Ganesh lay on his back in bed, one hand behind his head, his legs dangling off the side, while his wife rummaged through the dresser for the sari to wear that evening. He watched her plump body in petticoat and bra, her fingers lingering on one sari, then another, finally pulling out one of red chiffon. When she turned and saw him watching her, she asked, “What’s the matter? You don’t want me to go?” “No. You go,” he said.
She asked him to help button her blouse, so he went over to her half-naked body, his heart hammering in his throat.
He went down to see her off through the courtyard, and climbed the stairs back to their apartment. He could imagine her walking down the street, her neatly combed hair pulled back, a tika on her forehead. He could imagine the taxi driver peeking at her in the rearview mirror, unable to take his eyes off her faintly powdered face, wondering what kind of a husband she went home to, how it would feel to lie next to her and hear her sigh under his caress. Ganesh could see her entering the wedding tent, adjusting her sari, her eyes appraising the crowd, familiar faces lighting up when they spotted her, a childhood friend of hers coming to greet her proprietarily, introducing her to guests, the men eyeing her from behind their wives.
He opened the door to the small balcony and stepped out. Four stories below, in the courtyard, two boys were playing marbles. In the opposite house, the new tenant, a young, bald man, leaned against the window, surveying the courtyard. When their eyes met, the bald man smiled. Ganesh didn’t like him; he was too friendly, suspiciously friendly So Ganesh barely nodded. The boys’ arguments echoed amidst the frantic cries of the evening birds. The setting sun cast a saffron glow on the houses surrounding the courtyard. The evening, though beautiful, seemed alien to him.
He had recently told a friend at work that he did not understand his wife. He had said it casually, as if it were a joke. His friend blew into his cupped palms, as he always did when considering a serious matter. “Do you think your wife has a secret life?” he asked.
“There’s something about her,” Ganesh said, shaking his head. Lately he had been studying her; he watched her while she slept, tried to imagine her thoughts when she stirred eggplant or beans in the kitchen. He also wanted to know what she thought about when he wasn’t around, what areas her mind lingered on. He suspected that her thoughts excluded him, and this possibility filled him with dismay, with pain.
They’d been married for three years, and Ganesh had not worried this way the first two years. Before he married, he lived on the second floor of a small house in Chhetrapati with his mother. Ganesh barely remembered his father, who died of a brain disease that no doctor or shaman had been able to cure. And there were rumors that Ganesh was really not his father’s son; that he was the son of the man who had been his mother’s lover for many years. It was his mother who had arranged Ganesh’s marriage. She’d sung the praises of his future bride – “She has the most beautiful eyes”; “She’s known in the neighborhood for her faultless manners” – until he too began to think she would make a wonderful wife, even though he’d not yet met her. When she first came into the house, he had been surprised by her beauty. He’d seen pictures of her, but in person she was ten times more striking. Her jet-black hair made a lovely contrast with her fair complexion, and she had a long, slim nose from which a diamond glinted whenever she smiled. A mere glance from her made his heart beat rapidly, and when she laughed, the tiny gap between her two front teeth made her irresistibly charming. “Your daughter-in-law’s face glows like the sun,” he heard relatives tell his mother, and everywhere he and his new bride went, people commented on how his wife’s beauty would usher in good luck for the rest of their lives. He had basked in the warmth of these comments, but later, that pleasure had given way to wariness, for he couldn’t believe that such beauty could be enjoyed at no cost.
He tried to recall the exact moment when he first had doubts about her; it was, he thought, when they were at the eastern wall of the temple complex of Lord Pashupatinath on a sunny day, looking down at the dirty Bagmati River. A young man standing near them said to Ganesh’s wife, “Look how filthy the river is. Look there” – he pointed to a couple of women washing themselves contentedly, letting their soap suds drift into the blackened water – “how uncivilized these people are. Look there” – he gestured to a mass of garbage on the river’s edge – “our holy Bagmati River.”
The man laughed, and Ganesh’s wife laughed too, with an abandon that Ganesh had found disconcerting.
“No one is doing anything about it,” she’d told the young man. “The politicians are more interested in their fat wives.” And then her laughter seemed to ring throughout the temple complex, mixing with the bells, reverberating with the chants of the priests. When they left the temple, Ganesh asked her, “Do you know that man?” And she said no. As they walked home that day, he compared his body with hers, and decided that he was a tight man, with muscles that were closed, restricting. He realized that he hardly moved his arms when he walked, whereas she constantly swirled her arms, sometimes scratching an itch on her face, at other times playing with her sari. Suddenly a phrase that had plagued his childhood echoed in his mind: “Mama’s boy.” That’s what his friends called him whenever they saw him cling to his mother, his fist clutching the end of her sari. “The boy needs a father,” he’d heard his relatives whisper among themselves. “Mama’s boy,” they’d called him, although they did so with affection. That day, walking away from the Pashupatinath Temple with his wife, he wondered whether his muscles were so constricted, and his body so closed, because he’d watched the world for so long from behind his mother’s sari.
On his way home from work the next evening, he saw women in brilliant saris walking with their husbands, strolling down the street or rushing to keep appointments. It was the time of Indra Jatra festival, the eight-day festival in honor of Lord Indra, the ruler of heaven. Eons ago, Lord Indra had come down to the valley in disguise to steal scented white parijat flowers for his mother’s annual fasting ritual. The powerful god was apprehended by the people of the Kathmandu Valley, bound with rope, and thrown in jail. Only after Indra’s mother descended from heaven in search of her missing son did the valley inhabitants realize what they had done. As an apology, they initiated a great festival in his honor. They donned masks and danced, acted out folk dramas, and marched in celebratory processions. Everywhere around him, Ganesh saw people’s faces filled with joy and excitement. He knew he should have enjoyed that excitement; instead, he felt as if a giant bird had descended from the sky and spread a shadow over the city.