No Grey Area.

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, September 24 2011. Available online here.


It’s the first time we’ve left the city together. Like a pair of fugitives, we’ve escaped Kathmandu on his motorbike in search of a temporary refuge, hoping to camouflage against a background of tourists and day-trippers, away from the suspicious gaze of our colleagues.

He sits opposite me at a dirty table in the back of a teashop. We’ve done this many times before close to the office, but now it feels awkward. Like we’re a pair of black and white chess pieces playing a strategic game of emotional insecurity. The rusting sheet metal door is pushed closed, separating us off from the rest of the hillside village and light pierces through the cracks. It juts into the darkness, illuminating the dirt-caked floor and reminds us that we’re not quite alone.

“We can’t be together… I hope you understand”. He’s so matter of fact, stubbing out his cigarette, with the deliberate detachment of a man sacrificing a goat.

I stare at him incredulously, letting the stench of fried roti and cigarette smoke waft over me and remain silent as he finishes his bowl of sweet, locally-distilled chhang. I’ve remained quiet since he brought me here and sat passively as he ordered in a language I can’t comprehend from a dark-skinned boy wearing a filthy Britney Spears t-shirt and ragged black school trousers.

As I sip the strong beer, he, without trace of emotion, works his way down a checklist of reasons why he doesn’t want me, lingering over each mentally prepared bullet point. Rational and analytical, but cold and detached, like the objective thinker he has been trained to be. He explains that I don’t understand his culture, that I’m too young and too emotional. I want to protest, but he’s clearly rehearsed this speech.

You’re treating me like carrion to be pecked at and ripped apart, a voice inside my head screams. I feel like a patient, anaesthetised and lying bare and naked before him. And he, like a surgeon, dissects my body with no understanding or appreciation of whom he has so recklessly pursued. And then, to finalise his decision, he stubs out the cigarette and takes a final swig of his beer. Checkmate, it seems.

A candle flickers uneasily on the table amidst the growing tension. I consider arguing my case, but the boy has returned to refill our ceramic bowls. I doubt he can understand English, but I remain quiet as the frustration builds. With each mouthful of beer the lines are becoming gradually blurry and all sense of reason is trickling slowly out of me. Was it his plan to get me too drunk to challenge his decision? Perhaps he’s right and I am young and naïve. I look at him for any trace of feeling, but his tanned face and black hair fade into the room’s darkness making it impossible to read his expression. His narrow eyes flash and glimmer beetle-black in response, showing no sign of emotion.

I want to speak, but the stench of cigarettes chokes my voice, already burdened with rejection and the realisation of my own foolishness. As the reasons why he has brought me here begin to sink in, I feel my surety squeezed out of me. He wanted control, of course, and he knew the only way to achieve that was to catch me off guard and not allow me to maneuver him in my native language.

He takes another cigarette out of the gold Surya packet on the table, holds it to his mouth and lights it, in quiet defiance of how much he knows I hate his smoking.

“You don’t know how hard I worked for this job.”

He speaks slowly in deep, heavily accented English, but these words are not new to me.

“Just last month two members of staff got fired for being in a relationship. I have so many responsibilities, and my parents are so poor.”

It’s the truth, of course, and I see his point. But I’m angry he’s played the poverty card. Now whatever I say, or any response I attempt, will make me look every inch the spoilt, thoughtless Westerner he probably thinks I am. He continues, the tip of his cigarette darting about like a mad firefly in the darkness as he moves his hands erratically, trying to express himself in a foreign language. Vaguely aware of the rise and fall of his voice, I allow his words to pass over me.

Do the past three months mean nothing to him? It was him who came over to my desk on my first

day working for the NGO and introduced himself in English, all smiles and pleasantries. It was him who’d asked me out to celebrate the end of my first week and then walked me in darkness through the sleeping streets to find a taxi. We’d have been completely alone had it not been for the city’s plump, greasy whiskered rats and a flea-riddled stray dog rummaging in a pile of rotting litter across the street.

That same night he began texting me on the premise of meeting to discuss a research project we were both involved with. And later during Dashain, when my host family had temporarily left the city, crammed like chickens into rusting, garishly painted buses along with the Valley’s other migrants, had he not offered to come over to keep me company on our days off to spend the day listening to music and drinking endless cups of tea?

No, I hadn’t imagined his interest. Nor was I unaware of his eyes on my body as he routinely passed my desk in the late afternoons as the sun was disappearing behind the perfectly etched silhouette of the city’s hills. The attraction was definitely mutual. Text messages sent from across the office, and the stolen glances as he went into meetings; none of that was imagined. And yet I feel that he was playing with me.

“Why is everything so black and white for you?” I begin cautiously, feeling the effects of alcohol seep into my speech.

He takes a drag of his cigarette and flicks ash carelessly onto the floor.

“Because it’s my culture”, he replies.

Ah, that familiar, cultural, explanatory catch all, dripping with religion and responsible for prematurely ending even the most intense of connections.

I’ve just finished my second bowl of beer and I’m feeling quite drunk.

“But I think I love you”, I reach over the table and touch his arm meekly. Reality and my imagination have collided cruelly as I realise I have said the words out loud and have, effectively, lost the game.

We emerge after some time into the late afternoon. Everything has become hazy and my boundaries have dissolved. He looks at me in the sunlight, his expression remaining steely despite the alcohol coursing his veins, and makes an empty comment about us being good friends. Perhaps in his world of tightly defined dichotomies—of pure and polluted, of good and bad—there really are no grey areas.


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