by Khem K. Aryal
Most boys in the town of Kalikanagar grew up into full-blown men at the age of fifteen or sixteen. But Chintamani Pandey found one day that his son—already eighteen—had stopped growing a couple of years before—not so much physically, but otherwise; the boy’s peers had left him behind.
Some of the boys drove public buses, and the drivers treated their assistants like ten-year-old kids—some of them really were ten years old. Some managed their fathers’ shops, and the customers called the boys sahuji, respected shopkeeper; some of the customers even called the teenage boys dai, older brother, although the customers might have grandchildren the shopkeepers’ age. Some boys helped the drivers wash their TATA buses and Mahindra jeeps in the nearby stream, and some repaired radios. One was even a painter who’d put a sign in front of his shop: Kanchan Arts, in English, cursive fonts—Kanchan being his wife’s name—and wrote signboards and banners for political parties. Some others who didn’t have such involvements—those unlucky souls—formed local gangs, readily waiting to call anyone a motherfucker for no reason and start a duel, and to sell themselves to political parties during elections.
By the age of fifteen or sixteen some of them would already have eloped with village girls, and when they returned after their families’ anger subsided, they behaved like they’d reared half a dozen children, and they smoked in front of their parents. One such exemplary young man named Muktiram had eloped with his neighbor’s wife four years ago, and when he returned after two years, he’d started preaching—like an Indian swami-ji on Astha TV—that life was uncertain and unpredictable, so the young men in town needed to take their lives seriously. All at the age of eighteen.
Chintamani himself had realized his maturity at the age of fifteen. Now in his forties, and adorned with a few stitches on his chin and a deep scar on his head, he was no longer proud of chicken-stealing and such, but he still believed that those pre- and early teen rackets were instrumental in launching him through maturity. Those actions spoke of his manly vigor that had led him to take up a job at a road construction site at the age of fifteen, as a mature young man. He believed it was the best thing that could happen to him because there’s where he had met a contractor’s daughter, his wife Sushila, three years later. The contractor’s family had arrived in Kalikanagar on a beautiful Monday in spring, and by the following Wednesday, Chintamani was gone with the contractor’s daughter, to return to Kalikanagar only four years later, with a baby that slept twenty-four out of twenty-four hours. He’d been the proudest young man in the village then; he’d married a contractor’s daughter.
But at eighteen, Chintamani’s son never sat behind the wheel. Unlike some of his peers, he didn’t have a shop to inherit from his father; he was too timid to join the local gangs; women only made him wary; and he still wore his high school uniform even though he’d left school a year ago—the sky-blue shirt and navy-blue pants, stitched by a local tailor who believed that the longer the collars of your shirt, the smarter you looked. Two buttons of the shirt were missing, and the stitch on one of his pants cuffs had loosened. As a result, one leg looked longer than the other when he went out, invariably with children much younger than himself. Chintamani suspected that this all told of the boy’s inability to transition to manhood. The boy lacked the smartness—which basically meant toughness—to prepare himself for life. For those who could afford to be good, it was okay to remain calm and civilized and to wait for good fortune—it was sure to come by one day. But for people like him and his son, people who had nothing to inherit from their fathers—except maybe a loan—and people who had no political connections, things worked differently. His son could not waste his time just being good and waiting for a windfall. The boy had to be proactive and find his own path. He had to navigate around the possibilities that would come his way only through action. He’d heard some neighboring women praise the boy’s oddly attractive face—thanks to a crooked tooth—and his excellent performance in school, but that had not impressed Chintamani. It had, instead, confused him. Some neighbors’ teasing whether he’d hired somebody to have a son better than himself had doubled his anxiety that his son didn’t belong to him.
Chintamani Pandey became grave. Although his wife considered him utterly disqualified to interfere in their son’s life, he decided to do something before it was too late. After all, the boy was his son.
The following morning the troubled father stood in front of Muktiram.
“How are you, Chintamani Kaka?” Muktiram asked, busy collecting brains on a banana leaf, scooping it with his index and middle fingers after axing a goat’s skull, his middle finger twisted a little to match with the other one.
“Chicken or goat, kaka?” he continued, wiping his hands on a bloody rag that hung on a pole supporting the zinc roof of the butcher’s shop.
“I need nothing, Mukti,” Chintamani said, his voice so deep that his heart must have broken into pieces for the words to translate into air and hit the vocal cords.
“Buy on credit, no problem.” Muktiram sounded as if he didn’t care about money, but the welfare of his neighbors. He’d already reached that far! It assured Chintamani of the gravity of his son’s situation.
“I’m worried about Ramakant, Mukti,” Chintamani said.
Muktiram frowned. He tossed the goat brains into a corner and started chopping the skull. For the next few seconds, he looked like he was fighting the urge to assault Chintamani.
“He’s not going to do anything of worth, kaka. He’s a kid,” he said at last. “When will he mature?”
Muktiram and Ramakant had attended the same school together up to the fifth grade, when Muktiram quit school and started to mature—first fighting with other children on the street, then pickpocketing villagers, ruffling passengers from one public bus to another for a commission, wandering the roads that made way for open sewage on both sides, and picking this or that item from the shelves of the local shops, staring at shopkeepers if they showed signs of disapproval and protecting them the next day when the government authorities visited the shops for inspection, especially to stop the shopkeepers from tampering with their weighing machines—something that the latter believed was their privilege. At the age of sixteen, having proved his maturity, he’d eloped with his neighbor’s wife. By the age of twenty, Muktiram had claimed a wife, a child, and this butcher’s shop that opened only in the morning so that he could still team up with his gang the rest of the day.
“He’s just a kid—you know that, kaka,” Muktiram said, picking the fat from the goat’s intestines. “But sometimes he plays smart with us.”
Chintamani despaired; Muktiram was making his son seem more obscure. Ramakant rarely listened to him, and his mother hadn’t seemed much worried about the boy. Were they conspiring against him?
“But you boys have to do something for him. I can’t allow him to waste his life,” Chintamani said. “Why don’t you invite him when you get together . . . and talk? He’s too shy otherwise.”
Muktiram said Ramakant was his friend at one time, after all; he’d give it a try.
Chintamani returned home feeling like a real father. But as soon as his wife heard about his effort to help their son, she turned into Kali. “Who in the world wanted you to worry about my son?” she asked. “I know what my son will do. Keep away from polluting him!” She claimed that Mr. Chintamani Pandey had already wasted his life, and there was no point in pretending to help his son. “Don’t lie on the street, drunk—that’ll be your gift for me,” she concluded.
Upon returning to Kalikanagar with his wife and a son, Chintamani had spent the first two years boasting that he’d married a contractor’s daughter, more beautiful than anyone else in the entire area, doing nothing. Then he had begun to broker for bus operators and the owners of roadside hotels that fed long route passengers, charging them three times the price they’d charge local customers. He’d then led local gangs, often messing with their rivals from neighboring towns, and at last turned into an unacknowledged mediator between the local boys and the police. He’d spent the rest of the years pretending he was doing something of worth, doing nothing, while his wife sustained the family. By the time he was forty, he was like a retired lieutenant—he had a lot of stories to tell and experiences to share, but hardly any of them had a practical use—gladly displaced by newer generations. Sometimes he acted as their counsel—for good as well as bad causes—but mostly he was on his own, and now he was slowly given to drinking. He had this increasing pain that he didn’t own his son, and his wife cared about him less and less.
“I will see . . . I will see what your son will become!” Chintamani refused to concede his defeat.
As his parents debated—or rather, as his mother protested against Chintamani’s chinta, the worry—Ramakant remained silent. He furtively grinned at her, but he knew what his father meant. As soon as Chintamani left home, Ramakant announced his intention. “I have to change myself, anyway. Don’t you think Dad is right?”
Ramakant was old enough to know the struggle the family was going through. While his father idled away his days, his mother, who still believed that her son would one day do something different, something different than all other boys in the neighborhood, struggled on her own to keep the family going. She kept a few chickens that Chintamani completely ignored, and recently, she’d started selling home-brewed liquor to a few townsfolk and gentlemen from nearby villages. Ramakant envisioned that one day she could start letting them drink on her porch behind a floral curtain, turning the house into a local pub in need of more money. Then he saw his porch full of a rowdy lot. What if a drunken rascal turned violent? Would he be able to defend his mother?
He had to think about the family. As the eldest son, he was responsible even for his two siblings. When the father cannot deliver on his family responsibility, a dutiful son always shoulders the burden.
“Who said you don’t?” she asked. “But will you drive a bus? Do you think your mother wants her son to become a driver? Or a butcher?”
Yes, that was the problem. He could not become a driver. Or a butcher. Although his mother still hoped that her father, the contractor, would one day help her son go to a city to get a college degree, the dream was becoming more and more distant. In recent years, the grandfather was going out of business—Party workers are the new contractors, he explained. Honesty robs you off in this country—and his son, Ramakant’s uncle, was in search of a foreign employment agent who might help him enter the U.S., no matter how many months he might need to spend in Guatemala or Mexico on the way.
And, Ramakant’s chances of getting a job were slim. At best, he might become a primary school teacher, but for someone like him with no political connections, even that was next to impossible. The only remaining option would be to fly to an Arab country as a laborer. But that was not easy, either. First he’d have to replace his old citizenship card with a new one, showing that he was already twenty-one. That would require him to bribe a government official. Then he’d have to pay a manpower agency almost two hundred thousand rupees. Where would be get that much money?
Like most other days he spent the evening listening to the radio. Corruption by leaders, rampant nepotism, broken promises, the growing frustration of the people, routine strikes, anonymous threats and kidnappings, Maoist rebellion—there was so much of it in the air. The town looked normal on the surface, but so much was going on underneath that it was hard to navigate to a hopeful future.
Ramakant dropped by Muktiram’s shop the following day.
“What do you plan to do in life, boy?” Muktiram asked, grabbing money from a customer.
Ramakant waited until the customer left with a squashy ball of polythene and said he did not know.
“How can you be loitering around like a kid at this age? Ashamed of joining us, huh?” Muktiram asked as he axed a goat skull and scooped the brains, something that he seemed to do whenever he felt like breaking somebody else’s skull.
Ramakant left without a word, paling, as if he were frightened that the butcher would force him to scoop the brains from the opened skull. First, Ramakant couldn’t imagine killing a goat, and second, playing with the brains, putting the brains on a banana leaf? It looked too obscure. The brains, which possessed life, taken out of the body and heaped on a leaf! How strange—acting like God, or rather against him. God put the soul in there, and Muktiram scooped it out as decomposing chicken keema.
It was while fleeing the butcher’s shop that Ramakant caught sight of a fresh wall painting on the road. “Let’s make the People’s War a success!” it said.
Ramakant read and re-read the slogan. With a hammer-and-sickle flag at its side, the call to join the Maoist rebellion looked like a promise to end all the ills the country suffered from. Hearing about the Maoist war on the radio or watching the rebels on television was one thing, seeing them in action in your own town was quite another.
He knew the country’s history, and he knew the struggle of the families like his own, but he’d never thought about his part in the struggle. Now it felt as if he’d always been part of it. Wasn’t every poor citizen fighting a war on a daily basis? He liked the idea of going into “war” to change the country’s face.
That afternoon he sat close to his father, close enough to count the stitches on Chintamani’s craggy chin. He wanted his father to tell him that he could not behave like a kid anymore; he needed to grow up and do something. He wanted his father to challenge him. But Chintamani moved a little farther, as if making enough space for himself, and lay on the mat, his right hand across his eyes blocking the sun.
“I met Muktiram this morning,” he said after a few minutes’ wait.
“Plan to be a butcher?” his mother, who was combing her hair, asked promptly.
“Why only a butcher? There are many things he can do.” Chintamani looked triumphant as he sat up. See, whose son is he, after all? he seemed to be asking the boy’s mother.
When Chintamani went to visit Muktiram the next time, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. He smiled broadly at the butcher from afar, and as he entered the shop, he looked as if he were going to hug Muktiram. He patted the young man’s shoulder as he shook his hand.
“Chicken or goat, kaka?” asked the butcher.
“Today I want both. In fact, I want none of them. Maybe only chicken?” Chintamani instinctively lifted a goat head by its horn from the stump. Then he looked confused about what to do with the scalded goat head. He put it back on the stump and said, “In fact, I’m here to thank you, Muktiram. For talking to my boy.”
Muktiram blew his nose and spat into the gutter crammed with chicken feathers, goat fleece, and sewage, and said, “The boy isn’t going to do anything, kaka. He thinks he’s too smart to talk to us.”
Chintamani looked betrayed.
“Forget about him,” said Muktiram. “So, no meat today?”
Chintamani paled. The stitches on his face seemed to be going loose as he searched for words.
“You don’t care about other people, do you?” he asked.
“The boy thinks he’s too smart,” Muktiram repeated.
“What the fuck does that mean? You keep bleating he’s too smart. What the hell is he?”
“Is he your son or what? You keep asking me as if . . .”
Chintamani snatched the machete from Muktiram’s hand, threw it into the gutter, and slapped the boy in his face. It was so sudden that the boy kept staring at the machete that had sunk in the gutter past its hilt, as if he were uncertain what had happened.
And that vexed Chintamani as well. He seemed to be asking, Did I really slap you, boy?
“You’re my son, you know? You’re my son,” he tittered.
Only now did Muktiram seem to have come to his senses. He blinked several times, and said, “If only you were not Chintamani Kaka.” Avoiding eye contact with Chintamani, he stepped out of the store, picked up the machete, and started washing it at a nearby pipe, like a subservient kid.
“This is the last time you slap me, you hear that?” he said. “I’ll bear it no more. YOU HEAR THAT?”
Muktiram was a real man now. When would Ramakant become a man like him? Chintamani said he heartily loved Muktiram—he was industrious, he was brave, and he was honest. Chintamani wished Ramakant would learn from Muktiram.
“I said he won’t fucking change. He will die a kid, or what, I don’t know,” Muktiram said as he gathered chicken paws and put them in a polyethylene bag. “Want them?” he asked.
“Appease your dead parents with your chicken paws.” Chintamani showed friendly anger. “You insult me?”
“Haha, insult! I offer you meat, and you say I insult! Not different from your son!”
Chintamani left the shop holding the polyethylene bag of chicken paws. He’d become so indifferent about them that when Muktiram handed him the bag, he’d grabbed it without thinking what he’d do with the paws. The farther he went from the shop, the more humiliation he felt about eating chicken paws. Chintamani Pandey—chicken-paws eater. That didn’t sound quite right.
He stopped, held the bag up against his face, turned back—the butcher shop far behind—and threw the bag into the ditch. As if he’d forcibly freed himself from spiteful claws of demons, he almost ran home, waving his hand at the two faces who bid him an uncertain greeting as he entered.
He cleared his throat and hollered at his son, who ambled into his room.
“Who were those boys?” Chintamani asked.
“My friends from another village,” the boy replied.
“They didn’t look good to me. Making friends with some loafers?”
“Didn’t I tell you it’s none of your business?” his wife shouted from the kitchen. “Can’t my boy make his own friends? Why can’t you just shut up?”
In the following days, Chintamani was not himself. Because he didn’t ever leave home, his wife asked him on the third day what a wonder it was. He replied that the world was full of intricacies, and his wife only laughed, cursed her own fate, and blamed the booze for his condition. Chintamani insisted that it had nothing to do with alcohol. He only worried whether he would ever own his son—at which his wife giggled. “This hut houses real characters,” she said. It was a declaration that she didn’t have to fight her husband—she was the uncontested winner. She neither expected anything from him, nor did she have any responsibility toward him. Especially in the last couple of years, when Ramakant’s voice changed from an adolescent’s to a man’s, she had emerged as the winner, and Chintamani had become more a loser every day.
“You stole my son,” Chintamani said during lunch the following day.
His wife dismissed him with no response.
“Where’s he gone to for the last two days?” Chintamani asked.
She replied he didn’t have to worry—Ramakant was visiting his friends in the adjoining village.
“Are they good boys?” Chintamani asked. “They looked very strange to me.”
“Good or no good, they are his friends,” was her reply. “They are not butchers and all, at the least.”
Her face was victorious as she left the room to answer the door, but when she returned after a few minutes, she looked like a disoriented child.
“What is this? What the hell is he going to do?” she demanded, thrusting a note into Chintamani’s hand.
Chintamani’s face lit up as he read Ramakant’s note. He glanced at his wife and turned back to the note—Ramakant had joined the Maoists. Explaining the reason, he’d written, “I’ve realized that the condition of the people like us won’t change until we change the whole system. I’ve decided to join the Maoist people’s war for the sake of the country.”
Chintamani folded the note neatly and declared, “He’s not a kid anymore. Good for him!”
“Good for him? Your son joins the Maoists and you say it’s good for him?” she wailed. “How will I show my face to my relatives?”
For the next two hours Chintamani roamed the town with the note in his pocket. He fought the urge to accost anyone he encountered with the note and say, Look, my boy has become a Maoist. But he restrained himself, not knowing what actually it might mean. No one from the area had so far declared himself or herself a Maoist, and it was hard to predict the reaction of the townsfolk.
When he returned home, his thirst for sharing the news with somebody had doubled. He repeated to his wife that it was nonsense to worry about the son, who he said was now a mature man, and left the house again, ensuring with his hand that the note was still in his pocket. This time he had a clear destination.
Muktiram was heckling one of his boys when Chintamani met him outside a roadside teashop.
“What do you think about Maoists?” he asked, sitting on a bench on the porch. He turned to the girl at the counter and ordered a glass of tea as if he didn’t care about Muktiram’s response.
“Maoists? What’s there to think about the terrorists?” replied Muktiram.
The other boys used a few expletives—one boy even said he could become a fucking Maoist one day if the local police continued to harass him on the street over his long hair and earrings.
“Ramakant joined the Maoists,” announced Chintamani abruptly, as if he didn’t want any other boy to top him.
The boys grumbled that the motherfucking Maoists, the asshole Prachanda of their leader, the sons of whores were butchering the people.
“I knew he’d do it,” Muktiram said calmly.
“You did?” asked Chintamani.
“I knew there was something wrong with that boy,” Muktiram went on, equally calm.
Chintamani thrashed the note on to Muktiram’s hand, asking, “What the hell is wrong with fighting for the country, huh? What the hell is wrong?” He looked at the other boys for their reaction. “Wouldn’t the country benefit if you fought for the country instead of loitering on the streets? When will you understand it, you aimless donkeys?”
The boys didn’t look impressed, especially Muktiram, who scanned the note and threw it back onto Chintamani’s lap. “You’re also a real mystery, kaka. Exactly like your son!” he said.
The boys used a few more expletives and name-called Ramakant.
“I hope you know who the Maoists are.” Muktiram spoke like a counselor. “You’re boasting of your son joining the terrorists. Can’t you see that the police might arrest you at any time?”
“The police! Fuck the police,” Chintamani replied. “You threaten me with the police? You teach me?”
He put the letter into his pocket, told the girl at the counter that he didn’t need tea anymore, and left. He was sputtering, “Terrorists, huh? You don’t want to see my son doing better than you. Jealous! You are jealous!”
And indeed, the police took him into custody the following afternoon.
It had been a long time since he’d last been arrested—more than a decade. Since then he’d visited the police post as a mediator between the local boys, the affidavits, and the police. Until a couple of years ago, when he started withdrawing and spending more time drinking, he was a friend to the police. But now the police post looked different, like a real police post. It was not only he who had changed. Since the Maoist insurgency started, the police station had been fortified, and the officers, who used to act more like accomplices of the local gangs than law enforcement officers, had been replaced by more officious personnel.
When the sub-inspector ordered his subordinates to lock him up—Lock up that bastard—without looking at him, Chintamani shook. He opened his mouth to claim his innocence, but as he still struggled to formulate any meaningful words, he was pushed into a room lit by a 25-watt bulb dangling on a naked wire from the ceiling.
“Sir, let me explain. Let me explain first,” he pleaded with the officers, who didn’t care even to look at him once he was locked up.
A couple of hours later, two policemen entered the room. When they neared him, the smell of locally brewed alcohol hit Chintamani’s olfactory organs so pungently that he momentarily found it hard to believe he was in police custody. It was exactly like shoving the stained curtain away and entering Kanchhi’s local pub after eight—stimulating and relieving at the same time. His most cherished moments in life in recent years. The intoxicating aroma that filled the pub would reassure him a thousand times that there were still reasons to live in this world.
Chintamani grinned at the policemen.
But the policemen had their own business. They picked a worn-out Goodyear tire that lay in a corner and suspended it from the ceiling next to the bulb. Then they lifted Chintamani, who was still in Kanchhi’s pub, like a baby and inserted him halfway through the tire. Laid on his belly, his hands and legs stretched, Chintamani looked like a Twin Otter preparing to take off. Before he could react, one of the policemen said that the son of a whore would now see what it meant to be a Maoist, went to a corner, and took a position like a sprinter ready. Then he took as much a run as the space allowed, landed his foot on Chintamani’s head, and fell on the floor, obviously drunk. Chintamani grunted like a goat being slaughtered with a blunt machete as he swung erratically on the tire. The second policeman complained that the motherfucker of his colleague had drunk too much booze despite his warnings and spat, his head cocked over his shoulder.
The policeman on the floor glared at Chintamani like an angry bull and kicked his nose. A stream of blood drew an abstract image on the rough floor.
“Behave well, you motherfucker!” shouted the second policeman.
“Don’t try to teach me, you coward,” the first policeman shot back, at which his colleague started whipping Chintamani with a belt.
They put tape over Chintamani’s mouth. One officer hit him on the head while the other pounded on his bare feet. They whipped his body in turns, stripped off his clothes, occasionally accused each other of being too cruel, shared more booze from a Jalamreet water bottle, and dislodged Chintamani from the tire when he ceased to react to their blows.
Chintamani had a vague sense of being alive when he heard the policemen talk. One of them was complaining that the booze seemed to have been treated with Urea. The other was saying that the pub owner, the whore, had denied him sleep yet another night.
At daybreak Chintamani started complaining of the injustices of the world—why was he punished for a crime he had not committed? He hardly knew anything about Maoists; he’d never sympathized with them. He’d never been involved in a terrorist plot. His son, a good-for-nothing rascal, had joined the Maoists, and the father was being punished. It was so unfair. How could a father be responsible for his son’s actions?
When the sub-inspector insisted that afternoon that he must have consented to his son joining the Maoists, Chintamani jumped on his feet despite the pain his whole body sustained, supported a side of his swelling face with his bruised hand, and blurted, “You will know, you will know one day, sir, when your son grows up.” The sub-inspector—a young man in his twenties—smiled at his officers, looked at Chintamani’s body from head to foot, and as if he’d just noticed the bruises, he asked, “Oh, who else did it all?” Then he turned to his officers. “Those boys? Hey, did you?” The police officers looked like they were congratulating each other on their boss’s crooked way of approval.
Chintamani was not new to such police tricks. “There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “You can do nothing as a father. You’ll know it one day.”
Chintamani spent that day and the following one at the police station, attempting to explain to the sub-inspector every two hours that a father could do nothing to influence his adult son’s course. By the time the police decided to let him go, Chintamani had started acting like a guru of father-son relationships. Since he accidently used the term “karma” to describe his own fate, he’d used it quite a few times to explain that everybody, including his son, would be responsible for his own actions.
On the way home, Muktiram and other family friends who’d received Chintamani from the police station disparaged the police for their cruelty in an effort to comfort Chintamani. But Chintamani maintained his stoic posture, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with them. He only listened and walked on, as if his sufferings were above such remarks. Once home, more well-wishers came by to show their concern. They claimed there was no reason for the police to maltreat Chintamani. Some even suggested he knock on the court door. He only listened, as if he were a mathadhis, a religious leader, just returned from a rare pilgrimage—no one would expect him to speak, but to listen. He would be doing a favor to the speakers—relieving them of their sins—by listening to them. It looked like Chintamani would never again speak.
But he did speak.
“Will the son ever return home, Sushila?” he asked, after the family friends left them alone and the town fell asleep.
Sushila bolted the door and sat beside him—calm and quiet, like a mother who believed that her son would never err. Then she stretched her hand to switch the light off. “Ramakant was home last night for ten minutes,” she whispered. “He says we need not worry about him.”
“Sure, we don’t,” Chintamani said. Then his eyes filled with tears.
Khem K. Aryal comes originally from Nepal. His fiction has appeared in such journals as Northeast Review, Poydras Review, Qwerty Magazine, The Kathmandu Post, and Warscapes.