I found ‘Flames and Fables’ like heading into an excursion into the “contrasting spaces” within Kathmandu, not unlike the protagonist and his endearing gori girlfriend on their scooty. There is the space of Rabin’s room and the delightful voice of his weary mother. There is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unwelcome presence in our couples’ sex life. Then, there is Lord Ganesh “blatantly eavesdropping on all conversations.” The details of this story, rendered in deft strokes, turn a claustrophobic city into one of excitement and spacious character.
– Samrat Upadhyay, judge
Flames and Fables
It was as if someone had shot a gun in the house, and all windows were thrown open to get the smell of sulfur out of the corners, Rabin thought as he opened his eyes and looked around the room, washed with the sunlight streaming in through the east and south windows. He hadn’t heard gunshots in a while, with the city returning to its usual routine after the recent wave of strikes and demonstrations.
He sat up on an upholstered bed, covered by a sheet with elaborate dragon prints, monsters swirling and slithering on the cheap Chinese fabric, swallowing their own feathery tails. Sitting on the edge of the bed with his feet firmly planted on the grey carpeted floor, he looked down. The sheet was blue in color, all twisted from agony and nightmares, still damp with perspiration that made his nightshirt stick.
“Rabin, Rabindra,” called a voice from outside the door. “Are you awake yet?” He didn’t answer. He disliked being interrupted in the mornings. His sense of coherence was still hanging on a nail in some forgotten empty room of his dreams, beyond reach.
“Do you want milky tea or lemony? Come on Rabin, answer me!” rose the voice.
“Ama, I am awake. I am awake,” he replied while staring at his ragged flat nails. He couldn’t stop chewing them. Scraps of his cuticles were peeled back to show the glistening pink of his flesh.
“I can come and cut the lemon. Just put some water on the stove,” he responded, looking in the direction of the door. He thought about the tangy juices from the fruit seeping into his cuticles, sending shocks of jittery pain up his spine. He stood up, his right hand trailed down and tugged at the elastic band of his briefs. He swung his upper body to the left and gave a sharp turn to his neck.
“Your editor called about half an hour ago. He wants you to call him back on his cell phone before you reach the office,” said Ma, pausing for his response.
“What did he want at this time of the day?” asked Rabin agitatedly, more to himself than his mother. He didn’t mean to wonder out aloud. It was as if she was standing there waiting at the door for this moment. Her lingering about had a deeper purpose and the minor lapse on his part fulfilled all her designs.
“How am I supposed to know that?” Ama erupted. She slapped the door with her open palm. It made a loud thud. He dreaded that dull thud. It meant something far worse than anger. It was the sound of hopelessness. It said that she was longer proud of him, as she had been when he was fourteen and bagged the first prize in the citywide essay competition.
“You are 26, Rabin! I don’t understand why I still have to take your calls and also answer difficult questions,” she cried.
“Ma, I will be late for work if we start this now,” he implored, looking out the open windows. Rabin had his mother’s whetstone eyes and the square of his chin was neatly framed by the black hair of his goatee. Evelyn liked his goatee.
In the heat of Saturday afternoons, when they both sprawled on the straw mattresses atop the balcony of her rented apartment, she would roll over on her stomach and turn towards him. Her hands would reach over and touch his cheeks. Her pale skin, covered from head to toe with sunscreen lotion and freckles, clashed against the deep brown of his body.
“And oh, she called,” Ma said. “Miss Eva-li-en wanted to chat with you at six thirty am.” Every word uttered was weighed down with solid, bitter resentment. “Gori, she is going to spoil my son rotten,” she said with a heavy sigh, which he could hear through the thick door that separated mother and son.
“Rabin, what does Gori mean?” Evelyn asked while running her hands through his dark hair, glistening under the Saturday sun.
He looked into her sea-green eyes. Her cheeks were burning red and the golden nose ring trembled under her even breathing. She smelled of sandalwood, it was the cologne he had given her the month before.
“Don’t be silly Eve, you know what Gori means,” he replied. He didn’t like these conversations. It had to do everything about their differences. She turned into something else in front of his eyes, whenever he paid closer attention to how her skin folded around her body. A porcelain doll with her toenails painted black and dark French bangs hanging over her eyes. But he wanted her to be more than that. He didn’t want her to disappear behind the faces of actresses he had gawked at for hours, in those weekend screenings of Hollywood flicks inside the cultural lobby of the American Council.
Once when he was inside her, Maggie Gyllenhaal popped into his head. He didn’t want it to be that way, it just happened. Maggie’s face just came up and he couldn’t help himself from liking it. For two weeks after that, he couldn’t look Eve in the eyes. Sometimes, the guilt was so repugnant he couldn’t even stand being in the same room with her.
“No, like I know what it means,” she said. “But I want to understand the connotations. Isn’t fair skin one of the thirty-two prized features in a Hindu woman?” she pursued the topic stubbornly.
“Well, my mother certainly doesn’t seem to agree with that,” he said, grinning towards her. “Or maybe she is just jealous of you.” He didn’t mean it and was actually surprised to have said it.
“No Rabin, this isn’t about jealousy,” she said in a serious tone, not responding to Rabin’s effort at making the conversation looser. “She is the damn harpooner and I am her white whale. She has made it her obsession to hunt me down and remove me from your life.” Eve punctuated herself by sitting upright; her hands now lay folded and tucked in the midst of her lap. It appeared as if she was meditating.
“Come on Eve, you don’t need to bring Herman Melville into this and make this conversation all allegorical,” he said, struggling to suppress the glee in his voice. Evelyn drew complex symbolic interpretations from almost everything that happened to her. “And are you honestly comparing yourself to a big albino whale?” He raised himself and gently grabbed both her upper arms from behind. There it was right beside his fingertips, brightly outlined in the clear noon light, in blue and black ink, the writhing body of Moby Dick.
“I mean, she worships Vishnu, the god of whalers.” Evelyn turned around to look at Rabindra’s face quizzically.
Evelyn Brough, native of Salem, Massachusetts, attended Boston College for four years and got her B.A in English. During her college years, she was obsessed with John Ashbery’s poems and still remained so. She made the decision overnight to drop her radio station job in Boston and work for an English newspaper halfway around the world.
Rick, who had been her junior year boyfriend, was sharing stories from his recent adventures on the slopes of the Himalayas at the Seven Philosophers in Boston. They were both leaning against a jukebox; Son of a Preacher Man was filling the room, mostly crowded with graduate students from the surrounding universities. After a while, the song stopped distracting Eve.
“Getting to Makalu base camp was a piece of cake,” Rick said loudly. “It was Kathmandu which was just awful to be stuck in,” he said, careful not to slur his words. “Fucking claustrophobic man,” he tried explaining. “Surrounded by these tall hills all the time, missed the salt water too much.”
That’s exactly what it was. It was the water that she had grown sick of. The harbor glaring at her every time she went on errands around the city, she needed to get away from all that. The sticky salt of sea on her skin and the fishy aftertaste hanging in her throat all needed to be washed away with hilly air and chilled juniper smoke. It didn’t take more than two weeks for her to hear back from Abhi Sharma, editor of The Himalayan Post. The daily had agreed to hire her as one of their desk editors.
Rabin pushed the door open and stepped out into the hallway. The narrow passage was dimly lit by yellow light from a twenty-watt bulb hanging naked from the ceiling. There was a calendar marked with the year 2056 plastered on the wall at the end of the corridor. Underneath it on a wooden stool was a maroon telephone set. Fifty six years ahead of its Gregorian counterpart, the Hindu calendar had laminated pictures of deities sprawled on each flap. For this month it was the elephant-headed Ganesh, with the unbelievable roundness of his gut and broad expanse of his ear flaps. He sat on a plush purple cushion, blatantly eavesdropping on all conversations.
“Hello, Abhi-ji?” Rabin spoke into the mouthpiece. “It’s Rabin. Was there something urgent that you wanted me to check on?” he asked.
“Rabin-ji, thanks for calling back,” Abhi spoke from other side. “I wouldn’t have disturbed you this early if it wasn’t an important assignment.”
“Of course, of course,” he replied, rolling his eyes. This was the third morning call he had received from Abhi this week.
“I know that the political beat isn’t your thing, but this is something interesting,” Abhi said and waited for Rabin’s response.
“A guy called me at home late last night. He said that he is a member of the politburo for the Maoist party,” Abhi took a long swig of what could have been either tea or his morning peg of Johnnie Walker. “He is in Kathmandu for couple of days. It is supposed to be an undercover visit. I want you to get an interview from him for Monday’s paper.”
“Sure. Where and at what time am I supposed to meet him?” Rabin asked, trying his best to cover the irritation in his voice.
“I told him I would send my reporters to Athchowk at eleven thirty. That’s about two hours from now,” he took another swill of his drink and smacked his lips. “This guy will be wearing a green flannel shirt. Okay?”
Rabin jotted down the details on the Moleskin that Eve had given him. The frayed skin of his fingers grazed lightly on the ruled pages as he scribbled down details in his curved writing.
“Got it, Abhi-ji,” said Rabin, getting ready to end the telephone conversation.
“By the way, why don’t you also ring up that American girl and take her with you! She needs to get out in the city and understand a few things about this damn revolution,” Abhi finished the sentence, didn’t wait for Rabin to respond, and hung up the phone.
Athchowk was a well-known place in the city where eight different roads converged. It belonged to the old part of Kathmandu, littered with narrow lanes and numerous courtyards. Houses built a few centuries ago still stood standing around the roundabout, while the families within them separated and scattered. Everything seemed to swell and breathe together towards the sky. At the center of the chowk stood a stone pillar on top of which there was a king’s statue, kneeling on his left knee with his hands joined in prayer. On his right shoulder perched a golden bird, ready for flight.
“Rabin, wasn’t there some story about that bird you told me?” Eve asked, turning towards him. She was wearing one of her best sun dresses, with a light yellow silk scarf neatly tied around her head. Large flower prints on the fabric made her even more noticeable amongst the crowds.
She and Rabin had just arrived at the chowk. After his conversation with Abhi, he had called up Eve to tell her about the assignment. She was glad that the editor had finally come around to throw something real her way. It was becoming tedious to be cooped up in the office all afternoon, correcting misplaced modifiers and educating Nepali reporters about gerunds.
She had been to Athchowk with Rabin once before. Their trip had been a part of a more usual routine which Eve and Rabin had established some weeks after meeting in the office. Usually when the newspaper was put to bed, Rabin rode his scooty over to Eve’s place. From there they would shoot off into the extending darkness of the evening. These excursions led them to contrasting spaces within the city, some of which even Rabin had never been to. One evening they had decided to ride through all the puzzling lanes which snaked in and around old sections of Kathmandu. They had been successfully lost for hours and didn’t even bother to ask for directions. The scooty ran out of gas right about when they reached Athchowk. It was close to midnight and there wasn’t much life out in the streets. Sleeping bodies of beggars draped under jute bags huddled together with stray dogs near the pillar.
This afternoon as they waited, however, they were looking at the pillar from further away, standing under temporary awnings made from bright blue plastic tarpaulins by the shopkeepers. Now, surrounding the base of the pillars sat several middle-aged women, the ends of their sarees covering their heads from the sun. In front of them were bamboo baskets full to their brims with bottle-green leaves of lettuce, cilantro and mustard greens. There were pyramids of clementines and oranges, and sticky pulp from gourds and melons coating the dusty ground. Then, there was the silent king, sitting there for centuries and worshipping his city, and the bird as his only testament for a glorious prophecy. Ominous clouds were hovering in the sky; the vendor women uncovered their heads and stared patiently skywards.
“They say that on the day this golden swallow takes off from the king’s shoulder,” Rabin paused, “this city’s people will be ready for self rule.”
“Much like a democracy,” Eve chimed in happily. “It’s wild that some fifteenth-century king of Nepal had already thought of a modern concept like self rule.”
“This country has always had its share of wise stories and storytellers,” Rabin spoke more to himself. “But none of that wisdom stays, except in fables and mute statues.”
Then they heard a commotion headed their way, within earshot. The vendor women hastily started to collect their goods and run into doorframes, which were gateways to labyrinths of alleys and escape routes. As they hoisted up the mats on which the vegetables had been piled, several of the melons and gourds rolled onto to the ground. Some of them spilled out of the bunched mats and smashed on the ground to split open.
Eve could see flickering flames dancing several feet away. Many of those walking about stopped and stood. Everyone’s eyes seemed to glaze over, not in fear but in a kind of unwavering expectation.
“Rabin, what on earth is going on?” Eve asked anxiously.
“Oh shit, it’s the mid-afternoon masaal julus,” he replied, his nervousness fixing him to the spot where he was standing.
“Wait, is this the infamous procession I have heard about from every reporter at the office?” she asked.
The first masaal julus had happened in the summer of 2055. It started as a group of ten youths, who wore black coveralls and blindfolded themselves. They each carried a burning torch in broad daylight and walked silently through Kathmandu’s streets holding hands. The number of procession goers had gone up. No one knew where this group congregated and to where it finally dispersed. The photo journalists had tried their best to predict the site of the following procession and had repeatedly failed. The black mass was ephemeral, as it never lasted more than ten minutes. This one heading towards Athchowk seemed substantial in size. There were about fifty men and women, their lips pursed together, leading one another silently through the streets. Motorbikes, cycles, auto rickshaws and taxis had all parked themselves, quietly giving way to the procession. The naked soles of their feet dragged over the dusty asphalt and made sounds like when the snow falls. The flames under the blazing sun and their grave faces could spook just about anyone who saw them.
Eve stood there overcome with fear, as the blindfolded procession marched past her. Their flames threw translucent shadows on the ground and the heat from them smacked every bystander on their faces. She turned towards Rabin and like hundreds of others who had lined up in the street to witness this ritual, he was also spellbound. She on the other hand was just plain scared.
Then the bell tower struck noon, and the quietly walking bodies started bolting in whatever alleyways they could find. The flames hurled past Eve and Rabin, within seconds there was not a single torch in sight. The tension in Athchowk expanded and then dissolved. The traffic resumed itself with fury and silent spectators returned to the pace which they had prior to the procession. It was at that moment when Rabin’s face relaxed, that Evelyn understood what Rick meant when he used the word “claustrophobic” to describe the city.
“Rabin, are you alright?” she asked, recovering from her own thoughts and paying attention to Rabin’s pale face.
“Wasn’t that something?”
“That was something…” he sighed and leaned against the closed metal shutter of the store in front of which they were standing.