Before I divulge the specifics of the ninth day, I need to share a story that may have realized its finality on the ninth day. If I were to put a disclaimer here, I would caution you that this one is a very personal story, and it is utterly void of humor.
… … … … …
I first met Chitrika fupu during my teen years in 1987. She had come to Kathmandu to see an endocrinologist for her thyroid problems. Chitrika fupu would confess later that it was her only third trip to Kathmandu, and the first since 1973. Though she had many relatives in the city, she had chosen to stay at our house because she got along very well with my father.
Chitrika fupu is actually my father’s youngest fupu. Since she is only a year older than my father, my sister’s bid of addressing her ‘Budhi fupu’ was immediately turned down by my adamant father. When other alternatives too were vetoed subsequently, she ended up becoming a universal ‘Chitrika fupu’ in our family unit.
I vividly remember my first meeting with Chitrika fupu. After my father had introduced us, obliging to my mother’s long-established directive, when I tried to bow down my head to her feet, she quickly pulled her feet back and quipped: “Oh I know how much you city boys enjoy this. Spare me your muted grumbles. I can hear them.”
When she saw a billboard of relief in my face, she appended, “Next time just remember, ‘Hallo Mistar’ will do for me.”
When my father corrected her that ‘Mister’ is not used for ladies, Chitrika fupu countered, “Maybe not in English.”
I instantly liked my new fupu. In the word of one syllable, Chitrika fupu was ‘cool’.
Forty-five minutes later, after watching her drink a cup of tea, I liked Chitrika fupu even more. Unlike most of our visitors from ‘gaau’, who take a sip, slurp at full volume, then blow on the cup, and take another sip—Chitrika fupu took her sips so civilly and so inaudibly that it looked like she was trained to drink tea at the Buckingham.
Chitrika fupu stood distinct from any other relative I had met from my father’s side. I found her to be justifiably secure in her own skin. Though I was quite young, I quickly recognized that her being from Nibuaabot, Syangja was merely a geographical quirk. Chitrika fupu sounded and acted like she could blend in anywhere. She was more sophisticated than the likes of me who at first misjudged her by looking at the ‘cholo’ she was wearing. And she was wittier than anyone who found hilarity in the tone of her ‘Pahaade’ dialect. The real hilarity was in the contents of her ‘Pahaade’ dialect.
Then there were million little things about Chitrika fupu that separated her from the others.
She was a curious, energetic woman. Within the first few hours in our house she had learned to operate the gas stove, mastered the art of toilet flushing, and grasped the functionalities of the remote control keys. When she realized how hectic my mother’s routine was, Chitrika fupu swiftly took charge of the kitchen. The rest of the time, when she did not need to be energetic, Chitrika fupu chose to be amusing. When we fought, like young siblings do, Chitrika fupu knew how to pour water on troubled waters. Then she was extremely considerate. She was the first and only visitor who would always knock on my partially open bedroom door. And above all, unlike almost all the visitors before her, she always left the toilet spick and span. She had all of us wondering where she had learned her mannerisms. She was a rare breed.
Chitrika fupu’s stay at our house in 1987 lasted longer than what she had anticipated. But when she left after 29 days, she had left behind her thyroid goiter, and three huge fans in my two siblings and me.
When we were returning home after dropping off Chitrika fupu at the bus stop, I made an observation to my father, “She’s different.”
“See, that’s what an understatement is,” accentuated my father. A week earlier I had asked him the meaning of the word ‘understatement’. My father had indeed found a perfect instance to use that word in a sentence.
Before Chitrika fupu’s visit, we used to remember our ‘gaau ko’ guests for their stinking socks, soaked armpits, Sulfur-simulating breath, or for their manner of chewing food or drinking tea. We were young and malicious, and more often than not, driven by our own vulgarity, the only way we knew how to treat our guests was by victimizing them. Nobody who lived with us for more than a day liked us. We were obnoxious because having born and brought up in Kathmandu we thought we were better than them. Chitrika fupu had inadvertently taught us that we were just fortunate, not deserving.
When Chitrika fupu left, there was so much to learn from her and so little to revile, that we all missed her. We did not laugh behind her. We laughed at the jokes she had left behind her. Every so often my sister would wonder aloud: “Ti Budhi ke gardai holin hagi gaau maa?”
Two weeks after Chitrika fupu left, I wrote my first letter to anyone other than my immediate family. Chitrika fupu replied with more than three dozens ‘Arsaa ko roti’ with her nephew Arjun. I had only mentioned that once, but she remembered ‘Arsaa’ was my favorite ‘roti’.
Chitrika fupu made several trips to Kathmandu after that. Most of the times she would come for health related issues. The more frequently she started coming, closer we grew—to the point that she came to spend one Dashain with us.
Chitrika fupu never talked about her private life. My father had warned us not to talk to her about her personal life even before her first visit in 1987. Perhaps that is why she mingled so well with us—we never inconvenienced her by being nosy about her life. We used to deal with too many visitors from ‘gaau’ to keep track of who was who anyway.
We all speculated, though she always looked upbeat, Chitrika fupu must have lived a life of melancholy. Her husband had abandoned her and remarried. She had one child of my age, I think a daughter, or a son, I really did not know then, and I never bothered to ask her. Maybe I had misconstrued my father’s cautionary, or I was too young and egocentric to be interested in anyone else’s life, or there were many more topics to indulge in with Chitrika fupu, but as much as I enjoyed her companionship, I knew nothing about her family.
At this point, I feel an urge to digress from my narration. Allow me to wander in the next couple of paragraphs.
September of 1996 was perhaps the worst month of my life.
During the summer of 1996 our neighbor Ramesh uncle frequently used to stop by our house with his four-year-old daughter Supriya. While he and my father littered their time talking petty political matter, Supriya used to sneak in to my room and play with me. I had developed a great friendship with that little kid.
On the second day of September in 1996 I heard from my room Ramesh uncle’s wife cry deafeningly. Since she was very shy, that sounded quite unusual to me. I ran to the balcony. When I did not see anything from the balcony, but heard a lot, I dashed to their house. Three hours earlier, Supriya had died of respiratory infections.
Seventeen days later, a friend of mine, Shishir, died of Leukemia. Though Shishir’s conclusion was feared and somewhat expected, I was not emotionally seasoned to deal with the death of a friend in his 20s. I wish I were a skilled enough writer to articulate how I felt when Shishir’s uncle shared with me his last words. Four days before he died in coma, Shishir’s last words to his mother were: “Kapaal ta feri aauchha holaa ni, hagi?”
Supriya’s death had devastated me. Shishir’s death had turned me into a reptile—I had become a cold-blooded mammal who just wanted to slither away into his denials. I was very unfair to the grief I felt; I did not let it know how much of it I truly felt. I did not sleep for days without the feeling of being awake. All I remember is eating, eating some more, and a lot more—only, many years later I realized that when I am depressed, I tend to eat.
My pessimism of being inadequate was instigated by my selfishness. Having witnessed two young deaths in such a short span, I just could not stop contemplating my own death. After soul searching of many years, I can conclude quite confidently that, that was the only cause of my short-term depression then.
Perhaps the summer of 1996 was a Leukemia season. One of my cousins, Krishna kaka—another guy in his 20s, was also struggling with the disease in Bombay. He was one of the many cousins from ‘gaau’ who had settled in Kathmandu in the early 90s. Since I was away for my undergraduate studies during the early and mid 90s, unlike everyone in my family, I did not get to know Krishna kaka very well. He seemed to have developed a wonderful relationship with my family when I was away. I had met him only once before he got sick. He seemed like a nice guy.
On September 29th, 1996 Chitrika fupu paid us a sudden visit. Nobody was in the house except me and my mother. When my mother asked her why she was in Kathmandu, Chitrika fupu did not give a straight answer. Oddly, I saw my mother’s mood change when she saw Chitrika fupu; she looked dejected. Usually her visit used to uplift our spirits. Chitrika fupu herself was not in her typical frame of mind. Before I could inquire either of them what was going on, the telephone rang and I left the room to answer it.
It was a call from Bombay. Krishna kaka too had passed away. Coping with Supriya and Shishir’s deaths and my own problems, I was so emotionally frozen I did not feel much when I heard the news. I was too busy those days fearing my own death, plus, I hardly knew Krishna kaka, that did not help.
I hung up the phone, walked back to the family room, and nonchalantly told my mother: “Krishna kaka pani chilim vaechhan.”
My mother jumped off the sofa and lunged at me, grabbed me by the neck and shoved me all the way to her room. Once we were in her room, she closed the door and frantically screamed at me: “Krishna is Chitrika fupu’s son. Krishna is Chitrika fupu’s son. Krishna is Chitrika fupu’s son.”
I did not know.
So I ran away from the house immediately, had my friend, Rajesh, call my family, and did not return home for four days.
To this day, I haven’t asked anyone what happened in that family room after I left. And I don’t intend to ask that question for the remainder of my Oxygen inhaling life.
“How could you not know? You pretended to be so close to her.” My mother was still screaming at me on the fifth day since I had delivered the news of Krishna kaka’s death.
“I just didn’t know mami. I didn’t know,” I pleaded.
“Krishna kaka never told you?” quizzed my brother.
“I was not in the country for four years. I never got to know him. I met him once in Narayan kaka’s wedding reception; that’s all. He didn’t mention Chitrika fupu. You guys think I’m really that retarded? I may be depressed these days, but I’m not retarded,” I yelled a losing yell.
“I find it hard to believe… all those times Chitrika fupu visited us, she never mentioned Krishna to you? She’d talk to me about him all the time.” My mother demanded.
“No she didn’t. I didn’t even know she had a son. I was under the impression that she had a daughter. All these years I thought she had a daughter. She never mentioned a word about her family. Ever. And Baba repeatedly told us not to talk to her about her personal life, remember?” I exaggerated. My father had cautioned us only once.
“That’s true. She never mentioned her family …maybe she thought we were too young to understand her life. I only knew when Krishna kaka started coming here,” my brother defected from the prosecution team and supported my assertion.
“When Krishna kaka got sick and Gyanu kaka took him to Bombay… are you telling me that you never heard us talk about poor Chitrika fupu? You never heard us discuss who’s going to tell her about Krishna kaka? You never heard any of those conversations?” It was my sister’s turn to cross-examine me.
“No.” I replied curtly.
“Because you’re never home,” snapped my sister.
It must have been a huge coincidence, but I never heard my family linking Chitrika fupu to Krishna kaka. Maybe they did, and I was not paying attention. My mind was totally utilized by the time-proximity of the other two deaths.
“Ok, I give you that… that you didn’t know their relationship,” began my usually sensible father, “But why would you deliver the news of that magnitude in that tone? How could you be so cold? How could anyone be so cold? Beats me.”
I chose not to answer. My sister looked at me with sheer disgust before losing it completely. She cried so hysterically that my nephew started to shake. I did not have anything in my defense. Cancer killed Krishna kaka, I felt culpable.
Chitrika fupu was one of the most influential people in my life. I had rewarded her by cheapening her son’s death. In my defense, I did not know it was her son who had died. I know that is a weak justification because I know more than that. I was so consumed by the fear of my own finale then that I could care less that a young relative named Krishna had passed away. Even if I knew he was Chitrika fupu’s son, I would have delivered the news with a different approach, but I wouldn’t have felt different. My depression was rooted to my excessive love of my own being.
September of 1996 may have made me a somewhat better man, but that did not need to happen at the expense of three life-deserving human beings.
After spending the eighth night at Hari Kaka’s place, I returned back to my grandparents’ house in Pokhara on the ninth morning. Waiting for me in the front yard were my grandfather and Chitrika fupu. I felt short of breath when I saw Chitrika fupu. I had not seen her since imparting the news of her only child’s death. My apprehension, however, quickly dispersed when she held me by my arms and said: “Das barsa vanchhau, khai jastaa ko testai dekhchu kere ma ta. Jyan chahi ali thulo vaachha, aru baaki ta thyammai ustai laago kere malaai.”
Chitrika fupu hasn’t changed much. She is still curious, warm, sensitive, and observant. Except, she did not make me laugh as much. She is still appropriate, absorbed, reflective, and composed. Except, like a colicy baby, she bursts into tears every half-hour. To some extent, Chitrika fupu in her late 60s seems to have lost her flair for deftly concealing her pain. At times she looked vulnerable. Still, for someone who is as lonely as Laika on Sputnik 2, she has aged quite gracefully.
She asked me a lot of questions about my life in America. Most of my relatives were interested in what kind of work I do, who sponsored my green card, or how I paid for my house. Chitrika fupu asked me if I was missing America. When I said no, she asked me what makes a man cling on to something that he doesn’t miss. As always her questions were complex—and the message, as lucid.
Even though we clicked like nothing had happened between us, I was not looking forward to spending time with Chitrika fupu alone. But at one point my grandfather walked away from the conversation when a neighbor walked in to the house. I was mulling over an excuse to get out of there myself, Chitrika fupu caught me off guard: “Where did you go that day?”
I did not answer immediately. I kept on gazing on the ground, trying to coin a phrase of healing. Instead of repeating the question, Chitrika fupu rephrased it in the form of a statement: “We were all worried about you.”
In a nutshell, that statement epitomizes Chitrika fupu. She could have said your family was worried about you, or your parents were worried about you. But she knew how to make me talk. By inserting the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’, she had made me succumb to her interrogation technique.
I decided not to lie to her. I told her all the truth that I had told others. I told her about Supriya and Shishir, and my state of mind during that time. But ten years later my words sounded so weak, it felt like I was flogging a dead horse. Even I was having a hard time believing my own true story. When I ended my story I did not apologize—apologizing, I assumed would have undermined my sin. My sin was too vice to be forgiven through a casual act of remorse. I did not dare to insult Chitrika fupu’s instincts.
Though Chitrika fupu did not respond to my story, she definitely reacted to it. She was not convinced by my story, but she seemed to be convinced how guilt-ridden I truly was. Before an awkward pause overcame us, I gathered some strength and asked her point blank, “Why were you in Kathmandu that day?”
Chitrika fupu weighed on before entertaining my curiosity. She whispered: “Because I didn’t believe him.”
“I didn’t believe Krishna… He had sent me a message through Arjun that he had to go to Bombay to repair a fractured bone in his hand… I don’t know a whole lot about Kathmandu, but I know there are enough doctors there to treat a fractured bone. I didn’t believe Arjun’s words when he delivered the message… his eyes were not in sync with his words. So when I didn’t hear from Krishna or Arjun for eight more days, I took the trip.” And just like that Chitrika fupu lost her poise again.
Her sobbing subsided and the silence died with her query: “What time is your flight?”
“Then I’ll go make some ‘Arsaa ko roti’ for you. You still like those?”
“Very much so.”
When Chitrika fupu was about to go to the kitchen, I begged, “I really want you to come to my wedding. Please don’t say no. I’ll send you the plane tickets.”
“I’m taking the bus,” she said smiling, “I’m coming with your Jagannath kaka, we’ve already planned it… You and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
I felt like the way Earl feels at the end of each episode of ‘My Name is Earl’. I had checked a huge offense off of my list.
I always thought my crime was beyond the pale, but I guess sins can be absolved when the victim becomes the healer.