It was a Saturday morning in the very height of winter. Kaval, a young girl of twenty-five, was walking down the lane between two long rows of small, dilapidated houses stretching beside the River Bagmati in a slow and dreamy fashion.
On one secluded corner in a café, a wooden table with varnished top awaited quietly. Two neatly placed chairs faced each other. Abstract murals like cobwebs were etched on the walls. Sweet smell of the brewing coffee wafted up in the air. One could hear the footsteps arriving and departing. Also, the soft susurration of conversations, the kind of talk that you couldn’t understand no matter how intently you listen to it, filled the place.
Kaval walked inside, sat quietly on one chair, her elbows propped on the table. She started gazing out of the window at the river, the bridge and the hills on the farther bank. She looked inside at the empty chair and ordered a cup of espresso. She knew that no one bothered her here, and in return she bothered no one. After a while, she took a sip and again looked out at the hills with their tender green. The sun had already taken refuge inside the dark clouds; and there was the sound of footsteps everywhere – walking in and out of the buildings. She never really understood this kind of fluidity, this incessant motion. She wondered how the world would look like if everything came to a standstill. How would it be to watch everything go quiet and peaceful?
But wishes never came true. Not in this city. She knew it.
A man barged in and slumped on the chair in the next corner. He beckoned the waiter and asked for tea. He had an unfamiliar full beard, which did not quite conceal the face he had, and his skin was growing so yellow as to indicate some latent disease. His face reminded her of an uncultivated land, full of mud-cracks. In the multifold of which sweat ran like streams. Running his hand through his receding hairline, mopping his creased face with a handkerchief, he looked around, paused for a moment, and looked straight at her. His eyes were hollow, deep like yawning abysses. Darkness oozed out of his eyes, or maybe it was hatred. His eyes, the darkness within, seemed to be reaching for something … reaching for her soul. She cringed and looked sideways, shook her head and said that it could only be a coincidence.
Earlier that day, in the wee hours of morning, while she was still struggling to go to sleep, all of a sudden, she had found herself standing at the bottom of a narrow concrete stairway. As she climbed the ten risers of the dog-legged stairway, she found herself in a corridor that stretched ahead straight into a halo of smoke. It was a long corridor that seemed to stretch forever and the ceiling was so high that for a moment she lost the idea of time and space. There were no any decorations and in the bluish pale light it was hard to see even if there were any. First she feared, then she walked the wanly lit concrete floor, thinking, thinking, thinking …
Why was she here? How did she come here? Where was she going? She needed answers and for answers she kept walking through that hazy corridor, which seemed like a corridor for a moment and nothing like a corridor at the next moment. As she began walking, the lighting started to get feeble and uneven and there were thick layers of black dust that caked the lights. Sometimes she could hardly see her hand. And beside her, her shadow grew long, shortened in the momentary glow of the hanging fluorescents, then grew long again. An eerie silence hung oppressively throughout the place. The only sound was the constant slapping of her flip-flops against the hard concrete floor. And, there was wind. Where was it coming from? Maybe from the east, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that it was cold, but she liked the way the wind rippled her clothes and combed back her hair.
She kept walking, for a hundred meters, two hundred meters, three hundred meters, maybe half a kilometer, or even a few kilometers. Walking and thinking. Not thinking anything in particular, just watching the multifarious thoughts enter and leave her mind. Time and space diffused—she had no sense that she was moving forward in any way. But she must have been, and she knew it. All of a sudden, she was standing in a roundabout.
A cracked face stared vacantly at her. He was standing inside the rotary island, stretching his hands as far as he could. Like some dutiful scarecrow, he reminded her of someone who was merely performing his job. But this was no ordinary statue. Clocked in a large Sherlock-Holmes-overcoat, he was as tall as the steeple and as big as an ocean liner. And, his face was strikingly yellow, more like jaundiced.
“Walk straight down the lane and you will find a door.” Crackled voice cracked from the middle of nowhere. Then, there was the donkey heehaw of laughter from the shadow. This was beyond surprising; it was shocking.
Terrified, she walked down, and kept walking without thinking about time but there was no any sign of the door. She thought that there was never any door here, nor would be in future. How could a door be installed in the middle of nowhere? And where would that door lead to? Was it possible that some kind of symbolic door, not like ordinary wooden, or glazed door, maybe some kind of metaphysical door stood somewhere here? She kept looking. There must be some mistake, now she was sure of it.
First she leaned against the wall, then she felt weak at knees. She flopped down on the floor and let out a sigh. Now what? Should I keep walking or go back from where I started?
It didn’t even seem like a choice, but she had a choice.
For years she had been running around, running away from problems, doing menial job of a typist, and getting poor paychecks. For years she had wondered why she had been so lonely, so much like a cast away, running through the damp and dark alleys of Kathmandu, and waiting for the end of the month just to get a handful of cash. She was so sick of being poor.
So she kept waiting. And she kept walking.
But, why was she walking? She asked herself and shook her head. She hadn’t wondered about it, at least until now. In fact, there were quite a few things she hadn’t wondered. Like, for instance, when she’d last had something to eat or drink. Or what time it was. She didn’t even know exactly how she had been here. Pausing for a moment, and reflecting, she found out that the sweatshirt she was wearing inside the nightgown was drenched in sweat. And she was panting. Her chest started to pain and she felt sick in the stomach.
A biting wind blew again.
The road doesn’t seem to end, she said to herself. Maybe I need to go back and ask that scarecrow again. Her lips pressed together. Maybe not. There’s no point in going back. But, there’s no point in going ahead, either.
The sweat was now icy cool. Another gust of wind pushed her away—toward the front. Kaval walked on, increasing her speed a little bit at a time. It was her body taking over her mind. The interface between the body and mind was thinning. The body was in charge of her now, and she was quick and agile. She ran on, her feet making an eerie sound with her passing.
It was such a bad time for weary rumination, she thought and laughed a little.
Well, this has to end. She reassured herself and was almost frightened by her sudden ferocity. She looked up and saw the bluish haze fade, the clouds tore open with tropical suddenness; and there was the moon, high on the sky, like a silver oyster and that was troubling, but something else troubled her even more. It was the acrid smoke. Where was it coming from? She thought it over. The wind rippled her nightgown and she tried to focus on the click-click-click of her flip-flops on the asphalt and tried to forget the smoke.
She looked here and there, on the clueless ash-gray buildings. And, on the wall of one of the gruesome buildings was a notice. She was curious but at first she saw nothing, because the moon was shining on the protective plastic. She took a step closer, then one to the right, and read the message: KEEP WALKING. She kicked the wall and moved on.
All around her the air was gradually congealing and condensing. She kept looking at the high moon, occasionally groping for a cigarette only to find that her nightgown had no pockets. The images of her past flickered through the sky. A barrage of disjointed images blitzed her mind: little her sitting in her own room on the first floor of one lonely house at the end of the lane; little her carrying a bag of flowers and going downhill; little her with almost no social intercourse with other children, so that she was resigning herself to becoming a lone wolf.
Enough of this imagination!
She felt humiliated. Out of sheer indignation, she kept walking and finally she reached the door. Turning the knob, opening it, and walking in, she found out that her faithful arrive here was in the hope of departure. One door after another appeared before her. ‘Keep walking.’ A voice said. But now the words were ghosts. Like her own body, thin and frail. With anger and hostility, she kept opening the door and entering inside the labyrinthine series of doorways. Finally, she found herself in the banks of Bagmati River; and now in vain, not out of malice, she wanted to die in Shiva’s place, to escape the remorseless cycle of birth and death, to get away for eternity, be rid of it. Death lived here, on the banks, forever mocking life and its vain struggles.
Funereal fires blazed on the stepped ghats, breaking the waves of thoughts in the mirrors of time. The high, sombre moon was tinted in saffron with the winter’s dampness. She kept watching the tongues of flame address the sky, searching for Shiva, who at times like this, walked among the dead, bending over to whisper the Taraka into the ears of corpses, to liberate their aching souls, ferry them across the river of oblivion to the far shore of moksha.
The city behind the ghat was shadowed in the glow and crackle of pyres at the banks of this sacred river swollen by the rains. A deep desire surged inside her. She wanted to touch the impalpable, to embrace the fire, to sleep in the fire-bed of death—how could she deny it? She would not leave this place empty handed; she wanted to carry a fistful of fire with her. The pain she was carrying inside, and the burden of love, all these years, have amounted into a heavy load of melancholia. She wanted to burn it right away.
And she did burn it. As soon as her slimy fingers touched the dancing fire, she heard the rhythm of the fire’s breathing enmeshed in hers. Ugh! She made a growling, rattling sound in her throat, and with her small, grimy fist punched the fire. And there was a long one-note wail, ugly and formidable. She dragged her hand off the fire, still screaming that one monotonous note. Then, she licked the fire with her tongue, lapping it over and over; and there was a great moment of silence, madly exuberant, and full of yodeled laughter. The smell of her skin was the fragrance of the earth and the sandalwood. The glow and crackling sound intensified. She heard a peacock screech inside her. The screech echoed in the restless river and throughout the courtyard. The corpses looked at her with dark, bewildered eyes and said, “We’ve had enough” in a little more than whisper.
I don’t care about that, she said and looked at her charred fist and saw the rest of them staring at her and Kaval, in the moonlit dimness and the bright fire, wanted to burn wholly. There was a rueful whisper of wind, and she heard the corpses murmur. And, slowly she embraced the flickering flames; the flames like a lustful customer kissed her wanton body.
She now knew everything about herself. There was love and understanding in this knowledge. A crow cawed intently, breaking her thoughts and, in the next moment, she found herself walking down the lane between long rows of small houses. The wind roared monotonously. Birds cried from inside the unraveling fog.
Inside the café the man with the yellowing face and unattractive beard got up, came up to her, and whispered something in her ear. Then, he was grinning. It was an easy grin, rather mocking. Before she could respond, the man was already out, and all she could see was the revolving door creak and move. But, what did he say?
The black clouds moved away, and a streak of light reflected on the wooden table, dazzling and blinding her, and she was transposed to another time, when the paper boat had shone just so in the banks of River Bagmati. She was nine then. The river was cold under a late morning sun. Kaval could feel it lapping at her knees, tugging and pulling like an impatient dog. There were movements behind her, a soft splash and a prolonged laughter. She turned round and saw a boy at the water’s edge, semi-clad in a loincloth. His face was emblazoned with yellow saffron. His eyes were searching the rushing waters, waiting to throw the pebble. He stood there, arms-akimbo, and smiled at her.