RAJA’S MOTHER HAD abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week. The School Leaving Certificate exam results had just been published in Gorkhapatra, so everyone deduced that the woman, like a few others already that year, 1962, had killed herself over her poor performance.
That morning Kaki was at Rani Pokhari, getting ready to sell her corn on the sidewalk, when she saw Bokey Ba approach from the parade ground area, carrying something on his palms, as if balancing a tray.
“After ages, Bokey Ba is coming to visit me,” Kaki said to the woman who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the shoe shop, where Kaki sold her corn. Bokey Ba, so called because of the goatlike beard hanging from his chin, was a derelict who’d made the parade ground his home for no one knew how long.
He knelt in front of Kaki. In his arms was a baby swaddled in a woman’s dirty shawl. Kaki let out a gasp. “Whose baby did you steal? Look, Vaishali, come here.”
Vaishali ambled over. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Let’s fetch the police,” she said to Kaki. “What did this nut case do?”
“Whose baby is this?” Kaki spoke loudly, even though Bokey Ba wasn’t hard of hearing. “Tell me, where did you get it?” She gingerly reached over and lifted the shawl. “It’s a boy,” she whispered. “And barely a few months old. Bokey Ba, what are you doing with this baby?”
Bokey Ba tried to form the words, but they didn’t come. It had literally been months since he’d talked to anyone. He pointed behind him, toward Tundikhel.
“Where’s the baby’s mother?”
Bokey Ba shrugged, cleared his throat, and managed to hoarsely say, “Don’t know.”
“So why bring him here?” Vaishali said. “Take him back. What can we do?”
“Wait,” Kaki told her. “Let me look.”
Bokey Ba handed her the baby, and thinking that his job was done, he stood and was about to leave when Kaki yelled at him, “Where are you going? Sit!”
Bokey Ba sat on his haunches. Kaki inspected the baby’s face, running her fingers over it. “He seems healthy enough.” The baby began to cry again, and she said, “Maybe he’s hungry.” Her maternal instinct made her want to open her blouse and let the baby feed on her breasts, but she realized how foolish that was: a dry woman past middle age in a crowded street, feeding a baby she didn’t know. So she requested that Vaishali mind her corn station as she and Bokey Ba looked for the baby’s mother.
For the rest of the morning, Kaki and Bokey Ba roamed the area in search of someone who’d claim the baby. Kaki walked in front, clutching the baby to her chest, already feeling protective. She puckered her lips in kisses at him whenever he cried. They circled Rani Pokhari, where the mother’s body now rested at the bottom of the pond. The pond was said to be haunted at night by ghosts of those who’d committed suicide in its waters and those who had been repeatedly dunked, as state punishment, until they could no longer breathe.
But for restless students at Tri-Chandra College, the sight of the pond had a calming effect as they skipped classes and spent hours on the roof, smoking, discussing politics. It had been more than two years since King M’s coup, and he showed no sign of returning power to the elected officials.
Bokey Ba and Kaki entered the grounds of Tri-Chandra College, both of them looking out of place among the college students loitering on the lawn and drinking tea; then the two continued on to the premises of the Ghantaghar clock tower and finally returned to the khari tree on the parade ground, where Bokey Ba slept at night. The baby hadn’t stopped crying all morning, so Kaki handed him to Bokey Ba and went to fetch some milk. Bokey Ba sat on the platform surrounding the tree, holding the infant, afraid to look at his face, and the baby’s cry rang out across the field, attracting the attention of some of the regulars. A small crowd formed around Bokey Ba, hazarding guesses as to what had transpired: the old man had stolen the baby from a rich merchant; the baby was Bokey Ba’s own child, born from the womb of an old prostitute. Stoically, Bokey Ba waited in silence for Kaki, who arrived after some delay. She’d had to appeal to a neighbor of hers to lend her a bottle and some warm milk.
Kaki shooed the crowd away. “Here, feed him,” she said, handing the bottle to the old man, who shook his head. “You found him,” she insisted. “You feed him.” He took the warm bottle from her and inserted the nipple into the baby’s mouth, and he sucked hungrily. His eyes explored Bokey Ba’s face as he drank. Soon the bottle was empty, and the baby began to bawl once more. When Bokey Ba looked helplessly at Kaki, she laughed. “Rock him, sing to him. He’s yours now.”
And before Bokey Ba could say anything, she traversed the field to her corn station, where Vaishali was battling the coal embers and complaining that the smoke was stinging her eyes. “This is not easy work,” she told Kaki, who took over.
Kaki grilled corncobs on the sidewalk and sold them at one suka apiece. Early in the morning she’d remove, one by one, the outer husks from corn she had purchased from a farmer. Around eight o’clock, once the area began to thicken with people, she’d light her earthenware stove, a makal, which was filled with pieces of coal. She’d first grill the corn over an open fire, then cook it further in coal embers, letting the heat perform its magic and using her fingers, which were callused and thick, to turn the cobs occasionally. This was a good spot to do business. The bus stop stood across the street, at the entrance to Tundikhel. The marketplace of Asan was only a furlong away, to the right, and the girls’ college, Padma Kanya, was up the street, to the east. The girls from Padma Kanya College especially loved Kaki’s corn, which she dabbed with a special paste of green chutney that teased, tickled, then shot flames in the mouth, making her customers go “Shooooo” and “Shaaaaaa.” The two other corn sellers in the area, one stationed at the mouth of Asan and the other close to the Muslim enclave near the Ghantaghar clock tower, didn’t command as large a clientele as Kaki did. Her advantage was that chutney, and though the two other corn sellers had tried to pry the recipe from her, Kaki kept it a secret and made her chutney at home.
The following week, Kaki and Bokey Ba took the baby to the Bal Ashram orphanage in Naxal. The lady who ran it told them that no space was available and that the government had decreed that only those orphans who had absolutely no one to take care of them could be accepted. The woman insinuated that she didn’t believe Kaki’s story, that perhaps the baby was a product of her illegitimate union with the homeless man with the goatee.
Bokey Ba held the baby in his arms as he and Kaki walked all the way back to Tundikhel in the afternoon sun. They passed the back of the old royal palace in Tangal. Nearby, in the field where the washer people, the dhobis, worked, clothes hung from ropes and fluttered in the wind. Bokey Ba suddenly stopped. Before Kaki knew what was happening, he tightene...