The oldest residents of Keltole loved to gossip. Their neighborly friendship strengthened as they exchanged juicy pieces of orange with details of budding romances and property feuds all over the Newari hubbub of Ason. They eyed the odd combination of derelict houses giving an L-shape to their common courtyard as if they could peek into the very souls of the lives hiding behind the walls. Their leisurely lives gave them sharp eyes for details and plenty of things to tittle-tattle about. Of all the scandals, their favorite piece of gossip always came back to the mysterious feud between the Shrestha brothers.
‘Fakir and Jwahar should forget the old feud and fight over Dwarika bhamcha’s delicious chulaa,’ the nosy bunch would laugh as the aroma of minced meat curry wafted to them from the tallest house in Keltole.
From the outside, the five-story house looked rickety but whole. On the inside, every storey under the corrugated tin roof was divided into two neat parts. One part belonged to Fakir Das Shrestha – an angry old widower – and his only son, Panna.
In few short years, Dwarika, Panna’s bride, had turned that quiet and bleak side of the building into an idyll. The laughter of four sweet kids spread smiles inside that tiny world but did not warm the coldness between their two grandfathers.
The southwestern face of the house stood cold and dark but not without love. Jwahar and Mishri – childless yet still fondly called the ageless chakhu bakhu love birds of Keltole – lived there. Their entire world seemed to neatly fit into the single room on the fifth floor and the tiny balcony. The old couple often came out to bask in the sun. Whenever Fakir Das Shrestha saw them gushing and laughing on the terrace below his rooftop, he expectorated deeply and loudly in their direction, as if trying to spit out thick and bitter phlegm.
Dwarika worried about the kind of people her kids were becoming. Sometimes she caught them mimicking their brutish grandfather and spitting at the sight of the old couple just to bring a smile to the old man’s face. Only kids, fighting to sit on Fakir Das’s lap to steal dry fruits from his breast pocket, could soften that ever-present frown on his face.
But, how long would it take to turn her sweet innocent kids into cold obstinate people like the Shrestha men?
Dwarika’s heart burned when she noticed the old couple – her kanchaba and kanchibajei looking fondly at their estranged grandchildren. They often pretended not to notice the spiteful glances the kids threw at them.
Nobody told Dwarika what had transpired between the families or why there was a thin plywood wall dividing every floor of the house. She suspected the memory of the quarrel was buried somewhere beneath the house like the bodies of barasi virgins who had died in the process of following their coming of age ritual. Fakir Das loved regaling the tales of barasi of their very courtyard to the kids but sealed his mouth shut whenever anyone showed curiosity about the elderly pairs.
But Dwarika’s husband evaded her queries as well. Either shutting off her interest with a stern look or physically removing himself from the conversation. The wall on every floor of the house stood proud yet feeble, reflecting the Shrestha men’s arrogance. The partition was thick enough to keep the two families out of each other’s hair but thin enough to allow kanchaba and kanchibajei’s sweet conversations to reach her ears as she went about her day.
Over the years, Dwarika’s morning routine had aligned to that of her familial neighbors’. As she walked into the dark puja room to freshen up her gods, she heard kanchaba and kanchibajei yawning one after another. The rhythm of their lives warmed her heart in the cold mornings. Half an hour or so later, she would hear kanchaba struggle over the kerosene stove just as Dwarika lit the oil lamps marking the end of her puja.
‘Why am I the one struggling with this stubborn old thing for your morning tea, Mishricha?’ the old man’s laughing voice complained every morning before the aroma of ginger tea wafted into her side of the world.
Kanchaba died peacefully in his sleep a decade after Dwarika came into the family. She was the first one to hear kanchibajei scream. She had banged the thin partition, shaking not just the papery walls of the puja kotha but the entire Shrestha house.
‘Stop that!’ Fakir Das had boomed from two stories below.
Dwarika had watched her husband and father-in-law try and fail to go about their day. Their feeble attempt to pretend that a member of their family was not lying dead across the divide in the chhelli failed. When the neighbors had come to fetch Dwarika for the mourning ritual, she went of her own accord. She had not waited for her father-in-law or her husband’s permission.
It had been three years since his death, but she could still feel her father-in-law’s resentment. Fakir Das still brought up the incident repeatedly in his bitter tone, freezing her on the spot.
‘Where is bhamcha? Did she go over to Jwahar’s again?’ she’d hear the old man scream in his fits of anger, and her hands would tremble with fear.
There was a violence in his accusations. Dwarika knew he’d never raise his hand on her, but the power he had over her husband and her entire world felt threatening. If Fakir Das ordered her away, no one would come to her rescue.
But when Dwarika realized she had not seen or heard kanchibajei in over three days, she felt a different kind of fear gnawing at her heart. No matter how hard she tried to listen, she could not hear any sound from the other side. There was no gurgling of water as the old lady emptied her copper gagri into the bucket at five a.m. before she plodded her way back to the communal tube-well. There were no peals of the tiny brass bell for the morning worship, no swoosh of the broom sweeping the wooden stairs. Dwarika hadn’t heard the old lady struggle over the kerosene stove as she prepared her lonely ginger tea.
Had she even eaten? Dwarika worried as she tried to concentrate on her morning rituals.
‘I think kanchibajei is sick,’ she told her husband when she got to her room. He was putting on his newly stitched daura suruwal, loading his pockets with hundreds of chits already lost in the never-ending accounting for his employers, the Ranas. He had either not heard her, or chosen not to listen.
‘I haven’t heard her in three days now. Kids say she hasn’t come out to the balcony either.’
‘Go and see if she’s okay,’ her husband said without meeting her eyes and quickly walked out of the house.
Dwarika felt her cheeks burn as she watched her husband flee. Men could wash their hands off domestic matters by having somewhere outdoors to escape to. Her husband either understood the gravity of the situation but didn’t want to come under his father’s ruthless scrutiny, or he didn’t care. She couldn’t decide which was worse. Her husband had probably already forgotten the conversation, while Dwarika was left with a growing sense of guilt and panic.
‘If the old man finds out and kicks me out of the house, then the great busy Panna Das Shrestha will regret it,’ thought Dwarika as she made up her mind to cross over to the forbidden territory once again.
Except for the fifth floor, where kanchibajei lived alone, the entire house was empty and dark. It reeked of musty walls and the pungent treasures that the mice had brought in to hide underneath the stairs. All of Fakir Das’s barasi tales came rushing back to her as ghostly figures started conjuring out of obscured corners. Dwarika did not believe in those tales, but she began to regret her decision to venture into that dark, empty house. Her heart raced, and she started craving the safety that waited for her on the other side of the partition walls. She understood why none of her kids had ever attempted to break Fakir Das’s rules.
On the fifth floor, thin, golden beams of sunlight peeked in from holes in the tin roof. The worn teakwood door was ajar, and the room beyond it was a mess. Unwashed utensils crusted with week-old food were piled haphazardly. Reeking pieces of wet clothes were on the ground everywhere. Kanchibajei lay on her worn-out mattress, drenched in sweat, burning with a fever.
It took Dwarika Devi an entire week to nourish kanchibajei back to health. While Fakir Das took his afternoon naps, she snuck into the south side of the house with a clove and honey mixture and stayed there for hours. Dwarika suspected that the old man had noticed her long absences, but he didn’t mention anything.
In those days of growing friendship, Dwarika cared little about what the men of her house thought. She prepared and fed the fevered lady warm rice porridge. When kanchibajei felt better, Dwarika shared stories of her youngest son’s shenanigans.
‘That little boy takes after his grandfather. He is going to give you a lot of trouble. I can tell from his shiny eyes,’ kanchibajei would smile weakly.
Dwarika couldn’t tell which grandfather she was talking about but decided it did not matter.
That week, Dwarika had started daydreaming of smuggling her kids over to the widow’s lonely world. She could picture kanchibajei smiling ear to ear as they climbed onto the lonely toothless lady’s lap.
‘Mishrichaa, thana waa,’ the old man called Kanchibajei to his side of the house just as Dwarika was contemplating the courage to carry her sleeping son over to the other side.
His voice rang through the house. A silence of many minutes blanketed everything, and then suddenly Dwarika heard familiar footsteps.
Kanchibajei slowly walked past the dark kitchen, without meeting Dwarika’s eyes, to the old man’s room. The ringing silence had betrayed the growing friendship and secret rendezvous between the elder matriarch and the young daughter-in-law. Dwarika paced back and forth inside the kitchen. She wondered if she should quickly prepare her chulaa as a peace offering and welcome her new friend as if she were meeting her for the first time. She wondered if she should feign ignorance and act rude to please the old man just as her kids were learning to do. She couldn’t decide which weapon she would need to defend Kanchibajei when her father-in-law’s rage started flying high.
But nothing happened.
Dwarika thought she heard the old man ask about Kanchibajei’s fever and could not stay still any longer.
Their secret had been discovered.
She climbed the stairs holding a tray with two glasses of water in her trembling hands. But at the door, she faltered.
She found the two relatives, constantly at odds with each other, basking together in the sun by the window. They looked out at the conjoined houses, many of which had changed facades over the decade. Fakir Das handed half an orange to Mishri and kept the rest for himself. The sun shined bright and warm on their awkward smiles.