MANU BRAJAKI : ANNAPURNA’S FEAST manu
Mahesh Paudyal

HE CAME BACK with two kilograms of fish. When he was about to reach home, he was almost running. It was unwise to take buff in the name of mutton every day. Considering that it would be inauspicious to have meat on such a holy day, he came home with fish worth sixty rupees.

“Annapurna, did you hear me? See what I have brought home!”

Annapurna appeared on the doorsteps.

She appeared like a ruin that looked grand in spite of itself.

Maybe, she was beautiful in the past. At the moment, all she had was a faint memory of the same. Whatever had remained of her youth was still attractive, for it had not disappeared completely. She displayed a faint smile in reception of her husband in the fashion of a light that flashes inside some ruin. Her round and yellow face glittered. But her husband didn’t notice it.

She saw, there were four black fishes in a polythene bag that hung from her husband’s right hand. She didn’t know what was there in his left hand.

“Why did you bring these many fishes?” she asked, winking her eyes.

“We’ll have a feast today,” he said, handing over the bag to Annapurna.

“We’ll also have Deepawali this evening,” he said, taking out a bundle of candles from the other bag, and placing them on the table. From the same bag, he fished out two bottles of home-made liquor. Placing them inside the same cupboard, he said, “We shall have a celebration today.” He then turned back abruptly and stared at his wife’s eyes that were winking frantically. “Had you been sleeping?” he asked.

“Why would I be sleeping so early? I was sewing your trousers.”

“Trousers? He suddenly remembered yesterday’s issue.

The previous morning, when he was out to buy vegetables, the woman who was far more attractive than his wife had smiled to him. In response, he had smiled even more. When he came home licking the sweetness of the woman’s smile, Annapurna too smiled at him.

And now, when his wife smiled, he was startled. He asked in dismay, “What’s wrong? Why are you laughing like that?”

Winking her eyes further, Annapurna laughed even more. Then she said, “Oh, what a man you are? The trousers you are wearing are inside-out. More, the stitch on one of the sleeves has come off right up to the thigh.”

At this moment, his wife’s smile appeared to him not like licking a piece of chocolate, but like chewing a piece of chilly. The fact was that, while waiting for the new constitution, he had arrived at such a situation of mockery, caught in several whirls of suspicion. But then, the constitution came about, fit and fine.

Landing on the planes of the present, he said to his wife, “Leave it! Why are you straining your eyes? We shall buy a pair of new trousers.” He then cast his eyes on his wife’s dress.

Though a woman of beauty and youthfulness in the past, she was now standing like a ruin, tangled all through by a web of spiders. Her face, like the single intact room of the ruin, too was lined with dust. There was no make-up of any sort, no embellishment anywhere. No jewelries, no cosmetics. There was no glittering curtain, either. It was naturally desolate, like the forest in Tarai, which the Gorkhalis had bravely destroyed.

Considering all these things, he was just about to say something when Annapurna overtook him. She said, “Do we get trousers for free? I don’t think the interim government will buy everyone a pair of trousers. Tell, how did you buy all these things?”

“Do not be pissed off. I borrowed some cash, and got some on credit. I have promised my friends that I would throw them a party after the new constitution is promulgated. It’s you who should distribute things evenly. It’s for that very reason I call you Annapurna[1].”

In fact, her real name was not Annapurna. According to her stars, her name was Dol Kumari. Since her face was round, they had nicknames her Dalli—a woman with a round face. For her skills in managing the household, she had earned the name Annapurna from her husband. How would the husband know how much evil-eyes and acrid words, and unwarranted sympathies one had to face while moving out with the diplomacy of borrowing, bartering or loaning things? Whatever the case, she was not willing to irk her husband today. So, winking her eyes with a smile, she asked, “How many of them are coming?”

“Oh, aren’t you angry? Today is a festive day. Four of them will be here—only four. Fry a kilo of fish, and cook the rest with some soup for rice.”

“And the remaining one kilo?”

“All we have is two kilos.”

“I just asked because you were mentioning kilo after kilo.”

“It’s a feast today. Why should we always talk of a quarter? More, this feast is yours—Annapurna’s feast.”

Dalli alias Dol Kumari, who was also called Annapurna, thinks what a gullible husband she had. When it came to meat, he prepared to fry it no sooner he was inside with it. This was, however, fish! And two kilogram of it would come down to a kilo and a half while cooking. But then, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to upset her husband.

In great enthusiasm, the husband said, “And Annu, this dress of yours won’t do.”

He ran his eyes through his wife’s tattered and patched-up sari and cholo[2], and spoke in stammers from a dejected heart, “Why don’t you take the new pair of sari and cholo we bought in Teej[3] last? Go; clean yourself and put the new dress. It’s 5 o’clock now. They will have reached here by 6. We need to safeguard our honor, at least.

In the meantime, their seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter came in, hopping and shouted. They said, “Father has brought fish! Father has brought fish!” taking the fish out of the carry-bag.

On hearing her husband’s words, Annapurna gave a quick glance at him. Then, she snatched the fish bag from her children’s hands and entered the kitchen.

He started changing his clothes, whistling.

His friends arrived before it was six.

The odor of fish being fried inside could be felt even from without.

The daughter and son lit the candles, and placed them on every window.

After all, it was their future that was going to brighten.

Shaking hands, Santosh Bhattarai said, “Where is this tantalizing odor coming from, man?”

Gyanu Walker also forwarded his hand and said, “Maybe there is another aromatic fluid together with it.”

Bimal Nibha shook his hand and said, “I shall go only for fish soup.”

Kishor Nepal forwarded his hand and said, “If so, pieces of the people’s movement will all be mine.”

All the four burst out into wild laughter. Controlling his laughter, he said in rather dejected voice, “What a fun it would be, if Kumud Devkota was still with us. But then, he is a very carefree man. He followed his whims and went away. It too is true that he had come without anyone inviting him.”

Everyone entered a room called the ‘dining room’. They sat on the mat upon which a carpet, a counterpane and a cushion had been piled in layers.

On getting a tiptoe of the friends’ arrival, Annapurna too presented herself in the drawing room. She accorded namaskar and welcomed everyone with a smile, winking her eyes frantically. Everyone remarked, “Bhauju, you happened to gain weight?”

He also saw Dol Kumari alias Dalli fatter this time. He contemplated why his friends had called him fatter, being unable to call her ‘beautiful’ directly. Accordingly, he also saw her quite beautiful. It’s true that one’s wife appears beautiful when observed from his friends’ eyes. Every husband should materially acknowledge this particular favor from his friends.

Soon, a plate full of fried fish was served. He took out a bottle and a few glasses from the cupboard.

They started helping themselves with fried fish and liquor. For some time, they wrangled on whether it was proper for them to welcome with liquor the multiparty democracy the martyrs procured by spilling blood. Since they had finished two shots each before this row reached anywhere, it was concluded in a typical Nepali fashion. They now resorted to political discussion.

Prajatantra[4] is…?”

“No, it’s not prajatantra. Are we ‘prajas’ anymore? Call it loktantra, or janatantra[5].”

Naya janavad[6] is…?”

“It’s not naya janavad. It’s naulo janavad[7].”

“Marxism has died.”

“A philosophy never dies out. It’s another episode in the chain of human contemplation.”

“Don’t you know that a dead elephant is worth one hundred and fifteen thousand rupees?”

“Can we call those with aristocratic manners ‘democratic’?”

“Even the feudalists are democrats.”

“Bhauju, can we get some fish? It’s very yummy.”

“Gramci once said…”

“Bernstein had once said…”

“Jean-Francois Revel’s Without Marx or Jesus.”

“Karpatri’s Ram Rajya and Marxism…”

“What about Euro-communism?”

“Pan-Islamic Organization…”

“Oh, what a great taste the fish has! Can we get a little more, Bhauju?”

“Lo, Santosh Bhattarai has started babbling.”

“Oh, Gyanu Walker looks just like Johnnie Walker.”

“What about you, man?”

“Lo, Bimal Nibha has started dousing in the fish soup[8].”

“How did this Kishore, the inferior editor…”

“Let’s leave this issue.”

“Martyr’s blood…”

“Add some liquor, man. If there’s none…”

“Bhauju, fish!”

The son and the daughter were standing on the threshold, and like future time, staring inward. They had even forgotten to eat the fishes in their hands. Since he had instructed his wife to give the kids only the heads, the kids had one fish head each in their hands.

The political talk became even rifer. The third bottle arrived. It was Annapurna’s offer.

“We should run for the election jointly.”

“But campaigning should be done secretly for ourselves only…”

“Whom are you going to vote?” Gyanu.

“Whom are you going to vote?” Santosh.

“Whom are you going to vote?” Koshor.

“Whom are you going to vote?” He.

“Whom are you going to vote, Bhauju?” All his friends, except him.

“To anyone you all suggest.”

“We are asking you because we couldn’t strike an agreement. The present constitution has given the women full rights.  Every party is required to have at least five percent of their members as women.”

“I think I should now serve meal for you all, shall I?”

Annapurna made an abrupt turn and went into the kitchen. His curiosity that she might suggest a candidate to vote for turned into thin air. Annapurna, who was adept in managing the family, mysteriously resolved the issue. All women, after all, are like her. They tactfully avoid the subject, if it is contentious.

Having no consciousness, contemplation and opinion of one’s own is like not even being a human being. Is being a wife ‘inhuman’ to that extent?

But then, women also have heterogeneity in them like the men folk. Why then are they made wives, and thus declared inhuman and heartless? Go; inquire.

The candles died out. Had it been an electric chandelier hung on the ceiling, it would continue burning. If they could afford, they would burn a diyo of wick-in-ghee all night. If they could afford!

Food was served. Annapurna fed fish and rice to everyone with joy, exhibiting hospitality, characteristic of a good housewife.  During the meal, Santosh shouted all of a sudden, “Gurans, gurans, gurans[9].”

“What’s wrong?”

“Eh, a fishbone has stuck in the throat. It won’t go by chanting ‘gurans’. Leave this superstitious method. Swallow a ball of rice. “

After dinner, they all prepared to leave for their own homes, wishing bright and happy future for the country and society. Santosh Bhattarai shook hand in joy of getting the fishbone safely out of his throat. Gyanu Walker turned towards Annapurna and shook hand, humming ‘Khandahar naya naya’.[10]‘ Bimal Nibha shook hand, blazing and dousing. Koshor Nepal alias inferior editor shook hand, gripping the knot of his tie. At last, they all urged Annapurna to reserve her vote within herself. She displayed a gentle smile.

After everyone had left, he emptied the left-over liquor into his own glass.

“Are you drinking more?”

“A little. Are the kids asleep?”

“They are.”

“You have your meal now.”

Collecting the used utensils, Annapurna rushed into the kitchen. He started drinking. He thought between shots on how he could balance family budget. It was like a tangled coil of a thread. Pull it this way; it knots up in another end. Put that way; a knot develops in this end. His thought faltered in the midst of his inebriation. He sauntered in every new step he took. Irritated, he stopped thinking. He thought why he should try his mind when Annapurna was at home. With this self-appeasement, he went out to urinate.

When he reached near his bedroom, he saw that his children were fast asleep. When he further went near the kitchen, he saw Annapurna and forgot the question of urinating. Annapurna, whose real name was Dol Kumari—and nicknamed Dalli—was sitting on a tool among unwashed utensils, and was munching a handful of chiura[11] with old lemon pickle from a saucer kept beside herself. She had placed some water in a ewer near to the saucer to wash her teeth soured down by chiura and the pickle. Since Annapurna was busy chewing chiura, and her eyebrows were bent downward, she did not see her husband. Unable to stand this spectacle from inside his kitchen, he turned his eyes outward. The entire town was gleaming in lights, hailing the promulgation of a new constitution. Unable to hold his mind again, he turned his eyes inside and stood there staring.

For a change of taste, when Annapurna licked the fringe of the cooking wok for the little froth of fish-curry attached to it, his mind was struck by a question as sharp as a spine: Are the opinions of our wives safe?

[Translated by Mahesh Paudyal

***

[1]  The Hindu goddess of food and cereals

[2] a traditional Nepali blouse with binding strings to hold it in place

[3] a festival of Nepali women, when they sang, danced, fasted, worshipped and visited their parental homes

[4] partial democracy in which the people elect the parliament members though the king continues to be the head of the state

[5] both loktantra and janatantra refers to the republican form of governance

[6] New communism

[7] Here, both naya janavad and naulo janavad mean the same thing: new communism. But the friends wrangle over the right synonym ‘naya’ or ‘naulo’, both of which mean ‘new’

[8] Nepali word for dousing is ‘nibhnu’, and the pun comes from the second name of Bimal Nibha, used here to make fun with ‘nibhnu’, meaning dousing of a lamp.

[9] There is a belief in Nepal that if a fishbone gets stuck in one’s throat, chanting ‘gurans, gurans’ sends it out or down one’s gullet. The word ‘gurans’ means rhododendron flower and chewing the same too is believed to send the stuck fishbone out or down.

[10] new ruins

[11] rice—boiled, roasted and parched to be used as dry food during all seasons