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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

All of Us in Our Lives



Excerpt from All of Us in Our Own Lives by Manjushree Thapa. Copyright © 2018 Manjushree Thapa. Reproduced with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Manjushree Thapa was born in Kathmandu and raised in Nepal, Canada, and the United States. She has written several books of fiction and non-fiction, and she has translated Nepali literature into English. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the London Review of Books, Newsweek, and the Globe and Mail. All of Us in Our Own Lives is the first novel she wrote after moving to Toronto. She is working on a new novel about citizenship.

OF ALL THE European cities Indira had travelled to for work — London and Brussels, Helsinki and Cologne, Copenhagen and of course Frankfurt, several times — Paris was definitely the prettiest. Indira had been here before, eighteen-nineteen years ago, for her first-ever international conference, a UNIFEM summit on women: she remembered it warmly as a blur of national costumes and inspirational speeches. The best part was the city tour at the end. The delegates had been taken to the famous boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, and from a stone bridge, Indira had taken photos of the Seine. Where were those photos now? Awed by all she had seen, she had vowed to return, and now here she was, back in Paris!
A fashionable lady in stilettos sashayed by. A boy drove his scooter onto the sidewalk and stopped in front of an automated teller. A tall man in a tailored suit cavorted down the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette.
Indira shadowed the man so as not to be spotted by the organizers of the Women’s Empowerment Initiative. There were, in her experience, two kinds of conferences in this world. The first was organized by veterans from the developing world, who understood that formal interactions were greatly enhanced by informal activities such as sightseeing or gift shopping. Indira had formed lasting bonds at such conferences. Years later, she still kept in touch with Abena Kwasima from Accra, Rudo Gamble from Cape Town, W. Werry from Jakarta, Mei Wang from Shanghai, Juana Hernández from Lima, and the formidable Kadri Pütsep from Tallinn. Together they formed a sisterhood of global change-makers.
            The Women’s Empowerment Initiative was, however, the other kind of conference, the kind organized by amateurs, usually American, who tried to squeeze out too many outcomes in too little time. From the very first Inspire! Breakfast on, Indira had had to pursue an asset-based approach using the principles of appreciative inquiry to discuss her work at WDS-Nepal. All day long, she had been trapped in lectures and workshops, and in the evenings, she had had to attend Solidarity! Dinners with earnest cultural shows: a one-woman play set in Ciudad Juárez, an all-woman Roma folk band. Tonight there would be a slideshow on female genital mutilation. And tomorrow morning she would leave.
            Why organize a conference in Paris at all? Why not meet, as WDS-International had one dire, under-funded year, at an airport hotel in Frankfurt? Why not save money and teleconference, for that matter, or video chat, Skype-shype, Viber-shiber — all that?
            The tall man turned abruptly into an alley. Spotting a stately stone bridge directly ahead, Indira hurried towards it. Having stolen out of a session on role-playing, she had two hours, or maybe three, to buy a present for Aakriti, for having passed out of ninth class. Indira also had to pick up something for Muwa, though nothing would ever please her witch of a mother-in-law. Aakaash was easy: she would buy him a computer game at the airport duty-free; two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label would suffice for Uday Sharma.
            Indira reached the bridge, and her heart fluttered: was it — could it be — it was! It was the very same bridge she had been to nineteen years ago! She reached for the railing as she would for an old friend, and found the stone smooth and hard and warm to the touch. Oh! She had once been young here.
She walked the length of the bridge, overcome with nostalgia.
            On the far side of the bridge, she came across a row of boutiques. A mannequin in a slinky dress stood in one boutique window. A dress would be perfect for Aakriti, she thought — not this one, the neckline was low, but a dress from Paris would be perfect for her daughter.
            The next window contained an array of jars filled with fruits, vegetables, and nuts: dried, oiled, marinated, pickled, preserved. Yet another window was decorated with fine white lace panties. Another contained nothing but wine. Here, she lingered. The bottles — white, red, rosé — glinted like precious gems in the sunlight. She imagined Uday Sharma lifting a long-stemmed goblet and toasting, “To you, Indira Sharma. To our marriage of twenty years.”
“To us.”
“No, to you.”
            It wouldn’t happen, not in this lifetime. Whenever Indira was in the developed world, she always rued the way she, as a Nepali, was obliged to blunder through life without grace, without refinement, merely getting the needful done. Emotionally it saddened her, though rationally she understood why it was so. There was no comparing and contrasting the life of a Kathmanduite with the life of a Parisian, because the developed world was the developed world, and Nepal was Nepal.
            Next to the wine shop was a beauty parlour. On an impulse, she went in: she would buy a face cream for Muwa here. A bell tinkled. The interior smelled like roses. A redheaded saleslady came up to her, high heels clacking, and after babbling in French switched to English: “May I help you, Madame?”
“I need a face cream,” Indira said, pointing at a jar on a shelf.
            “Ah, oui, there is much desiccation.” The saleslady whisked out a magnifying mirror and held it up to Indira’s face, assaulting her with a vision of the furrows and grooves, dots and patches, stains and blotches on her middle-aged face. To Indira’s horror, the lines under her eyes had deepened, and her complexion, once clear, looked mottled.
Briskly, the saleslady said, “I strongly recommend a treatment, for you it is urgent, Madame.” She mentioned something called Eau Vitesse. “That will make the skin tight, but my advice is to go for microdermabrasion. It aids the revitalization of youth.”
Indira noted that the saleslady herself had a flawless complexion, even though she was — how old? Quite old. “How much?” she ventured to ask.
“Just one hour, Madame.”
“No, no. How much money is it costing?”
It came to over twelve thousand when converted into Nepali rupees!
            Twelve thousand rupees for a beauty treatment! That was simply immoral! Though, of course, Indira’s per diem could easily cover it, and it wasn’t unreasonable when you converted the cost back into euros. Plus, a treatment, as the lady said, was urgent for her. A global change-maker ought to look good. Also, a beauty treatment in Paris: when would she ever get this chance again? But then again — twelve thousand rupees! Oof. Chances taken and opportunities missed, longings and qualms, desires and disappointments pulsated through Indira — yes, no, yes, no — till with profound regret she decided: “I will take one face cream only.”
“Bof. Your choice, Madame.”
High heels clacking, the saleslady took a jar to the cash register.
The bill came to nine thousand rupees.
            Nine thousand rupees for a jar of face cream! A high-quality cream, to be sure, a cream from a beauty parlour in Paris. She shouldn’t waste it on Muwa. It would be a gift to herself.
As Indira left, the saleslady called out, “Au revoir!”
            “Bonjour,” Indira replied grimly.
Outside, she felt just awful. What was she doing buying a nine-thousand-rupee face cream for herself? What did she think, that it would bring back her youth? That Uday Sharma would notice, and they would recover their marital happiness? What? Walking along the row of boutiques looking for a dress for Aakriti, she excoriated herself:
Look at yourself, Indira Sharma. Tchee! Look. Just look at what you’ve become.

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