Fiction

Goldfish

By Pranaya SJB Rana

30 June 2018

A short story.
Illustration: Arati Kumar-Rao

Illustration: Arati Kumar-Rao

Biru Bhandari, short for Birendra and all eleven years of age, told a lie.

This wasn’t his first time, of course. Biru had lied before but earlier, it had always been for a purpose, whether to divert his mother’s rage or his father’s reprimand. He hadn’t dropped his glass of milk, it had been Shanti the maid. He hadn’t lost his embroidered handkerchief at school, fat Nirnit had taken it. He hadn’t been talking in Mathematics class, Neupane sir just didn’t like him. Some nebulous telos, however dubious. And he wasn’t hurting anyone, he told himself, for he had learned to rationalise his actions at a very young age.

But this lie was different. It had no intent, no object, no reason-to-be. It wasn’t malicious, but it also wasn’t preventive.

He had been idling in his room, his feet hanging off the edge of his bed, staring off into space, playing absently with a thread that had come undone from his wool sweater. It was winter break. He was bored. His father had appeared at the door, all small shoulders and sinewy arms, a schoolteacher, and absently asked what Biru was up to.

When Biru first told his father the lie, Prithvi didn’t quite hear him. He passed along the hallway that led from his son’s room to the bathroom. The water had been left running in the sink. He turned it off. Then he recalled what his son had said.

“What did you say, chhora?”

Biru did not look his father in the eye. He focussed on an imaginary point in between Prithvi’s two large, rather bulbous eyes, where the third eye might be. And he told his lie again:

“There was a man here.”
“What man?” “Someone I don’t know.” “A stranger?”
“Yes.”
“What was he doing?” “He washed his hands in the sink. He left the water running.” “Who left the water running?” Prithvi was very confused.
“The man.”
“What man?”
“The man in a muffler, a dark man, kaaley.”
“A madisey?” His father asked. Biru looked back at his father. He nodded his head.
“A madisey left the water running?”

Biru nodded again. A man, dark-skinned, wearing a muffler, had come into the bathroom, washed his hands and left, leaving the water running.

“Was it Idris the plumber?”
“No.”
“Was it one of the vegetable sellers?”
“No.”
“Then who was it?” Biru didn’t know.

Prithvi was flummoxed. He was, of course, surprised but more confused, as to why an unknown Madhesi man would come into his house to wash his hands. He never even considered that his son might have simply made up the entire incident. He looked around his son’s room – everything was where it should be. Not that there was anything there to take. He then walked around the house. The computer was in his room, on the desk by the window. His mobile phone was in his pants pocket. The television was in the living room, safe in its alcove. The almirahs were locked. The jewellery was safe. Only, in the dirty fishbowl in the hallway, a dead goldfish floated belly-up on the surface, its underside glinting like a coin in the sun. He had forgotten to feed the fish.

Biru’s mother asked what he was doing, to which Prithvi Bhandari replied that he was flushing the dead fish down the toilet.

“No,” she said. “What were you doing earlier?”
“Looking to see if the Madhesi took anything,” he replied.
“What?” Biru’s mother, Sita, asked.
“There was a madisey man in the house.”
“What?” Sita asked again.

Prithvi told her Biru’s story, adding his own little flourishes. The man had used their toilet. He might have had a knife. He was wearing a lungi. He might have been a thief. Maybe he stole something.

Sita clutched at her gold necklace with the tiny coral Ganesh, as if afraid a hand might reach out at any moment and grab it. She joined Prithvi in the search.

In their bedroom, Sita couldn’t find her purse. It had been hanging from the coat rack by the door earlier that day. It had five thousand seven hundred rupees in it. Sita was panicking. Prithvi found her purse hung on a chair, all five thousand seven hundred tucked safely inside its inner pocket. Sita stopped panicking.

After taking a thorough inventory of the house and its effects, Prithvi and Sita concluded that nothing had been taken. So why the intrusion? Prithvi couldn’t understand it. Neither could Sita. A madisey who had washed his hands.

Sita got on the phone right away while Prithvi stepped out of his home and walked to the gate that marked the beginning of his domain. Here he was king, and he had just been invaded. The perimeter had been breached and he was going to find out just who had done the breaching.

Outside his gate, there was no one. But up ahead, out on the road, a number of men were milling about. He walked up to them. One was Amar Gurung, the butcher, standing outside his shop and smoking a cigarette. Amar was always covered in traces of blood and entrails but friendly, harmless. Further up was Mithoo, the electrician from Siraha. Could he have been the one?

“Ae Mithoo,” he called.
“Hajur,” Mithoo replied from over his counter, inside his shop.
“Were you in my house just now?”
“Hajur?” Mithoo asked this time.
“Were you there for some work?”
“I did not know you needed work done, hajur. I will come after one hour.”
“No no, were you just in my house?” Prithvi was annoyed already.
“No.”
“Did you see anyone come out of my house?”
“No.”
Prithvi started to walk away when Mithoo called after him.“What happened, hajur? Was it a thief?” “No, not a thief.”

Prithvi walked down to the vegetable vendor, operated by four young Madhesi men, maybe brothers, he couldn’t tell, but they all looked alike. The shop was fairly empty at this time of day. One young man, still pretty much a boy, was sitting behind the counter.

“Namaste, hajur,” he said. “It is fifty-five rupees.”
“What is?” Prithvi was a little taken aback. He hadn’t even touched anything.
“The cauli. Two kilo.” “I don’t want cauli.”
“But madam…”
“How do you know what she wants?”
“No no, hajur, in the morning. Madam bought two kilo. She said she will give fifty-five rupees later.”
“We owe you 55 rupees?”
“Yes, hajur.”
“Isn’t that a little too much for cauli?”
“No, hajur. One kilo is 70 rupees.”

Prithvi paid the credit reluctantly, wondering if he’d seen his wife cooking cauliflower in the kitchen earlier. Or had it been cabbage?

“Did you bring the cauli to my home?” Prithvi asked, a rational explanation suddenly striking him. The vegetable boys often brought over the produce if it was too much for his wife to carry. One of them had probably brought over the cauliflower and then washed his dirty hands in the sink. That still raised the question of why the boy had decided to just use their bathroom without asking. There was a separate bathroom for him outside the house, next to the gate.

“No, hajur.”
“Oh.” Prithvi was back to square one.

He walked back home hurriedly, realising he’d left the gate wide open. He kept a wary eye out for any Madisey loafers. He turned the handle on the gate but it didn’t open. It was locked. He cursed silently and tried the doorbell. But loadshedding hours meant there was no electricity, which in turn meant the doorbell didn’t work. He rapped on the door with the palm of his hand. It wasn’t loud enough. So he used his feet. Sita appeared at the door to the house, yelling:

“Who’s shaking the entire house?”
“It’s me, open the door,” Prithvi called.
“Who’s me?”
Harey Shiva. It’s me!” Prithvi bellowed.
Sita peered out the side of the gate at Prithvi.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Of course, it’s me. Who did you think it was? That madisey?”
“Yes! Who knows? Maybe he’s planning to come back? Maybe he was checking our house?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Prithvi. “Maybe it was a recce.”
“What’s a recce?”
“You know, like those army guys say, recce.”

Prithvi meant reconnaissance, but Sita didn’t know that.

They went inside and locked the gate and their front door securely. Biru was sitting at the dining table, looking at them wide-eyed, like the goldfish in the bowl that stared unblinking, all-seeing and unperturbed.

“Did you find the man?” Biru asked hesitantly.
“No, son.” Prithvi replied. “Are you sure you saw a man?”
“Like you said, it was a madisey man. He was wearing a red-and-white colourful muffler.” Biru, like any good liar, gave details.
“He means a gamcha,” Prithvi turned to Sita to explain.
“I know,” Sita snapped. She was from Nepalgunj. She knew what a gamcha was.
“You wouldn’t lie, would you, son?” Sita turned to Biru now.

Under the blazing heat of his mother’s gaze, Biru almost melted. But he had come too far. The lie was now an iceberg, built and unbroken. Admitting to the lie would mean a slap from his mother and a twist of the ear from his father. If angry enough, then maybe a kick or even the belt. Biru still had a bruise on his left thigh from last week when he’d cracked his father’s favourite glass paperweight. It was a gaudy piece, muted green with vague unbecoming patterns. It wasn’t even cracked, more chipped really. It could still be easily used to bludgeon someone, if the need ever arose.

“I’m not lying, mamu,” he said meekly, looking down at his feet.
“There was a man, hai?” she prodded.
Biru nodded.
“And he was a dark man?”
“Papa said he was a madisey,” Biru said to the floor.

Sita and Prithvi sat down at the table, mother opposite the son and father at the head of the table. Lunch was served by the mousy maid with stringy hair falling all over her face. The family ate in silence, Prithvi and Sita thinking about the man, the dark man, who had desecrated their sanctum.

After banishing Biru to the computer room, the two parents sat down for a serious talk.

“What if he comes back in the night?” Sita was worried.
“We’ll lock all our doors and windows.”
“What if he brings more people?”
“We’ll have to call the police and wake up the neighbourhood.”

“What if he gasses us and steals everything while we’re unconscious?”

“Then there’s nothing we can do, is there, Sita?” Prithvi snapped irritably.

Prithvi called up his older son, Gyan, who was out with his friends. Gyan was 17, old enough to wield a cricket bat if it came to that. He’d have to find something smaller for Biru.

“Why are you calling?” Gyan asked rudely, without even a perfunctory hello.
“There’s an issue at home.”
“What happened?”
“You should come home.”
“What happened?”
“It’s important, son, you need to come home now.”
“If you don’t tell me what happened, I’m not coming home.”
“There was a thief in the house.”

Gyan arrived on the back of a motorcycle in less than twenty minutes. He burst through the door, bolted to his room and made sure nothing had been taken. Once satisfied, he accosted his mother and father.

“So what was taken?”
“Nothing.”
“The thief took nothing?”
“No.”
“Then what did he do?”
“He washed his hands in the sink.”
“What?”
“He washed his hands. Then he left.”

Gyan was incredulous. He loaoked as if he’d been slapped hard across the face. Unable to think of anything else to say, Gyan pointed out that two goldfish were dead and floating in the bowl. They had been overfed, first by Prithvi when he found the first dead fish, then by Sita while Prithvi was interrogating Mithoo, then by Biru while the two adults wondered aloud if they’d be robbed and murdered in the night.

Prithvi went to dispose of the fish and Gyan interrogated his mother. She explained it all to him. A Madhesi man in a gamcha and a lungi had come into the house, used the bathroom, washed his hands, left the water running and then left. He might have had a knife. Gyan asked if they had seen the man in question. Sita said no, only Biru had actually glimpsed the intruder.

And so, Gyan took his little brother on a walk around the neighbourhood.
Gyan singled out Mithoo’s nephew, who worked at the local garage. But Biru shook his head. Next door was Idris the plumber. It wasn’t him either. Gyan pointed to the vegetable vendors. Biru shook his head again. The cobbler? No. The man who sat behind the counter at the samosa place? No. The pharmacist? No. The guy who took photos at the instant photo place? No. What about the man who lived in that rented flat three doors down from them?

“Maybe,” said Biru.

Biru, again, did not know why he picked Ram Babu Sahni. He rarely even saw Ram Babu, who owned a van and made his living delivering vegetables and fruits from the wholesale market at Kalimati to retailers across Kathmandu. Ram Babu left home at 3am, worked throughout the morning and into the afternoon. He came home only to sleep. Biru had run into him a few times while coming home from school. He would pass Ram Babu, who would smile broadly. He had even offered Biru an apple once, which had been accepted eagerly. But growing increasingly uncomfortable with his brother’s insistent questioning, Biru felt obliged to say something; pick someone, anyone, as long as he was a madisey.

Gyan dragged Biru back home by the hand, scolding him for not having said anything earlier about Ram Babu Sahni. He announced to his parents that his brother had identified Ram Babu as the intruder. Prithvi was reluctant to believe Biru. He had never seen Ram Babu wear a gamcha, but then again, he had never seen Ram Babu that much either. Sita was also reluctant, because she had never seen Ram Babu wear a lungi. All the times she’d seen Ram Babu, he always said ‘Namaste’ to her with a little bow of the head. He was always dressed in a crisp shirt with tailored cotton pants. But Gyan was convinced. Gyan needed an outlet. Gyan needed a reason.

Gyan insisted that he and Prithvi pay Ram Babu a visit. Prithvi pointed out that Ram Babu would not be back until later in the afternoon. Gyan decided, unhappily, to wait. But he wasn’t going to do it quietly.

“How can someone just come into our home like that?” he asked no one in particular.

“Madiseys are like that,” his father interjected.
“It’s madhesi, not madisey,” Sita interjected.
“What?” Prithvi turned towards her.
“They don’t like being called madisey.”
“Then what to call them? Madisey is not a bad word. Newars call them marsya, is that better?”

“No but why say madisey when you can say Madhesi?” Sita didn’t know why she was pushing the issue. Maybe because she had grown up in the Tarai, surrounded by Madhesis.

“They call us pahadey so why can’t we call them madisey?” Gyan asked.

“What does it matter?” Prithvi thundered. “The man came into our house uninvited and we’re debating what to call him? Weren’t you the one who was so afraid earlier?”

“But if it is Ram Babu, he must’ve had a reason. It’s not some Madhesi we don’t know. We know Ram Babu.”
“We don’t know him at all. He leaves at three in the morning every day. Who knows what he is delivering in that van? I don’t trust any of them,” Gyan interjected.
“Who?” Sita asked.
“Madhesis. Madiseys. Same thing.”
“The dai who cuts my hair is madisey,” Biru quipped from afar. He’d been listening in.

“Yes and so is your plumber and electrician. Also your doctor and the president of your country,” snorted Prithvi.
“Mama, is Rita aunty also a madisey?” Biru asked.
“Yes but she’s different. Her husband is a doctor and they have a nice house. They’re not like Mithoo.”

Rita was one of Sita’s housewife friends, who lived six houses over, in a rented ground floor flat. Her husband wasn’t a doctor. He was a laboratory blood analyst. But that was good enough. They were quiet people and Rita didn’t protest at all to being under Sita’s thumb.

“Is Ram Babu uncle like Mithoo?” Biru pressed.
“I don’t know, chhora,” Sita cut him off.
“What is he like, papa?” This time Gyan asked Prithvi.
“I don’t know, never really spoken to him except for hi-hello,” said Prithvi. “Seemed nice but you can never tell.”
“Why would Ram Babu come into our house?” Gyan.
“Maybe he didn’t have water in his house.” Biru.

“Maybe he wanted to talk to your father and didn’t find him and had to leave.” Sita.

“But I was right here!” Prithvi.
“Maybe he really had to use the bathroom.” Biru.
“Maybe he’s just a thief and didn’t have time to steal because Biru saw him.” Gyan.
“May be Gyan is right.” Sita.

And like every other time, Gyan was right. The elder child, the better student, the more outgoing personality. Gyan was everything a younger brother would never want.

“Yes, dai may be right,” Biru said softly, seconded again, even his lie taken away from him.

It was decided that after tea, Gyan and Prithvi would go talk to Ram Babu. They would first ask if he had been in their house and if he did not admit to it, they would reveal that Biru had seen him there. Biru, all of eleven years old, watched silently as his brother and father planned to trap this man into revealing his nonexistent conspiracy to rob and possibly murder them. He wanted to go with them but instead, went to look at the fish. Two more were dead in the tank. One last goldfish swum around happily, oblivious to the world as it spun around its home. Biru scooped the dead fish out with a dahl ladle and flushed them down the toilet. He watched without comment when Gyan and Prithvi left the house, their fists balled up inside their pockets.

Ram Babu opened the door bleary-eyed to the father and son’s insistent knocking. There was no doorbell.

“Ram Babu ji, we needed to talk to you about something,” Prithvi started.
“Hajur?” Ram Babu responded.
“Did you come over to my house earlier today? In the morning?”
“No?” Ram Babu was confused. “I was at work, dai. Why do you ask?”

“The thing is, Ram Babu ji…” Prithvi was uncomfortable. For all his bluster at home, he, an English teacher, just wasn’t cut out for confrontation.

“My brother saw you in our house,” Gyan interjected, rather rudely.
“Sorry?” Ram Babu blinked at them.
“You were in our house in the morning. My brother saw you.”

“You must be mistaken. I have been at work since three in the morning, bhai. Why would I be in your house?”

“So my eleven-year-old brother is just lying for no reason?”
“I don’t know, bhai. You should ask your brother that.”
“Please tell us, Ram Babu ji,” Prithvi tried to appeal to the man less aggressively.

“I’m telling you. I’ve never been in your home.”
“How am I to believe you over my own family?”
“Why don’t you trust an adult over a child?”
“My son doesn’t tell lies,” Prithvi said.
“How do you know that? Maybe he does.”
“Are you calling my brother a liar?” Gyan interjected, unnecessarily angry.
“Yes. Your brother is a liar if he’s saying I was in your house. He needs his ear twisted.”
“We know it was you.”
Ram Babu was agitated now. He hadn’t yet had a chance to rest or even eat and here was a father-son duo accusing him of bizarrely breaking into their home. It was like something out of a Kumar Nagarkoti short story.

“Leave my door!” He yelled, frustrated. “You come here to accuse me of being a thief. What did I take? What proof do you have? Leave right now or something bad might happen.”

Ram Babu wasn’t a violent man but years of hauling potatoes by the sack had provided him with thick, ropey arms and a rock solid midsection. He had learned not to back down since being robbed twice in the early hours of the morning by boys barely bigger than Gyan, who had called him ma chikni madisey as they kicked him in the stomach.

But Ram Babu’s slight belligerence only served to further incense Gyan.

“We’ll come back with police,” said Gyan. “Saley madisey.”

Prithvi called up a distant cousin from back home in Sindhupalchowk. A sub-inspector with the police. The cop was sympathetic and promised to send two men over in the morning to follow up. But if all they had was a boy’s word against this man’s, that was little to go on. Prithvi told him that it was a madhesi man, not local. He drove a van. The cousin promised him two men in the morning with a little more confidence in his voice.

All night, Sita was distraught. She refused to eat and stayed in her room. Biru felt guilty, seeing his mother so upset, but the lie was too far gone. A round rock had been loosed from the top of a hill and it was now rolling steadily down, picking up speed. Biru was as much at the mercy of events as everyone else. He told no one nothing. Instead, he started to wonder if he had just forgotten about the man with the muffler. Maybe he hadn’t lied at all. Maybe he had just remembered right.

Biru and Gyan were out in the living room, trying to watch television when they heard arguing from their parents’ room. It started out soft at first, in agitated yet subdued insistent tones, but it rose in pitch, culminating in loud peals that rang through the house.

“Why didn’t you do something?”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“Take him to the police!”
“Do I beat him? Do I manhandle him? How would I do that?”
“They are cowards. He’ll give up or try to run.”
“Sita, what are you saying?”

“You are not worried that a gang of thieves will break into your house and rob you while you sleep? Maybe they’ll gas us, maybe they’ll kill us. You know a family was just gassed and robbed in Basundhara a few months ago? You know what these people are like. You have to do something first.”

“What can I do, Sita? He’s madhesi, he probably has connections with political parties. Everyone knows what happened in Gaur. Lal Babu Keshari told me how the madhesis killed the Maoists. Beaten, hacked to pieces, their heads mounted on poles for everyone to see. It was barbaric, something that didn’t even happen during the war years. Even the Maoists weren’t that brutal.”

“When did you become so weak, raja? You can’t even protect your own home, your wife and your family? Why are you so afraid?”

“I’m not afraid, Sita. Things are just difficult for people like us now.”
“What do you mean people like us?”

“You know, Bahuns and Chhetris. Everyone has power these days – Janajatis, Madhesis, Muslims, Dalits, Tharus, even women. Everyone. If you’re a Bahun-Chhetri man in this country, you might as well not exist.”

“How do you know Ram Babu is even Nepali? Have you ever asked him? Gyan and Biru’s barber, Nankau, is from Bairgania and Idris the plumber is from Nanpara. We even talked about it once when he found out I was from Nepalganj.”

“You can’t just ask him if he is Nepali, Sita. It’s dangerous these days.”

“What do you think will happen? Will he beat you? Will he get his madhesi party cadre to beat us?”

“It’s not about that…”

Gyan and Biru listened quietly. But Gyan had had enough. He felt something stir inside him, something he had never really felt before. He had always been a good kid. He did well in school and didn’t do too many terrible things, except for occasionally drinking and smoking with his friends. He had played it safe all his life, doing well because he knew he could. Really, he was a coward, afraid of the unknown and unwilling to challenge himself. Now, he felt angry, a kind of dull, stupid, irrational anger that sought only outlet, no respite.

“Let’s go,” he said to his father, bursting into the room. His father looked at him blankly, clad only in boxers and not understanding.

“Let’s go,” Gyan repeated.

Sita looked away pointedly as Prithvi put his pants on and stepped outside. “You want to go to the police right now?” He asked Gyan, nervously for once, afraid of what his son was going to say next.

“Let’s take him to the police,” said Gyan, dangerously taciturn.
“What if he won’t come?”
“He’ll come. If he won’t, we’ll make him come.”

Gyan and Prithvi walked out of the gate and towards where Ram Babu slept quietly, ensconced in a blanket brought over from his home in Sarlahi, surrounded by peeling paint in his rented room in a rented city, ground floor of a three-storey building, below neighbours who bickered long into the afternoon, dreaming of a day, weeks ago, when two young boys, barely teens, had followed him as he walked home from the market, repeating like a mantra, first softly, then louder and louder, dhoti, dhoti, dhoti.

Biru watched from the door, nestled against his mother, as his father and brother left. He felt as if he had regressed to infancy since the morning, ever since the madhesi man in his gamcha had walked into their lives. He felt an inordinate urge to suck his thumb. Sita shut and locked the door securely, checking twice. Biru stopped to check on his fish. The last goldfish, small and yellow against the circumscribed green of the waters, flitted about uncertainly, its gait slow and sluggish.

Biru shook a few flakes of fish food into the bowl and watched as the goldfish floundered. Minutes later, it was dead.

~Pranaya SJB Rana is a Kathmandu based writer. His first book, City of Dreams, was published in October 2015.

Post Comments

Leave a Reply

Comments will have to be approved by a Himal Southasian moderator before they are published. See Comment Moderation Policy.

More from Fiction