. I truly do. So that was that.

Mahesh performed heroically in that battle that day. Although five hundred people died on both sides, two hundred on ours and three hundred on theirs, both sides felt pretty good about the outcome because blood had been let and heads had been chopped off and we had both proved our inalienable rights to bravery and our firm commitments and attachment to our ideals. Except for me. There was a frown on each revolutionary face as they looked at me, but the skirmish had been so bloody and there had been so much confusion that fortunately nobody had noticed that I was sitting behind a rock with my arms over my head, singing Jomsomay-bazzarma—all right, all right, it was a bad choice and I apologize, but that's the only song whose lyrics I know by heart, okay?—over and over again like some bloody pop star, and that I didn't chop off a single bloody head. Dereliction of duty, but I wasn't about to volunteer this information, not the least to old Comrade Rambahadur who took these things seriously and might decide to put me to a military style execution if he found out about this shocking breach of etiquette. And that would not be a good thing.

So this continued for a while, me and Mahesh talking about life and love and all good things in-between by the fire before we went back, once more, to train to be fearsome revolutionaries during the daytime. Of course anybody who has been through the boot camp of migrant labour does not want to repeat the experience for whatever reason, and when I decided to run away from Insurgent Camp it was not because I did not believe in true revolutionary change—which I truly do, I swear on Chairman Mao's dead body itself—but I was just getting really tired of the old usineko rice. You know what I mean? I mean after fifteen years of eating good rice in Bombay you don't want to go back and be eating some stinking shit stolen from an Army barrack—especially when you hear that the Brahmin leaders of the Maoist movement, please note, are eating the best and finest Basmati. This is enough to piss off any hale and hearty revolutionary, and I, being only four feet ten, had even more of a reason for grievance.

Mahesh and I parted company that night when I sneaked away and ran to town as fast as my little legs could carry me. I was defecting, and this meant that I was also cutting off all my relations with Mahesh my brother, my buddy, my companion who had been through hell with me, and back, because he would not give up being a damn revolutionary. Well, fuck that. At least I was going to eat some good rice, that's all I could say.

After running away from the Maoist dream I found myself playing a part in the capitalist one. I found a job to be the security guard at the Bhatbhateni supermarket. All these posh people would come driving up in their Pajeros and I got to direct their cars to the left or the right of this tiny parking space, after which they would unload their spoilt children and their loaded wives—and the women and the children and the men, all overweight, would walk into that temple of consumption to buy the latest Western goods. I didn't feel any better working at the supermarket than I did being a revolutionary, I finally figured out, and it was only after six months of watching the grotesque, bloated figures of urban privilege load up with their cheese and their chocolates that I realized I needed to get out of my country. Period. I needed refuge, asylum. I could not take the war, and I could not take the peace. I had to get out, and when I needed to get out, I ran fast.

That's how I ended up in Hong Kong for two years. All these people pour into Nepal to find themselves, to find God, to find peace, to find wisdom, and it seemed unfair to me that the only place where I could go to find all these things, including myself, was across the border to India. Bombay is not much of a place to find anything, far less yourself—its so crowded that you could get lost and not find yourself before the next morning. Hong Kong, on the other hand, according to my relatives, had been a nice place for them to find themselves. All those supermarkets, all those stores, all those jobs, all that money. All those outlets to nurture hopes and aspirations for a little house loaded with a Sony stereo system, a Samsung colour television, a white fridge, a nice electric fan, a bright red radio. Oh yes, they had really discovered their innermost beings in the shiny glitter of Hong Kong. They had found themselves, not just in the solace of late capitalism, but the bright, ephemeral excesses of globalized consumerism. I knew I had to make my own pilgrimage.

I met enough people at the supermarket, and they found me charming enough that they offered me a job as a courier. All I had to do was go to Hong Kong and come back loaded with the legal minimum allowance of gold. And that was it. No drugs, no illegal substances in my butthole. Just gold, and apparently this was lucrative enough for people to fund a flight to Hong Kong for a smiling, dashing individual like me. They also made me wear about ten layers of sweaters and three jeans and about ten gold watches on my hands, five on each side, so that they could avoid paying taxes for these items of personal use, but this was just a minor discomfort for the privilege of travelling to Hong Kong. I went back and forth a couple of times, then saved enough money to buy my own ticket to the neon city.
I found a job as a security guard at the supermarket—you beginning to see a pattern here? The Smiling Face of Security, brought to you from the Beautiful, Himalayan kingdom of Nepal?—and after two years, made enough money to replace the house that Radha-the-unfaithful and the mother of my children stole from me, damn that bitch. So I came back again. Of course this was my biggest mistake.

I stepped off the plane wearing my new blue jeans and that Chanel t-shirt that I had picked off the footpath for a couple of dollars. In my green army bag I had three boxes of eau de toilette, a dozen new shirts, a couple of gold watches, also purchased off the footpath. In my belt, I had a wad of shining new Hong Kong dollars, enough to build a little house in the rice fields near Sanepa. And that was my downfall. I smelt the old smell of urine of Tribhuvan airport and felt the sting of homesick tears in my eyes. As the tears cleared, I saw that the custom officer was not waving me on, but beckoning me to the room next door with a grim look in his eyes. I felt trepidtious and not especially safe. Could I get away by bribing him with a watch? Or would he want money? Some money? All of my money? Or worse, would he want more than that, my soul and my guts and my entire being, as the immigration officials in Tribhuvan Airport had a habit of demanding?

This was going to be a guts and soul day. Two guards took me to the next room and stripped me of my clothing. They even shook out my underwear, as if they expected gold, or bombs, to drop out of it. I wasn't quite clear on what they were looking for. They didn't seem to know either. The officer who took my money belt away from me fulfilled my expectations—big-boned, sour face, shifty look in the eyes. My own voice sounded ineffectual and puny as I protested.

They forced me to sit at a table, with the officer on one side, another man on the other. "Where did you get this money?" the officer asked me. "I earned it!" I said irritated, and also fearful, all of a sudden. I felt the urge to grab my bag of money from their hands and run away from them, and this insane desire was translated into action as I suddenly lunged, butt-naked, and managed to grab my money away from their hands.

"Hold him!" I heard a voice behind me, as the men descended on me in an iron vise and I stood shivering and naked in the sudden chill of Kathmandu. It was the voice of Mahesh, my long-lost, long-loved buddy. "Mahesh!" I turn joyfully, only to see a man with cropped hair and a hangdog face, almost as if he could not bare the shame of seeing me. And suddenly I knew that I would not have been pulled in where it not for him. He was the one who had pointed me out from the long line of people coming back home. I looked at him and betrayal, at that moment, become personified in the tightness of a second and the blur of time cut like a whiplash against the universe. He hung his head and could not meet me in the eye.

The officer came up to me and slapped me with a palm that rocks me on my feet. "Special Agent Mahesh Tiwari!" he snapped at me grimly, and then turns to his orderlies: "Take him away!" he said. "He's under suspicion of being a Maoist, and is now under arrest!"

A thousand thoughts went through my head. So Mahesh was not a Maoist anymore? Or had he penetrated the beaureacracy until he was indistinguishable from the police, while still holding Maoist sympathies? His behavior was consistent at this time and place with both Maoist and/or police techniques. In the shifting political sympathies and moral quicksand of Nepal, I, a neophyte baptized in the consumeristic excess of Hong Kong and scrubbed, as it were, of the knowledge necessary for this chameleon-like shifting of allegiances, am at a loss. What can I say to this man that I last saw sleeping under the full moon, his gun cradled in his arms like a baby, his Mao booklet by his head? What could I say to this man now who now seemed to have defected to the other side? And even if he had defected, why the fuck were they holding me, a migrant labourer, as if I was some revolutionary? Hadn't I run like the devil when I saw the heads flying that one decisive night in late August? "You dhokaybaj motherfucker!" is the only coherent thing that comes tearing out of my mouth like a sob as they drag me away.

I am unable to decide, as I write this from the jail where I rot with a hundred other journalists, lawyers, students, and human rights activists all accused of being Maoists, what I had done to Mahesh that made him turn against me. Or perhaps, it is what he did to himself that made him turn against himself. Is ideology, as a matter, perhaps so fickle it can turn from left to right and then back again without a second glance? When does it pass the 360 degree line, and when does it start to merge from the outer ends? Was he taking out his rage against his own defection by punishing me, because I was the first one to do it, and not himself? Is belief in the effectiveness of violence a necessary ingredient for being a man in the modern world, and if so, does the sacrifice of bodies that lie rotting on the hillsides of a hundred countries a necessary prerequisite for fueling the global economy as well as the ticking of the revolutionary heart? Can we hope for a world other than the one that we have chosen, for one brief moment to support, or is it possible to get out of these momentary choices without being a total traitor? Can I, in other words, go back to discussing Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with some long-lost friend in some moonlit night before my life goes down the drain like grains of rice, and am I allowed to ask why this betrayal? But of course, no matter how much I mull this over, over and over, no matter, there can, of course, be no explanation, and there can be no rewind, and no rerecording of a song that is already magnetically inscribed for perpetuity. No explanation whatsoever will suffice for why betrayals take place. Nor for why we continue to betray ourselves and one another, over and over. 

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