Magical Thinking

Tuesday morning, we’d only been up for a short time when Bhinaju told me that just around the corner, Shaula dai had gone in to the bathroom this morning, given a shout, and was immobile.  At first, from the way Bhinaju described it, I thought Shaula dai had somehow just stopped speaking.  But then Bhinaju went over to see what was going on, and when he came back, it was pretty clear that Shaula dai was dead.

At first I wasn’t going to do anything.  But as I finished packing for our three days in Pokhara I realized that made no sense.  To be honest, I still wasn’t sure who Shaula dai was, because I call almost all the men of a certain age simply “dai,” or “brother.”  Bhinaju had said, “The one in Deurali, with no teeth,” which could have been a lot of people, and I was sorting through them all in my mind.

It wasn’t till Bhinaju and I were walking over and we turned onto the small path that goes around Gita bouju’s house that I realized Shaula dai was Kopila and Kalpana’s father.  I chatted with him the other day while he and his wife were tilling corn.

At their house, a lot of people were crowded around the yard and in the dirt road in front of it.  Bhinaju and I made our way up to the porch, where Shaula dai had already been covered in a white piece of cloth.  I noticed a curtain was missing from in front of the house door, and for a minute I was fixated on this, the image of someone taking down the white curtain at the front door to cover Shaula dai’s body on the porch, leaving just one flowered white curtain at the entrance to the house.

Would they replace it?

At first, Ujali bouju – Shaula dai’s wife – looked bizarrely nonplussed, standing on the porch, calling out to various people in the crowd.  While she was off to the side, I asked Bhinaju if we could see Shaula dai’s face, and unfortunately just then Ujali bouju came to sit by her husband’s head, her obligation until the arrival of a son.  Before I could stop him, Bhinaju asked Ujali to pull back the sheet.  She did it gingerly, and suddenly her shock and terror were visible in the way she handled that gesture, as if the sheet was on fire.  As she tucked it back under his head our eyes locked for a long, confused moment.

I didn’t know if it was wrong to look her in the eye like that.

As we stood around, phone calls were made.  Shiva dai came over and Ujali bouju said not to call any of the kids who are living in Japan.  Especially not the girls – there was no way for Kopila and Kalpana to get here in time for the funeral rites.  So they were absolutely not to be called.  In the way that multiple experiences can suddenly collide and line up in an instant, I recognized Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I read recently and have been thinking about a lot.  As if it made sense not to call the daughters, who should not know their father was dead if there was no way to get home for the funeral rites.  As if he could stay alive for them, as long as they didn’t know.

Last night, we had a guest in our house.  He had wanted to sleep in his own bed sheets, and had arrived with a white sleeping bag liner that was light and suited to the warm weather.  He fit right inside of the white liner and lay down on his back, with his legs straight together and hands folded on his chest, and put a pale shawl over the liner, and became perfectly still.  Bhinaju and I were sitting on the other bed and he leaned over to me and whispered – Laura – our guest looks exactly the way a dressed body looks – and we both shuddered and couldn’t look at the sleeping figure on the other bed after that.

Now, the next morning, there was Shaula dai before our eyes in exactly same posture. Bhinaju leaned over to me and whispered – Laura – our guest just last night – and we both shuddered again.  And I realized that Ujali bouju, sitting by Shaula dai’s head, had not even changed out of her red sari, and it was jarring to see the red sari next to the white curtain covering Shaula dai, because white, the color of purity, is the color of death, and the celebratory color red is forbidden to widows.  In that moment, I saw Ujali bouju arrested in a transformed world, sitting in her red sari beside the still white covering.  Soon, somebody was going tell her it was time to change, and like Aamaa, she would never wear a red sari again.

.     .     .

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