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A Small Fish Squats by the Dhobi Khola / Manu Brajaki

Today he saw that the ugly iron Aligarh padlock was still hanging on the outside of the lavatory door. Its paint and polish had all washed away. He stared at the locked lavatory, deep in thought. Someone had chalked a picture on its outer wall of a betel leaf pierced by an arrow. It seemed incongruous to him; this was no place to be wounded by love.

He remembered the strangeness of his landlady, Bajai Ama. Stranger still was the sight of this lavatory bolted shut with an ugly iron padlock since eight o'clock in the morning. He looked at his watch: it was half past eight. Outside, a light summer shower was falling. How many more times could he go running over to use Hari's? Hari had a landlord, too— what was he going to say? It was Hari who'd told him teasingly, "This is what you've been looking for! You won't find a better room than this anywhere for 50 rupees. After all, they were going to ask seventy or eighty for it."

Realizing that he had little choice in the matter, he swallowed his pride, picked up his umbrella, and went out of the room. On the stairs he met Bimla. Bimla looked coyly at him. Her lips did not smile, but her whole face, her eyes, were laughing. He felt her face showed sympathy, not mockery. And some slight sense, too, of a betel leaf pierced by a barb. After an awkward moment when they jostled on the stairs, they each went their own way. Bimla's long skirt swayed on up the stairs. He wondered, did Bimla have the key to the padlock? Who knows? She might not. And could he really bring up the subject of a lavatory in his first conversation with such an educated young woman? He pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. Perhaps because of the match light, the ugly iron lock appeared again before his eyes. He hurried irritably down the stairs.

At the door, he came face to face with Bajai Ama, the landlord's wife: a yellow face full of creases and wrinkles, a sandalwood spot on her brow, some ritual materials in one hand, a lady's umbrella in the other. "

You're up very late, young sir. Where are you going?"

"Just off to buy some vegetables ..."

She laughed, as people often do, and their conversation ended. Was there sarcasm in her voice or kindliness? He did not know. There was no time for him to know either. But as he hurried away he felt as if that wrinkled old face was shouting back at him, "Are you off to squat by the Dhobi Khola? You should get up earlier in the morning!"

He strode off anxiously to Hari's house.

A month ago, he had come here with Hari, looking for a place to stay. They had wandered around for hours, and they were completely disheartened. The house was as historic as Kathmandu itself. That is, it looked however you wanted it to look: to a rich man it seemed derelict; for a poor man it was fine. Hari introduced him.

"Hello."

"Hello."

"You'll have looked at the room?"

"Yes, it's fine. I'm on my own; one room is enough."

"Have you no family then?"

Bajai Ama looked keenly at him, and he felt uneasy. This "because of your family" business had already stopped him getting any further in several other places.

"Not at the moment."

Hari glanced at him; his statement was true. To tell the whole truth, he should really have said, "My family is in my village. I will bring them here soon." But the fish had already escaped, and he just sat wringing his hands in silence like a fool. The old woman talked about this and that but mainly about her own domestic affairs. She pointed to a photograph on the wall, "That is the father of Bimla here."

Even as she spoke, they both turned around to look at "Bimla here." An ordinary-looking young girl in a dress embroidered with silk looked back at them with curiosity. Then they resumed listening to Bajai Ama.

"... But now he's gone. What to do? That's the way fate has it."

"Ohhh ..." They were both silent for a moment. Bajai Ama sat in silence, too, remembering her husband.

The room where they sat was spacious. To one side, several mattresses were piled on a bedstead and covered by a cheap bedspread. Two thick quilts lay folded on top of the bed. Some flowers and wood apples were scattered across a three-foot bolster pillow. Bajai Ama was sitting on a mat beneath the bedstead, and the two men sat before her, leaning on a wide, low table that was plain and old-fashioned. This table had a mirror in which there was a framed photograph of some unidentified saint or deity. The figure in the picture had been rendered quite unrecognizable by the stains of flowers, rice grains, vermilion, and sandalwood powders offered to it. A ceremonial spoon and cup, a bell, an incense burner, and a pot stood on the table, together with an old Coca Cola bottle containing a bunch of summer flowers. There were no chairs to go with the table at all.

Deciding that it was no good just sitting there saying nothing, Hari asked, "What did he do?"

"He was a poet, sir."

"A poet!" Hari thought that he had discovered a way of getting the room cheaply. Humbly he said to Bajai Ama, "My friend here is a poet, too."

"A poet?" Her wrinkled face creased tighter, and an odd expression came over it. He and Hari both looked back and forth between Bajai Ama and her husband's photograph. It was an impressive picture: a face with full round cheeks and an exceedingly well-tended moustache, topped by a neatly wound turban. When they looked at his eyes, they felt as if he was just about to roar out a poem about great heroism.

"This poetry has destroyed everything, sir."

This time she turned her gaze on Hari. The fish had already escaped, so Hari could only sit there looking blank and squeezing his hands. His friend had never even hummed a tune, let alone written a poem. As far as an interest in literature was concerned, he had read only the essential poets—Lekhnath, Devkota, Sama. And then it was only to pass an exam. To try to set things right, he declared, "Oh, it was only while I was studying, at school and at college. Then I used to scribble a few lines. But now I have to work for my keep. So what use is poetry to me?"

"Yes, that's right. It's no good getting involved in this poetry stuff. Your children will starve to death. Heaven and earth will mock you. You may be clever yourself, but if your children don't get to study, they'll turn out dumb idiots."

"He doesn't write any more. He hardly ever did, and now he has no time at all. All day at the office, studying mornings and evenings—the poor man doesn't even have time for his prayers." Hari told lie upon lie. He felt shocked by Hari's words. If he got the room tomorrow, who was he going to pray to, after all? At college, he had worshipped a "goddess" and even run to the temple several times because of her. But one day the goddess's minions had decided to worship her properly, and he'd completely forgotten the way to the temple. He had also begun to ignore beautiful flowers, moonlit nights, and the season of spring.

Hari and Bajai Ama had begun to discuss the rent. He looked at the wall, where Hema Malini was bending prettily to dance in a calendar advertising garam masala. He thought of turning around to look at Bimla, but he could not. So he just stared into the corner.

The oddest things were scattered all over the room: thanka paintings; alloy, copper, and brass idols both large and small; tattered old Hindu and Buddhist books; rosaries and beads; and all sorts of other things that he could not identify.

Looking at Bajai Ama, he pointed into the corner, "What are these?"

She glanced where he was pointing and said, hardly pausing in the conversation she was holding with Hari, "Sir, those belong to my son; he collects all sorts of things. I don't know what they are. He sells them.... And the rent won't go lower than 50 rupees."

Hari glanced over at him, wearing a look that said, "Fifty is the lowest she'll go—what do you say?"

He indicated his assent and put an advance payment of 50 rupees straight into Bajai Ama's hand. As they went down the stairs, Bimla stood by the door. He thought she might have smiled, but he was not at all sure of it.

"Those things in the corner ..." he began to say as they came out into the street.

"He'll be smuggling images and things, I expect," Hari cut in. "Bimla was smiling at you, wasn't she, my lad?"

"Don't talk such rubbish, idiot!"

Who could say whether she had smiled or not? He didn't think any more about it.

Today he arrived at Hari's house, only to find him locking his door and on his way out. He hung back and saw Hari's landlord watching him with a frown. This was the tenth time he had run over here. The poor man would be getting angry.

Hari finished locking his door and turned around. He was surprised to see him.

"Hey, where are you off to, Ganesh?"

"I just came to visit you."

"I'm going to Binod's place. He's invited me over. I'm eating there, too."

"Are you leaving right now?"

Hari paused for a moment; then he laughed. "The same problem again, my lad?" He glanced at the landlord's window. The whole window was frowning by this time.

"Come on, let's go."

Out in the street, Hari said, "Sorry, my friend. But what can I do?"

"It doesn't matter. I'll be off." He felt as if he had a rock in the pit of his stomach.

"Are you angry? What's the matter?"

"Why should I be angry? It's not your fault. Didn't you see the old man at the window?"

"It's hardly my landlord's fault that you're having all this trouble. You're a fool—just ask Bimla for the key, won't you? This will go on forever if you don't say something."

"She's a serious sort of girl. I never see her talking to anyone. Mother and daughter live together upstairs. And as for her brother, I never know about his comings and goings."

"You said she watches you from the window."

"Yes, certainly she watches me."

"Right, that's it then, you thickhead. Have a chat with her on the pretext of asking for the key. With laddus in both hands.[5] Right, I'm off now." Hari set off from the crossroads for Binod's house. Ganesh couldn't follow Hari there because he did not know Binod.

He walked back to his lodgings, remembering Hari's remark about "laddus in both hands." It was still raining slighty. He wondered, Had his blunder really been so great that it justified a transfer from the district to the center? He had never informed on anyone's corruption. He had taken bribes, for sure, but he had done the world's work, too. To take bribes and not to work—that was real corruption. But the traditions of corruption required that he should fall, and so he fell. The big fish got away. He was just a small fish: a paltry little hook could catch him, so how could he escape the net?

He was not of sufficiently high status to come with laddus in both hands. He had eaten only one laddu , and now in this summer rain he had to run from house to house. Otherwise, he, too, might have been squatting in a bathroom sucking hard on a Yak cigarette. The thought made his heart and mind burn.

Walking along beside the gutter, he arrived at his lodgings to see Bimla sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Pleased, he approached her and said softly, "Is Bajai Ama at her prayers?"

She seemed to smile, but she gave him no reply. He was at a loss— how should he broach the subject? The laws of nature say that you must labor hard, swallow your pride, and lay down your sorrows.

"Do you have the key? I got up late today."

Bimla made a strange sound and pointed upstairs. Shocked, he stared at her in stunned silence. The poor girl was mute! From her serious face and fashionable clothes, he had assumed her to be an educated girl. But in a family where the son hasn't studied, a dumb daughter hardly would! Slowly it dawned on him: her eyes always smiled because without a voice her perception was particularly sharp. But what to do now? It would never do to show a dumb girl the lavatory and gesture at the lock and key. That would be most indelicate. It would soon become quite ridiculous.

Seeing him staring at her, Bimla turned and went upstairs. He looked at that ugly lock on the lavatory door, then at the picture chalked on the wall. An arrow piercing a betel leaf! There would be no point in calling Bajai Ama, so he went outside. I'll have to begin seeking new rooms tomorrow, he thought. The rock in his stomach had moved lower down.

He made haste for the Dhobi Khola.


 

सानो माछा धोबी खोलाको बगरमा / मनु ब्राजाकी

 

Hutt, Michael James. Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft729007x1/

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