“She’s in a meeting,” Prasanti answered.
“I am Prasanti.”
She had been trained well. The men laughed. Prasanti giggled with them.
“I have a meeting with Aamaa.”
“She had a meeting with you at three. She waited until 3:05, but when you didn’t come, she took another meeting. She’s busy. Why don’t you wait in the garden?”
One of the men was quick to quip, “The rain has stopped, sir. The sun might be out at any moment. It’s better to wait out in the warm than inside.”
Five minutes lapsed, then ten. Prasanti brought the men tea and Good-Day biscuits. “She will be out in another five minutes. She told me she was meeting with only you,” she told Moktan. “The others will have to wait here.”
Prasanti had done her job, once again redeeming herself in her mistress’s eyes. Kamal Moktan would be malleable now.
“Namaste, Aamaa,” Moktan said sincerely, straightening his jacket at the entrance of Chitralekha’s office. “Sorry I was late. The roads are bad because of the landslides in Rangpo, you know.”
“Yes, I know. The last time our chief minister was here, he told me he always started an hour early to see me because he didn’t want to keep me waiting. Starting an hour early even when he lives in Gangtok is practical.”
“I’ll take note of that,” Moktan said, taking a seat. “I am sorry if I was late, but we enjoyed the tea and biscuits outside.”
“So, why did you want to meet me?”
Moktan rubbed his hands together as though warming them. The action bored Chitralekha even before all the verbosity tumbled out. She had had enough experience with politicians to know that this one had a long speech planned, and she’d have to find her way out of it. The Nepali-speaking people of Darjeeling were stupid to rest their hopes on this man to get them a separate state.
“You know the Gorkhaland movement sometimes needs elderly people to encourage the youngsters, especially an elderly person as respected as you in society.” There’d be a lot of repetition, a little flattery, allusions to her old age and the wisdom that came with it, her generosity, and how important she was. “You haven’t given us your full endorsement since we started. I understand that you are from Sikkim now, but we all know your roots are in Kalimpong, and that’s where you own your first and most symbolic factory. Unlike most people in Sikkim, you haven’t chosen to distance yourself from the great cause of Gorkhaland. We would be highly obliged if you’d give a speech about the importance of Gorkhaland and how I’d help achieve it because of my devotion to its people.”
“Why me?” she asked. “It’s interesting that you should ask me.”
“I have a cousin’s cousin called Rajeev.”
“I am glad I know his name.”
“He completed his engineering degree from Manipal in Rangpo. All his friends from Sikkim already have government jobs. He was among the top students in his class — got better scores than even the Bengalis. He’s yet to find anything. We just have no jobs in Darjeeling — no prospects, nothing.”
“I can’t find him a job in Sikkim if he’s not from Sikkim.”
“No, no, that wasn’t what I was going for. If in this speech you could ask people like him — educated and unemployed — to support the movement and tell them that they will find jobs when Gorkhaland happens, which we can attain only if we receive their full support, I’d be really grateful. There is too much cynicism among the educated.”
“But at almost eighty-four, she didn’t need to think long-term…from now on, she was all about immediate gratification.”
Sizing up the man before her, Chitralekha concluded that he wasn’t worth inviting to her Chaurasi — he wasn’t a long-term politician like Sikkim’s Subba was. He’d probably be blinded by power, do something stupid, and spend his life absconding or rotting in jail. But at almost eighty-four, she didn’t need to think long-term. She was already the oldest member of her extended family on all sides — her father’s, her mother’s and her husband’s — and she was conscious of her mortality. At the most, she had ten years to live. Currying favors with Moktan wouldn’t get her anywhere in the long run; from now on, she was all about immediate gratification.
“What do I get out of it?” she asked.
“What would you suggest? We keep hearing rumors that you’ll stop being directly involved in your business, that one of your grandchildren will take over, but aren’t they all abroad? I have a lot of respect for your decision not to step down even at this age. You are an inspiration to all of us, you see. But please do not ask us for money because we rely on the blessings of people like you to keep ourselves financially afloat.”
“Just two months ago, I gave two lakhs to your organization. I am not donating any money unless I see a return on that.” She lit her beedi. It was a habit no amount of amassed wealth would help her get rid of. She also understood that it intimidated most men of power when she smoked in front of them. Her white sari, the loose end of which demurely covered her white hair, and smoking just did not go hand in hand.
“Her white sari, the loose end of which demurely covered her white hair, and smoking just did not go hand in hand.”
Kamal smacked his lips. “Do you have any suggestions on how we could help you?”
“This Gorkhaland movement is going nowhere, Kamal-jeeu. We have waited long for something to happen. There’s too much vandalism, too much hooliganism.We need to inspire the people, infl ame them. Ask any person from Kurseong or Kalimpong if they have faith in Gorkhaland, and they say no.”
“Now, even if someone like you says that, we are doomed. We have been doing our best. Just last month a meeting with the West Bengal minister of — ”
She cut him short. “Meetings don’t achieve anything. Look at us right now. We have met for the past five minutes, but we haven’t talked about anything useful.”
“Yes, we need to instill a sense of oneness in our people. Why don’t you mandate that everyone should wear the Nepali costume — daura-suruwals and gunyu-cholos and topis — certain days of the week, especially during festivals and important national holidays? Look at you — you wear a Gurkha hat, but where’s your daura-suruwal? You, more than anyone else, need to set an example. Let’s declare one date — how about the fi rst day be during Tihaar, say, sometime next week? — as the date for everyone to wear only Nepali clothes in solidarity.”
“That’s a good idea. We would like to do that.”
“Yes, another time for dressing up could be the day of the conference. And I’ll come to it, too.”
“It’s a good plan — but perhaps next week is too early.”
“It’s not. This movement requires urgency. It has to start now.”
He looked at her as though surprised at the lack of caveat. “Is that it, then?”
She glanced at the clock and then at her watch. “That’s it, but by now you know that my factory in Kalimpong will be the supplier of all the Nepali clothes to the stores. The clothes are ready. All you have to do is make your announcements. We even have custommade daura-suruwal — no other factory has manufactured the outfit before. Your men will take care of all those stores that don’t buy their clothes in bulk from my factory, right?”
Moktan’s eyes lit up — Chitralekha couldn’t make out if it was in indignation or admiration. She procured a package from under her desk and unwrapped it. In it lay a set of cream-colored daura-suruwal.
“Yes, I can do that,” he said.
“Good,” she said, wiggling the outfit out of its package. She untied all the four pairs of strings, even those on the inside, of the top. “And ten percent of our profits will be donated to your cause — whether your cause is killing people or getting them their state, I don’t know.” Next, she focused her attention on the pants.
“It’s Gorkhaland,” Moktan said. “A few casualties occur along the way, which is unfortunate, but what revolution didn’t have people die for it? Those who die are either villains or martyrs.”
“Yes, and you are the hero.” She chuckled while holding up the suruwal for her guest to inspect. “Your men down there make too much noise. The next time you come to visit me, can you come alone? Let’s plan a meeting three months from now. You could also pick up your donation then.”
Moktan brought his hands together in supplication and perhaps as a precursor to a long-winded speech that Chitralekha would have to prohibit.
“Look at these photos, Moktan-jeeu — what do you see?”
The politician turned around. His eyes fixated on the picture of her with the ex- chief minister, but he was quiet.
“That’s who I am, Moktan-jeeu,” Chitralekha said. “I am your friend for a lifetime if you’ve earned my trust. I don’t care if your party is not in power. I don’t care if you will never be reelected. I’ll forever be faithful to you.”
Moktan listened in silence.
“You’ll give yourself an opportunity to earn my trust, will you not?” Chitralekha looked him in the eye. And then she broke into a smile, one that birthed a multitude of lines on her face. “You will see to it that your picture will be standing there among these, won’t you?”
Moktan nodded and told her he would have to rush to a meeting with I. K. Subba, the chief minister of Sikkim, who had publicly announced his support for the separatist movement. “We Gorkhaland people have so much to be thankful for in people like you and him, Aamaa,” he said. “For too long we’ve been under the oppression of the Bengalis. Gorkhaland as a state has to happen. We have to have a separate state just as you people in Sikkim do. Thank you so much for giving us hope.”
Once Moktan left, Chitralekha summoned Prasanti to banish Basnett’s picture to the cupboard.
“She now doesn’t want to see a mere picture after she saw such a macho man in person,” Prasanti teased, tying her shoulder-length hair, receding around the temples, in a chignon. “How old is he? Are you sure his caste is Moktan? He looks like a Newaar to me. His eyes aren’t small enough to be a Moktan’s eyes. By the way, the fatty priest is still around, retching poison into anything within reach.”
“She had bargained with God that at least this quarter of her life would be devoid of sadness.”
Chitralekha smoked another beedi. The meeting was a success. She would turn eighty-four in a week. For most of her life, age had meant nothing. In fact, like most women of her generation, she did not even know when her actual birthday was. But this was different. It was a slap in the faces of those diseases that killed you before you reached your prime. Eighty-four was special, for she was now among the very few who had survived that far. To most people, like her pathetic husband, living to that age was an unattainable dream. It was time to go now — maybe stick around for a few years and then die peacefully. Her biggest fear was of outliving one of her grandchildren, and, going by the surgeries, aches, and pains they complained about, she wouldn’t be at all surprised if she lived to see at least one of their deaths. She didn’t want that. She had witnessed too many people dying — her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law. She wouldn’t be able to withstand another tragedy. She had bargained with God that at least this quarter of her life would be devoid of sadness. And she’d see to it that he kept his promise.
* * *
Prajwal Parajuly published his first book in 2012: a short story collection with the title The Gurkha’s Daughter: Stories. (Read one of the stories in this excerpt on The Aerogram.) He is the son of an Indian father and a Nepalese mother. He divides his time between New York and Oxford, England, but disappears to Gangtok — his hometown in the Indian Himalayas — at every opportunity. He draws inspiration for his writing from the many places he has traveled and lived. His writing has appeared in The New York Times,Guardian, the BBC and the New Statesman.