1 Thin as a waif , she wore a faded kurta suruwal. She stood in the doorway of Ramchandra’s bedroom, where he tutored his students. “I am very weak in math, sir,” she said as he gestured for her to sit next to him on a cushion on the floor.
To ward off the chill, unusual for late September, she also wore the traditional khasto shawl. She had long eyelashes and a slim nose; fine fur dotted her upper lip. Her hair, glistening with oil, was pulled back in a prim style. Malati, she said, was her name, and she appeared slightly older, past her teens, than the students he normally tutored.
“I charge five hundred rupees a month,” he said. “Three sessions a week, one hour each.” A shadow came over her face.
“Can’t you afford that?” Ramchandra drew the electric heater close to him, even though he had a blanket wrapped around him and was wearing the thick socks that Goma had sewed for him. The walls of this old house, where Ramchandra rented his flat, were thin, and on a chilly day like this, harbinger of the cold that would soon envelop the city, the entire house became almost unbearable. One of the coils of the heater had come loose, and it protruded dangerously, still glowing red. He’d have to fix it soon, before the children burned themselves on it, before the coming months of winter, when “even the fish feel cold,” as Ramchandra’s mother used to say.
“I come from a poor family,” she said.
Ramchandra glanced out the small window. From his seated position, he could see the electric and telephone wires zigzagging outside his window. A kite swooped in the tiny blue patch of sky. Dashain festival was here, which meant more expenses.
His tutees had often cited their poverty, even those who came from well-to-do families, as their reason for defaulting on their payments. Well, he wasn’t rolling in money either.
He and Goma and the children were living on the top floor of this old house, with its rickety stairs and cracked ceilings, its cramped, dank rooms that never got enough sunlight, this house controlled by a landlord who came rapping on the door if the rent wasn’t paid on time, where deafening traffic from the street penetrated the thin walls, shook the rooms, and made reasonable thinking impossible. For years he’d been harboring the dream of buying some land and building a house in the city, if only to silence his in-laws.
For the past three years, he and Goma had been putting away five hundred rupees a month. Or at least trying to; some months, especially during the festivals, not only could they not save, but they had to dip into their savings, which troubled Ramchandra constantly. “This way we’ll never build a house,” he’d said to Goma dejectedly the other day after he’d checked his bankbook and discovered that the balance was not even a lakh rupee. A few months ago, he’d even looked at some plots of land, but most of them had been exorbitantly priced. There was one plot, near Dillibazaar, that was nice — close to the vegetable market and to the bus station — but the seller wanted five lakh rupees. Ramchandra had told him that no reasonable fool would buy the plot at that price, but as he walked away, he knew that the land would be sold within a few months. Many people were getting rich in Kathmandu. The country was poor, but in the capital, wealth was multiplying in the hands of those who’d opened new businesses or those with government jobs who didn’t turn away from hefty bribes.
With her worn-out clothes, Malati indeed looked poor, unlike his only other tutee, Ashok, a merchant’s son who arrived every morning in a shiny black car, with loud music thumping from the speakers.
“I don’t have a father,” Malati told him. “And my mother raises chickens to support the family.” “Then perhaps you should be working,” Ramchandra said. “Help your family.” “Right now I am not in a position to work, sir,” she said solemnly. “Besides, I want to go to college.” And for that, she needed to pass the School Leaving Certificate exam. She admitted that she’d barely passed the preliminary Sent-Up exams, administered by her school, and was worried about the actual exams.
“What’s the point of going to college when you need some income right now?” She pursed her lips and glanced out the window.
She is pretty, he thought. But it was her determination that moved him. If he could help her, then it was his duty as a teacher to take her on. In the afternoons he taught at the rundown Kantipur School, with its crumbling walls and dark, crowded classrooms. It was a government school, whichh meant that it had a meager budget and disgruntled teachers. Most of them, like Ramchandra, tutored students on the side for extra income. These days, he was tutoring only Ashok, and he could have Malati join their sessions. “Okay, how much can you afffffford?” “Two hundred rupees, sir.” “That’s too little,” he said, thinking of his bank account. “I can tutor you for only two sessions a week for that.” “That’s fine, sir,” she said. “I can do the rest on my own.” “I’ll need the money first.” “I’ll bring it tomorrow morning.” There was an awkward silence. He expected her to leave, and when she didn’t, he was about to say, “Okay, then.” But she asked, “Sir, are you from Kathmandu itself ?” He studied her a bit more closely.
People from Kathmandu rarely asked each other that question. Only outsiders probed one another, searching for something that bonded them in the city.
“Originally from Lamjung,” he said.
After his father died, he and his mother had sold their land and house in Lamjung to pay off creditors and had come to Kathmandu, with his mother’s jewelry in a plastic bag and with the address of a distant relative. Mother, God bless her. He hoped her soul was at peace in heaven.
“I knew,” Malati said. “I knew you were not from here. Your face tells it.” “Is it really that obvious?” “Well, couldn’t you say the same about me? Where do you think I’m from, sir?” He had no idea, but he was amused by her excitement. “Jumla?” His mention of this remote, barren area in the northwest part of the country made her laugh. “You like to joke, don’t you, sir. No, I’m from Dharan.” “When did you move here?” “A few years ago. But I still miss it.
People in this city are so . . .”— she seemed to be searching for the appropriate word —“unfeeling.” Ramchandra’s own memories of Lamjung remained clear: the general store in a mud house perched dangerously on top of a hill; the biting cold in the morning; the haze that hung over the hills, and the clouds that rolled in and made the house in front of you disappear; the smell of sweet rice cooked in the mud oven, the smoke stinging his mother’s eyes and making water run down her nose. But it was the memories of his early years in Kathmandu, the hardships he and his mother had endured, that were imprinted on his mind like a religious text. For a long time he had been angry at the city for making their lives difficult. But he’d grown to love the city, and although he understood what Malati was saying, he didn’t want to identify with her sense of helplessness. “It’s been so many years,” he told her, “that I con...