Samyak Shertok was born and raised in Nepal. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. His honours include the first places in Writing Nepal: A Short Story Contest and Vera Hinckley Mayhew Short Story Contest and honorable mentions for the Academy of American Poets Turner Prize and the Ethel Lowry Handley Poetry Prize. His writing appears in La.Lit, Inscape, The Kathmandu Post, and elsewhere.
Because today is Sunday and the seventy-seventh episode of the Mahabharata will be aired after the 8 pm news on NTV, the Tamangs have eaten their dinner early and sat at their usual spots in the guest room in front of a 14’’ Chinese TV. Except for Mr. Tamang, who sits on the upholstery, his legs crossed at the knee, the family sits on the threadbare rugs on the linoleum floor. The black-and-white TV, already showing static lines at the fringes, is perched on a dilapidated coffee table Mrs. Tamang salvaged from the take-what-you-can-carry pile of their neighbours, who moved back to their village six months after the Tamangs came to the city.
Mrs. Tamang doesn’t allow the kids, or herself, to sit on the couch, except when someone from her list of ‘valuable guests’ visits the house. The list keeps changing, but Dolma has no trouble keeping track of it. If the guest is important, her mother, before opening the door, orders her to spread the mosaic rugs her mother keeps rolled in their bedroom. The couches are draped with white cover slips that Mrs. Tamang washes every fortnight, even when they haven’t had a single visitor the entire time. Dust has teeth, she says, peeling off the slips to reveal the almost new sofa. When the guests make themselves comfortable on the couch, she allows herself to sit on one end. But even then she perches so gingerly she seems more dedicated to the longevity of the furniture than to the conversation at hand.
Pasang, the older son, rereads Bhedia, an Indian comic book that casts a wolf-man as the protagonist. Bhedia is Pasang’s latest favorite comic hero. Whenever he thinks of the brute body with a love-struck heart, he feels a faint shiver. Next to him, his brother Dawa turns the pages of Pi: A Wonder. After wiping her hands on her scarf, Mrs. Tamang takes out the prayer beads worn around her neck and begins to chant Om Mani Padme Hun, a bead for each Buddhist incantation.
Dolma carries her knit kit with her and places it in front of her. At first when her mother tried to teach her how to knit, she had resisted. “As though I don’t have enough chores already,” she had said. But when she saw Shashi, the Shresthas’ daughter, knitting a sweater for her blessed one, Dolma had the itch to hold those needles in her hands. Her mother tried her best to teach Dolma as much as she could, but soon both realized that she couldn’t knit a sock, let alone a sweater. She was, however, somehow able to weave the most beautiful and authentic scarves, the first one for her youngest brother, then for her father. Soon she was able to manipulate the colours without a second thought. And Mrs. Tamang decided that they could actually try to sell the scarves at their store. But much to her disappointment, not a single scarf was sold. They hung from the short clothesline Mr. Tamang had put up with two nails, gathering dust and indifference. Yet Dolma couldn’t care less.
What she loves most about knitting is it allows her to be alone even when in the company of others. If she wants to say something, she can always join in. But if she doesn’t want to, she can sit there through the whole meeting without saying a word. It allows her time to think and daydream. She can think without appearing as if she is thinking, or vice versa. She could simply be concentrating on the stitches and the needles and loops. But on occasions like tonight, when she doesn’t want to participate at all, she can sit there without seeming rude or indifferent. Three yarns — blue, white, and red balls — skewered with metal needles lie in front of her in a plastic bag.
Unlike her mother, she prefers the metal needles to the wooden or plastic — the coolness of the steel complements the warmth of the wool she works with. She likes the music the needles make as they strike each other. The best knitters make no sound at all, her mother has admonished her. But she loves the noise. She thinks of it as a conversation the two needles are having as they work together and weave the yarn to put together a scarf. Mrs. Tamang left knitting two years ago owing to her poor eyesight. Looking back, Dolma realises her mother wanted her to learn it so that all her mother’s skills and knowledge would live on. Her mother had somehow known that soon she wouldn’t be able to continue anymore.
Mr. Tamang watches the news with his head tilted, his back slightly stooped forward. After overhearing Mr. Gurung and Mr. Shrestha chastise some politicians and praise others near his grocery store on the first floor of his house, he started to take an interest in the news. Barely literate, reading a newspaper will consume his entire day, so he has opted to rely on the TV news instead. He wants to be able to join his neighbours in their morning tea conversations, but, more than that, he doesn’t want to appear a man without an opinion — the very reason he parted with his ancestral homestead in the village and moved to Kathmandu five years ago. He wants his children to graduate from the university and then work in spacious offices with chartreuse glass windows overlooking the city, their shoes gleaming like wet moons, pressed ties knotted at their throats. He hopes they will do what he himself couldn’t, and sometimes when he comes across his children engrossed in their books he is convinced that there is nothing more he wants from his life. The sight of them locked to the same spot in front of the buzzing box, however, makes him restive.
When the Tamangs moved to the city, they had never thought of needing a TV. But when the kids started going to the Gurungs, first on Saturday afternoons to watch the Bollywood feature, then on Friday evenings for Hijo Ajaka Kura, a satirical sitcom on contemporary issues, Mr. Tamang had to succumb and buy one on the Dashain sale. It wasn’t colour and was almost half the size of the Gurungs’, but it was a TV just the same. He planted the antenna on the roof, snaked in the cable through the ventilation, and before pressing the power button made sure the plug was first connected to a volt box. The kids had gathered in front of the unflattering screen in great excitement, and when the sound and moving figures issued from this unlikely box, they clapped and smiled. Even Mrs. Tamang had her eyes locked on the fleeting images appearing and disappearing on the screen. Sitting on the couch, Mr. Tamang looked at his family more than the TV and felt great pride. It was not such a bad idea to move to the city, after all. He was relieved at the thought that his kids wouldn’t go to the Gurungs’ anymore, his dignity restored at last in the neighborhood. But as soon as the kids began to spend more time watching TV and less time doing their assignments, he was seized with a premonition. It was as though the family had a new baby and no one could take their eyes off it — except it wasn’t a baby, and it certainly wasn’t his. After having dinner, he would go through his account book, typing the figures on a calculator, hoping the sales hadn’t lowered from the previous day, and then go to bed, every once in a while calling out from the closed room to lower the volume.
Dawa’s eyes are glued to Pi: A Wonder, which he checked out from the British Library. He loves math; numbers will never betray him. The parallel lines, no matter how close, will never flinch a millimeter and brush each other. The whole will never be greater than the sum of its parts. No matter how complex an equation is, the constants in it will always lead him to the value of the unknown. As long as numbers exist, the world is safe, will remain intact. It’s English and Nepali, the language subjects, which elude him. In language, there are far too many variables and the interpretation of a text differs from teacher to teacher. Once when he opined that the meaning of a story was too subjective, his Nepali teacher took a great pleasure in announcing, “That is precisely the point of literature.” While he aces the tests on all other subjects, his scores on English and Nepali are mediocre at best, which only makes him detest them more. No matter how much more time he spends analyzing Paudyal’s poetry and Shrestha’s essays, he never seems to do any better on these subjects. So he ends up spending all his spare time, including Saturdays, on science and math, and the more he studies the laws of physics and properties of numbers, the more mysterious and miraculous the world appears to him. An equation is, he has come to conclude, the most beautiful language there is. Every once in a while he wonders whether the whole world is governed by one single equation, and how the person who can solve it will hold the key to the universe.
Beside him, Mrs. Tamang has settled into the rhythm of thumbing her rosary, an art she has perfected after many years of practice. When she sees on the screen a whole town collapsed into debris in Bangladesh in the wake of an 8.4-magnitude earthquake, she commiserates, “Buddha Bhagwan!” and speeds up the thumbing of the beads as though that might mitigate the extent of damage that has already occurred. Even though she doesn’t give a beggar more than a rupee and her kids not a paisa more than they need for the school supplies, her eyes go soft at the first sight of someone’s grief.
Barring those sporadic moments, Mr. Tamang is the only one paying any attention to the screen. The rest of the family is waiting for the news to end so they can watch the Mahabharata. Pasang thinks news is only for old and boring people like his father and can’t believe his father is watching it with such fierce concentration.
“I bet the Kauravas will win,” Pasang says to his brother, whose eyes are locked on his book. In the last episode, the Pandavas and the Kauravas were poised to roll the loaded dice. Shakuni, Duryodhana’s uncle, is the wizard of dice and has plotted every move with the cunningness and precision of a politician. He deliberately lost to the Pandavas the last time they gambled so that he could lure them to another challenge. Should the Pandavas lose, they will have to spend twelve years in the forest and one additional year incognito. If seen during the final year, they will have to start the exile all over again. Pasang knows the entire story of the Mahabharata from his Social Studies class but affects ignorance.
Unlike some of his friends, Pasang admires Shakuni. It’s not like Shakuni deceived or betrayed the Pandavas. Everyone does what he is best at, and Shakuni cannot be blamed for being unbeatable at dice and stratagem. A fragile humpback, but watch how he can make everyone around him dance with a snap of his fingers, including Duryodhana, who thinks he is using Shakuni to achieve his goal of inheriting the entire kingdom for himself. Shakuni’s words are at once honey and poison.
Dawa looks at his brother as though he is contemplating whether the Kauravas will really win. He wants to say that Kauravas cannot win but instead finds himself saying, “Do you know it takes forty-three muscles to frown but only seventeen to smile?”
“Can I listen to the news!” Mr. Tamang says in a half-request, half-command voice.
Dawa goes back to his reading. After a minute or so, Pasang whispers, “Want to bet?” But Dawa pretends to not hear him, and Pasang whispers again, this time louder.
“I can’t even listen to the news in this house,” Mr. Tamang raises his hands in resignation. He crosses his left leg over the right and then back to the way they were. He feels something inside him start to seethe.
Dolma must hurry, because the Mahabharata is about to begin. A couple of boys in her class had said, “Women are responsible for both the Ramanyana and the Mahabharata,” echoing the patriarchal sentiment that Sita and Draupadi, both women, are to blame for these two epic wars. The comment didn’t go down so well with most of the girls in the class. In fact, Shashi, who was sitting next to her, hurled her pen at the desk where the two boys sat. But it ended up hitting the head of an unsuspecting boy in front of them and the two boys seemed convinced that that was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Dolma, however, didn’t mind this statement at all, instead she took pride in it — this was the epitome of women’s power. If it were not for these two women, these epic masterpieces would have never existed.
“Sabdhan!” Pasang announces, mimicking the announcement of the beginning of a battle in the show itself. The news is coming to a close. He has found this tale riveting and extremely satisfying — nail-biting twists in every episode, yet an assured cohesiveness throughout. The more he watches this taut and complex thriller (he likes to call it a thriller) the more he finds the comic books uninspiring and predictable. Dawa looks up at the screen airing the weather forecast and then dog-ears the page he is reading before resting the hard cover against the wall. The weather report forecasts some lightning and intermittent rain later tonight, but the shuffling legs and stretching hands muffle the female newsreader’s voice. In any case, no one is listening to her — not even Mr. Tamang. When the anchors bid good night with a Namaste, Mr. Tamang exits the room. But instead of going to bed, as he usually does, he goes to the kitchen and pours himself rice wine in the silver chalice his grandfather used to own once. He sips just in time to avoid any spilling.
His old man knew how to handle his drink. He’d sit with other old men from the village around a small fire and drink. He would drink as much as anyone else in this group of dedicated drinkers, but he never needed someone’s shoulders to walk back to his house. His wife would be waiting for him, no matter how dark the hour was, at the door with a broom in her hand, but he walked with such dignity and certainty that she seemed to doubt her judgment. But he couldn’t mask his breath, even with all the ginger and garlic he had chewed and eaten on his way home, and she would start hitting him with the broom. He would run in haphazard circles in the yard under a night peppered with sharp stars until his wife was vertiginous and breathless and hurled the broom at him. He’d duck but pick up the broom and hand it right back to her and she’d start chasing him again. She’d again toss the broom at him when she couldn’t run any further. Then he would hand the broom to her and turn his back to her. She’d snatch the broom and start hitting him, but the old man would say, “A little to the left. No, not there. Further down. Yes, yes. There, there.” Then she would say things like if he drank again he wouldn’t be allowed into the house, and he would catch his ears in apology and promise, which both knew would last one as long as the next time the elders gathered on whatever occasion. He’d come close to her and pick her up in his arms. “Amai!” she would scream and look around in fear of someone seeing them, even though everyone in the village was sound asleep. “Put me down! Now!” The old man would look up and wink at the window on the second floor, behind which Mr. Tamang, just a boy, would be savouring the whole spectacle through a peephole. The old man was crazy, Mr. Tamang thinks as he walks back to the guest room, his eyes locked on the wine, and sits on the dented cushion where he had been sitting before. Pasang and Dolma exchange glances. First, their father is staying after the news. Second, their father is drinking without the company of Mr. Gurung or Mr. Shrestha. Pasang almost blurts out something, but his mother gives him an intervening look.
“Now why do you have to drink this late?” Mrs. Tamang asks in a voice that borders between request and disapproval.
Mr. Tamang does not answer. He takes a long sip of the cold wine and guffaws at the talking squirrels in a peanut commercial.
Then, with the blow of a conch, the seventy-seventh episode of the Mahabharata commences. As the Kauravas and the Pandavas begin to cast the dice that will dictate the Pandavas’ next thirteen years and alter the fate of Kurukshetra forever, Mr. Tamang, who hasn’t watched a single episode of the Mahabharata and doesn’t understand Hindi despite its unmistakable resemblance to Nepali, finds himself at a loss. Who is this blind man? He looks blind, but is he really blind? What’s at stake in this gambling?
Mrs. Tamang understands Hindi just enough to follow the plot, but much of her comprehension relies on inference — she has always been good at that. Yet sometimes she completely misunderstands what the characters are saying and gets puzzled when the plot develops contrary to her expectations. But after two or three subsequent scenes, she locates exactly where she was mistaken and follows the storyline as well as any of her kids. Unlike Mr. Tamang, Mrs. Tamang was fascinated with the TV from the day they bought it. She was amazed at how a small box could fit all those seemingly endless images and sounds inside it. Sometimes Mr. Tamang wondered if she spent more time watching TV than the kids did. “It’s nice to spend time with your family,” she would say, even though Mr. Tamang never accused her of spending too much time watching it. In any case, she had too much spare time at her hand, and it was better to keep herself occupied than indulge in gossip with Mrs. Shrestha and Mrs. Gurung.
“Is he the bad guy?” Mr. Tamang asks, when Bhima ominously springs to his feet.
“Just because he isn’t good looking doesn’t mean he has to be the bad guy,” Dolma says.
“Strongest man, Pa,” Dawa says, without looking at his father.
“You’re ruining it,” Pasang says.
Mr. Tamang feels his chest grow stiff. He wonders how his kids remember every last detail from the TV shows but not their lessons. If only they studied with half the concentration, his daughter wouldn’t have failed three subjects in the SLC exam and his older son would have ranked in the top ten. Without knowing the characters or the context, Mr. Tamang soon loses interest in the narrative and instead becomes intrigued by the blind man on the throne. A blindfolded woman sits on the throne next to him. Is this man really blind? There seems to be nothing wrong with his eyes, except for the fluttering of his lashes as though he is constantly battling the dust. He is sitting on the throne, so he must be the king, but he appears powerless about the incident that’s unfolding before him. He is not blind, Mr. Tamang decides, neither is he worthy of the throne.
After losing his brothers and himself, Yudhisthira bets Draupadi and, as expected, loses her, too. Dushasana, Duryodhana’s brother, drags her out of her chamber to the court, and on his brother’s command starts divesting her in front of everyone. Dawa feels betrayed by numbers for the first time. Sure, Shakuni is the wizard of dice and the Pandavas shouldn’t have gambled, but still numbers shouldn’t have taken the side of evil and conspired in shaming the innocent Draupadi. Even numbers are an accomplice in this diabolic act he can barely watch.
Of all the larger-than-life characters in this epic, Mrs. Tamang admires Gandhari the most. After realizing her husband is blind, Gandhari decides to blindfold herself for the rest of her life. It’s not her sacrifice and devotion to her husband that awes Mrs. Tamang, however — it’s her conviction to forgo her sight without which life would be so bland. But now as Mrs. Tamang watches Gandhari watch Draupadi being disrobed in front of her and not do anything, she questions her adoration for Gandhari. A woman — someone like her daughter — is being abused by these gamblers, and Gandhari, despite being the queen, doesn’t stop Dushasana? Yes, the Pandavas bet her and the Kauravas won the gamble, but how can Gandhari let them shame her in front of everyone? How can she let this injustice happen in her palace and preach righteousness and equality to the people?
Dolma, too, is filled with indignation, but not for the Kauravas or the Pandavas. It’s for the men who accuse Draupadi and Sita of causing the wars in the Mahabharata and the Ramanyana. First, it’s these men who bet her without ever asking for her permission. Then, it’s also the men who shame her in the palace. And still the men dare to blame women for everything? For a moment, Dolma feels it’s she — not Draupadi — being disrobed and is helpless to save her shame.
A moment before Lord Krishna can enter the stage and rescue Draupadi by wrapping her in endless layers of sari so that no matter how much Dushsana tugs her sari, he’ll never succeed, the screen goes black. All the sound and colour sucked into a funnel of metallic white — and then black. It’s not just the TV, the entire house goes dark.
“No!” Pasang says. “Lord Krishna! Not today!”
Mrs. Tamang parts the curtains and peers outside. The Gurungs’ house is dark, too, and so is the Shresthas’ — the whole neighborhood is black. Load shedding. Summer has begun and the rivers are drying up, so the government is enforcing an increase in the load shedding hours. Or, so the government claims, but Mr. Tamang knows better. Nepal is the second richest county in water resources in the world and has the potential to light up all of South-east Asia, but the politicians are preoccupied with adding floors to their houses and appeasing the opposition party. So, the roaring rivers flow unharnessed to India, and soon India will, Mr. Tamang overheard Mr. Gurung say, sell the electricity churned from the same rivers back to Nepal, first in the Terai region and then the whole country.
“Load shedding again?”
“So many rivers, how come there’s still load shedding?” asks Dawa.
“I hope it comes back before the episode is over.”
“Well, the politicians create false darkness to pickpocket the citizens,” says Pasang, repeating the words of his Social Studies teacher verbatim.
“Why can’t anyone give a straight answer in this house?” Mr. Tamang clears his throat and empties the chalice.
“That’s true, though.” Dolma seconds Pasang’s borrowed words.
Mr. Tamang suddenly finds his throat itching, as though something is stuck there. If not for the darkness, he’d go and replenish the chalice and wash his throat with a gulp. That’d certainly clear the passage and cool down whatever is roiling in his stomach.
“Chhori, go get the candle,” Mrs. Tamang says.
Usually Dolma would have gotten up promptly and gone to get the candle, but tonight she finds herself thinking: why does it always have to be her? Why can’t her mother ask one of her brothers for a change? It’s not like they are still toddlers. “I don’t know where it is.” She lies. She saw it yesterday when she had gone to grab noodles for a snack. “I never seem to find anything in that store,” she shrugs, without realizing her mother cannot read her gesture.
“The power will be back any moment,” Pasang says, before his mother has a chance to ask him. “Like now. Now. Come on…”
In part because he realizes he is the next in line and in part because he doesn’t want to see his mother disappointed, Dawa says, “I know where it is,” and starts to get up, groping the darkness with his palms.
“You won’t be able to reach it,” Mrs. Tamang says. “The shelf is too high for you.”
Dawa remembers the shelf being only as high as himself, perhaps even lower, and second from the door but doesn’t say anything. He wonders whether his brother and sister have also realized it.
Mrs. Tamang feels the darkness with her outstretched hands and exits.
“The flashlight is under the bed,” Mr. Tamang says, and tries to remember if that was where he put it after using it to fix a broken window last week.
Mrs. Tamang crawls under the bed and bumps her head onto the frame. “Nikiki pitthung,” she yells. Dog’s ass. She doesn’t know why she uses this queer phrase to curse because she loves dogs and owned one when they were in the village. Pasang and Dolma stare at each other and try their best to hold back laughter. Dolma cups her mouth with her hand just in time, but Pasang’s laughter escapes in giggles, which makes Dawa laugh, too. Mrs. Tamang is a civilised speaker for the most part, but at times like this she cannot hold back the reflexes. The first time the kids heard her curse out loud was when she dropped a pressure cooker of goat curry while trying to move it from the gas stove to the pad on the dining table during Dashain. Everyone was taken aback and remained silent for some time — Mr. Tamang at seeing the meat he had bought for four-hundred-and-fifty rupees splattered on the floor, the kids hearing their mother curse so loud in front of the family, and Mrs. Tamang trying to grasp where she went wrong. The family fixed their eyes on the steaming pieces of meat as the thick gravy continued to claim more territory on the linoleum floor. The pressure cooker lay askew on a side. But before anyone was able to get over the shock of the accident, Mr. Tamang, who loved meat so much and had been looking forward to eating goat meat in a month, grabbed the pot of steamed basmati rice lying on the stove next to where the curry had been and hurled it out of the balcony door to the vegetable garden where Mrs. Tamang planted spinach, onions, and a lemon tree. Now the family stared at Mr. Tamang’s quivering hands in disbelief. Mrs. Tamang fought back the tears, but Dawa, only six at the time, was terrified at his father’s sudden display of anger and broke into tears. Ever since, Mrs. Tamang has taken extra care not to drop rice or a curry pot, but after that incident, she has started to exercise far more liberty with that curse phrase, at times on petulant affairs.
“All you guys can do is eat and laugh at your mother?” Mr. Tamang says, which stifles the laughter. Then Mrs. Tamang knocks her elbow against the iron bar with a loud thud and curses, “Nikiki pitthung.” And this time Pasang and Dolma just cannot hold back their laughter. More than the fact that their mother is cursing in front of the family, it’s the phrase she uses that astounds them. Dog’s ass, they repeat in their own heads before bursting into laughter again. This time, Dawa joins them, and the dark room is pealing with laughter. But Mr. Tamang’s bony hands only get stiffer. “It’s under my bed,” he shouts. “Do you need me to come?” The loudness seems to be aimed at stifling the laughter more than helping Mrs. Tamang hear him. There’s a brief silence, and Pasang begins to laugh again, only this time he is all by himself. After a few more bumps and knocks, Mrs. Tamang finally fishes out the flashlight from a carton of cluttered tools beside the bundles of rags and old clothes.
Mrs. Tamang strikes a matchstick and kindles a candle on a china saucer on the floor. She runs through the light switches, making sure they are turned off. During the last load shedding they had left the switches on, so when the power returned, one of the bulbs burst with a sharp poof and the needle in the volt box went berserk. The flame casts magnified but pale shadows of the Tamangs on the walls behind them. No longer has she placed the candle in the middle of the room than bugs, out of nowhere, begin attacking the flame and drop with a hiss, sending a vein of soot coiling above the flame. From a dark corner, a moth, its wings large and majestic, glides toward the burning wick. Before anyone can see and stop it, it attacks the flame and knocks out the candle in its wake. When Mrs. Tamang rekindles the candle, she finds the moth writhing on the floor, half a wing charred. “Buddha Bhagwan!” Her heavy breath almost puts out the candle. The flame quivers sideways but steadies itself to full bloom. “Open the door,” she shouts, making sure to face away from the candle this time. Dolma reluctantly unbolts the balcony door open.
“Kill it,” says Mr. Tamang. “It’s only going to suffer more.”
“Give me the broom,” she says. Dawa grabs the broom lying on the corner behind the door and hands it to her. She delicately sweeps the tattered moth on her palm. She walks to the balcony, her eyes on the tattered wing, and sticks her hand out onto the dark floor, but the moth can only writhe sideways.
“Chhito! Bugs are flooding in,” Mr. Tamang says. “Close the door.”
Mrs. Tamang places her hand low on the cement floor and tilts it so the moth gently lands on the surface. “May you be able to fly.” Pasang shouts to hurry up when she sees a black ball buzzing toward her. She tugs at the door as fast as she can, but the black bug is already inside. Several other smaller insects have had more than enough time to locate the singular source of light. The giant bug, perhaps a hornet, slams against the walls with loud thumps and buzzes menacingly close to the children, but for some reason it never goes too close to the flame.
“What did I just tell you?” Mr. Tamang snaps. “No one ever listens to me in this house.”
Mrs. Tamang pushes the door open again, grabs the broom lying on the floor, and goes after the bug. She tries to swing the broom delicately so that she can direct it out of the room, but because she is so worried about hurting it, she pulls the broom away the moment it gets close to the flitting shadow.
“Nobody listens to me in this house,” Mr. Tamang says. He places the chalice on the floor and then snatches the broom from his wife’s hand.
“Don’t hurt it. Buddha Bhagwan!”
Mr. Tamang raises the broom high and waits for the bug to come within his reach. When it scurries close enough, he strikes but misses. Did he hear one of the kids snicker? And, his wife hush him? This time Mr. Tamang concentrates on the eerie buzz instead and brings down the broom violently. But the insect swoops at the last moment and again he misses. He is certain someone just laughed, but when he looks down everyone is following the path of the intruder in silence. He wonders if it is the wine but dismisses the idea at once. He has had many more cups than tonight before, and he has never missed a step on the stairs or let a word slip his tongue. He is a man who knows how to carry his drunkenness. He blames the darkness and the impotent government instead. But no matter how hard he tries, the bug just keeps dodging his ambush and, undeterred, keeps roaming the room in wild, whimsical orbits.
Mrs. Tamang has begun incanting with her beads again, but her eyes are on the elusive insect and Dawa finds her prayer more mechanical than spiritual.
“If only you had listened to me,” Mr. Tamang says finally. His wife says nothing and reaches for the broom. But instead of handing it to her, he hurls it against the wall, just missing Pasang’s head.
“Couldn’t get an insect, now you want to hit us?” Pasang blurts out.
“One more word, and you’re off to your bed, you understand?” Mrs. Tamang says. Her gaze cuts right through the darkness.
Mr. Tamang finds his skeletal arms stiffening. So, it was this sheep-head son of his who had been laughing at him all this time. His pulse picks up. He tries to say something, but his voice seems to get stuck in his throat. He looks around the room. Before anyone realizes what he is doing, he lifts the TV and hurls it out of the open door into the moonless night. The TV crashes on the unpaved road with a muscular but muted shattering of the screen. He storms out of the room only to come back and hurl the volt box, too, which seems to land on the pile of the crashed TV. Then he exits, making no effort to calm his violently shaking hands.
The room grows heavy with a portentous silence. The incessant drone of the bug seems to amplify the quiet rather than break it. The wheezing insect circles the room twice, then as though it has comprehended the gravity of the situation in the house, it, too, exits through the open window. Dawa’s forehead rests on the bridge of his arms. Pasang’s eyes are locked on the dark door through which his father walked out. Dolma looks at the derelict table and wonders how it had been supporting the TV all this time. Mrs. Tamang continues to stare at the starless night outside the window.
“Mrs. Tamang! Mrs. Tamang!” Mrs. Gurung shouts from her balcony. “Did you hear that?” She lives across from the Tamangs’, only a potholed single-lane street separating them.
“Sounded like a bomb explosion,” Mrs. Shrestha says, in her usual habit of exaggerating things. “At least a gunshot, I swear.” The Shresthas’ house is practically touching the Tamangs’. Her voice is substantiated by her silhouette bobbing on her balcony.
“Must be drunk kids trying to have fun,” Mrs. Tamang says from the open window, trying to sound composed and casual. She looks down at the street and when she cannot see any of the remains of the TV, lets a long sigh escape her lungs.
“Who knows, it could be the thieves,” Mrs. Gurung says.
“Or the Maoists,” Mrs. Shrestha says.
Mrs. Gurung narrates an incident when three thieves broke into a house one late evening. The whole family was watching a movie upstairs, but the dinner had already been prepared. The thieves, who hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days, served themselves plates heaped with steamed basmati rice and china full of chicken curry. When the family came down, all the food was gone, the dishes had been done, and nothing was missing. “Isn’t it just amazing how people act at times?” she says. “All kinds of valuables in the living room, and all they care for is a meal.”
“That’s why I always make sure my family has eaten a good, home-cooked meal twice a day,” Mrs. Shrestha says. “I don’t care about the roof or the clothing, but a man has to have his food.”
Mrs. Tamang lets out a laugh of approval.
Dolma can tell her mother is fighting back tears.
Immediately after that Mrs. Shrestha narrates another incident. Two thieves, who had failed to break into all four houses they had tried that night, came across a homeless man sleeping in the warmth of a street lamp, his head cocked against the post. Part in frustration and part in bad humor, one of the thieves began unpacking the bundle of clothes lying next to the snoring man. To their surprise, in the inside pocket of his coat, reeking with sweat and cheap wine, they found a bundle of ten thousand rupees rolled like a cigar. The notes were so new they gave a metallic sparkle in the wash of the lamplight. “One can never be sure how rich a homeless person is these days,” Mrs. Shrestha concludes.
Mrs. Tamang has heard both the tales before, except last time she heard them the dishes weren’t done and the bundle contained only seven thousand rupees.
“Make sure your doors and windows are locked.”
“And the roof door! These days you can never tell from where the thieves will enter a house.”
As soon as Mrs. Gurung and Mrs. Shrestha’s silhouettes disappear back into their houses, Mrs. Tamang shuts the window, sighing, “Buddha Bhagwan!” She smothers her face with her palms, her rosary in between. Dawa thinks his mother is crying, but when she removes her hands, there are no tears on her face. Even though the children cannot tell whether their mother is crying because of the way their father acted or because she thinks she is responsible for what happened, they feel they are all somehow responsible for the incident.
Finally Mrs. Tamang takes a deep breath and wipes her face with her scarf. With the help of the flashlight, she finds a burlap sack in the kitchen, as the kids follow her in a reverent silence. She descends the stairs two at a time and opens the main door that opens on to the road. She starts collecting the shattered pieces in the sack but after picking up a piece, her knees buckle. Dolma runs to her mother and tries to steady her.
“Ama!” Dolma says. She holds the palsied weight of her mother in her arms.
Pasang takes hold of the sack and starts picking up the rest of the pieces. Dawa carefully undoes his mother’s grip on the flashlight and holds it steady for his brother. Pasang finds the volt box virtually unharmed and wonders if it will still work. For a moment he thinks of trying to lighten up the situation by showing the volt box to his mother but seeing her curled up in his sister’s embrace decides against it. He hands it to his brother, who dumps it into the sack with the rest of the fragments. Pasang wonders whether the Pandavas have already left Kurukshetra and headed for the jungle. After picking up the last piece they can locate, Pasang carries the sack inside the house and rests it against the kerosene drum.
Up in the sky, only the pale pulse of the moon can be observed. The stars are buried in the leaden clouds. Perhaps for the first time, Mrs. Tamang finds herself being grateful for the darkness. Had Mrs. Gurung or Mrs. Shrestha or anyone else in the neighborhood seen their TV smashed in front of their house, the rumor would have reached every house before dawn. And only God knows how amplified and distorted the incident would have been.
When Mrs. Tamang feels the strength return to her body, Dolma helps her to her feet and they walk back to the guest room. Pasang and Dawa lock the door behind them and follow their sister. Inside, they sit in a circle and stare at the quivering flame of the candle on the floor.
The blue flame reminds Mrs. Tamang of the day she had gone to the Boudhanath Stupa and encountered an old woman begging by the entrance to the lamp house. She hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days, Mrs. Tamang could tell from her beseeching voice that was lost under the incantations of Om Mani Padme Huns and the grinding of the mounted prayer wheels. Like every time she visited the stupa, Mrs. Tamang lighted seven lamps for thirty-five rupees, but as she lit the last lamp, she realized that thirty-five rupees could have bought a dinner — not lavish, but certainly a filling one — for the old woman outside. Yet when she exited and stretched her hand toward the woman, there was only a one-rupee bill sticking out, which the woman took with haste, in gratitude. As she walked away from the shrine towards her home, the thought of potatoes and string beans she had to buy for dinner occupied her mind and she forgot the incident altogether. But after dinner when she turned off the lights and went to sleep and couldn’t, she realized it was the face of the old woman that she had been seeing all this time. Only towards dawn when the stray dogs had finally stopped barking did she fall asleep. When she woke, it was already time for the children to go to school. Dolma had already cooked lunch. Without drinking her regular cup of milk tea or telling her husband where she was going, she left the house and fifteen minutes later found herself hovering around the entrance of the stupa where the old woman had stood the day before. She waited for an hour before going around the stupa, pausing for a moment to scrutinize the face of every wailing beggar for those encrusted eyes. But she couldn’t locate them. She never did come across that face again, and since then, every time she burned a lamp she could not help thinking what might have happened to the old woman and found her usual prayers caught in the back of her throat, before she had to stop the years-old ritual altogether. If only she could find a way to untangle those prayers and bring the words to her lips — the way the braided cotton of the candle makes the melted wax rise to its tip and turn into light.
If Pasang’s rage had a colour, it would be much stronger than that of the flame in front of him. Granted, his mother didn’t close the door on time, but that was hardly a reason to hurl out the TV from the window like that. He can’t go to the Gurungs — at least not for some time — to watch the rest of the episodes lest the impertinent neighbours inquire the whereabouts of their TV, and even though he might succeed in concocting a credible story, sooner or later they will find out. He should have stopped his father — being the oldest son, he was supposed to — but it happened so fast, and the whole incident was so shocking that by the time he comprehended it, it was already too late. Next time he will be more vigilant; next time he will keep an eye on his father and make it clear to him that he can’t have his way all the time – that he is not the only man in the house… not anymore.
Dawa tries to find an equation to grasp everything that has happened. Instead he finds himself remembering how in their village, he studied and did his homework on a straw mat, next to his brother, in the dull spray of a kerosene lamp. Their noses were immune to both the strong odour of the burnt paraffin and the soot rising toward the pine beams above them. Some nights they studied until the wick sucked the iron lamp dry of kerosene or they fell asleep from fatigue, their fingers still curled around the sickle-sharpened pencils, before their mother tiptoed to their room, uncurled their fingers and put out the lamp. He and his brother, both first in their classes, had promised their father that once they moved to the city they would study even more diligently and continue to top the class. As soon as the power is back, Dawa will go to his room and start enumerating the differences between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions.
What is in a flame that makes the moths throw themselves at it, wings and all? The warmth? The brightness? They dart at it so fast, by the time they realize their small wings are melting, it’s too late. Do they believe it to be the center of knowledge, the ultimate source of love? Or, perhaps they are so afraid of darkness that, just to escape it, they are willing to risk burning themselves.
For Dolma, the flame sways like a single beaded stalk in the wheat field on either side of their stone house sprawling to the very fringe of the village before giving way to a dense forest of oaks and ashes. She remembers the harvest season, the way she wrapped her fingers around a bunch of ripe stalks and the sickle blade cut the stalks so close to the earth, those crisp and clean cuts, as the women’s folk songs wafted across the bowed tops. After drinking buttermilk from a wood pitcher during short breaks, she would go back to the cutting immediately. The wheat stalks swayed with the breeze and sparkled in the rinse of the sun. She remembers how in a certain breeze, when the light was angled just so, from a distance, anyone would mistake the sprawl for an undulating lake.
Lying on his bed, Mr. Tamang stares into the dark ceiling and tries not to remember the day his grandfather took him to the orchard for a walk and plucked out a young pomegranate tree, its roots beaded with balls of packed dirt, leaving behind a fresh wound on the earth. His grandfather brandished the tree with its naked roots against the sun and said, “Without roots, a tree is nothing.” He didn’t understand any of it at the time but was impressed with the strength in those sinewy arms. Afterward they had planted a pomegranate sapling and watered its roots together. Soon he forgot all about the stroll and the advice given to him that morning, but the day his grandfather passed away, those were the words that kept ringing in his ears. Even when his mother wrapped him in her embrace and his father clutched his hand, he knew a part of him was lost forever as he watched the body burn into ashes. It was then he understood every word of the old man and kept muttering, “Roots, roots.” Staring into the darkness, he wonders if his grandfather is looking down at him this very moment and pitying him for losing everything his old man had bestowed upon him.
“Batti ayo!” a boy shouts. Then he repeats it from the open window for the benefit of the neighbouring houses. This is followed by several syncopated repetitions from various houses. Somewhere a man orchestrates a muscular whistle, which is responded to by a shrill whistle from afar. The neighbourhood crackles and hisses with the sudden rush of electricity through appliances and people darting across rooms. Soon all the commotion settles down and an anaesthetized buzz seizes the town. A stray dog barks an uninterested howl and goes back to sleep. The street lamp next to the Tamangs’ window shoots a pallid stream through the cobwebbed glass, but the curtains soak in all the beams. From the way the candle has suddenly become pale, the Tamangs can tell that outside the whole town is alight.