It was always the same group of boys loitering around the gate. They were quick and lean, and their pubescent voices rang sharp when they laughed, easily reaching the sixth floor, from where Prapti would watch them. Their destination was always elsewhere, but they paused for some time at her gate to put their heads together in discussion or to engage in a momentary tussle. It was a good place to make plans, under the bougainvillea, where the slight upward inclination from the narrow road gave them protection from the fast, clamorous cars.
Prapti did not know how old they were, though from the size of their bodies and the little fuzz on their upper lips and the teeth too large for their heads, she surmised they were only a year or two older than her. Thirteen, fourteen maybe? Sometimes, when she could escape the eye of her grandmother, she would steal down and watch them from the cracks of the gate, hidden by the rose bush and the large, swooping dhupi trees. She particularly liked one of them. He was called Sahdev and he was the leader of the group. He was a little taller than the others, with the stretched-out look of a growing boy. His hair spiked downwards at an angle to his dark forehead, like porcupine needles gaudy with hair gel.
They had never seen her, and neither, she believed, had her grandmother, until today. Prapti was gazing through the stone railings from the veranda next to her grandmother, who was basking in the sun, being oiled by the help.
“Prapti!” her grandmother barked. Prapti spun around instantly. “You better not be staring at those gutter boys. I’ve noticed you watch them a lot.”
“I’m not, Hajurama,” Prapti whispered.
“Don’t lie to me. I have seen you. Whenever you hear those stray boys, you’re leaning over the railings to look at them,” Hajurama spit back. Her thick, ape-like forehead cast a shadow over her narrowed eyes. Prapti tried not to look at the shamelessly exposed, sagging breasts with one nipple bit off by her father years ago. She looked down.
“Laxmi!” Hajurama called, and the other servant came out. “Go tell those boys to get lost. Go!”
She turned back to Prapti. “You better not be watching those street kids, Prapti. You know your place better than that. It doesn’t suit you to live in a six-storeyed house and mingle with that kind. If I see you again, I will beat you so badly that you will wish you had died with your parents.”
“Yes, Hajurama,” Prapti replied, her head hanging. She sat unmoving for a while, paralyzed by the humiliation. In the courtyard, she heard Laxmi shout something at the boys, who cackled and ran. Hajurama had already turned around, putting her hunched back to the sun.
Prapti gazed at her back: a constellation of liver spots and warts. Was that the big dipper she could make out? And cygnus, an easy one, just like a cross. They had just started a chapter about the solar system in Science class, and it was Prapti’s favourite subject. She loved to contemplate the billions of stars burning out there, and at night, when her grandmother was asleep, she would climb up to the terrace and try to make out the constellations behind the veil of Kathmandu’s pollution. The best time was after the rains, when the dust and smog would settle momentarily, the lights of civilization were completely shut out, and the entire night sky was a divine spectacle.
“Who are you thinking about? Those gutter boys?” Hajurama’s voice brought Prapti out of her reverie.
“No, Hajurama,” Prapti replied.
“Not even thirteen and already lusting after boys. Filthy slut, like her mother,” Hajurama muttered.
Prapti got up, and fighting back tears, entered the house to avoid the litany of condemnations that would ensue. She knew them by heart.
When relatives came to visit, Hajurama would complain to them as though her mother’s death were little more than a mild inconvenience: “If she had to die, she could have at least given me a grandson before. Stuck with this – neither beautiful nor bright. Another expense. Where will the money come from, now that my son is dead? Only our land in the south. That too, unproductive. I’d have to sell that. Such is my fate! Nothing but burdens, even in old age. No peace, never any peace!”
On better days, it would be a soliloquy: “Charmer, cajoler. Hoodwinked my unsuspecting son, my naïve son, he had so much talent, so many prospects. Never would have disobeyed his mother if it weren’t for that witch and her black magic. That’s how they are, these lower caste women. They smell gold, and they begin digging. Like the worms they are.”
On bad days, the triggers of which ranged from the obvious (finding an old shirt belonging to Prapti’s father) to the obscure (back pains), it was simply unbearable. Not even because the poison of her words increased tenfold. That, at least, could be tolerated. It was because in the six years Prapti had lived with her grandmother, she had evolved to feel, as if it were her own, each sensation that passed through Hajurama’s body.
It would begin as an emptiness that churned and expanded in Hajurama’s stomach, gutting her, carving her from within. Grief rising in crescendos: dry sobs like great hiccups, shaking the very walls of the house. Grief like a calamity: a mother’s grief, whose exact nature was indiscernible to a girl who had been orphaned at six, but whose essence she knew too well, because it was made of the same fabric as her own. What she did not share was the freedom Hajurama had to mourn, not in hiding but in the open, with pride and without restraint. Prapti only felt a vague sense of relation to that sorrow. Her own seemed stitched tightly to her heart, knotted and ineffable.
Today, luckily, was one of the better days, and Hajurama did not come inside behind her. But it was a narrow escape and Prapti could not risk being caught like that again. She shuddered at the thought, as she entered her room. It was painted a beautiful navy blue, but had little decoration except for her glow-in-the-dark stars. The ceiling was painted too, and Prapti remembered how much the painters had grumbled about the inane whims of the upper class as they struggled to get the paint on, against the wishes of gravity.
She walked up to the mirror on her closet door, and wiped her tears. She was pale-faced and black-haired. Too tall for twelve, she filled her frame with a femininity unbefitting her age, and so ended up looking like a giant towering over the bony, petite girls in her school’s assembly line. But she was pretty – with a soft upper lip, and contemplative eyes.
She had been one of the first girls to menstruate, and that had been a fiasco both at school and at home. She would never forget the day – she had been in English class, and had felt a strange wetness growing between her legs. But class had just started, so she had not dared ask to go to the bathroom. By the time it was over and she got up, there had been a bright red stain on her white skirt in concentric rings, like a tree trunk. There had been a few gasps, and the teacher had rushed her to the bathroom, and given her a pad. But it had been too late for the skirt, and so she had been sent home, where her grandmother had refused to touch her, and had the servants set up a mattress in the dark room. She had missed school for four days, and was not allowed anywhere near the kitchen or the prayer room. By the time she had gotten back to school, there had been rumours she had bled to death.
But that was last year. By now, she had learned to handle it with expertise, and even become a consultant of sorts to other girls who were curious or had been recently initiated into womanhood. It was nice, because she had always been very quiet and never had many friends, but recently two of the girls-turned-women, Astha and Jigyasa, had started inviting her to eat lunch with her.
They mostly did the talking, and they mostly talked about boys. Astha had a crush on Rishab, who Prapti thought was stupid beyond measure, but knew his way around a football. Jigyasa, slim, with almond eyes and straight black hair, was the kind of girl every boy had a burning passion for, and she always seemed confused about whose affections to return.
“What about you, Prapti? Do you like anyone?” Astha had asked one day.
“No,” Prapti had said, thinking of Sahdev, and turning bright red. The girls pounced on it.
“You are blushing! So sweet! Who is it?” Jigyasa had asked.
“Come on, tell us! We won’t tell anyone!”
They did not let go of it, and finally, after two weeks of relentless grilling, Prapti confessed she liked a boy who lived in her neighbourhood, a few houses down. She left out the fact that he lived in a shanty, and was the son of the neighbourhood welder.
“Oh, a neighbour!” Astha had said. “Will you talk to him?”
“Maybe,” Prapti had said, knowing that would never happen. The girls never asked about him again, now that they knew it was not anyone at school.
Prapti heard a distant rumble. They were in the peak of the monsoon and sunny mornings were always followed by pouring rain in the afternoon. She heard her grandmother cry “eh, eh, eh!” as she rushed to get inside. The window overlooking the garden was right next to Prapti’s bed. She grabbed a book, and got in, pulling the covers over. It was one of her favourite things: to read in bed, with the wild rain outside. It made her feel safe and warm. Fifteen minutes into her book, Laxmi came in with a cup of milk tea, and Prapti had scarcely finished it before she dozed off, lulled by the sound of the rain.
Prapti was awoken by a cry. She had slept through the afternoon into the evening: the rain had cleared and the sky was swathed in terracotta and deep purple. At first she thought Hajurama’s screaming was directed to her, for falling asleep. She quickly sat up, and was about to jump out of bed, when she heard:
“It hasn’t stopped raining in the south! Two straight days already! The land is completely flooded, they tell me! Two straight days, and today some of the cattle – the goats – the flood took them. They drowned. What will I do? What will I do? Oh God, what can I do?”
Hajurama started to sob, and hung up on whoever was on the other line. Prapti lay back down, dread growing in her chest, her feet completely cold. She lay there paralyzed, listening, as the tempest in the other room grew, washing over her repeatedly. Slowly the sorrow subsided, and rage resurfaced and replaced it. “Black mark, black shroud. Fated to drown. Pulled him in with her. If she had drowned alone! If only she had drowned alone!”
Prapti got out of bed, driven by the familiar knotting in her chest. She walked out of her room, put on her slippers, and was going to climb the stairs to the roof, but instead turned around and walked out of the door. Today the stars would not make it better. As she walked down the five flights of stairs, Hajurama’s screams faded. She walked past the garden, opened the gate and walked out like an automaton, guided by something in her she did not recognize. She made a left, sticking close to the walls, and kept going. Halfway, she realized exactly where.
When she got to the shanties, her feet were completely muddy. The street was not properly paved. There was a scrappy-looking tree in the middle, solitary, circled by a seat of concrete. She sat there, and looked onto the shacks. She did not know which one was Sahdev’s, or if he even did live here. She was not sure what she was expecting, if anything at all, but half an hour later, she heard a scuffle a few houses down, and he came out running. Alone. He was about to turn right, when he caught sight of her sitting under the tree, under the dull bronze light of the streetlamp, and stopped in his tracks, staring. Her heart thumped out of control as he eventually decided to walk over to her.
“Oi! Aren’t you that girl from the big house? With the bricks?” He pointed in the distance.
Prapti nodded. She saw that he had a swollen eye. It looked fresh, but it would be completely black in a few days. He saw her looking.
“My father. Fucking drunk. I fucking hate him. I wish he would die.”
She looked down. He frowned at her.
“Oi! Don’t you have a mouth?” She did not reply.
“What are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“You’re weird,” he said, and sat down next to her. “Don’t you talk?”
“You’re weird. What’s your name?”
“What class are you in?”
“Seventh! Wow. I am in Class Six. But I won’t stay for long. I want to drive those huge trucks up the mountain roads, all the way to Khasa. My father wants me to be a welder, but fuck him.”
Driving on mountain roads. A car toppling. Was it the Kali Gandaki, or did they never reach that far? Was it the Trishuli? They never should have been driving in the monsoon.
Sahdev had been staring at her. She blushed.
“Do you want to see something?” he said, after a while. Her heart beat faster, her palms moistened, and she swallowed. “Well? Do you?”
“Not here. It’s a secret,” he said, getting up, walking towards the shanties.
“Where are you going?” she said, alarmed.
“Don’t be scared. I’m not gonna hurt you or anything,” he said, turning around. She did not move. “I promise,” he added, pinching the skin of his throat.
“I have a phone, you know. I can call the police,” she said, following him.
“I know, hau!” They passed the shanties, and reached the tiny river that smelled like trash, which had swollen to double its size after the rains. He stopped.
“You ready for this?” he asked her, grinning. She nodded, ever so slightly, and then froze in her tracks as he unzipped his pants, and pulled out his penis. It poked out quizzically, framed on all sides by dark pubic hair and seemed ill fitting on a boy so gaunt. She stared, somewhat revolted, somewhat fascinated. It looked nothing like in the textbooks.
“Do you want to touch it?” he asked, grinning. She did not know the answer to that, but after a few moments, took a few steps closer. He waited, his erection intact. He lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender, and she walked up to him. Her fingers closed around it, and he closed his eyes.
“Move it,” he said. She did, and the entire sheath of skin moved along, and he groaned. She stood there, heart thumping maddeningly, and suddenly she was acutely aware of the darkness, and the gush of the river beside her. She realized what part of town she was in, what she was doing, and then remembered how the lands had flooded down south and taken the goats with it. She released his penis suddenly like it was a hot rod, eyes wide.
“What happened?” he asked her, then started to laugh.
She backed up a couple of steps, and then turned and ran, stopping only when she was safely inside her gate. She locked it immediately, bolted up the stairs and went into her room. She threw herself on her bed, and hyperventilating, began to cry uncontrollably. She did not understand it, nor did she attempt to. All she felt was hot emotion pouring out of her: a deluge of pure despair. Gasping for breath, she felt like she was being held under, and could not resurface.
So this is how it is, she thought. This is how it is, to drown.