Photo: Stig Berge
‘A gentle word, a kind demeanour and a beautiful smile can accomplish miracles.’
Bhairav posted the quote on his Facebook, while waiting for his girlfriend at the corner tea shop close to her neighbourhood. Mita had recently taken her Foreign Service exams, and rumours were high that the results would be published the coming week. Therefore, for the past few weeks, they had been alternating between different shrines in the valley, gathering blessings from a portfolio of deities. The visits were also appropriate covers for their early morning dates. Mita barely had time to meet Bhairav in the evenings, as she wasn’t allowed home late. Her parents, both mid-tiered government officers, encouraged their twenty-three-year-old daughter to be career-minded and not waste time in cafés with friends or secret boyfriends. They wanted to wait a couple of years before arranging a suitable guy for her to marry. Her brother, who was living abroad, had suggested that with a stable job, she’d have better chances finding a qualified suitor – a doctor or an engineer – comfortable with a lower dowry.
In the evenings, exhausted and tired from her translator job at a non-profit, Mita looked forward to stretching out in bed, scrolling through her social media feed, and catching up on her friends’ happiness, heartbreaks, frustrations and longings. During one of these sluggish evenings, about three months back, Mita had spotted Bhairav’s profile among the clutter of patriotic memes, feel-good quotations, and tacky dance clips. Recovering from a horrible break-up, she hadn’t contemplated getting back to dating so soon. The army garb Bhairav was wearing in his profile picture dissuaded her a little. An army man with his authoritativeness and discipline would be a sharp contrast to her bohemian effervescence. He also looked about seven or eight years older, at thirty-one or thirty-two. But his adorable smile popped up on her screen, over the cracks on her broken phone, and overshadowed her concerns. She shouldn’t make assumptions and reach conclusions without meeting a person, she reasoned, and she reached out to her friend Sabita, who happened to be a mutual ‘connection’.
‘How do you know that handsome guy?’ she messaged.
Sabita didn’t know him well, he happened to be a colleague of her cousin’s, in the engineering division of the army.
‘I heard he is arrogant, and obsessed with body-building,’ Sabita gossiped.
After chatting with her friend, Mita spiralled through the web-space – scavenging and sleuthing through Bhairav’s various social media profiles and pictures. The process thrilled and elated her, like she was a teenage girl. Her heart pounded with excitement when she stumbled upon a picture of him in his swim trunks by the pool. With nervous energy, she admired his bare chest tousled with stubby black hair. A simple woman with respectable looks, she was confident she could woo someone far superior in appearance, and show her ex-boyfriend what she was capable of. Despite being unsure if she still wanted to make acquaintance with an army man, she sent him a ‘friend’ request.
‘Hi! How are you?’ she messaged.
‘Do we know each other? Did we meet at Sabita’s birthday party?’ he asked.
‘Yes. I think I saw you at her party. Although we weren’t formally introduced,’ she lied.
She hadn’t been to Sabita’s birthday party, as she’d been busy with work that day. But that’s how they started talking. They texted each other several times a day after that – mostly small talk. Bhairav was reserved and timid. He also was shy about the attention he was getting from a self-assured young woman.
Mita had assumed that an army man like him would confidently pursue her, giving in to her flirtation and encouragement. But she had to probe him with questions and prod him into conversations. Since he mentioned working out a lot, it was topic they circled back to often.
‘How was your workout session?’ she texted.
‘Quite intense, but worth it,’ he responded.
‘Can I join you there?’ she teased.
‘There are only guys in my gym, you’ll feel uncomfortable,’ he responded.
‘Well, I will not be uncomfortable with you around,’ she replied.
The texting went on for a couple of days. As Bhairav got more comfortable he started getting more romantic with his texts, and messaged romantic ballads and cheesy movie dialogues to profess his liking for her. But he never asked her out. After a week of messaging, Mita asked him out for coffee. She realized Bhairav would have never done so himself.
By the time Mita arrived at the tea-shop, a dozen of Bhairav’s ‘friends’ had already ‘liked’ his Facebook post. He enjoyed this virtual validation – he felt good, influencing his ‘friends’ with positive thoughts and energy. Mita never commented on them, though. She thought they weren’t intellectual enough to engage with. This inactivity bothered him a little; after all, he was an engineer. He had spent four rigorous years studying pure mathematics and applied physics; certainly he was intelligent. He simply didn’t keep abreast of political issues or take an interest in social causes. Bhairav believed that young people like Mita thought they could change their community – make it equitable and just – but it was challenging and difficult in places like Nepal. Such youthful zeal would eventually pass – as life, career and ambition took over.
Bhairav didn’t want to be dramatic and make a fuss about small things like Mita not engaging with his ‘posts’. As an army major, quickly climbing through the ranks, he would need an educated and cultured wife. It was hard living in the city, with the skyrocketing prices for food, fuel and real estate; a smart well-earning spouse would make life easier. Access to a family in the bureaucracy also meant networking opportunities for promotions, trainings abroad, estate planning and real-estate purchase. He didn’t want to scare a perfect girl away, just as they were beginning to know each other. He didn’t want to end up with the girls from the villages that his parents and relatives were pushing on him.
When Bhairav finished his tea, they departed the tea-shop on his motorcycle. Mita kept a safe distance from him on the pillion, until they got away from her neighbourhood. On the main road, when it got bumpier, she moved closer and held him by the waist. Usually, these bumps and potholes thrilled her; they gave her an opportunity to get close to her otherwise aloof boyfriend. She noticed that expressing intimacy made him uncomfortable. Despite his rugged personality and the confidence he exuded, he wasn’t assertive, he wasn’t demonstrative. She attributed this to his inexperience interacting with girls. Having grown up with two brothers, he hadn’t been around girls much, and spending a decade in a boys’ school hadn’t helped, either. Furthermore, he scarcely interacted with female colleagues in the army, since they were sparse in his division.
At first, she found it refreshing to be dating a ‘gentleman’ who was courteous and knew his limits. She was thrilled in taking the lead – giving him gentle pecks on the cheek, caressing his hairy arms and his bear-like paws, and massaging his shoulders while getting off the motorcycle. Lately, she had been craving for more. Bhairav was too conservative and too puritanical. If it hadn’t been for his affectionate texts – mildly hinging on being erotic– and his saccharine manner filling the emotional void that her ex-boyfriend had left behind, she would have long ago broken up with him.
About a year ago, during her final year in university, Mita had bunked classes to go on dates with Gagan, the Teaching Assistant for her political science class. Despite having studied in the U.S., Gagan was a socialist, who quoted Gramsci and Chomsky. Thin, lanky and tall, he wasn’t conventionally handsome, but she immediately fell for his wit and intelligence. He carried a book with him everywhere, and recommended books to her frequently. He suggested she read writers such as Woolf and Solnit.
‘Don’t be dependent on me or rather any other man’, he said, hinting at Mita to pay her portion of the bill in cafes and restaurants. He explained and elaborated on a lot of things she already knew about or had read about. But she had been in love with him, so she stayed quiet and listened. Under a dark canopy, at the botanical garden where they had first kissed, and at an abandoned shelter by the Shivapuri hill, despite her initial hesitation, she had consented, and they had cuddled – first with their clothes on and then without. His skeletal frame, exposed in the winter afternoon, wasn’t repulsive to her, as it would have been to many girls. She had learned to love his frail build. She had liked the tactile nature of their copulation, the toughness of his embrace, and his eagerness to please, but she was not fully satisfied. Satisfaction didn’t come easy for her, as it did for him.
On one of their romantic escapades to one of the far corners of the valley, Gagan asked her if she would kiss a girl. She felt objectified by his question and became enraged that he was not taking their relationship seriously. But mostly, she was appalled by his duplicity – Gagan constantly talked about respecting women, and now he wanted to use her as a tool for his experimentation. He wanted to watch her kiss another women, for his gratification. She was a freethinking woman open to new experiences, but she had her limits, and with that question – veiled as a request – he had crossed a line.
‘No man in his right mind would ask that of his girlfriend,’ she stammered.
Mita had learned about lesbians and gays in one of the heavy tomes in the university library. She knew about Sappho, the Greek poetess who had multiple female lovers, and she had written a term paper on the numerous Roman statesmen who took in young male ‘apprentices’ for non-platonic pleasures. But she had always thought of them as an anomaly. A defect. A biological variant. As a woman of reason, she didn’t want to question the nature of beings; since no rational person would choose to lead a difficult life. She had taught herself to empathize with them. Until Gagan’s suggestion, she hadn’t thought of the sexual acts they performed: What did they do? Where did what go? How did things fit together? With a man and a woman, it was straightforward – there was the phallus and there was the yoni. A neat passageway.
Later at home she googled a video of two women making love to each other. As she watched them kiss, cuddle and grope, she became nauseated and almost puked. The image of two women intertwined in each other’s arms didn’t just seem strange, but also very unnatural. Furthermore, watching them crisscrossed, touching each other’s breasts, was repulsive and deviant.
‘No! I would never kiss another girl,’, she texted.
They patched up a few days later, with Gagan promising he’d never bring it up again. But soon enough, he broke her heart by marrying a girl of his parents choosing – someone of the same financial status as him. He had also received a nice dowry that included a motorbike. ‘Socialism, my foot!’ she muttered, when she saw a picture of him on a bulky red Ducati.
After Bhairav dropped Mita off, he posted a photograph of them on Facebook, from their morning rendezvous. Normally, he posted a post-workout ‘selfie’, tracking his progress, to gather admiration and accolades from his ‘friends’.
‘Handsome, my bro!’ someone would say.
‘Hunky look!’ another would comment.
During the first month of seeing each other, Mita found his vanity delightful and amusing. She devoured the ‘selfies’ he posted like a voyeur. She familiarized herself with his body, through those pictures. She actively congratulated him on the improvements he made, on his near-sculpted physique. Then she wished that he would post a picture of the two of them, and be more open about their romance. Now, seeing a static, unflattering photograph of the two of them, with Bhairav’s arms cupped awkwardly around Mita’s shoulders, like a pair of newlyweds whose marriage had just been arranged – she wished he had skipped it altogether. The photograph was devoid of any artistic merit. The framing was completely off and the sepia filter was redundant. Someone like Gagan would have pointed out its mediocrity. But Bhairav didn’t notice such details; he was not refined, he didn’t have sophisticated taste in art.
As she picked out the faults in the photograph, she started unpeeling the faults in the man as well. She examined his style – the gaudy gold bracelet in his left wrist was excessive; the muscle-fit shirt screamed self-devotion. Not that they were significant vices. But Bhairav loved talking about himself – unnecessary metrics and personal statistics: how much he weighed; how many calories he ate; how many ‘likes’ he got on his pictures. This was starting to fatigue her. Mita used to take active interest in his conversations, but when he didn’t reciprocate the same level of enthusiasm in her work, her interests, and her life, she tired of him.
As she started looking beyond his beauty and his physique, she had begun noticing his apathy towards people of a lower social standing than him. She noticed he was often aggressive and quarrelsome with the fruit-sellers. At first, she thought this was his way of bargaining. But lately his condescension stood out – suggesting it was something deeper – a rage sprouting from an ingrained bias against those who looked foreign and different. He had mentioned how he loved helping people in need, but on one of their morning sojourns he had ignored a frustrated trans-woman whose scooter had broken down on the side of the highway. When Mita asked him to pull over, he had reasoned that she might be a hooker, and it was better not to deal with her.
‘These trans people, they are very tricky,’ he had said.
Mita felt that the way he treated her was an elaborate performance – to woo her, to win her heart, and to convince her to marry him. Despite the masculinity that attracted her to him in the first place, the pull of desire was quietly diminishing. She wanted to like him, and not judge him for his superficiality. But he was not comfortable being himself, even in private moments. He was scared of opening up and being free. She would break-up with him, she was certain – soon enough.
Bhairav’s workout partner, Shankar, whom they had chanced upon at the temple, had taken the depthless portrait of the two of them. Bhairav seemed bothered seeing him. He became uptight when Shankar offered to take the picture. After posing, when Mita excused herself to tend to a phone call, he had heaved a sigh.
‘I didn’t know you had a girlfriend,’ Shankar had said.
‘Now, you do.’ Bhairav had replied curtly.
Sensing the annoyance in his voice, Shankar had directed the conversation to their evening fitness routine – if they were still working out their abs later. Although Mita was still busy with her call, Bhairav had feigned a degree of hostility towards his friend, and had quickly dismissed him. But Shanker had departed only after giving him a strong fraternal embrace. Mita had noticed the embrace, and had observed the frigidness on Bhairav’s part. They were probably disagreeing about something; men they are so defensive, so territorial, she had thought. She had found the scene and the aggression weirdly exciting though.
‘How come you never mentioned Shanker to me before?’ Mita asked later.
She had always assumed Bhairav exercised alone. In fact, she remembered a conversation where he hinted that he preferred working out alone. It was like meditation for him– no distractions and no trivial conversation.
‘It was just last month we starting working out together, when you were taking your exams’, he replied.
The previous month, when Mita had been sitting for her Foreign Service exams, she couldn’t make time to see him, even during the weekends. She had failed the exams the previous year; she couldn’t risk failing them again. She needed a better job; the translator gig was getting to be stressful.
‘Poor guy was completely clueless in the gym, so I just offered to help,’ he added.
The previous month, with more leisure time on his hands, Bhairav had started going to the gym more frequently. Most of his friends were married, were burdened with responsibilities, and weren’t free for a night of drinking and playing cards. Working out gave him an outlet to vent his bottled-up energy – sexual and otherwise. A daily routine of squats, pull-ups, push-ups, lunges and crunches kept him occupied and satisfied.
After a day of intense exercise, when he took his late-afternoon nap, most of his unnecessary thoughts, worries and anxieties disappeared. When his muscles relaxed, he felt an orgasmic spasm envelop his body. The sensation was so intense that any amount of self-pleasure couldn’t replicate it. Often times he exercised just to reach this euphoric state.
When Shanker noticed Bhairav’s discipline at the gym, he was utterly impressed. He immediately started asking him an overwhelming amount of questions: Which exercises were optimal for warm-ups? Which exercises didn’t strain one’s muscles? How many days to wait to let the muscles recuperate? And what to eat to bulk up? Bhairav generally didn’t socialize with strangers at the gym, but Shanker seemed non-threatening and harmless. Physically, he resembled Mita, a slim ectomorph. He was the same age, and had the same height. He had struggled to bulk up, so Bhairav took him under his wing, and gave him advice and suggestions. His devotion, full of boyish admiration, validated the time and energy Bhairav spent on self-care. It made him feel less vain, realizing that there were other people who appreciated his efforts and its results. He had sensed Mita was getting tired of his ‘fitness talk’.
In the last few days, this attention, despite coming from a man, was fueling Bhairav’s desire; it made him happy and got him excited. Shanker wasn’t feminine, his devotion towards Bhairav stemmed from a genuine interest to be fit and healthy. There was nothing sleazy about it. And even if there was, Bhairav was a masculine man with a girlfriend; there was nothing strange and queer in enjoying adulation and admiration, whoever and wherever it came from. It was like being a pop star or a movie star, he rationalized.
Later that evening, as Mita was watching some makeup tutorial video, she got a text from Sabita saying that the results for the Foreign Service exam were out. She sent her a screenshot of the outcome. Mita screamed with joy when she spotted her name on the list. She had worked hard for the exam, and finally she had achieved what she had aspired to. She telephoned her parents, who were out, to convey the news. She wanted a mini-celebration as well; she thought she should surprise Bhairav with the news. He was always good with celebrations, and she could take him out for a dessert.
Bhairav lived in a small two-room apartment, where an unlit kitchen opened up to a bigger brighter bedroom. Mita had been there once before, when he had gotten sick, and she had taken over some chicken soup. When Mita reached Bhairav’s apartment, it was already late in the evening, and almost time for bed. Despite the lateness of the hour, construction work for the house being built in the adjacent plot of land was ongoing. It was noisy and loud, so when Mita knocked on Bhairav’s door, he didn’t hear. Noticing the lock was unlatched, she pushed the door open. He must have been tired after the workout, hence had forgotten to latch it. Mita got into the apartment, without making a noise; Bhairav was probably napping or showering, and she didn’t want to disturb or scare him.
The kitchen was dark and dingy, with a tiny window overlooking the neighbor’s ghastly wall. When she reached the entrance of his bedroom, hidden in the darkness, through the door left half-ajar, Mita saw Bhairav on the floor, in a state of combat. It seemed that he was wrestling with Shankar, they were fighting about something, and hence the hostility she had observed earlier in the morning. Bhairav had Shankar’s neck locked up in his arms, while Shankar was struggling to free himself from the tight grip. She almost barged into the room to break the fight. But then it registered to her that they were in a state of undress. Both of them were naked down to their torso, just in their briefs. Their sweaty gym clothes were strewn all over the bedroom floor. As Shanker untied himself from Bhairav’s grip, he kissed his lips and bit his chest. Bhairav shuddered with relief, rather than pain. Mita’s heart raced, like it had never done before, watching this carnal imagery. Blood rushed furiously through her veins, initially in anger: her first boyfriend was a hypocrite, and her second was an imposter. But the anger quickly abated as she watched on, and was replaced by a sliver of desire. She felt a light tingling sensation, originating in her spine and going down to her legs. She felt weak in her knees, but she wanted to keep watching this masculine pageantry – hips gyrating hips, and shoulders crushing shoulders.
She was not angry. Should she be though? She became confused.
‘Would you kiss a girl, if I asked you too?’ Gagan had asked her months ago. The image of two women kissing and making love to each other looked unnatural. Mita was never against same-sex love, but the act of participating in it was grotesque. But this testosterone tension between the man she lusted for and his friend was other worldly; it was erotic, it looked normal. Mita watched them for a few minutes more, and then she quietly departed. They were heavily invested in exploring every sinew of each other’s body; they didn’t notice her, camouflaged in the dark.
Once outside in the in street, Mita wasn’t heartbroken. She hadn’t felt any strong feeling for Bhairav, and earlier in the afternoon she had contemplated breaking up with him. He had been a good companion, who helped her recuperate from a terrible heartache. His awkwardness, aloofness and timidity now made sense. His conservative and puritanical stance, not so much. Maybe it was the internalized fear. Maybe it was the self-hatred embedded underneath all that self-care. But it was not her task to dissect and analyze a guy she would probably never see again.
Mita has just passed her Foreign Service exams. She is thrilled, looking into her future, and its possibilities. She couldn’t care less about men. She doesn’t need any man – at least for now. She imagines the places she will visit in the coming weeks, months and years – Delhi, Brussels, Washington and Tokyo. The dignitaries she will meet. The diplomats she will socialize with. And the conversations she will have on art, culture and politics.
Mita knows what she wants and what she craves. For now, it is a simple dessert – sweet, comforting and creamy. She waves for a taxi, and asks to be dropped at her favorite dessert place in the valley. At the shop, when she takes a bite of the marble cake, she thinks she hears a masculine moan coming from the dark dank room she had just left. She is happy for that moan, but she feels she will miss the early morning rendezvous, a little bit.