WOW | Fiction


Short story by Geetanjali Lama

Kathmandu was meandering into an extremely chilly winter – the sort that ground and chilled the marrow of your bones – and before the red rooster’s crow Manita Baini doubled with pain as she went into labour.

Clinging to the sides of the tent she keeled over. The clamour and the high pitched scream of, “Ama Ama aiyaa! Baba…” awakened the camp inhabitants. They rushed to the tent to see Manita Baini sweating and rolling with pain on the floor.

The ambulance donated by the Chairman of Kirat Yakha Samaj was in the garage. Hari Magar the taxi driver had been awoken from deep sleep, cursing and demanding, “Whocumsthare?” reverting to the night watchman’s call that hooted in the Indian barracks in Gonda. The typical soft thud on the tarpaulin tent door made him realise that he was in the camp. Struggling into his green cardigan, fingering the savage iron Khukri tucked under his pillow, he growled, “What’s happening? It’s not even time for street dogs to piss.”

The camp was called Akash Deep – Light of the sky. A huge diameter of colorful tarpaulins in the middle of a bustling area of Swayambhu in the old football ground that belonged to the government primary school. Demarcated by poles tied with red ribbons, ramshackle sheds with corrugated iron sheets and decrepit tents trembled in a long row, the camp was flooded by a deluge of earthquake victims from Sindupalchowk, Gorkha, Banepa. All the makeshift toilets were overflowing, food had dwindled into saag and radish curry, electricity was scarce, the children ran amok liberated from their humdrum school routines, and the elders crowded together sitting on stools to discuss with trepidation and dread as to where their lives were headed to.

Manita was rushed to the Kantipur Medical Hospital in Baneshwor with Hari swearing as he swerved and cursed his bad karma and the cold winter night, nervously wiping the car windows with his union jack handkerchief while Manita’s water broke and seeped into the blue and maroon dragons of the frayed Tibetan rug on which she was lying.

Ama, the oldest inhabitant has a shock of white long hair tamed into a long plait and looked like the goddesses pasted on cardboards and hung on gold tinted frames with brass plates. Dressed in finery: nose ring, green beads and a gold necklace wound on a neck crimpled with age and nicotine. Tonight she prattles, “Oh! Her belly was pointed and arched upwards, and the girl was glowing like a full moon and how she craved for sweets; sure signs of a son.” Puffing on her Pilot churoot; laughing, bright-eyed, choking and gagging as the smoke gushes out of her nostrils into the cold air.

Manita – the young widow – had come to the camp pregnant and alone; her husband found dead under the rubble of a bridge construction in the second great earthquake that wracked through Gorkha.

Ama is the spinner of yarns; her tales spin around the great epic of her life: her elopement on a foggy morning with a high caste Brahmin. “Harey! My poor brothers, before they woke up from their Kumbha Karna sleep I was already a hill and a river away.”

Thuli bites her tongue, stops a chuckle and says, “Ama! You said you were stolen like a hen! Grabbed, lugged and raced uphill!”
Ama chortles, “Yes, yes! Come out Rudre, you petty thief, if you are worth your mother’s milk and man enough to face us. We have a good mind to beat you into pulp. Hope your arms rot and fall of with leprosy. A mad dog must have bitten you! Red-faced, grunting and flexing their muscles, my brothers armed with cudgels, axes and choicest curses had stood outside the house, even the rickety fences shivered and trembled and my thin lanky Rudre was another heap of nerves altogether”.

Thuli and Sita sit weaving the sides of a stool with recycled plastic bags. The stools would be exhibited and sold for Rs 500. They curl into a laugh, giggling at her stories. “Rudre loved and pampered me, took me in a micro bus to Kathmandu, that was the first time I got a glimpse of Singha Durbar and bought me everything that my greedy sight rested upon. Poor thing! May his soul rest in peace! My Rudre.”

Mar Saab was the head of the camp. As the new English Boarding High School teacher of Sindhupalchowk he had enjoyed great respect and reverence. Praised to high heavens for his Masters degree in English and the shining coat from Maharjan Suiting and Shirting of Putali Sadak in Kathmandu. When he had managed to groom a few village folks to talk and write in simple English, the offerings of pumpkin, water melon and buckwheat flour came pouring into his courtyard.

Embarrassed, heart bursting and crestfallen, “Well! “ He muttered, splaying out his palms over the embers, “When I went to Khichapokhari to exchange Sani’s silver for cash the Sauji told me that the silver was nakkali and worth only Rs 1000! Here take, he had said waving a one thousand rupee note while the other customers gawked at me. I had to face Sani and muster the courage to tell her that the silver; her dowry, was after all only imitation.”

They nodded their heads in unison, dwelling on the unending nightmare that had unfolded and displaced them from their farms, homes and families. He took a swig of Khukri Rum and gulped it down with great relish, savouring the hot burn of the liquid as it dribbled and warmed his throat spreading into his chest and guts making him momentarily forget the tribulation of eking out a new life in a city like Kathmandu.

Matha is the shaman woman. Her tent is an elaborate prayer room with mantras and chants that cascade on prayer flags and incense sticks burning on a clay pot. She wraps herself in a saffron robe with snakelike rudrakhshas wound around her wrists and neck. Talking to the smiling Gods on a shrine laden with scriptures and Buddha statues. The campers treat her with a distant reverence fearing if they cross paths with the ferocious Devi they would be cursed with a still born baby, infinite nightmares, strange pains, rapid palpitations or even diarrhea.

Thirty three deities resided inside her being and spoke to her in different languages. Tonight she sits rubbing and sifting grains of rice on her palm and peering closely at the signs after the black cat had stealthily slinked through the camp; she worried over Manita.

Mar Saab checks his phone waiting for a call from Hari. Everybody had been waiting for this moment. Manita – the young widow – had come to the camp pregnant and alone; her husband found dead under the rubble of a bridge construction in the second great earthquake that wracked through Gorkha.

“Ok folks. time’s up, lock the gates Dai,” he calls out to the old camp guard, “Make sure that everyone is sleeping tight. The locals are already bristling with irritation at having strangers within the heart of their residence. God knows what they will do next.”

Matha stumbles out of her tent, freezing toes squeezing into her chappals, flinging a shawl over her shoulder and tying her hair into a hurried bun and running towards the group, smiling she declares,“Manita has given birth to a boy!”

A sudden gush of loud exclamations and stormy flurry unfolds in the bleak night. Kissing the air, Ama delightfully exclaims, “Good fortune is born!”

Matha says, “The boy should be named Akash deep. Who knows what luck the new born will bring into the horizon of our lives?”
Mar Saab spews out the tobacco tucked in his mouth, “Why not? For sure for sure” he cries out in agreement.

Ama rushes for the red rooster hoping it would be the most savoury soup for Manita.

In the ensuing days the nightly, hungry howl of the new born becomes a beacon of hope. Infectious jubilance, hot mustard oil soaked with fenugreek seeds, hot moong dal broth, red ruddy palms heated and rubbed together are readied for a massage, warm flannels printed with smiling jersey cows, a glowing hearth, flood into Manita’s tent and the daily ritual of camp life lumbers along winding and coursing within its red ribboned boundaries.