Arresting God in Kathmandu

Overview


From the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West, Arresting God in Kathmandu brilliantly explores the nature of desire and spirituality in a changing society. With the assurance and unsentimental wisdom of a long-established writer, Upadhyay records the echoes of modernization throughout love and family. Here are husbands and wives bound together by arranged marriages but sometimes driven elsewhere by an intense desire for connection and transcendence. In a city where gods are ...
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Arresting God in Kathmandu

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Overview


From the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West, Arresting God in Kathmandu brilliantly explores the nature of desire and spirituality in a changing society. With the assurance and unsentimental wisdom of a long-established writer, Upadhyay records the echoes of modernization throughout love and family. Here are husbands and wives bound together by arranged marriages but sometimes driven elsewhere by an intense desire for connection and transcendence. In a city where gods are omnipresent, where privacy is elusive and family defines identity, these men and women find themselves at the mercy of their desires but at the will of their society. Psychologically rich and astonishingly acute, Arresting God in Kathmandu introduces a potent new voice in contemporary fiction.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Raised in Nepal but now an American resident, Samrat Upadhyay brings the exotic yet modern world of his homeland alive in this absorbing short-story collection. Billed as the first Nepalese author writing in English to be published in the West, Upadhyay's prose is clear and understated, perfectly suited to his affecting stories. His themes focus on the ordinary events of modern life, eloquently evoking universal emotions: the humiliation of losing a job, the pain of seeing a child throw his life away with alcohol, the oppressive grief of losing a spouse, the aching pressure of sexual desire. But what makes these stories unusual is how this modern sensibility plays out in a truly Eastern world. The juxtaposition of these two cultures is both novel and intriguing.

Perhaps the most fascinating features of Upadhyay's stories, however, are the pervasive themes of uncertainty and confusion. The stories are unified by an undeniable sense that the world is an unpredictable place, and that relationships are often unsafe and unreliable. And how astute an observation this has proved to be, given the grisly murders of the Nepalese royal family in the summer of 2001!

Upadhyay's characters, each of them unique, are sympathetic precisely because they are so easily understood. They feel real and familiar, despite the unfamiliar names and customs. For fans of Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, Samrat Upadhyay's debut should come as a welcome new find. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
Love and matrimony are as complicated in modern Nepal as anywhere else, as depicted in this debut collection of stories from one of the first Nepali authors writing in English to be published in the West. In only one of the nine stories does the focus waver from the tensions inherent in a class-conscious society where most marriages are still arranged, despite the fast-forward of globalization and a younger population used to traveling abroad or at least hearing about it. Parents such as the mother in "The Room Next Door" are angry and confused when their children are reluctant to conform. This mother is shamed when her college-age daughter becomes pregnant; the girl then marries the only man who might have her an unemployed simpleton who has appeared on their doorstep. Young couples at a loss to articulate submerged desires find it difficult to communicate in times of stress. In "The Good Shopkeeper," an accountant who loses his job drifts away from his wife and into an affair with a servant girl; the dissolution of another man's marriage to an American woman gives way to an unusual rebound relationship in "Deepak Misra's Secretary." While all of the stories are set in Nepal, one, "This World," also dips into New Jersey and explores the ambivalence of a young woman deciding her future and, by extension, her identity. Those seeking the exoticism so often found in contemporary Indian fiction won't find it here there are no lush descriptions or forays into spirituality. In an assured and subtle manner, Upadhyay anchors small yet potent epiphanies in a place called Kathmandu, and quietly calls it home. (Aug. 2) Forecast: This collection sports an enticing cover and will likely do better asan original paperback than it might have as a hardcover. A seven-city author tour will give Upadhyay some U.S. exposure. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Billed as the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West, Upadhyay brings to readers the flavor of Nepal and its culture in this impressive collection of nine short stories. Like Ha Jin's Bridegroom, Upadhyay's stories portray the lives of simple yet psychologically complex characters and reveal much about the universal human condition in us all. Many of the pieces contain themes centered around the cultural taboos relating to the roles of men and women, love, and fidelity and discuss other issues pertinent to Nepali life such as arranged marriages, the caste system, and the Hindu faith. "The Good Shopkeeper" and "Deepak Misra's Secretary" are examples of stories in which the characters, searching for acceptance and satisfaction in life, are found engaging in extramarital affairs. "This World" and "A Great Man's Homage" bring up issues dealing with the "freedoms" of expression allowed for women, both verbally and sexually. "Limping Bride" and "The Room Next Door" touch, respectively, upon cultural mores regarding matters such as alcoholism and children conceived out of wedlock. Upadhyay's stories leave the reader with much food for thought and will make a good choice for book discussion groups. Highly recommended for most public and academic libraries. Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut volume of diverting if sometimes lukewarm tales about contemporary Nepalese men and women adapting to the ethos of the West while bearing (and sometimes suffering) the cultural expectations of their native land. Born and raised in Nepal, Upadhyay came to the US at 22, which is about the age of many of his young people, all of them struggling with their native past while trying to make an American future. The collection progresses from settings entirely in Nepal to those that include characters affiliated with both America and Nepal. In the opener, "The Good Shopkeeper," a young accountant is fired from his job and abandons his conventional life for the very American pursuit of happiness, which here includes therapeutic sex with a local housemaid. "Deepak Misra's Secretary" concerns a young businessman who is abandoned by his Westernized wife but finds comfort in the austere personality of his severe secretary, with whom he has variably interesting sex. In "During the Festival," a young husband is persuaded that his beautiful wife is having an affair with a neighbor, a man who must suddenly come to terms with his own mother: a Freudian tale told from an a-Freudian-Nepalese perspective. In one of the strongest pieces here, young Kanti-on the brink of earning her Ph.D. from Duke University-finds herself deeply attracted to the unreliable Jaya, who inevitable cheats on her. When approached by the stolid, English-educated, and refined Prakash, a physician who has recently opened a local clinic in Nepal, she endures the ancient tug-of-war between prudence and passion. Ultimately, she opts to return to the States to complete her education and hope for the best. Not especially original in theme, but Upadhyay's flinty, oddly proper style is attractive and succeeds in bringing life to these otherwise unpromising (and often seemingly misogynistic) scenarios.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618043712
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/2/2001
  • Pages: 204
  • Sales rank: 760,788
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author


SAMRAT UPADHYAY is the author of Arresting God in Kathmandu, which earned him a Whiting Award, and The Guru of Love, which was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize, and a Book Sense 76 pick. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and teaches creative writing and literature at Indiana University.
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Read an Excerpt

The Good Shopkeeper

Radhika was making the evening meal when Pramod gave her the news.
The steam rising off the rotis she was cooking burned his nostrils,
so he backed out of the kitchen and into
the narrow hallway. When she turned off the gas and joined him, he
put his arms behind his back and leaned against the wall.
"What should we do?" she whispered. Their seven-month-old baby was
asleep in the next room.
"I don't know," he answered. "Who could have foreseen
this?"
"Hare Shiva," she said. "How are we going to pay the next month's
rent?" Her eyes filled with tears.
"What's the use of crying now? That's why I never tell you anything.
Instead of thinking with a cool mind, you start crying."
"What should I do other than cry? You've worked there for three
years, and they let you go, just like that? These people don't have
any heart."
"It's not their fault." He tried to sound reasonable. "The company
doesn't have enough money."
"So only you should suffer? Why not one of the new accountants? What
about Suresh?"
"He knows computers," Pramod said.
"He also knows influential people." She wiped her eyes with the back
of her hand, then opened the bedroom door to check on the baby.
"Okay, don't cry. We'll think of something. I'll go and
see Shambhu-da tomorrow." Shambhu-da, though only a distant cousin of
Radhika's, was very fond of her and referred
to her as his favorite sister. He was friends with a number of
bureaucrats and had helped several relatives find jobs. Pra-
mod knew Shambhu-da's business was shady; he was involved in building
contracts throughout the city that were the source of numerous under-
the-table handouts. But if anyone could help him find a job, it would
be Shambhu-da. "Something's bound to happen," Pramod told
Radhika. "We will find a solution."
Yet despite those spoken assurances, Pramod did not sleep well that
night.

The next morning, while it was still dark, he went to the
Pashupatinath Temple, made a slow round of the temple complex, and
stood in line to get tika from the priest in the main shrine. After
putting the paste on his forehead with his third finger,
he prayed that Lord Shiva's blessing would help him. When he
was young, Pramod loved to visit this famous temple of Lord Shiva,
who had protected the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley since
ancient times. He used to walk through the large complex, making his
way among the other worshipers to touch
the feet of the gods scattered throughout. But he hadn't been here in
months, and he briefly wondered whether he had neglected Shiva. By
the time he stepped out of the temple's main gate, the sky was tinged
with gray, and he remembered that he would not have to go home to eat
and change his clothes for work.
Yesterday afternoon, his director had called him into his
office. "Pramod-ji, what can I say? Not everything is in my power."
Power, thought Pramod. Of course the director had the power!
On his way from the temple, Pramod saw pilgrims going to pay homage
to Lord Shiva. The beggars who slept around the temple complex lined
the side of the street, clanking their tin containers. When people
threw money and food in their direction, the beggars would eye one
another's containers to see who'd got a better deal. The monkeys that
roamed the area were also alert, ready to snatch bags and packets
from people who looked timid. The smells of deep-fried jilebies,
vegetable curry, and hot tea wafted from stalls.
Pramod noticed Homraj slowly walking toward the temple, his cane
hanging from his arm. A few years ago Pramod had worked with him in
the accounts department of the Educa-
tion Ministry. Although Pramod turned his face as he passed, Homraj
saw him. "Pramod-ji, I didn't know you were such a religious man!" he
shouted. Then, coming closer, he added, "What is the matter, Pramod-
ji? Is everything all right?"
Pramod hesitated, then told him about the loss of his job.
"Tch, tch," said Homraj, shaking his head. "I'd heard their profits
weren't so good, but I didn't imagine they'd let go a diligent worker
like you."
The temple bells rang in the background as they stood in the middle
of the street. Pramod remembered that he had to catch Shambhu-da
before he left for work, so he excused himself.
At Shambhu-da's house, he found two other men waiting in the living
room. An old servant told Pramod that Shambhu-da was still doing
puja, praying and chanting to the gods, but would join him after half
an hour. Pramod sat down on the sofa, and the two men looked at him
suspiciously as he gazed
at the pictures of religious figures on the wall. He ignored the men
and concentrated on the framed picture of Lord Shiva with the snake
god, Nag, around his blue neck. After a few minutes, one of the men
asked, "Aren't you Prakash-ji?"
Pramod gave him an irritated look and said, "No. My name is Pramod."
"Oh, yes, yes, Pramod-ji. Why did I say Prakash? I know
you. You're Shambhu-da's brother-in-law, aren't you?" He was
a small, ill-dressed man with a pointed nose and a pinched mouth.
Pramod nodded.
"I met you here a year ago. Don't you remember me?"
Pramod shook his head.
"Kamalkanth; that's my name." The man looked at him expectantly. The
other man, who had a broad, dull face, nodded.
"So what brings you here this morning?" Kamalkanth asked.
"Oh, nothing." Pramod wished the man would stop asking questions.
But he didn't. "You work for Better Finance, don't you?"
Pramod was about to say something when the servant appeared with
three glasses of tea and announced that Shambhu-da was coming out.
Now all three men concentrated on the doorway, where Shambhu-da
shortly appeared.
He was wearing only a dhoti, his hairy stomach and his ample breasts
bulging above it, and was singing a hymn, one from the puja he
performed every morning. After solemnly distributing fruit offerings
from the gods to his guests, he asked the servant to bring him juice.
"What brings you here today, brother-in-law?" Shambhu-da asked Pramod.
"Oh, it's been quite a few days, so I just came to see about your
health. Radhika sends her regards."
Shambhu-da nodded and turned toward the other men.
Kamalkanth took a sheaf of paper from his briefcase and said, "I have
arranged everything here in order, Shambhu-da. All the figures are
accurate — I checked them again and again."
"All right," said Shambhu-da. "Why don't you two come back next week?
Then we can sit down and talk about your commission."
The two men left, smiling obsequiously, and Shambhu-da turned his
attention to Pramod.
"Everything is finished, Shambhu-da," Pramod said. "I'm finished."
Shambhu-da took a sip of juice.
"I've lost my job."
"Why?" Shambhu-da didn't look the least bit perturbed.
"They say the company doesn't have any money."
"Do they have other accountants?"
"Yes, there's a young man who knows computers."
"Ah, yes, computers. They're very fashionable these days, aren't
they?" Shambhu-da smiled, then became serious again. "This is no
good. No good. Hmmmmm. How is my favorite sister taking all this? How
is the baby?" When the baby was born, Shambhu-da had declared that he
would be her godfather. Pramod hadn't liked the idea, but Radhika
assured him that if something were to happen to them, Shambhu-da
would see to it that their baby didn't suffer.
"I'll see what I can do," Shambhu-da said. "We'll come up with a
solution. Not to worry." He asked Pramod about the director and
jotted down his name. Then he stretched and yawned. The telephone
rang and Shambhu-da became engrossed in a conversation, mumbling
hmmm and eh every so often. Pramod looked at all the paintings of the
religious figures on the walls — Kali, Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva — and
wondered whether they had anything to do with Shambhu-da's prosperity
and quiet confidence. When he realized that the telephone
conversation was not going to end soon, he got up to leave, and
Shambhu-da, covering the mouthpiece with his palm, said, "I will see
what I can do."

Everyone came to know about Pramod, and everywhere he went, friends
and relatives gave him sympathetic looks. He was sure that some,
those who saw his work at the finance company as lucrative and of
high status, were inwardly gloating over his misery. But he tried to
act cheerful, telling his friends and relatives these things happen
to everyone and that he would certainly find another job. After all,
his years of experience as an accountant had to count for something.
He hated his voice when he said this. He hated his smile, which
painfully stretched the skin around his mouth; he hated having to
explain to everyone why he had lost his job; he hated their
commiseration; and he hated Radhika's forlorn look, especially when
they were with her relatives, who were more well-off than those on
his side.
Every morning before sunrise, he walked to the Pashupatinath Temple.
The fresh air cleared his mind, and he found solace in the temple
lights before they were switched off at dawn. A couple of times he
came across Homraj, who always asked anxiously, "Anything yet?"
Eventually Pramod timed his walks so that he would not run into
Homraj again.
And every day, after his trip to the temple, Pramod visited people of
influence, those who had the power to maneuver him into a job without
his undergoing the rigors of an examination or an interview. He tried
to maintain faith that something would indeed turn up, that one day
he would find himself in an office of his own, seated behind a desk,
with a boy to bring him tea every couple of hours. He missed the
ritual of going to the office, greeting his colleagues, settling down
for the day's work, even though he had been doing the same job for
years. He delighted in juggling numbers, calculating percentages,
making entries in his neat handwriting. He loved solving math
problems in his head, and saw it as a challenge to refrain from using
a calculator until the last moment, or only as a means of
verification. He loved the midday lull, when everyone in the office
ordered snacks and tea, and a feeling of camaraderie came over the
workplace: people laughing and eating, talking about mundane things
that happened at home, teasing one another, commenting on politics.
Pramod kept up his visits to Shambhu-da's residence, showing his face
every week or so, asking whether anything had come up, reminding
Shambhu-da of his predicament, playing on the sense of family by
mentioning, every so often, that Radhika was his favorite sister. On
every visit, Shambhu-da assured Pramod that a job prospect appeared
likely and would be certain within a few days. But even though
Shambhu-da nodded gravely when Pramod described his strained
financial situation, Pramod realized that he had to wait longer and
longer to see Shambhu-da. Kamalkanth snickered whenever they happened
to be there at the same time. Sometimes when he and his companion
looked at Pramod and murmured to each other, Pramod felt like leaving
and forgetting about Shambhu-da once and for all.
When two months had passed with no job offer, Pramod's stomach
churned. He and Radhika managed to pay both months' rent from their
savings, but they had none for the coming month. Although Radhika
borrowed some money from her parents, Pramod did not like that at
all; it made him appear small. "Don't worry," Radhika said, "we'll
pay them back as soon as you get your first salary." She was still
trying to be optimistic, he knew, but he no longer shared that
attitude.
A few nights later, she brought up the idea of selling their land in
the south to finance a shop of their own, perhaps a general store or
a stationery outlet. Pramod disliked the idea. "I'm not going to
become a shopkeeper at this stage in my life," he said. "I am an
accountant, do you understand? I have worked for many big people."
Later, while she slept, he regretted having snapped at her. For one
thing, he doubted whether the land would fetch much money, because it
was getting swampier every year and was far from the major roads.
More important, he could never imagine himself as a shopkeeper. How
humiliated he would feel if he opened a shop and someone like Homraj
came in to buy something. What would he say? Or would he be able to
say anything? What if someone like Kamalkanth came in? Could Pramod
refuse to sell him goods and tell him never to enter the shop again?
If he did, what would happen to the reputation of his shop?
Each night, these thoughts kept Pramod awake for hours. He slunk into
bed, faced the wall, and let his imagination run wild. Radhika put
the baby to sleep, got into bed beside him, and rested her hand on
his back, but he did not turn. Soon she would mutter something, turn
off the light, and go to sleep.
Often Pramod imagined himself as a feudal landlord, like one of the
men who used to run the farmlands of the country only twenty years
earlier. He would have a large royal mustache that curled up at the
ends and pointed toward the sky, the kind he could oil and stroke as
a sign of power. He saw himself walking through a small village, a
servant shielding him from the southern sun with a big black
umbrella, while all the villagers greeted him deferentially. He saw
himself plump and well cared for. Then he saw himself as an executive
officer in a multinational company where Shambhu-da worked as an
office boy. Shambhu-da was knocking on the door of Pramod's spacious,
air-conditioned office, where he sat behind a large desk in a clean
white shirt and tie, his glasses hanging from his neck, a cigarette
smoldering on the ashtray. Shambhu-da would walk in, his cheeks
hollow, wearing clothes that were clearly secondhand, and plead for
an advance on his wages, which Pramod would refuse. Shambhu-da would
weep, and Pramod, irritated, would tell him the company had no place
for a whiner.
Pramod giggled at this little scene. Then when he realized what he
was doing, a moan escaped his lips. Radhika sat up, turned on the
light, and asked, "What's the matter? Having a bad dream?"

One morning Pramod was sitting on a bench in the city park, smoking a
cigarette, after having made his humiliating morning round, when a
small, plump young woman sat next to him and started shelling peanuts
that were bundled at the end of her dhoti. The cracking of the shells
was getting on his nerves, and he was just about to leave when the
woman said, "Do you want some peanuts?"
Pramod shook his head.
"They're very good," she said. "Nicely roasted and salty." She looked
like a laborer, or perhaps a village woman working in the city as a
servant.
"I don't eat peanuts in the morning," said Pramod.
"Oh, really? I can eat them all day long. Morning, noon, night."
Pramod watched a couple of men in suits and ties, carrying
briefcases, enter an office building across the street.
"The mornings here are so beautiful, no?" he heard the woman say. "I
come here every day." She popped more peanuts into her mouth. "Where
do you work?"
The gall of this woman, clearly of a class much below his. "In an
office," he replied.
"It's nearly ten o'clock. Don't you have to go to your office? It's
not a holiday today, is it?"
"No, it's not a holiday."
"I just finished my work. Holiday or no holiday, I have to work."
"Where?" asked Pramod.
"In Putalisadak," she said. "I wash clothes, clean the house. But
only in the mornings. They have another servant, but she goes to
school in the morning. My mistress is very generous."
"Where's your husband?" asked Pramod. He felt himself smile; talking
to a servant girl in the park was an indication, he thought, of just
how low he had fallen.
"He's back in the village, near Pokhara. He's a carpenter, building
this and that. But the money is never enough. That's why I had to
come here."
"You don't have any children?"
She shook her head and blushed.
They sat in silence for a moment. She said, "You know, my husband
says one shouldn't think too much." There was a note of pity in her
voice.
"Why does he say that? Does he say it to you?"
"Not me. I don't think all that much. What's there to think about?
Life is what God gives us. My husband says it to any of our relatives
who is unhappy and comes to him for advice. In this city I see so
many worried people. They walk around not looking at anyone, always
thinking, always fretting. This problem, that problem. Sometimes I
think if I stay here too long, I'll become like them."
Pramod sighed at her simple ways.
By now the streets were crowded; people were on their way to work.
The park, in the center of the city, provided a good view of the
surrounding buildings, many of them filled with major offices.
The woman stood, stretched, and said, "Well, I should be going home.
Make tea and then cook some rice for myself." She looked at him
sweetly. "I can make tea for you in my room."
Pramod was startled.
"It's all right," she said. "You don't have to come if you don't want
to. Here you are, sitting and worrying about what, I don't know. So I
thought you might want some tea. My house isn't far. It's right here
in Asan." She pointed in the direction of the large marketplace.
"All right," Pramod said. He got up and followed her out of the park,
embarrassed to be walking beside this servant girl, afraid that
someone he knew might see him. But he could feel a slow excitement
rising in his body. He walked a few steps behind her, and she,
seeming to sense his discomfort, didn't turn around and talk to him.
When they entered Asan, they were swept into the crowd, but he
maintained his distance behind her, keeping her red dhoti in sight.
There was a pleasant buzz in his ears, as if whatever was happening
to him was unreal, as if the events of the last two months were also
not true. His worrying was replaced by a lightness. He floated behind
her, and the crowd in the marketplace moved forward. He didn't feel
constricted, as he usually did in such places. In fact, his heart
seemed to have expanded.
When they reached an old house in a narrow alley, she turned around
at the doorway and said, "I have a room on the third floor, the other
side." She led him through a dirty courtyard, where children were
playing marbles, and beckoned to him to follow her through another
door. Pramod found himself in the dark. He could hear the swish of
her dhoti. "The stairs are here," she said. "Be careful; they're
narrow. Watch your head." He reached for her hand, and she held his
as she led him up the wooden stairs. Now Pramod could see the faint
outline of a door. "One more floor." He thought she looked pretty in
that semidarkness. On the next landing she unlocked a door and they
entered a small room.
In one corner were a stove and some pots and pans; in another, a
cot. A poster of Lord Krishna, his blue chubby face smiling at no one
in particular, hung above the bed. The gray light filtering through
the small window illuminated the woman's face and objects in the
room. She was smiling.
He was drawn to the window, where he was surprised to find a view of
the center of the marketplace. He had never before been inside a
house in this congested quarter. In the distance, vegetable sellers
squatted next to their baskets, smoking and laughing. A faint noise
from the market drifted into the room, like the hum of a bee, and he
stood at the window and gazed over the rooftops and windows of other
houses crammed into this section of the city.
"You can sit on the bed," she said.
He promptly obliged, and she proceeded to boil water for tea. He
wondered how she, with her meager income as a housemaid, could afford
an apartment in the city's center. Then a curious thought entered his
head: could she be a prostitute? Yet he knew she wasn't. As if
divining his thought, she said, "The owner of this house is from our
village. He knew my father, and he treats me like a daughter. Very
kind man. Not many like him these days, you know."
He smiled to himself. Yes, he knew. He said nothing.
When she brought the tea, she sat next to him, and they sipped in
silence. Soon he felt drowsy and lay down on the bed. She moved
beside him, took his hand, and placed it on her breast. He ran his
finger across her plump face. Her eyes were closed. He had no
reaction except that there was an inevitability to this, something
he'd sensed the moment she began to talk to him in the park.
When he made love to her, it was not with hunger or passion; the act
had its own momentum. He was not the one lifting her sari, fumbling
with her petticoat, he was not the one doing the penetrating. She
required nothing. She just lay beneath him, matching his moves only
as the act demanded.
He stayed with her until dusk. They ate, slept, and then he got up to
survey the marketplace again. The crowd had swelled; strident voices
of women haggling with vendors rose to the window. He felt removed
from all of it, a distant observer who had to fulfill no obligations,
meet no responsibilities, perform no tasks.
When he got home that evening, he was uncharacteristically talkative.
He even played with the baby, cooing to her and swinging her in his
arms. Radhika's face brightened, and she asked whether he had good
news about a job. He said, "What job? There are no jobs," and her
face darkened again.

During the afternoons Pramod still pursued his contacts, hoping
something would come along, but the late mornings he reserved for the
housemaid. They often met in the park after she'd finished her work
and walked to her room in Asan. On Saturdays and holidays he stayed
home, sometimes playing with the baby, sometimes listening to the
radio.
Once while he and Radhika were preparing for bed, she looked at the
baby and said, "We have to think of her future."
Pramod caressed his daughter's face and replied, "I'm sure something
will happen," although he had no idea of any prospect.
Putting her hand on his, Radhika said, "I know you're trying. But
maybe you should see more people. I went to Shambhu-da yesterday, and
he says he'll find you something soon."
"Shambhu-da." Pramod suppressed a groan.
"He's the only one who can help us."
"I don't need his help," said Pramod.
"Don't say that. If you say that, nothing will happen."
Pramod jumped from the bed and said, trembling, "What do you mean,
nothing will happen? What's happening now? Is anything happening now?"
One cloudy morning as Pramod and the housemaid left the park and
entered the marketplace, he saw Homraj walking toward them, swinging
his umbrella.
Before Pramod could hide, Homraj asked, "Oh, Pramod-ji, have you come
here to buy vegetables?" He looked at the housemaid curiously. Pramod
swallowed and nodded. "Nothing yet, huh?" Homraj asked. "My nephew
can't find a job either, but his situation is a little different."
Pramod, conscious of the housemaid by his side, wished she would move
on. He put his hands in his pockets and said, "Looks like rain, so
I'll have to go," and he walked away, leaving her standing with
Homraj.
Later, she caught up with him and asked, "Why were you afraid? What's
there to be afraid of?" Pramod, his face grim, kept walking, and when
they reached her room, he threw himself on her cot and turned his
face away. His chest was so tight that he had to concentrate on
breathing. She said nothing more. After setting the water to boil,
she came and sat beside him.

Pramod stopped his search for a job and was absent from his house
most of the time. One night he even stayed in the housemaid's room,
and when he got home in the morning, Radhika was in tears. "Where
were you?" She brought her nose close to his face to smell whether
he'd been drinking. "What's happened to you? Don't you know that you
are a father? A husband?"
Now when he went to family gatherings, he wasn't surprised that the
relatives looked at him questioningly. The bold ones even mocked
him. "Pramod-ji, a man should not give up so easily. Otherwise he is
not a man." Some sought to counsel him. "Radhika is worried about
you. These things happen to everyone, but one shouldn't let
everything go just like that." He didn't feel he had to respond to
them, so he sat in silence, nodding. His father-in-law stopped
talking to him, and his mother-in-law's face was strained whenever
she had to speak to him.
At a relative's feast one bright afternoon, Pramod watched a game of
flush. The men, sitting on the floor in a circle, threw money into
the center, and the women hovered around. Shambhu-da was immaculately
dressed in a safari suit, and his ruddy face glowed with pleasure as
he took carefully folded rupee notes from his pockets. Radhika sat
beside Shambhu-da, peering over his cards and making faces.
"Pramod-ji, aren't you going to play?" asked a relative.
Pramod shook his head and smiled.
"Why would Pramod-ji want to play?" said another relative, a bearded
man who had been Pramod's childhood friend. "He has better things to
do in life." This was followed by a loud guffaw from everyone.
Radhika looked at Pramod.
"After all, we're the ones who are fools. Working at a job and then,
poof, everything gone in an afternoon of flush." The bearded
relative, with a dramatic gesture, tossed some money into the jackpot.
"No job, no worries. Every day is the same," someone else said.
Radhika got up and left the room. Pramod sat with his chin resting on
his palms.
Shambhu-da looked at the bearded relative with scorn and asked, "Who
are you to talk, eh, Pitamber? A bull without horns can't call
himself sharp. What about you, then, who drives a car given to him by
his in-laws, and walks around as if he'd earned it?"
At this, some of the men nodded and remarked, "Well said" and "That's
the truth." Pitamber smiled with embarrassment and said, "I was only
joking, Shambhu-da. After all, this is a time of festivities."
"You don't joke about such matters," said Shambhu-da with unusual
sharpness. "Why should you joke about this, anyway? What about the
time you embezzled five lakh rupees from your office? Who rescued you
then?"
The room became quiet. Shambhu-da himself looked surprised that he'd
mentioned that incident.
Pitamber threw his cards on the floor and stood up. "What did I say,
huh? What did I say? I didn't say anything to you. Just because
you're older, does that mean you can say anything?" With his right
hand, he gesticulated wildly; with his left, he rapidly stroked his
beard. His voice grew louder. "What about you? Everyone knows you had
that police inspector killed. We aren't fools. How do you make all
your money, donkey?"
The use of the word donkey prompted the other men to stand and try to
restrain Pitamber, who seemed ready to froth at the mouth. "Enough,
enough!" cried one woman.
Radhika came back. "What happened?"
A shadow covered Shambhu-da's face, and he too got up. "What do you
think, huh? What do you think? Say that again, you motherfucker; just
say that again. I can buy people like you with my left hand."
Radhika went over to Pramod and said, "See what you've started?"
Bitterly, he said, "You are a fool," and walked out of the room.
He was engulfed by numbness; things disappeared in a haze. Words and
phrases floated through his mind. He remembered stories of people
jumping into the Ranipokhari Pond at the center of the city and being
sucked under to their death. Could he do it?
Pramod walked the two miles to Asan and moved through the darkness of
the staircase to the housemaid's room.
She was pleased to see him.
"I'd like to lie down," he told her.
"Shall I make you tea?"
He shook his head and sank onto her cot. It smelled of her sweat and
hair oil. He felt like a patient, ready to be anesthetized so that
his body could be torn apart.
"Are you all right?" She put her palm on his forehead.
He nodded and fell asleep. It was a short sleep, filled with jerky
images that he forgot when he woke.
She was cooking rice. "You'll eat here?"
For a while, he said nothing. Then he asked, "Aren't you afraid your
husband will come? Unannounced?"
She laughed, stirring the rice. "He'd catch us, wouldn't he?"
"What would you do?"
"What would I do?"
"Yes. What would you say to him if he catches us?"
"I don't know," she said. "I never think about it."
"Why?"
"It's not in my nature." She took the rice pot off the stove and put
on another, into which she poured clarified butter. She dipped some
spinach into the burning ghee; it made a swoosh, and smoke rose in a
gust. Pramod pulled out a cigarette and set it between his lips
without lighting it.
"You know," she said, "if this bothers you, you should go back to
your wife."
"It doesn't bother me."
"Sometimes you look worried. As if someone is waiting to catch you."
"Really?" He leaned against the pillow. "Is it my face?"
"Your face, your body." She stirred the spinach and sprinkled it with
salt. "What will you do?"
"I'll never find a job," he said, sucking the unlit cigarette. He
made an O with his lips and blew imaginary circles of smoke to the
ceiling.
"No. I mean if my husband comes."
He waved away the imaginary smoke. "I'll kill him," he said, then
laughed.
She also laughed. "My husband is a big man. With big hands."
"I'll give him one karate kick." Pramod got up and kicked his right
leg vaguely in her direction. Then he adopted some of the poses he
had seen in kung-fu movies. "I will hit Pitamber on the chin like
this." He jabbed his fist hard against his palm. "I will kick Shambhu-
da in the groin." He lifted his leg high in the air. His legs and
arms moved about, jabbing, punching, kicking, thrusting, flailing. He
continued until he was tired, then sat down next to her, breathing
hard, with an embarrassed smile.
"What good will it do," she said, "to beat up the whole world?"
He raised a finger as if to say: Wait. But when his breathing became
normal, he merely smiled, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. "I think
I should go now."
"But I made dinner."
"Radhika will be waiting," he said.
It was already twilight when he left. The air had a fresh, tangible
quality. He took a deep breath and walked into the marketplace,
passing rows of meat shops and sweets vendors.
At the large temple complex of Hanuman Dhoka, he climbed the steps to
the three-story temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. A few foreigners
milled around, taking pictures. He sat down above the courtyard,
which started emptying as the sky grew dark.
When he reached home, Radhika didn't say anything. She silently
placed a plate of rice, dal, and vegetables in front of him, and he
ate with gusto, his fingers darting from one dish to another. When he
asked for more, she said, "How come you have such an appetite?"
His mouth filled with food, he couldn't respond. After dinner he went
to the baby, who stared at him as if he were a stranger. He picked
her up by the feet and raised his arms, so that her tiny, bald head
was upside down above his face. The baby smiled. Rocking her, Pramod
sang a popular song he'd heard on the radio: "The only thing I know
how to do is chase after young girls, then put them in a wedding doli
and take them home."
When Radhika finished in the kitchen, she stood in the doorway,
watching him sing to the baby. Without turning to her, he
said, "Maybe we should start a shop. What do you think?"
Radhika looked at him suspiciously, then realized he was serious.
Later, when they were in bed and he was about to turn off the light,
he said, "Can you imagine me as a shopkeeper? Who would have thought
of it?"
"I think you would make a very good shopkeeper," Radhika assured him.
"I will have to grow a mustache."
In the darkness, it occurred to him that perhaps he would be such a
good shopkeeper that even if Kamalkanth did come to buy something,
Pramod would be polite and say "Please" and "Thank you." He smiled to
himself. If Shambhu-da came, Pramod would talk loudly with other
customers and pretend Shambhu-da was not there. And if the housemaid
came, he would seat her on a stool, and perhaps Radhika would make
tea for her.
This last thought appealed to him tremendously.

Copyright © 2001 by Samrat Upadhyay. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.The Good Shopkeeper

Radhika was making the evening meal when Pramod gave her the news.
The steam rising off the rotis she was cooking burned his nostrils,
so he backed out of the kitchen and into
the narrow hallway. When she turned off the gas and joined him, he
put his arms behind his back and leaned against the wall.
"What should we do?" she whispered. Their seven-month-old baby was
asleep in the next room.
"I don't know," he answered. "Who could have foreseen
this?"
"Hare Shiva," she said. "How are we going to pay the next month's
rent?" Her eyes filled with tears.
"What's the use of crying now? That's why I never tell you anything.
Instead of thinking with a cool mind, you start crying."
"What should I do other than cry? You've worked there for three
years, and they let you go, just like that? These people don't have
any heart."
"It's not their fault." He tried to sound reasonable. "The company
doesn't have enough money."
"So only you should suffer? Why not one of the new accountants? What
about Suresh?"
"He knows computers," Pramod said.
"He also knows influential people." She wiped her eyes with the back
of her hand, then opened the bedroom door to check on the baby.
"Okay, don't cry. We'll think of something. I'll go and
see Shambhu-da tomorrow." Shambhu-da, though only a distant cousin of
Radhika's, was very fond of her and referred
to her as his favorite sister. He was friends with a number of
bureaucrats and had helped several relatives find jobs. Pra-
mod knew Shambhu-da's business was shady; he was involved in building
contracts throughout the city that were the source of numerous under-
the-table handouts. But if anyone could help him find a job, it would
be Shambhu-da. "Something's bound to happen," Pramod told
Radhika. "We will find a solution."
Yet despite those spoken assurances, Pramod did not sleep well that
night.

The next morning, while it was still dark, he went to the
Pashupatinath Temple, made a slow round of the temple complex, and
stood in line to get tika from the priest in the main shrine. After
putting the paste on his forehead with his third finger,
he prayed that Lord Shiva's blessing would help him. When he
was young, Pramod loved to visit this famous temple of Lord Shiva,
who had protected the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley since
ancient times. He used to walk through the large complex, making his
way among the other worshipers to touch
the feet of the gods scattered throughout. But he hadn't been here in
months, and he briefly wondered whether he had neglected Shiva. By
the time he stepped out of the temple's main gate, the sky was tinged
with gray, and he remembered that he would not have to go home to eat
and change his clothes for work.
Yesterday afternoon, his director had called him into his
office. "Pramod-ji, what can I say? Not everything is in my power."
Power, thought Pramod. Of course the director had the power!
On his way from the temple, Pramod saw pilgrims going to pay homage
to Lord Shiva. The beggars who slept around the temple complex lined
the side of the street, clanking their tin containers. When people
threw money and food in their direction, the beggars would eye one
another's containers to see who'd got a better deal. The monkeys that
roamed the area were also alert, ready to snatch bags and packets
from people who looked timid. The smells of deep-fried jilebies,
vegetable curry, and hot tea wafted from stalls.
Pramod noticed Homraj slowly walking toward the temple, his cane
hanging from his arm. A few years ago Pramod had worked with him in
the accounts department of the Educa-
tion Ministry. Although Pramod turned his face as he passed, Homraj
saw him. "Pramod-ji, I didn't know you were such a religious man!" he
shouted. Then, coming closer, he added, "What is the matter, Pramod-
ji? Is everything all right?"
Pramod hesitated, then told him about the loss of his job.
"Tch, tch," said Homraj, shaking his head. "I'd heard their profits
weren't so good, but I didn't imagine they'd let go a diligent worker
like you."
The temple bells rang in the background as they stood in the middle
of the street. Pramod remembered that he had to catch Shambhu-da
before he left for work, so he excused himself.
At Shambhu-da's house, he found two other men waiting in the living
room. An old servant told Pramod that Shambhu-da was still doing
puja, praying and chanting to the gods, but would join him after half
an hour. Pramod sat down on the sofa, and the two men looked at him
suspiciously as he gazed
at the pictures of religious figures on the wall. He ignored the men
and concentrated on the framed picture of Lord Shiva with the snake
god, Nag, around his blue neck. After a few minutes, one of the men
asked, "Aren't you Prakash-ji?"
Pramod gave him an irritated look and said, "No. My name is Pramod."
"Oh, yes, yes, Pramod-ji. Why did I say Prakash? I know
you. You're Shambhu-da's brother-in-law, aren't you?" He was
a small, ill-dressed man with a pointed nose and a pinched mouth.
Pramod nodded.
"I met you here a year ago. Don't you remember me?"
Pramod shook his head.
"Kamalkanth; that's my name." The man looked at him expectantly. The
other man, who had a broad, dull face, nodded.
"So what brings you here this morning?" Kamalkanth asked.
"Oh, nothing." Pramod wished the man would stop asking questions.
But he didn't. "You work for Better Finance, don't you?"
Pramod was about to say something when the servant appeared with
three glasses of tea and announced that Shambhu-da was coming out.
Now all three men concentrated on the doorway, where Shambhu-da
shortly appeared.
He was wearing only a dhoti, his hairy stomach and his ample breasts
bulging above it, and was singing a hymn, one from the puja he
performed every morning. After solemnly distributing fruit offerings
from the gods to his guests, he asked the servant to bring him juice.
"What brings you here today, brother-in-law?" Shambhu-da asked Pramod.
"Oh, it's been quite a few days, so I just came to see about your
health. Radhika sends her regards."
Shambhu-da nodded and turned toward the other men.
Kamalkanth took a sheaf of paper from his briefcase and said, "I have
arranged everything here in order, Shambhu-da. All the figures are
accurate — I checked them again and again."
"All right," said Shambhu-da. "Why don't you two come back next week?
Then we can sit down and talk about your commission."
The two men left, smiling obsequiously, and Shambhu-da turned his
attention to Pramod.
"Everything is finished, Shambhu-da," Pramod said. "I'm finished."
Shambhu-da took a sip of juice.
"I've lost my job."
"Why?" Shambhu-da didn't look the least bit perturbed.
"They say the company doesn't have any money."
"Do they have other accountants?"
"Yes, there's a young man who knows computers."
"Ah, yes, computers. They're very fashionable these days, aren't
they?" Shambhu-da smiled, then became serious again. "This is no
good. No good. Hmmmmm. How is my favorite sister taking all this? How
is the baby?" When the baby was born, Shambhu-da had declared that he
would be her godfather. Pramod hadn't liked the idea, but Radhika
assured him that if something were to happen to them, Shambhu-da
would see to it that their baby didn't suffer.
"I'll see what I can do," Shambhu-da said. "We'll come up with a
solution. Not to worry." He asked Pramod about the director and
jotted down his name. Then he stretched and yawned. The telephone
rang and Shambhu-da became engrossed in a conversation, mumbling
hmmm and eh every so often. Pramod looked at all the paintings of the
religious figures on the walls — Kali, Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva — and
wondered whether they had anything to do with Shambhu-da's prosperity
and quiet confidence. When he realized that the telephone
conversation was not going to end soon, he got up to leave, and
Shambhu-da, covering the mouthpiece with his palm, said, "I will see
what I can do."

Everyone came to know about Pramod, and everywhere he went, friends
and relatives gave him sympathetic looks. He was sure that some,
those who saw his work at the finance company as lucrative and of
high status, were inwardly gloating over his misery. But he tried to
act cheerful, telling his friends and relatives these things happen
to everyone and that he would certainly find another job. After all,
his years of experience as an accountant had to count for something.
He hated his voice when he said this. He hated his smile, which
painfully stretched the skin around his mouth; he hated having to
explain to everyone why he had lost his job; he hated their
commiseration; and he hated Radhika's forlorn look, especially when
they were with her relatives, who were more well-off than those on
his side.
Every morning before sunrise, he walked to the Pashupatinath Temple.
The fresh air cleared his mind, and he found solace in the temple
lights before they were switched off at dawn. A couple of times he
came across Homraj, who always asked anxiously, "Anything yet?"
Eventually Pramod timed his walks so that he would not run into
Homraj again.
And every day, after his trip to the temple, Pramod visited people of
influence, those who had the power to maneuver him into a job without
his undergoing the rigors of an examination or an interview. He tried
to maintain faith that something would indeed turn up, that one day
he would find himself in an office of his own, seated behind a desk,
with a boy to bring him tea every couple of hours. He missed the
ritual of going to the office, greeting his colleagues, settling down
for the day's work, even though he had been doing the same job for
years. He delighted in juggling numbers, calculating percentages,
making entries in his neat handwriting. He loved solving math
problems in his head, and saw it as a challenge to refrain from using
a calculator until the last moment, or only as a means of
verification. He loved the midday lull, when everyone in the office
ordered snacks and tea, and a feeling of camaraderie came over the
workplace: people laughing and eating, talking about mundane things
that happened at home, teasing one another, commenting on politics.
Pramod kept up his visits to Shambhu-da's residence, showing his face
every week or so, asking whether anything had come up, reminding
Shambhu-da of his predicament, playing on the sense of family by
mentioning, every so often, that Radhika was his favorite sister. On
every visit, Shambhu-da assured Pramod that a job prospect appeared
likely and would be certain within a few days. But even though
Shambhu-da nodded gravely when Pramod described his strained
financial situation, Pramod realized that he had to wait longer and
longer to see Shambhu-da. Kamalkanth snickered whenever they happened
to be there at the same time. Sometimes when he and his companion
looked at Pramod and murmured to each other, Pramod felt like leaving
and forgetting about Shambhu-da once and for all.
When two months had passed with no job offer, Pramod's stomach
churned. He and Radhika managed to pay both months' rent from their
savings, but they had none for the coming month. Although Radhika
borrowed some money from her parents, Pramod did not like that at
all; it made him appear small. "Don't worry," Radhika said, "we'll
pay them back as soon as you get your first salary." She was still
trying to be optimistic, he knew, but he no longer shared that
attitude.
A few nights later, she brought up the idea of selling their land in
the south to finance a shop of their own, perhaps a general store or
a stationery outlet. Pramod disliked the idea. "I'm not going to
become a shopkeeper at this stage in my life," he said. "I am an
accountant, do you understand? I have worked for many big people."
Later, while she slept, he regretted having snapped at her. For one
thing, he doubted whether the land would fetch much money, because it
was getting swampier every year and was far from the major roads.
More important, he could never imagine himself as a shopkeeper. How
humiliated he would feel if he opened a shop and someone like Homraj
came in to buy something. What would he say? Or would he be able to
say anything? What if someone like Kamalkanth came in? Could Pramod
refuse to sell him goods and tell him never to enter the shop again?
If he did, what would happen to the reputation of his shop?
Each night, these thoughts kept Pramod awake for hours. He slunk into
bed, faced the wall, and let his imagination run wild. Radhika put
the baby to sleep, got into bed beside him, and rested her hand on
his back, but he did not turn. Soon she would mutter something, turn
off the light, and go to sleep.
Often Pramod imagined himself as a feudal landlord, like one of the
men who used to run the farmlands of the country only twenty years
earlier. He would have a large royal mustache that curled up at the
ends and pointed toward the sky, the kind he could oil and stroke as
a sign of power. He saw himself walking through a small village, a
servant shielding him from the southern sun with a big black
umbrella, while all the villagers greeted him deferentially. He saw
himself plump and well cared for. Then he saw himself as an executive
officer in a multinational company where Shambhu-da worked as an
office boy. Shambhu-da was knocking on the door of Pramod's spacious,
air-conditioned office, where he sat behind a large desk in a clean
white shirt and tie, his glasses hanging from his neck, a cigarette
smoldering on the ashtray. Shambhu-da would walk in, his cheeks
hollow, wearing clothes that were clearly secondhand, and plead for
an advance on his wages, which Pramod would refuse. Shambhu-da would
weep, and Pramod, irritated, would tell him the company had no place
for a whiner.
Pramod giggled at this little scene. Then when he realized what he
was doing, a moan escaped his lips. Radhika sat up, turned on the
light, and asked, "What's the matter? Having a bad dream?"

One morning Pramod was sitting on a bench in the city park, smoking a
cigarette, after having made his humiliating morning round, when a
small, plump young woman sat next to him and started shelling peanuts
that were bundled at the end of her dhoti. The cracking of the shells
was getting on his nerves, and he was just about to leave when the
woman said, "Do you want some peanuts?"
Pramod shook his head.
"They're very good," she said. "Nicely roasted and salty." She looked
like a laborer, or perhaps a village woman working in the city as a
servant.
"I don't eat peanuts in the morning," said Pramod.
"Oh, really? I can eat them all day long. Morning, noon, night."
Pramod watched a couple of men in suits and ties, carrying
briefcases, enter an office building across the street.
"The mornings here are so beautiful, no?" he heard the woman say. "I
come here every day." She popped more peanuts into her mouth. "Where
do you work?"
The gall of this woman, clearly of a class much below his. "In an
office," he replied.
"It's nearly ten o'clock. Don't you have to go to your office? It's
not a holiday today, is it?"
"No, it's not a holiday."
"I just finished my work. Holiday or no holiday, I have to work."
"Where?" asked Pramod.
"In Putalisadak," she said. "I wash clothes, clean the house. But
only in the mornings. They have another servant, but she goes to
school in the morning. My mistress is very generous."
"Where's your husband?" asked Pramod. He felt himself smile; talking
to a servant girl in the park was an indication, he thought, of just
how low he had fallen.
"He's back in the village, near Pokhara. He's a carpenter, building
this and that. But the money is never enough. That's why I had to
come here."
"You don't have any children?"
She shook her head and blushed.
They sat in silence for a moment. She said, "You know, my husband
says one shouldn't think too much." There was a note of pity in her
voice.
"Why does he say that? Does he say it to you?"
"Not me. I don't think all that much. What's there to think about?
Life is what God gives us. My husband says it to any of our relatives
who is unhappy and comes to him for advice. In this city I see so
many worried people. They walk around not looking at anyone, always
thinking, always fretting. This problem, that problem. Sometimes I
think if I stay here too long, I'll become like them."
Pramod sighed at her simple ways.
By now the streets were crowded; people were on their way to work.
The park, in the center of the city, provided a good view of the
surrounding buildings, many of them filled with major offices.
The woman stood, stretched, and said, "Well, I should be going home.
Make tea and then cook some rice for myself." She looked at him
sweetly. "I can make tea for you in my room."
Pramod was startled.
"It's all right," she said. "You don't have to come if you don't want
to. Here you are, sitting and worrying about what, I don't know. So I
thought you might want some tea. My house isn't far. It's right here
in Asan." She pointed in the direction of the large marketplace.
"All right," Pramod said. He got up and followed her out of the park,
embarrassed to be walking beside this servant girl, afraid that
someone he knew might see him. But he could feel a slow excitement
rising in his body. He walked a few steps behind her, and she,
seeming to sense his discomfort, didn't turn around and talk to him.
When they entered Asan, they were swept into the crowd, but he
maintained his distance behind her, keeping her red dhoti in sight.
There was a pleasant buzz in his ears, as if whatever was happening
to him was unreal, as if the events of the last two months were also
not true. His worrying was replaced by a lightness. He floated behind
her, and the crowd in the marketplace moved forward. He didn't feel
constricted, as he usually did in such places. In fact, his heart
seemed to have expanded.
When they reached an old house in a narrow alley, she turned around
at the doorway and said, "I have a room on the third floor, the other
side." She led him through a dirty courtyard, where children were
playing marbles, and beckoned to him to follow her through another
door. Pramod found himself in the dark. He could hear the swish of
her dhoti. "The stairs are here," she said. "Be careful; they're
narrow. Watch your head." He reached for her hand, and she held his
as she led him up the wooden stairs. Now Pramod could see the faint
outline of a door. "One more floor." He thought she looked pretty in
that semidarkness. On the next landing she unlocked a door and they
entered a small room.
In one corner were a stove and some pots and pans; in another, a
cot. A poster of Lord Krishna, his blue chubby face smiling at no one
in particular, hung above the bed. The gray light filtering through
the small window illuminated the woman's face and objects in the
room. She was smiling.
He was drawn to the window, where he was surprised to find a view of
the center of the marketplace. He had never before been inside a
house in this congested quarter. In the distance, vegetable sellers
squatted next to their baskets, smoking and laughing. A faint noise
from the market drifted into the room, like the hum of a bee, and he
stood at the window and gazed over the rooftops and windows of other
houses crammed into this section of the city.
"You can sit on the bed," she said.
He promptly obliged, and she proceeded to boil water for tea. He
wondered how she, with her meager income as a housemaid, could afford
an apartment in the city's center. Then a curious thought entered his
head: could she be a prostitute? Yet he knew she wasn't. As if
divining his thought, she said, "The owner of this house is from our
village. He knew my father, and he treats me like a daughter. Very
kind man. Not many like him these days, you know."
He smiled to himself. Yes, he knew. He said nothing.
When she brought the tea, she sat next to him, and they sipped in
silence. Soon he felt drowsy and lay down on the bed. She moved
beside him, took his hand, and placed it on her breast. He ran his
finger across her plump face. Her eyes were closed. He had no
reaction except that there was an inevitability to this, something
he'd sensed the moment she began to talk to him in the park.
When he made love to her, it was not with hunger or passion; the act
had its own momentum. He was not the one lifting her sari, fumbling
with her petticoat, he was not the one doing the penetrating. She
required nothing. She just lay beneath him, matching his moves only
as the act demanded.
He stayed with her until dusk. They ate, slept, and then he got up to
survey the marketplace again. The crowd had swelled; strident voices
of women haggling with vendors rose to the window. He felt removed
from all of it, a distant observer who had to fulfill no obligations,
meet no responsibilities, perform no tasks.
When he got home that evening, he was uncharacteristically talkative.
He even played with the baby, cooing to her and swinging her in his
arms. Radhika's face brightened, and she asked whether he had good
news about a job. He said, "What job? There are no jobs," and her
face darkened again.

During the afternoons Pramod still pursued his contacts, hoping
something would come along, but the late mornings he reserved for the
housemaid. They often met in the park after she'd finished her work
and walked to her room in Asan. On Saturdays and holidays he stayed
home, sometimes playing with the baby, sometimes listening to the
radio.
Once while he and Radhika were preparing for bed, she looked at the
baby and said, "We have to think of her future."
Pramod caressed his daughter's face and replied, "I'm sure something
will happen," although he had no idea of any prospect.
Putting her hand on his, Radhika said, "I know you're trying. But
maybe you should see more people. I went to Shambhu-da yesterday, and
he says he'll find you something soon."
"Shambhu-da." Pramod suppressed a groan.
"He's the only one who can help us."
"I don't need his help," said Pramod.
"Don't say that. If you say that, nothing will happen."
Pramod jumped from the bed and said, trembling, "What do you mean,
nothing will happen? What's happening now? Is anything happening now?"
One cloudy morning as Pramod and the housemaid left the park and
entered the marketplace, he saw Homraj walking toward them, swinging
his umbrella.
Before Pramod could hide, Homraj asked, "Oh, Pramod-ji, have you come
here to buy vegetables?" He looked at the housemaid curiously. Pramod
swallowed and nodded. "Nothing yet, huh?" Homraj asked. "My nephew
can't find a job either, but his situation is a little different."
Pramod, conscious of the housemaid by his side, wished she would move
on. He put his hands in his pockets and said, "Looks like rain, so
I'll have to go," and he walked away, leaving her standing with
Homraj.
Later, she caught up with him and asked, "Why were you afraid? What's
there to be afraid of?" Pramod, his face grim, kept walking, and when
they reached her room, he threw himself on her cot and turned his
face away. His chest was so tight that he had to concentrate on
breathing. She said nothing more. After setting the water to boil,
she came and sat beside him.

Pramod stopped his search for a job and was absent from his house
most of the time. One night he even stayed in the housemaid's room,
and when he got home in the morning, Radhika was in tears. "Where
were you?" She brought her nose close to his face to smell whether
he'd been drinking. "What's happened to you? Don't you know that you
are a father? A husband?"
Now when he went to family gatherings, he wasn't surprised that the
relatives looked at him questioningly. The bold ones even mocked
him. "Pramod-ji, a man should not give up so easily. Otherwise he is
not a man." Some sought to counsel him. "Radhika is worried about
you. These things happen to everyone, but one shouldn't let
everything go just lik e that." He didn't feel he had to respond to
them, so he sat in silence, nodding. His father-in-law stopped
talking to him, and his mother-in-law's face was strained whenever
she had to speak to him.
At a relative's feast one bright afternoon, Pramod watched a game of
flush. The men, sitting on the floor in a circle, threw money into
the center, and the women hovered around. Shambhu-da was immaculately
dressed in a safari suit, and his ruddy face glowed with pleasure as
he took carefully folded rupee notes from his pockets. Radhika sat
beside Shambhu-da, peering over his cards and making faces.
"Pramod-ji, aren't you going to play?" asked a relative.
Pramod shook his head and smiled.
"Why would Pramod-ji want to play?" said another relative, a bearded
man who had been Pramod's childhood friend. "He has better things to
do in life." This was followed by a loud guffaw from everyone.
Radhika looked at Pramod.
"After all, we're the ones who are fools. Working at a job and then,
poof, everything gone in an afternoon of flush." The bearded
relative, with a dramatic gesture, tossed some money into the jackpot.
"No job, no worries. Every day is the same," someone else said.
Radhika got up and left the room. Pramod sat with his chin resting on
his palms.
Shambhu-da looked at the bearded relative with scorn and asked, "Who
are you to talk, eh, Pitamber? A bull without horns can't call
himself sharp. What about you, then, who drives a car given to him by
his in-laws, and walks around as if he'd earned it?"
At this, some of the men nodded and remarked, "Well said" and "That's
the truth." Pitamber smiled with embarrassment and said, "I was only
joking, Shambhu-da. After all, this is a time of festivities."
"You don't joke about such matters," said Shambhu-da with unusual
sharpness. "Why should you joke about this, anyway? What about the
time you embezzled five lakh rupees from your office? Who rescued you
then?"
The room became quiet. Shambhu-da himself looked surprised that he'd
mentioned that incident.
Pitamber threw his cards on the floor and stood up. "What did I say,
huh? What did I say? I didn't say anything to you. Just because
you're older, does that mean you can say anything?" With his right
hand, he gesticulated wildly; with his left, he rapidly stroked his
beard. His voice grew louder. "What about you? Everyone knows you had
that police inspector killed. We aren't fools. How do you make all
your money, donkey?"
The use of the word donkey prompted the other men to stand and try to
restrain Pitamber, who seemed ready to froth at the mouth. "Enough,
enough!" cried one woman.
Radhika came back. "What happened?"
A shadow covered Shambhu-da's face, and he too got up. "What do you
think, huh? What do you think? Say that again, you motherfucker; just
say that again. I can buy people like you with my left hand."
Radhika went over to Pramod and said, "See what you've started?"
Bitterly, he said, "You are a fool," and walked out of the room.
He was engulfed by numbness; things disappeared in a haze. Words and
phrases floated through his mind. He remembered stories of people
jumping into the Ranipokhari Pond at the center of the city and being
sucked under to their death. Could he do it?
Pramod walked the two miles to Asan and moved through the darkness of
the staircase to the housemaid's room.
She was pleased to see him.
"I'd like to lie down," he told her.
"Shall I make you tea?"
He shook his head and sank onto her cot. It smelled of her sweat and
hair oil. He felt like a patient, ready to be anesthetized so that
his body could be torn apart.
"Are you all right?" She put her palm on his forehead.
He nodded and fell asleep. It was a short sleep, filled with jerky
images that he forgot when he woke.
She was cooking rice. "You'll eat here?"
For a while, he said nothing. Then he asked, "Aren't you afraid your
husband will come? Unannounced?"
She laughed, stirring the rice. "He'd catch us, wouldn't he?"
"What would you do?"
"What would I do?"
"Yes. What would you say to him if he catches us?"
"I don't know," she said. "I never think about it."
"Why?"
"It's not in my nature." She took the rice pot off the stove and put
on another, into which she poured clarified butter. She dipped some
spinach into the burning ghee; it made a swoosh, and smoke rose in a
gust. Pramod pulled out a cigarette and set it between his lips
without lighting it.
"You know," she said, "if this bothers you, you should go back to
your wife."
"It doesn't bother me."
"Sometimes you look worried. As if someone is waiting to catch you."
"Really?" He leaned against the pillow. "Is it my face?"
"Your face, your body." She stirred the spinach and sprinkled it with
salt. "What will you do?"
"I'll never find a job," he said, sucking the unlit cigarette. He
made an O with his lips and blew imaginary circles of smoke to the
ceiling.
"No. I mean if my husband comes."
He waved away the imaginary smoke. "I'll kill him," he said, then
laughed.
She also laughed. "My husband is a big man. With big hands."
"I'll give him one karate kick." Pramod got up and kicked his right
leg vaguely in her direction. Then he adopted some of the poses he
had seen in kung-fu movies. "I will hit Pitamber on the chin like
this." He jabbed his fist hard against his palm. "I will kick Shambhu-
da in the groin." He lifted his leg high in the air. His legs and
arms moved about, jabbing, punching, kicking, thrusting, flailing. He
continued until he was tired, then sat down next to her, breathing
hard, with an embarrassed smile.
"What good will it do," she said, "to beat up the whole world?"
He raised a finger as if to say: Wait. But when his breathing became
normal, he merely smiled, leaned over, and kissed her cheek. "I think
I should go now."
"But I made dinner."
"Radhika will be waiting," he said.
It was already twilight when he left. The air had a fresh, tangible
quality. He took a deep breath and walked into the marketplace,
passing rows of meat shops and sweets vendors.
At the large temple complex of Hanuman Dhoka, he climbed the steps to
the three-story temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. A few foreigners
milled around, taking pictures. He sat down above the courtyard,
which started emptying as the sky grew dark.
When he reached home, Radhika didn't say anything. She silently
placed a plate of rice, dal, and vegetables in front of him, and he
ate with gusto, his fingers darting from one dish to another. When he
asked for more, she said, "How come you have such an appetite?"
His mouth filled with food, he couldn't respond. After dinner he went
to the baby, who stared at him as if he were a stranger. He picked
her up by the feet and raised his arms, so that her tiny, bald head
was upside down above his face. The baby smiled. Rocking her, Pramod
sang a popular song he'd heard on the radio: "The only thing I know
how to do is chase after young girls, then put them in a wedding doli
and take them home."
When Radhika finished in the kitchen, she stood in the doorway,
watching him sing to the baby. Without turning to her, he
said, "Maybe we should start a shop. What do you think?"
Radhika looked at him suspiciously, then realized he was serious.
Later, when they were in bed and he was about to turn off the light,
he said, "Can you imagine me as a shopkeeper? Who would have thought
of it?"
"I think you would make a very good shopkeeper," Radhika assured him.
"I will have to grow a mustache."
In the darkness, it occurred to him that perhaps he would be such a
good shopkeeper that even if Kamalkanth did come to buy something,
Pramod would be polite and say "Please" and "Thank you." He smiled to
himself. If Shambhu-da came, Pramod would talk loudly with other
customers and pretend Shambhu-da was not there. And if the housemaid
came, he would seat her on a stool, and perhaps Radhika would make
tea for her.
This last thought appealed to him tremendously.

Copyright © 2001 by Samrat Upadhyay. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

The Good Shopkeeper 1
The Cooking Poet 2
Deepak Misra's Secretary 34
The Limping Bride 56
During the Festival 84
The Room Next Door 99
The Man with Long Hair 120
This World 139
A Great Man's House 164
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2006

    Great Book for all readers

    This book represents amodern Asian society . it is an excellent composition by Samrat.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2001

    Excellent Book!

    This is the first book of short stories I have read in years....and it was wonderful. Set in Nepal, a country we all, I'm sure, know so little about, the characters are all so human. Sorta , like us. Sounds trite, I know. A novel from this author soon would be greatly appreciated!

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