The Telegram on the Table

Parashu Pradhan

Once more he read the telegram that lay on the table. Or rather his eyes went along its lines once again. He suddenly felt happy, although he knew that he was very tired. All day he had been out relating the entire history of the country to tourists and answering their multifarious questions. Now it seemed that some life had returned to his flagging ambitions. He smiled. A tragedy like this should have made him weep. But none of it touched him at all. It felt as ordinary as his everyday life: getting up at dawn, hurriedly rinsing out his mouth, pulling on jacket and trousers, tying a knot in his tie, then smiling at strange faces as if he knew them well.

A few days before he had met a friend; one of his best friends from his village, who had also come to the city and become trapped in some menial job. This friend knew about the tragic event and had uttered words of sympathy: "I am very sorry, Krishna. You have my heartfelt sympathy."

But this sympathy had not touched him at all. It had seemed meant for someone else. To observe convention, he had smiled nonetheless and simply said, "Thank you."

That telegram had been lying there for weeks. He always came home from the hotel in the middle of the night, and he was always tired like this. He had been caught by a pair of blue eyes or immersed in Western music. His eyes always shone when he looked at the telegram. Perhaps he had needed to receive it before he could really achieve what he aimed for. Now that he had received it, perhaps he was happy. Very, very happy indeed.

He had always tried to speak English since he was a child. He had dreamed in English and considered English his all. It had brought him a new wave of happiness. Now he explained the culture and customs in his own way: how the kumari was chosen, how the kumari was worshipped, what the horse festival

was like. He thought of the foreigners staring straight at him and of Judiths and Jennies amazed by his words. His life was most enjoyable. Often he dreamed of New York skyscrapers and awoke from his dreams amazed by the Goddess of Liberty there. Or else he would imagine lying beside the ocean, playing a tape of Nepali folk songs. Sometimes he dreamed sentimentally; then he became practical again. For it was quite certain that one day Krishna would follow a tourist girl far across the skies. Unfamiliar voices were calling him from distant lands. "Come to us just once," they seemed to be saying. "We will be your guides. We will welcome you. We love you."

But then there was that telegram, which he would rather not have received. It took him back to earlier times and forced him to think about things he would prefer not to consider. The person it concerned had never meant much to him. He had never felt the need to pay much attention to her. He still lived in the city, just as he had ten years before, trying to make his seedling dreams grow. The telegram should have made him weep, but it didn't. He should have felt regret, but he didn't. He should have fasted for a while, but he didn't. That telegram should have affected him; it should have elicited some response. But the wires inside Krishna were strange. No current ran along them. Nothing ever touched him. No grief could shake his heart.

He put it out of his mind and tried to sleep. He turned the radio on low and switched off the light, but sleep would not come. All that afternoon's tourists came before him, asking, "How old is this piece of art?" "What's the importance of this?" "Is woodcarving a new tradition?" And so on and so on. He forgot them and thought about his lodgings. He paid a high rent, but there were few amenities. If he got up too late, there was no water. If he kept his light on for too long, everyone complained. All sorts of houses had been built on the empty fields in front. The open sky was a long way off. He thought he would like to move somewhere else. Then he could invite that Miss Pande from the travel service home for dinner. But the room he rented was bad, and soon even that mundane wish dwindled away.

Then he thought of the distant hills of his home. He had not visited for many years. It would be good to go home every Dasain, he thought, to join in the dancing and dispel the emptiness of the city. He would gladly swap places with someone there, even if it were only for a few days. Or he could brag to the idle young folk. "If you've no work, come with me," he could say. "I'll fix you up with a job." But as he thought of the hill country, that woman came into his mind again_the woman he did not want to define. He did not want to accept her or identify her. But a telegram had come, and there it was written, "Your wife died yesterday." There could be no doubt about what it told him. Your wife died yesterday, it said; your wife died yesterday.

It would not allow him to sleep. He pressed a switch, and the room lit up. He went to the table and read it again, forcing himself to concentrate. Your wife died yesterday, it said. Your wife died; your wife died. . . . For weeks he had slept there within sight of that message, but tonight for some reason his mind was filled with desired and unwanted connections, thoughts of the present and the past, all of them in discord. Why couldn't he sleep tonight? Why couldn't he make sense of it and weep? Having lived alone for so long in the city, had he become like a stone? Was he incapable of thought? Suddenly angry with himself, he tore it to shreds and burst into tears. He cried and cried, he knew not how long.

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