With emotional precision and narrative subtlety, The Royal Ghosts features characters trying to reconcile their true desires with the forces at work in Nepali society. Against the backdrop of the violent Maoist insurgencies that have claimed thousands of lives, these characters struggle with their duties to their aging parents, an oppressive caste system, and the complexities of arranged marriage. In the end, they manage to find peace and connection, often where they least expect it— with the people directly in front of them. These stories brilliantly examine not only Kathmandu during a time of political crisis and cultural transformation but also the effects of that city on the individual consciousness.
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, and a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.
This book will also appeal to readers intersted in the themes: Nepal, South Asian Literature, Nepali Society, Alienation, Democracy, Kathmandu.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.52(d)|
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
Pitamber crossed the bridge to Kupondole and found the gift shop where he'd
been told Kabita worked. But the man behind the counter said she'd quit after
just a few days. "She wasn't right in the head, you know," the man
said, "after all that happened to her."
"Where did she go?"
"I don't know. I tried to convince her to stay on, but she just
Pitamber left the shop and stood on the sidewalk, squinting at the
sun and noting the intense heat, strange for autumn.This morning he'd woken
restless, with a hollowness in his stomach, and thought about the letter he'd
received a fortnight ago from his childhood friend Jaikanth. The feeling
remained with him throughout the day as he searched for this woman named
Kabita, whose story Jaikanth had described to him. "She's in Kathmandu
with her daughter, and I know what a kind man you are, Pitamber. Please do
what you can to help her. She's suffered immensely."
Now Pitamber made his way to his flat in Dharahara, where his
wife, Shailaja, was cooking French toast in the kitchen. She turned to smile
at him as he came in. "Any luck?"
He said no and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Why
hasn't she contacted us? Jaikanth said he gave her our address. It's been
nearly two weeks."
"Maybe other people are already helping her. Didn't Jaikanth
mention other people she knew here?"
He nodded, then told her what the man in the gift shop had said. "I
hope she's found another job," he toldShailaja, then said that his stomach
had been mildly upset all day.
"It must be hunger," she said. "Why don't you go wash your face
and I'll give you some French toast. Sumit should be home any minute now."
He went to the bathroom, washed his face, took several deep
breaths, then went to find Jaikanth's letter. He read it again, and paused as
he did: "They killed him in front of her, Pitamber. Can you imagine what that
must have been like?" Jaikanth hadn't explained the details of the killing, but
over the past two weeks Pitamber had formed a picture in his mind: three
Maobadi rebels, barely past their teens (they were always so young in the
news), storming into her house, dragging her husband out to the yard, slitting
his throat with a knife. The four-year-old daughter probably inside the house,
perhaps sound asleep, perhaps with a nasty cold. And after the men leave, a
woman standing there, her palm over her mouth.
The woman's face was never clear, but Pitamber's mind always
flashed with these details: the sun's rays glinting on washed pots drying on
the porch, one rebel raising his finger to warn the neighbors peeking from the
windows of their houses, the men's footprints on the rice paddies through
which they escape.
He massaged his temples. Surely she still needed help now. It
was clear that Jaikanth was expecting him to house the woman and her
daughter for a while, and Pitamber was willing to do this, even though his was
only a three-room flat in a small house. He wanted to help her, mostly out of
compassion, but partly out of obligation to an old friend of his family, a friend
from the village where he grew up.
When Sumit, his twelve-year-old son, returned from school, they
drank tea and ate French toast, then Pitamber and the boy settled down to
play chess. Pitamber had bought the set two months ago, after the first set,
a cheap one with plastic pieces, disappeared from their flat. Pitamber
suspected that one of Sumit's friends from the neighborhood, who had a
reputation for lifting small objects from the surrounding houses, had swiped it,
but he didn't pursue the matter. Sumit had shown remarkable skill in the
game, so this time Pitamber bought a marble set with finely carved pieces. It
had cost him nine hundred rupees at a tourist shop in Basantapur. His
stomach dropped when the shopkeeper first told him the price, but he'd
rationalized the purchase, convincing himself that his son would become a
master someday. "We should enroll him in the neighborhood chess club,"
he'd said to Shailaja the other day. "He can play with older kids and learn
more quickly." But Shailaja was hesitant. "He might be intimidated. There'll
be kids his age better at the game, and you know how he is." She had a
point. Sumit was a sensitive kid; he berated himself whenever he lost to his
father. Perhaps he should gain more confidence before joining any clubs.
The two played chess that evening for nearly an hour. Sumit made
a couple of silly mistakes and slapped his forehead each time. Pitamber
deliberately muddled his moves to compensate for Sumit's errors, careful to
pretend that the mistakes were genuine. Toward the end of the game, Sumit
captured his remaining knight and paralyzed Pitamber's king. "You're getting
much better," Pitamber told his son, and suggested the three of them go for a
The air had gotten considerably cooler and more pleasant, but
Pitamber soon grew annoyed by the crowds on the pavement and the cars
and trucks spewing fumes and blasting their horns beside them. The three
walked toward the stadium, and Sumit spotted a large billboard advertising a
Hindi action movie. "I want to see that," he said, and he held out his arms as
if he were carrying a machine gun. "Bhut bhut bhut bhut." He mock-shot
some pedestrians, and Pitamber scolded him. The boy had been watching
too many of these movies on video. Shailaja was too lenient with him, and on
weekends, when he and Pitamber were not playing chess, Sumit remained
glued to the television despite Pitamber's pleas for him to turn it off. He even
recognized all the actors and actresses and knew their silly songs by heart.
Chess was better for him. It taught him to think, to strategize, to
assess his own strengths and weaknesses. It was a good game for a future
statesman or a philosopher. The idea of his son's becoming someone
important brought a smile to Pitamber's face, and he ruffled the boy's hair.
After dinner that evening, Pitamber went to his bedroom to read
the day's paper. In Rolpa, dozens of policemen had been shot by the
Maobadis. In Baglung, two rebels had been beaten to death by villagers, who
now feared reprisal. The cold, passive language of the news reports disgusted
Pitamber, and he set down the paper. It was hard to believe that this country
was becoming a place where people killed each other over differences in
ideas about how to govern it. At his office the other day, a colleague openly
sympathized with the rebels and said that the Maobadis had no
choice. "Think about it," the man had said. "For years we suffered under the
kings, then we got so-called democracy, but nothing got better. Most of our
country lives in mind-boggling poverty. These Maobadis are only fighting for
the poor. It's a simple thing that they're doing."
"Simple?" Pitamber had said. "Your Maobadis are killing the very
people they claim they're fighting for — innocent villagers."
"They're casualties of the revolution," the man said. "They are
martyrs. But the revolution has to go on."
Pitamber took a deep breath and said, "It's easy for you to blather
on about revolutions from your comfortable chair."
The discussion ended with him walking away from his colleague.
Later Pitamber barely acknowledged him when they passed in the hallway,
even though he knew that what the man said was not entirely untrue: poor
people in the country were fed up with how little their conditions had
changed, democracy or no democracy.
Pitamber again went to find Jaikanth's letter and reread it, this
time stopping at the three names and addresses of the contacts Kabita
already had in the city. Through one of these people, Pitamber had learned
about the gift shop where she had worked. He had tried reaching another of
the contacts but had been told the man was out of town. Pitamber reached
for the phone and called the number again. The man answered this time, but
said he didn't know the whereabouts of Kabita. "She hasn't been in touch,
but I believe she has a distant relative who is a sadhu in the Pashupatinath
temple. You might try him."
Early the next morning, after some searching, Pitamber found the communal
house for ascetics near the Pashupatinath temple, where Kabita's relative,
Ramsharan, lived. When Pitamber announced whom he was looking for, a
small old man with soft eyes and full lips said, "That's me." He told Pitamber
that Kabita was renting a flat in Baghbazar and gave him directions. "She
hasn't come to see me," the man said. "And I'm too old to walk around the
city. But I did go to her flat once when she first came to Kathmandu."
Ramsharan shook his head sadly. "What can we do? God creates, God
destroys. We can only sing his praises."
Pitamber thanked him and left, mildly annoyed by the sadhu's
sanctimonious words. It was already nine o'clock, and Pitamber would be
late for work. But he felt so close to finding Kabita that he decided he'd risk
his new supervisor's irritation. Thus far Pitamber was in Mr. Shrestha's good
graces at the municipal branch office in Naxal where he worked — maybe the
man would tolerate one day of tardiness.
Kabita's flat was located above a shoe store, and the smell of
leather hung in the staircase as Pitamber climbed to the third floor. He
knocked on the door. After a few moments, a small woman with sunken eyes
opened it. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five or so, and she had
on the standard white dhoti that widows wore.
She nodded. A girl appeared by her side, and Pitamber could hear
the sound of a kerosene stove burning inside. He introduced himself, said
Jaikanth had written to him about her. "Oh, yes," she said without much
"I don't want to bother you," Pitamber said. "But could we talk?"
She let him in. It was a one-room flat, with a bed in one corner
and cooking equipment in another. There were no drapes on the windows,
and Pitamber noticed two girls at the window of the neighboring house
looking in at them and whispering. "How old is she?" he asked, gesturing
toward the girl. He reached into his pocket, took out a lollipop, and extended
it to her. She took it shyly.
"She'll be five next month."
"And how are things for you?"
For a moment she looked at him as if he were a complete fool.
Then she said, "All right."
"I was saddened to hear what happened," he said, searching for
something more comforting to say. "People in this country have simply gone
"It was God's will," she said. "My only worry is for her." She
placed her hand on her daughter's head, and the girl reached under the bed
and pulled out a doll with yellow hair and blue eyes.
Pitamber said what a nice-looking doll it was and asked the girl
"Priya," she said, staring at her feet.
"What a pretty name. I have a son who's a bit older than you. He's
"Did you do namaste to him?" Kabita suddenly reprimanded her
daughter, who halfheartedly joined her palms together for Pitamber.
He again expressed his sorrow, then said that he was willing to
offer any help he could. "I heard you had a job, but quit."
"It's hard to work with her around," she said, gesturing toward her
daughter. Kabita said she'd taken Priya with her to the gift shop in
Kupondole, but after two days the owner said that he couldn't have a child
running around a shop frequented by tourists. The owner of the shoe shop
below the flat offered to look after her while Kabita worked, but every evening
when she returned, she found Priya bawling. "I've thought about returning to
my village," she said, "but those men are still there."
It took him a moment to understand that the men she referred to
were the Maobadis. "Listen," he said. "There's no reason for you to be all
alone in this city. I am here, my family is here. Why don't you come and stay
with us while you look for a job? We'll see if we can find a school for your
daughter. And once things fall into place, you can move into a flat of your
She shook her head. "I couldn't burden you like that."
"It's no burden! What are you talking about? Listen, we don't have
much space, but we can certainly manage. How about you talk to your
landlord? Or better, I'll talk to him, explain the situation, and maybe he'll
return the money you gave him for the rest of the month."
"I wouldn't know how to repay you for this."
Kabita's landlord was argumentative when Pitamber went to see him the next
evening after work. "With anyone else I'd require at least two months' notice,
but with her, because of her situation, I can let her go at the end of the
month. But not before."
Pitamber tried to reason with him, said he should consider all that
Kabita had endured, that she couldn't possibly afford to let go of almost a
But the landlord wouldn't budge. "I also have my own household
expenses to think of. Where am I going to find another tenant on such short
Pitamber looked around the man's room, lowered his voice, and
said, "Listen, muji, you better let her go. Otherwise people will think you're a
Maobadi yourself. Why else would you give her such a hard time? A good
question, isn't it?" His own words surprised him, how quickly he said them.
The landlord stared at him. "Are you threatening me?"
Pitamber straightened his back, deciding to finish what he'd
started. "Take it how you want to take it. I'm just saying your being stubborn
makes you suspicious."
"What kind of a world is this? All I'm asking for is a month's rent
that's due to me."
"But in a situation like this, you shouldn't be thinking only about
The landlord looked angry but defeated. "All right, how about a
week's rent? At least she can give me that much."
"Two hundred rupees."
Pitamber had anticipated something like this and was prepared for
it. He didn't want to part with the money, but it was a small price to pay given
Kabita's circumstances. He took out his wallet and gave him the
money. "She'll move out tomorrow."
"Don't tell her or anyone else about our conversation today. I don't
want people to get the wrong idea about me."
"Rest assured," Pitamber said. As he walked back to Kabita's flat,
a few houses away, he felt a bit remorseful about how menacing he'd been,
but it had to be done, he supposed. People needed to be reminded of what
was important when dealing with those who'd suffered.
The next evening, Kabita and Priya moved into Pitamber's flat. She had only
one large suitcase, a thin, folding mattress with a blanket, and a couple of
bags, so it was easy to fit everything in a taxi. Kabita wanted to repay the
money Pitamber had given to the landlord, as well as the taxi fare, but
Pitamber wouldn't hear of it.
Initially, Shailaja said he'd been hasty when he told her that he'd
invited Kabita to live with them. "She might not feel comfortable living with
strangers like this," she said. "And we don't have much space." But Pitamber
said that he'd feel awful if Kabita was forced to return to the village, and that
this arrangement was only temporary. Shailaja finally agreed. "You've always
been like this," she said, stroking his hair. "You can't bear to see anyone
Now she offered Priya and Kabita tea and snacks, and they
chatted about her village and how expensive it was to live in Kathmandu.
Shailaja said that a seamstress who sewed her blouses in New Road was
looking for help. "Do you know how to run a sewing machine?" Kabita shook
her head. "I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem," Shailaja said. "She actually
taught me. I used to work for her until about a year ago, before my fingers
began to swell and I could no longer run the machine."
"But what will I do with her when I work?" Kabita asked, gesturing
"I'll look after her until we find a school for her. All right?"
Pitamber was glad Shailaja showed no signs of her earlier doubts
about this arrangement, but even then he'd known that once she met Kabita,
her heart would take over. He had always admired Shailaja's generous spirit,
and in moments like these he considered himself lucky to have her as his
At Shailaja's offer, Kabita lowered her eyes, as if overwhelmed.
Shailaja went to prepare dinner, and Priya began to cling to her
mother, who scolded her and said that she needed to help with the cooking.
"Come here, daughter. Why don't you and I play chess with this
brilliant fellow here," Pitamber said, pointing to Sumit, who so far had shown
little interest in the girl.
"I don't want to play with her," Sumit mumbled.
"And why's that?"
"She's too young."
"What if I help her?"
"Then it'll take me five seconds instead of one to beat her."
"Did you hear that, Shailaja?" Pitamber said loudly. "I think your
son is getting arrogant. I think it's time he challenged some real players at
the chess club."
The sound of spinach frying in oil filled the flat, and he heard his
wife chatting with Kabita.
"Come, daughter, I'll teach you how to play chess," Pitamber said,
and Priya came to his side.
He set up the pieces and began teaching her the rules. But she
was more interested in admiring the pieces than anything else, and after a
while he sighed and gave up. Sumit, who was sitting next to them doing his
homework, laughed. "She's too young, buwa. I told you."
"Why don't you two play a game that she'll find more interesting?"
"But I'm doing my homework."
"Do you like to listen to stories?" Pitamber asked Priya.
Shyly chewing the hem of her dress, she nodded.
"Then I'll read to you. Come." He searched in their bookcase for
one of Sumit's old children's books and found one about a cat and a rabbit.
Priya sat on his lap, and he began reading. Her eyes followed his finger as it
moved across the page. Soon Sumit abandoned his homework and sat next
to them, and Pitamber felt a strange happiness come over him, as if
somehow his family was expanding. He and Shailaja had both wanted a
daughter after Sumit, but despite years of trying, Shailaja hadn't gotten
pregnant again. In time, they'd become grateful for at least having had a son.
After dinner, they settled down to watch television. Shailaja turned
on some comedy show, and soon Pitamber lost interest. Surreptitiously, he
watched Kabita, whose eyes were steadily focused on the screen in front of
her. What was going through her head right then? he wondered. Did she think
about the killers? If she did, what kinds of things did she think? Kabita
appeared to sense him watching her, for she quickly glanced at him. He felt
something transpire between them, something he couldn't quite define.
He and Shailaja had decided that Kabita and Priya would sleep in
Sumit's bed and Sumit would sleep on a mattress on the floor of their room.
But when everyone began getting ready for bed, Sumit balked. "I want to
sleep in my own bed," he said to his parents. "I don't want to sleep with you
two." At twelve years old, he'd already begun acting like a teenager, Pitamber
thought and sighed. Kabita said, "Why should Sumit babu relinquish his bed?
We can easily spread our mattress right here." She pointed to the living room
floor. Pitamber tried to reason with his son, saying he should at least let the
guests spread their mattress on his floor, but Sumit stormed off to his room
and closed the door. "I don't know what's wrong with your son," Pitamber told
Shailaja, who retorted, "Yes, when he doesn't obey he's my son, but when
he wins at chess, he's yours."
"This is how it is in our house," Pitamber said to Kabita, trying to
smile, and quickly helped her set up her mattress on the living room floor.
Later, in their room, Shailaja said, "Poor thing. With everything
that's happened, she's still maintaining a good attitude."
"She seems to be a strong woman," Pitamber said.
"That kind of tragedy — I mean, what did she do to deserve it?
And here we are — we still believe in God."
Shailaja regularly worshiped at the city temples, and her words
surprised him. "I'm not sure I believe in God anymore," he said.
"You shouldn't say that."
"But you just said it."
"I didn't say I don't believe in God. I meant that we must believe in
God no matter what. You know that."
"So adept at twisting your own words," Pitamber muttered.
After a moment she said, "I want to do a puja at the Maitidevi
Her face was very serious. "Why do people do puja? To ask for
"Nobody is threatening us," he said. Then, noting his harsh tone,
he said, "Okay, go ahead and do it, that's no problem. I was just asking why."
"There doesn't need to be a why when praying to God," she said,
and turned off the light.
The seamstress was more than happy to hire Kabita. "These Maobadis! They
should all be burned alive for everyone to see," Ratnakumari said to Shailaja
and Pitamber when they went to her.
A routine was soon established. Kabita would leave for the
seamstress's house early in the morning, around seven. Pitamber would
entertain Priya, who inevitably cried and whined after her mother left, while
Shailaja cooked the morning meal. Soon it was time for Sumit to go to
school, then for Pitamber to head to work. Kabita returned home at around
one or two, depending on how busy things were with Ratnakumari. Pitamber
left his office at five. In the evening, after dinner, they all sat around the flat,
talking or reading or watching television.
Over the days, Pitamber and Shailaja learned more about Kabita.
Both her parents had died of illnesses soon after she got married. Her in-laws
lived in another village, in Gorkha, which was also subject to attacks by the
Maobadis, so she couldn't go there after her husband was killed. She had a
sister who worked as a hotel maid in the Indian state of Bihar. Kabita had
very little contact with her — they'd never been particularly close — and most
likely she wasn't aware of all that had happened to her sister. No one knew
for sure why her husband was killed, Kabita said, for he was only a
schoolteacher and had no political affiliations. Whenever she mentioned her
husband, she grew restless.
"It won't always be this painful to think about," Shailaja frequently
consoled her. "You have to focus on your new life here, and your daughter's."
Kabita usually nodded, looking at the floor. Sometimes she pulled
her daughter to her side. In these moments Pitamber found it hard to look at
Kabita and Priya without something roiling in his stomach, without vividly
recalling the photographs of the Maobadi leaders that had recently appeared
in the newspapers. The confounding thing was that these men looked so
ordinary, like the men he worked with, the men he saw in tea shops across
As it turned out, a school for Priya was hard to come by. She was
too young for kindergarten, and preschools were very expensive. "I have no
problem looking after her," Shailaja insisted to Kabita. "Look, she's already
taken a liking to me." It was true. Priya now clung to Shailaja as much as
she did to her own mother. "Auntie," she called Shailaja, and followed her
around the house.
Sumit seemed to be the only one having difficulties adjusting to
Kabita and Priya in the flat. He hardly said anything to Kabita and never
played with Priya. Once Pitamber saw him push the girl away as she was
attempting to get something from the floor near him. Pitamber took him to his
bedroom and said, "You should treat her like your younger sister. You should
be nice to her."
"Don't call her my sister," Sumit said sullenly.
"They're not part of our family."
"Well, while they're here we have to treat them that way,
"When are they going to leave?"
"Soon. Now go play with Priya for a while."
But Sumit stayed in his room alone and shut the door. When
Pitamber told Shailaja about his talk with Sumit, she said, "This is normal for
someone his age. He'll get used to them."
One morning, right after he reached work, Pitamber heard that Mr. Shrestha
had called in sick. Because of the man's grouchy demeanor and strict rules,
the employees treated this day as if it were a holiday. Some signed in and
went home, others sat around and chatted and made personal phone calls.
Mr. Shrestha hadn't said anything to Pitamber the morning he arrived late
after searching for Kabita, but Pitamber hadn't risked being late since then.
Today, though, he and his colleague Neupane decided to go to a restaurant
nearby. There, over samosas and jalebis, Pitamber told Neupane about
"You're doing the right thing, Pitamberji," Neupane said. "I'd have
done the same."
"Can you believe they'd murder a schoolteacher?" Pitamber said.
"Well, the police and the army are just as cruel. Haven't you heard
how they raped and killed those two teenage girls, then accused them of
Pitamber grew silent, then he said, "Do you suppose Kabita
thinks about revenge?"
"Revenge?" Neupane raised his eyebrows. "Do you expect a
young widow to go searching in the hills for those men?"
Pitamber gazed out the window. People were walking, laughing,
swinging shopping bags, hailing taxis. Across the street, a teenage boy
appeared to be teaching another boy some karate moves.
"God will punish them, Pitamberji. God is watching all of this."
He turned to Neupane. "I don't really like thinking about God
Neupane laughed. "But where would we be without God, eh?
Seriously, though, she has a new life, and she should let the past go. And
you should stop thinking about it all so much." When Pitamber said nothing,
Neupane added, "Thinking about revenge just puts us on their level."
They left the restaurant and started walking back to the office, but,
preoccupied and irritated, Pitamber soon decided that he'd rather go home.
Neupane slapped him on the back and said, "Pitamberji, you need to relax.
Everything is fine. Your job is fine, and everything is going well with your
family. So stop all this obsessing."
Pitamber nodded. "You're right, Neupaneji," he said, but he still
wanted to go home, so he said goodbye to Neupane and headed off. Clouds
were gathering in the sky, and he recalled the morning's weather report
forecasting rain. At least the rain would be a distraction.
On the way home, he had to pass by New Road, and he decided
to pay a visit to Kabita. Four women worked at the seamstress's shop, all
busy running the machines. A steady and fast click-click-click filled the
room, which overflowed with pieces of cloth and unfinished dresses. Kabita
sat in the back, her eyes focused on the needle as her fingers slid the cloth
underneath it. He went and stood in front of her, but she seemed unaware of
his presence until he said her name. She looked up, gasped, and the stitch
on the cloth went askew. "Tch," she said to the machine, then to
"I got the day off," he said. "I thought I'd drop by to see how you
She managed a smile. The other women in the shop glanced in
their direction. "Dai," she said loudly, introducing him to them above the
clatter, and they nodded, went back to work.
"Everything going well?"
"She's gone to run some errands."
"Have you had tea?"
She shook her head. "There's no time for tea. I have too much
work to do." And she set her hand on the wheel of her machine.
"How about I bring tea to the four of you, then?"
"Dai, you don't have to. There's a boy from the tea shop who
comes here sometimes."
"It'd be my pleasure. Besides, maybe the boy won't come today."
The tea shop was just around the corner, and the boy who was
rinsing the glasses there offered to take the tea to the women, but Pitamber
insisted on doing it himself. Awkwardly carrying a container with five glasses
of tea back to the shop, he shouted, "Chai garam," imitating the men who
sold tea at Indian railway stations, and Kabita seemed a bit embarrassed. "I'll
just have a little tea and be on my way. Not to worry," he said to her. He sat
and chatted with them for a while, asking the other women about their lives,
how long they'd been working for Ratnakumari. Kabita remained quiet for
most of the conversation, offering only a brief yes or no when he directed a
question at her. When Ratnakumari came in and saw Pitamber, she teased
him that he was bothering her workers. He sensed that she was not entirely
joking, so, somewhat selfconscious, he quickly finished his tea and left.
Pitamber made his way through the dense crowd of New Road,
where in a side alley he saw a crowd gathered in front of a wall. He went to
them, peeked over their shoulders, and saw, pasted on the wall, large photos
of the Maobadis who had been listed as "Wanted" by the government. People
were talking excitedly, and a man next to Pitamber said, "They should all be
tied together and burned in one big pyre."
Some murmured in agreement, but a voice from behind Pitamber
said, "What are you saying? Our revolution has arrived! These are our heroes."
"Heroes?" Pitamber swiveled around. "Who said that?"
Someone pointed to a boy of about nineteen, and Pitamber
lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt collar. "What did you say?" He
could feel the pulse in his own throat as he slapped the boy hard on the right
cheek. Encouraged by his slap, other men now crowded around the boy,
shoving him, punching him, shaking him. "I wasn't being serious," the boy
screamed. "I didn't mean it!" He began pleading for mercy.
His throat still pulsing, Pitamber walked away. He couldn't believe
how fast his hand had flown, how thoughtlessly he'd struck the boy. He knew
he ought to go back and try to rescue him, but things were already beyond
his control now, and the crowd could easily turn its anger on him. He moved
rapidly through the market, pushing his way past the shoppers. What did he
do that for? For a teenager's stupid joke. And now the boy was probably all
bloodied and injured, perhaps left with a broken arm. Pitamber's head was
beginning to throb, and he wished he'd gone right home from the restaurant
instead of stopping by Kabita's work.
At home Shailaja was feeding Priya, and Pitamber asked them
how their day had gone, then said that he felt the need to lie down.
"You came home because you didn't feel well?" Shailaja asked,
and he didn't answer her, just continued on to their bed room and lay down,
trying to slow his breathing and forget what had happened in the alley. But he
could still hear the boy's panicked pleas.
A little while later, Shailaja came to him and placed her hand on
his forehead. "Doesn't feel like you have fever. Are you nauseous?"
"Not really. Just a bit of a headache. I'm sure I'll be fine."
She stayed beside him, and the warmth of her body comforted
him. He told her that he'd stopped by Kabita's work. "I think I might have
embarrassed her," he said.
"She probably liked that you went to visit her."
Pitamber wanted to tell her what happened next, but he knew it
would upset her, and she'd be shocked that he'd hit anyone, let alone a
boy. "How is Priya?" he asked instead, his eyes closed.
"If I feed her, she'll eat anything. But with her mother, she makes
all kinds of excuses."
Pitamber laughed and pressed his hands to his closed eyes. Little
stars burst in the darkness there, and for a moment he felt soothed. "She's
so happy with you. If we'd had a daughter, I bet she'd have been like her."
"No point in thinking about that now. Come, I'll rub your forehead."
He let her, and her soft fingers felt good on his head.
A while later he woke with a start to sounds of boys arguing
outside in the yard. He went to the window, looked out, and saw Sumit
tussling with some boys from the neighborhood. "Stop that!" Pitamber
shouted. He put on his slippers and hurried downstairs. As soon as they saw
him, the other boys ran away, and he grabbed Sumit by the shoulder. "Why
were you fighting? What's wrong with you?"
"They were saying things about Kabita auntie," Sumit muttered,
"What things?" Pitamber's eyes searched for the boys, but he
remembered the earlier incident in Indrachowk and immediately controlled
himself. "Look at you," he said to Sumit.
"Your shirt is torn." Pitamber grabbed his arm and walked him back inside
Shailaja inspected her son's face, and thankfully he didn't have
any bruises. She too scolded him, then said, "What did they say to get you
"They were saying bad things about her, about . . ." He looked at
Pitamber, then said, "I don't want to live in this house anymore."
Shailaja and Pitamber looked at each other. Finally Shailaja told
Sumit, "If they say something bad, just ignore them, okay?"
Sumit glared at her and stormed off to his room. Pitamber shook
his head and said, "I have no idea what's going through his mind. Now I have
a bigger headache."
"Maybe he's having problems at school," Shailaja said. "I'll go talk
to his headmaster."
Shailaja eventually coaxed Sumit out of his room for dinner, and
they all sat down to eat. Kabita, who'd gotten home late from work,
said, "Dai, my work friends were saying you seem like a fun person."
"Hmm, I don't exactly feel like a fun person right now."
"After dinner, you should go back to sleep," Shailaja said. "Then
you'll feel better."
Everyone ate quietly, and about halfway through the meal, Sumit
stood and returned to his room. Pitamber was about to follow him, but
Shailaja told him to let him be. She then began talking about how the
Dashain and Tihar festivals would be more fun this year with Kabita and Priya
around. "Now Sumit will have a little sister to do bhai puja with, and Kabita,
you can put tika on him." She gestured toward Pitamber.
"I could, but it's only been a few months since my husband died,"
"Of course, of course," Shailaja said. "I guess it wouldn't be
"What harm would it do? Doing tika doesn't mean you're no longer
in mourning," Pitamber said to Kabita.
"That decision is up to her, isn't it?" Shailaja said.
"I don't know," Kabita said. "It might anger God."
Pitamber grew flushed and said, "Why bring God into it? You are
starting a new life. Your God should be pleased about it."
"These days the mere mention of God sets you off, doesn't it?"
Pitamber said to Kabita, "It's your decision. Do what you want to
do." Then he stood and went back to bed.
The next morning, a Saturday, Pitamber woke up and went to the living room,
where Shailaja was arranging a basket of incense, rice, nuts, and red,
orange, and yellow powder. He remembered that today was the day she
planned to go to the Maitidevi temple. Despite himself, a groan escaped his
lips, and Shailaja, now spooning some curd into a container, said, "You don't
have to go if you don't want to."
"I'll go, I'll go," he said.
In the taxi on the way there, Sumit sullenly stared out the window,
and Pitamber tried to lighten his mood. "Hey, champion, what happened to
your chess game? You don't play these days."
"I don't feel like it anymore," Sumit said.
Pitamber looked sideways at Shailaja, but she was busy
rearranging the items in her basket.
"If you stop practicing, how will you become a great player?"
"I don't want to be a great chess player."
"Why not? What do you want to be, a hoodlum, and fight with
everyone?" He tried to control his irritation.
"No, I don't want to be a hoodlum," Sumit said. "Anyway, who are
you to speak? You're the one who brought a second wife in our house."
Shailaja looked sharply at Sumit, then at Kabita. Pitamber
pinched Sumit's left ear, pulling his head toward him. "Say that again?"
Sumit shouted, "Why don't you and Kabita auntie go live
Pitamber felt his left hand tighten into a fist, make a wide arc, and
hit his son on the head. Sumit slumped in his seat, his body limp. The taxi
driver braked, then continued. Shailaja gasped something like, "What?
What?" and Kabita pressed her hand to her mouth. Pitamber shook his son,
said, "Sumit, Sumit?"
Letting the puja basket fall to the floor, Shailaja climbed over
Pitamber's lap to her son's side. She too shook Sumit, whose eyes were
closed. She pressed her ear against his chest, then said, "I can't hear his
heart." Pitamber tried to listen, but he couldn't tell whether the pounding he
heard was the rapid beating of his own heart. A wave of panic washed over
him, but he managed to tell Shailaja, "He's all right, he's fine." He felt around
Sumit's throat with his fingers — there seemed to be a pulse there.
It was the taxi driver who finally said, "Drive to the hospital, hajur?"
Fortunately Bir Hospital was only a stone's throw away, and as
they headed inside, a doctor who was on his way to work rushed over to look
at Sumit, who was beginning to stir and open his eyes. The doctor fingered
the purplish swelling on Sumit's right temple, then guided them into the
emergency room. There, he examined Sumit more thoroughly and
said, "Nothing serious. Looks like he went unconscious for a few minutes.
Did he fall or something?"
Everyone exchanged looks, and the doctor said, "Who hit your
son? Did you hit him to discipline him?"
Pitamber knew he ought to step forward and confess, but
admitting he'd hit Sumit would further complicate things, so he shook his
head and miserably kept quiet.
The doctor said, "Do you know that we've had people die in here
from head concussions? Do you parents think before you act?" He looked as
if he were about to say something more, but a nurse came to him saying a
man had just arrived who'd been injured in a bomb blast. "Take him home and
make him rest," the doctor said to Pitamber before he left. "If this type of
thing happens again, I'll have to call the police."
The nurse stayed and applied a compress to Sumit's temple, gave
him some painkillers, then discharged him.
"We're obviously not going to the temple," Shailaja said as they
left the hospital, and during the taxi ride back home, no one spoke. Shailaja
didn't look at Pitamber. Sumit lay with his head on her lap, and she
murmured to him while stroking his hair. Pitamber glanced at Kabita in the
front seat, holding Priya close to her chest, and suddenly he wished he could
At home Shailaja put Sumit to bed and went to the kitchen to
make some soup. Pitamber went to his son's room and sat by his side. He
wanted to apologize, to say that he didn't mean to hit him (he'd certainly
never hit Sumit before), but as he watched Sumit lying there, his eyes on the
ceiling, Pitamber found himself unable to say anything. He had always
detested those who hit their children. "Son," Pitamber finally said, and
without meeting his eyes Sumit said, "All my friends tease me about her."
Shailaja appeared in the doorway holding a bowl of soup, and
without looking at Pitamber, she asked him to leave so she could feed her
son. Pitamber went to the living room, where Kabita was trying to mollify her
daughter, who was clinging to her, asking her what had happened to
Sumit. "Maybe she's hungry," Pitamber said, and Kabita, her eyes cast
down, said, "Maybe."
For three days Shailaja didn't sleep with Pitamber in their bedroom; instead,
she slept beside Sumit. A heavy silence had permeated the flat, and
Pitamber felt constantly ostracized and increasingly guilty. "I didn't mean to
hit him," he repeated to Shailaja a few times, but she merely tightened her
jaw and refused to look at him. Kabita too seemed wary of him. She averted
her eyes whenever he was nearby and instinctively touched her daughter in a
gesture of protection. Whenever Pitamber tried to talk to Kabita, she came
up with a reason to rush off. It was Sumit who at last broke the silence in the
flat one evening, when, after two days of staying home from school, he
announced that he was ready for the chess club.
"The chess club?" Shailaja said. "No chess for you, after all that
"But I want to go." They were sitting around the living room.
Shailaja was sewing a garland for another attempt at puja the next day.
Pitamber said gently, "Son, don't feel that you have to."
"But I want to. I miss playing."
For a while no one said anything, then Shailaja said, "Son, it's
your choice. Don't feel forced to do anything."
"I want to go now," Sumit said. "Buwa, can we go now?"
Pitamber looked at Shailaja, who said, "What's the point of staring
at me? It's Sumit who wants to go, not me."
"Okay," Pitamber said to Sumit. "And if you don't like it, you don't
have to go anymore." A few months ago, Pitamber had stopped by the club
and inquired about its schedule, so he knew it would be open at this time. He
had to seize this opportunity — finally here was a break in the gloom and
doom of the flat, and Sumit would get a chance to hone his skills with some
accomplished players. "All right, let's go," he said to his son.
It turned out that Sumit loved the chess club, and every day after school, he
and Pitamber walked to the small brick building, where on the ground floor
children and adults of all ages, their eyes intently focused, sat around small
tables before chess boards and strategized about how to beat their
opponents. After his first time there, Sumit asked Pitamber to wait outside. "I
can't concentrate with you in the room," he said, and Pitamber reluctantly
obeyed. From outside, he tried to peek through the window and watch his
son, but the glass was too dirty and all he could see were blurred figures
inside. "He plays well," said Kamal, the man who managed the club, "but he
lacks confidence. He needs more encouragement."
That evening as they walked home, Pitamber said to
Sumit, "Kamal Sir was saying that you're a marvelous player."
"Of course. You're a natural. You only need a little practice, that's
all." He put his hand on his son's shoulder.
Pitamber had sensed it coming — in the past few days Kabita had often
mentioned that she and Priya had stayed with them for too long. Still, it
surprised him when a week later Kabita announced that she was moving out
the next evening, that she and Priya would move in with one of her
coworkers, a young woman who lived with her widowed mother and was
looking for ways to cut down on their rent. "I can't possibly burden you any
longer," she said. In her new flat, her friend's mother would look after Priya
while Kabita worked. "I am so grateful for all you gave me," she said to
Pitamber and Shailaja.
"I was hoping we'd put tika during Dashain and Tihar," Shailaja
"That we'll do, Shailaja didi, I promise. I'll come back for it."
The next evening, Pitamber hurried home after dropping off Sumit
at the chess club. Shailaja and Kabita were struggling to get Kabita's
belongings down the stairs. "Why didn't you wait for me?" Pitamber said as
he grabbed the suitcase and the bedding from them.
"The taxi will be here any minute, dai," Kabita said, smiling. She
looked the happiest he'd ever seen her look.
Downstairs, he hauled her things into the trunk of the waiting taxi
and said, "Now remember that we're always here for you if things don't work
out there." But he knew she wouldn't return — she was too proud to ask for
help again. He squatted in front of Priya. "Daughter, you be a good girl to
your mother, okay?" She nodded, then opened her palm. He reached into his
shirt pocket and handed her a lollipop.
"She has no shame," Kabita said, laughing.
"Don't forget us, you two," Shailaja said as the two stepped into
the taxi. Pitamber squeezed Shailaja's shoulder as they watched the car
drive away. They trudged back up to the empty flat, and Shailaja immediately
headed into the kitchen. He stood inside the door and called, "Shailaja, how
long are you going to remain like this?"
She didn't answer, and he heard her start to cry. He went to her
and slid his arms around her. "Don't do this to me," he said.
"I thought he was dead," she said between sobs. "I swear, I
thought our son had died that day."
He held her tighter.
"You'd never raised your hand against him. Or me."
"I know, I know." He knew that he had no excuse. And maybe he
should have seen it coming, given how he'd lost control and slapped that boy
in the crowd. "I don't know what came over me," he said.
She squirmed out of his grasp and faced him. "If you do it again,
I'll leave you."
He nodded and embraced her again.
The country was soon plunged into mayhem. Maobadis threw bombs at the
village homes of several high officials; army men shot at a group of villagers
they suspected were aiding the rebels. Rumors spread about rebels stalking
the countryside, carrying the severed heads of villagers who refused to give
them money. Families abandoned their homes and moved to India. Every
day, newspapers announced atrocity after atrocity. Pitamber refused to read
the papers or watch the news on television anymore. At the office he began
to keep to himself, declining Neupane's occasional offer to go out for a cup of
tea or snacks.
Sometimes Pitamber wondered whether Kabita's wounds had
begun to heal. Now and then he had the impulse to visit her at her work, and
once he actually went, but he couldn't bring himself to walk inside the shop,
afraid that his old, dark feelings would resurface.
Every day he went to work, came straight home, and waited for
Sumit to return from school so they could play a game of chess before he
went to the club. Pitamber found a number of books on the game at a
discount store, and he studied them intensely. He taught himself how to
anticipate an opponent's moves, how to consider the outcome of his own
options and strategize accordingly. And ignoring Sumit's impatient sighs, he
often spent long minutes planning his next move.
One evening after work, he ran into Kabita near a busy
intersection of New Road. Smiling, she told him that Priya had begun
attending a school near where they lived, and that Ratnakumari had asked
her to manage a new shop she was opening in Patan. He expressed his
pleasure at the good news, then reminded her that he and Shailaja expected
her and Priya to visit their home during Dashain, which was only a month
"Of course I will, dai," she said.
Copyright © 2006 by Samrat Upadhyay. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
Table of Contents
A Refugee * 1
The Wedding Hero * 27
The Third Stage * 55
Supreme Pronouncements * 79
The Weight of a Gun * 101
Chintamani’s Women * 123
Father, Daughter * 147
A Servant in the City * 173
The Royal Ghosts * 191
Acknowledgments * 209
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Clear and well-rendered prose illuminating human struggles that transcend nationalities and politics.