Destination Kathmandu

“You get a strange feeling when you leave a place, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you miss the person you are at this time and place because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

 – Azar Nafasi

 

 “I’ve picked out the stones, dada. Will you teach me how to play now?”

Arjun glanced up, the innocuous question breaking him away from his reverie. Dazed, he blinked several times before looking fondly at his younger sister, Laxmi, who in her petite hands held out an assortment of pebbles.

“You won’t need all of these,” he commented.

Laxmi carefully dropped the stones in her brother’s outstretched hands and sat cross-legged, her pigtails dangling with every shake of the head.

Wiping the dust off the pindhi, Arjun firmly sat down and spread out the pebbles. Contemplation flitted across his features as his fingers, gnarled and fatigued from the day’s work, perfectly poised, hovered in mid-air above the stones.

He expertly plucked five, plump and rounded, among the many and rolled them around his fingers. “To play gatta, you need five pebbles that you can easily pick off the floor.”

Laxmi, who already seemed to know this, pursed her lips impatiently, waiting for more information as her fingers fidgeted edgily.

“Then,” he continued, keeping a wary eye on her, “you throw them like so.” He scattered the pebbles on the floor. “Now,” he said, “you slowly pick them up one by one - ” he picked up one of the five pebbles, threw it in the air as his fingers grabbed another one and, noiselessly, caught the stone in mid-air in his palm –“like this.”

She blinked, long lashes sweeping under her eyes.

He carefully plucked all of the remaining three stones, finishing off the first round of the game, and, with a faint smile, handed them back to his sister. “Your turn.”

Nai, teach me how to play the second round as well,” Laxmi protested, her brown eyes narrowing on him.

His lips quirked into an endearing smile. “Only after you learn how to do this,”  he pointed out. “Then, I’ll show you.”

With a petulant pout turning down the corners of her lips, Laxmi gathered all the stones and turned away.

Arjun, not unknown to his sister’s tantrums, smiled to himself. He had seven years of experience with her behaviour and knew that eventually, she would come around. He glanced out of the pindhi of their mud house, and stared ahead at the fields, full of mustard plants, that stretched on endlessly before him until they collided with a hill that morphed into the five pm sky. He once used to be fascinated by those fields but familiarity had long since rendered it ordinary.

A gentle breeze pricked the air and ruffled his choppy, black hair. He gazed at his murky reflection in the puddle of water that Laxmi had spilled earlier. His eyes, impassive and hollow, stared back at him, and, through the reflection, he could see that they were deep black, supposedly like the eyes of the devil as his father so often reminded him. His bony cheekbones jutted out, his brown skin taut over them and as he took in the plethora of freckles dotting his nose, he came to the painful realization that had circumstances been different, he would look different too, anything other than looking like a scrawny and under-nourished person. Maybe he would actually look a fifteen year old boy. Maybe if he wasn’t forced to look after his small family of three, while his useless father went and got drunk at every chance he could seize, he would actually be like those kids his age currently racing through the mustard fields. Maybe, instead of spending the entire day collecting firewood and desperately trying to sell it in the market, he would be like them too, like those kids in the fields who were running faster than the wind, shoulders free of burden, leaves rustling their naked calves, eyes swimming with excitement and the bliss of young innocence permanently etched onto their faces.

He swatted away a group of mosquitoes hovering in front of his nose and cast a furtive glance at his sister, who had managed to engross herself with the stones.

Mid- afternoon till dusk.

That was his favourite time of the day, with all of his work done and completed, and time still left before his father came home. It was the only time of the day that his time belonged to him and only him. And like every day, he would sit on the pindhi and imagine. He would imagine what life would be like away from there, away from Khudi, Lamjung where he belonged, away from the hills and valleys that seemed to dominate his vision perpetually. He would imagine what life would be like in Kathmandu, the only place he’d ever dreamt of going to, and would ponder if he would ever get to set a foot in the infamous capital city. It seemed like a hopeless, distant dream. Deep within, he knew he would never be able to go there; people like him weren’t privy to that kind of privilege, but his imagination somehow made it possible and every day, he would sit there, on the same spot and, in his head, roam the developed streets of Kathmandu. He’d heard that people there wore western clothes and maybe, one day, he too would sport those absurd looking hats and wear those fancy jeans, like the ones he’d seen on the tourists who frequented Khudi. Maybe he too would ride in extravagant cars, visit malls and do all those things he’d heard about and finally, maybe, people would look at him with respect.

In the distance, walking the goreto that snaked around many thatched houses, like a ribbon, and abruptly ended at his, with an unwieldy body, was a man who seemed to teeter precariously with every step he took.

Arjun’s stomach churned in discomfort, eliciting frown lines at the centre of his forehead. His mind, bursting with images and scenarios, brusquely came to an unexpected halt, snapping back to reality.

He heaved a resigned sigh. “Laxmi, Baba’s here. Go inside and stay there until I call you for dinner.”

Laxmi jumped at once, her delicate face contorting into a frown. She peered into the distance, and after locating the silhouette that was inching closer and closer, abandoned the pebbles. Without a minute’s pause, she scuttled inside, the tail of her skirt sweeping the floor.

Arjun hopped off the pindhi and promenaded inside the house, his peace of mind now disrupted. He wondered angrily why his father had come home early that day. When he reached the kitchen, crouching as he entered the dark room, he lit the lantern and placed it atop the chulo. As he rummaged through the threadbare sacks, squinting in the meagre light, trying to find gundruk and rice to cook for dinner, he heard movement coming from outside the house, his father’s angry shouts drifting inside.

Oii, Arjun, bring me my raksi!”

Arjun’s hands tightened into fists; his jaw clenched unnervingly. He hadn’t been home for two minutes and he was already making demands.

“Didn’t you hear what I said, boy? Bring it to me!”

Even through the shouts, Arjun could tell that the old man was drunk. He just hoped, desperately, that he would get even more drunk and collapse, instead of lolling around and complaining about everything possible like a bitter old woman.

Letting out a harsh breath, he scooped up a pitcher of the local raksi and treaded outside, hands trembling. The stench of alcohol greeted him before he could approach his father. Turning up his nose, he cleared his throat and held out the pitcher. “Baba?”

As his feet shuffled in unease, he lifted his eyes to look at the state of his father. With a face forever puffed-up with colour and a stomach that almost never abated, he was the exact opposite of Arjun.

The man, noticing his son, nodded in approval. He slumped jerkily on the pindhi, clouds of dust emanating from the thud, and grabbed the pitcher; several drops of the alcohol dripped on the aangan. Without hesitation, he tipped the jug to his lips and took a clumsy mouthful of the alcohol; it trickled down the corners of his mouth. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his tattered shirt and scrutinized his son carefully.

At that moment, Arjun realized that he wasn’t as drunk as he’d hoped he would be. Subconsciously kneading his hands together, his mind flashed to last week where he’d suffered a severe blow to his stomach because the alcohol had not been chilled enough. Squirming beneath his father’s gaze, he just hoped that he would spare Laxmi today.

“So,” the man drawled, “I got news today.”

A spark of hope ignited in Arjun’s heart. Was it his mother? Had she finally decided to come back? Had she realized that she’d done a huge mistake by leaving her youngest children to a monster?

“Your sister ran away from the brothel last week,” his father sneered. Smirking, he felt the need to add his thoughts. “That foolish girl. She won’t be able to survive a month on her own. While your mother decided to elope and abandon her children, your sister could not even accept the fate that belonged to her. They’re both the same; cowards. That’s what they were.”

Arjun’s jaw ticked dangerously. How dare he talk like that about the two people who had meant more to him than anything? But at the same time, as his mind grasped the words, he was washed with relief when he realized that Tara didi had indeed managed to escape. But where had she gone, was she going to be okay?

As his father took another mouthful of the alcohol, Arjun’s mind raced with thoughts. The handsome amount of money that he got by sending Tara didi to the brothel was the only thing that got their livelihood (and the enormous supply of alcohol) running and now that she had run away, how would they survive? The money that he got by selling the firewood in the market was hardly enough. So, why wasn’t the old man madder? Surely, news like this would have elicited a fuming response; so why was he simply sitting there, his mouth full of taunts?

Suddenly, it hit Arjun. 

His throat tightened and all the colour drained from his face as realization seeped in, almost like earthquakes, hesitant to acknowledge at first but later, striking with such a magnitude that it left every bit of hope shaken, and irrevocably broken.

Nothing had ever made more sense to him before.

Of course, his father wasn’t worried. He did not have to be because he had two more candidates left and one was staring at him right in the face.

Not wanting to let his father see the satisfaction he would get when delivering the news, he averted his gaze and looked out at those mustard fields, his eyes sweeping across the sky. The sun, on the verge of dusk, was obscured by the enormous hill, circled by crows. The sky at that moment, ablaze with colours, a picturesque beauty, was the complete opposite of what Arjun was feeling.

Not taking his eyes off the colourful canvas, he gulped anxiously. What was going to happen to him? Where was he going to be sent? More importantly, who was going to take care of Laxmi?

Eventually, he turned his face and looked at his father, seething with anger.

His father arched an eyebrow, a smug smile playing on his lips. “Figured it out, did you? A friend of mine found a job for you in Kathmandu. You’re going to be working at a restaurant. You’ll be washing the dishes, cleaning, cooking, doing everything for the owner, basically.”

Arjun tightly pressed his lips together, refusing to show weakness. Despite that, the truth lodged bitter-tasting in his throat. Hurled into a hurricane of emotions, his mind started reeling. Working at a restaurant? He’d barely even thought of that possibility. Sure, he wanted to go to Kathmandu, the city of his dreams but he wanted to go there when he was older, when he had enough money and maybe, eventually, when he was a reputable person; most definitely not like this, not to a place where he’d be limited to the confines of a building and treated worse than the dirt of the foot. Throughout his fifteen years of existence, he’d never really hated his life, he’d somehow learnt to work around it and be content with what he had and who he had because somehow he knew, from the rumours that circulated around the village, that life could have been much worse. But now, all of that thought came crumbling down, crashing and evaporating into oblivion.

“Do you understand, boy? You’re leaving too,” his father jeered.

 Arjun’s heart swelled in panic. Would he even survive out there? But what was going to happen to Laxmi? He could not leave her with this monster. She would be all alone, scared and frightened, like a new born baby with no mother to seek for.

“Do you understand?” he reiterated, a vein pulsing in his neck; the alcohol had started taking its toll.

At that moment, Arjun had his answer ready, on the tip of his tongue.

Defiantly, he answered, “No. I’m not going.”

Taken aback, his father’s jaw hardened and his nose flared. “What did you say?” he asked incredulously.

“I said no, I am not going. I’m not leaving Laxmi alone with you,” Arjun detonated, his temper rising. He’d already lost two members of his family; he wasn’t going to lose the very last person he cared about in the world.

His father jumped at once, his droopy eyes now awake and alert. “Say that again.”

“I’m not going,” Arjun responded.

No sooner had the words dropped from his mouth, his father raised his hand, a resounding thud echoing across the bare aangan as it struck his cheek. Cheek stinging with pain, a soft whimper escaped Arjun’s lips. Before he had the chance to recoil, another hand struck across his other cheek; pain surged through his entire face.

“What – makes – you – think – you – have – a – choice?” his father snarled, each word punctuated by a kick to Arjun’s legs.

Tears welled up in Arjun’s eyes and he shut them tightly, hoping they would stay tightly locked inside. With each blow, his confidence wavered. His sister’s face flashed in his mind, swimming in memories, and his heart clenched when he thought of her finding out the news and how she would react.

After receiving several kicks, he finally voiced what had been running through his mind. “How can you do this to me? How can you do this to us? How can you send me to a place where I’ll be used? How can you do that to your only son? ” And against his will, a tear, in theatrical slowness, dripped down his cheek.

Baba, please, please, don’t do this,” Arjun said, his voice cracking. At that moment, he didn’t care whether he looked weak or even desperate. He just could not leave.

His father’s hand halted in mid-air; his expression closed up.

He peered into his son’s face and maybe, Arjun thought – with every inch of hope he could muster- just maybe, his eyes softened a little. Maybe he was seriously contemplating his words, maybe he regretted the decision in the first place, maybe whatever love he had left for his son had risen to the surface, bubbling, taunting him to change his mind.

The silence that had inundated them was suffocating, impossible to escape.

Finally, his father’s hand curled into a fist and gulping, he looked into his son’s hopeful eyes, and without batting an eyelash, said, “You’re leaving tomorrow morning.” With those words, he turned around and trudged up the same path that he’d come, unaware of the havoc he’d unleashed.

Arjun’s muffled sobs came alive. That was the first time in his life he’d cried for himself. All of his feelings that had been dormant over the past couple of years were now accruing, slowly permeating to each and every part of his body.  He rubbed the butts of his palms into his eyes but that did little to stop a fresh batch of tears from welling up in his eyes.

He felt like an absolute failure.

Or maybe he was.

He hadn’t accomplished anything in his life and the only thing he’d ever wanted was to look after his sister, the only person he had left. Now, he couldn’t do even do that. If that wasn’t failure, he did not know what was.

Footsteps echoed in their mud house and he did not have to look up to know that it was Laxmi.

Hastily, he ran his hands across his cheeks, wiping any remnants of his tears despite knowing that she’d heard everything.

She ran towards him, her cherubic face dampened with tears. “Dada, don’t go, please.” She threw her arms around him, enveloping him a hug. “I can’t lose you too.”

He knew it was pointless to lie but he could not bring himself to speak the truth. He gulped uncomfortably. Any sentence that sprung to his mind seemed to wilt and die in his mouth before he had a chance to utter it.

The words ringing in his ears, he shook his head. “I don’t know what to do.” He glanced at her face. “I can’t leave you here alone with him.”

“I hate him, Dada, I hate him so much,” she said, her voice laced with bitterness.

He rested his chin on her shoulder and stroked her back. “I do too.”

Somewhere deep within the thoughts floating through his mind at that moment, he wondered whether his father would look after Laxmi, now that there was no one else left. Maybe he would even send her to the new school that had recently opened up, the one where all the children of the village now went to; an opportunity that he himself had missed out on when he had to drop out in the third grade after his mother eloped.

As his sister went inside, insisting that she would make dinner, his incoherent thoughts became more and more defined, solidifying every second because deep within he knew he had no other choice and maybe because he thought his sister could possibly lead a better life here. If only, somehow, he could persuade his father to send Laxmi to school where he knew she would be in safe hands and he could secure her future. She deserved that, in the very least. If things went well for him in Kathmandu, a couple of years along the line, maybe he could even ask her to stay with him when he could afford to send her to a good college. At least in the city, he had options. He could search for Tara didi or even his mother. Maybe he could find a family again.

The more he pondered his options, the more his decision became clear. At the end, he had no option and despite being stuck with that, he was still trying to find the silver lining in the conclusion.

Amidst the chaos in his brain, his final verdict rose to the surface. It shone vibrantly, incandescent in his mind, clear and resolute.

He had to go.

Bile rose in his throat as he now thought of Kathmandu, the place that was tearing him away from everything he ever had.

He released a deep breath and raked a hand through his hair.

As Arjun gazed out at the sky, watching as it succumbed to darkness, he thought of the future that lay ahead of him.