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Published: July 15th 2013
It was the UN's 25th anniversary, and a big social event was held in the UN compound. Boris Lisanevitch, a White Russian refugee from the Russian Revolution, and one of the great characters of Kathmandu, had been invited to do the catering, and his much lived-in face was easily spotted in the crowd. He was, at the time, a celebrity, sought out by tourists who wanted to be able to say that they had spoken to the great man, who had, in the mid-50s, opened the Royal Hotel in a great white Rana palace on the Rajpath, and kick-started the tourist industry. He had catered for all the great state events of Nepal, including the state visit of Queen Elizabeth 11, and the early mountaineers, drink in hand, would relate their tales of triumph or disaster around the fire in the middle of the Yak and Yeti bar in the heart of the hotel.
Everyone that mattered was there: King Mahendra and his consort, Queen Ratna, Crown Prince Birendra and his wife Princess Aishwarya, and senior officials in the government, as well as the whole diplomatic community, with the notable exception of the Chinese. Jenny had overlooked the fact that the Peking government did not have a seat at the UN, and inadvertently sent an invitation to the Chinese Embassy. It had been returned with the words “Not Recognised” stamped on it.
Frank forced himself to speak to a few complete strangers to whom he soon discovered he had absolutely nothing to say, and then, giving up the effort, joined a group of Nepalese colleagues who had not even tried to make the effort. Kalpana was among them, but not Sunita. Frank chose to ignore her absence as if there was still a point in pretending that she was of no particular interest to him, and, surreptitiously glancing at different sectors of the room from time to time, joined in the chat about the usual inconsequential things office workers chat about at cocktail parties they would prefer not to be at. But where was she?
“Where's Sunita?” he asked nonchalantly to no-one in particular.
“Why? Do you like her better than me?” At least that's what he thought he heard.
“Sorry?” Frank said, turning to Kalpana.
“Sorry what?” she said. He looked around the group. No-one was looking at him. Was he imagining it? Was it wishful thinking?
“Did you say something?” he asked.
“No.” Yet he thought it was her. Was it a thought that had swum too close to her tongue, but revealing no more of itself than a little flash of silver or a splash caught in the corner of his eye?
He saw Jegan approaching. He turned away, but by placing himself between him and the group, and forcing him to step backwards to preserve his personal space, Jegan took possession of him and began to demonstrate his cocktail party skills on him. He was subjected to more stories illustrating his mastery of the diplomatic arts. And then Jegan changed tack, and asked him what he thought of Jenny. He said that they got on well enough even if they didn't have a lot in common.
“Yes, she is pleasant enough, but she is without a doubt a frustrated spinster, don't you think?” he said.
“I really don't know,” Frank replied, not wanting to give Jegan the satisfaction of knowing that he shared his analysis of Jenny's predicament. “Maybe you could help her?” Frank suggested. Jegan harrumphed dismissively, but went on nodding ruminatively. Frank sensed that he could stir up some amusing mischief if he had a mind to do so.
“And what of Mrs Lopchan?” he asked. “What is your opinion of her?” Frank told him that he had a great regard for her.
“Yes, very worthy I am sure, but I find her voice very monotonous.”
“I don't,” Frank said looking around frantically. He spotted a visiting Czech technical assistance expert whom he had met in the office. He said he needed to refresh his glass, as one does, and went over to Mr Novak leaving Jegan to the company of his glass of white wine and plate of cocktail finger foods.
His new and infinitely more interesting interlocutor told him he had met Che Guevara. Apparently, Che didn’t believe in the UN, but his way for the betterment of the world - arousing peasants to revolution - failed, and towards the end he became very disillusioned. His comrades used to go hungry because the peasants refused to feed them.
“What about Castro?” Frank asked. “Did you know him too?”
“Yes, indeed. I remember attending a cocktail party soon after the revolution. Fidel was looking for able people to run his government. He suddenly called out: 'Is there an economist here?' I thought he'd said 'communist' and raised my hand and said: 'I’m one!' Fidel then told me that I'd been appointed Governor of the Central Bank!” Jegan had crept up on them, and had been listening in.
“I just so happen to have a first class honours degree in Economics and Politics,” he announced.
“Oh, then you would've been an ideal candidate,” said Mr Novak. Frank made his escape, cruelly leaving him to learn more about Jegan's accomplishments. He stood by himself looking for someone congenial to join. Jenny was engaged in an animated discussion with Mr Al Falan and wife. This was not a group he could join, being persona non grata with Mr Al Falan since his refusal to fall in with his plans to extend his assignment.
Mr Pradhan was chatting with his colleague Mr Malla. Like the King himself, they were dressed in their finest daura-suruwals
, the traditional outfit of the gentlemen of Nepal at the time. This consisted of a long cotton shirt worn beneath a conventional western jacket, one edge of which overlapped the other like a dressing gown, and was held in place with numerous ties. Partly hidden under this shirt were cotton pantaloons that were loose around the buttocks to facilitate squatting, but drainpipe tight down the legs. A brimless black hat, called a topi
, perched jauntily to one side of their heads, topped it all off.
Frank wondered what those two mischief-makers were gossiping about, but was not inclined to join them. He spotted a young Soviet diplomat he knew as Yuri to whom he had given a few private English lessons in the Soviet Embassy over the past year. Yuri and a colleague would suddenly show an urgent desire to learn English whenever there was a danger that the Embassy's language allowance would be cut for lack of use. He seemed as relieved as Frank was to have a friendly, familiar face to chat to, and they delved into the question of monarchy and its persistence in certain backward countries such as Frank's own.
Frank accidentally caught Mr Pradhan's eye. He took that as a cue to come over, and Yuri moved off. They enquired into each other's well-being, nodding earnestly and saying 'good' on learning that all was well. And then they stood silently together, unable to find anything more to say. His plate and glass were full, so there was no immediate escape route. He put a sausage roll into his mouth. A young Nepalese woman entered the room, and Frank glanced in her direction.
“Sunita will not be coming,” he said, as if he was divining Frank's thoughts.
“Really?” Frank said as nonchalantly as he could manage.
“She's not well,” he said.
“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.” An awkward silence ensued.
“You know, Sunita is from a good Newari family,” Mr Pradhan said finally.
“I'm sure she is,” Frank said irritably.
“I know the family. Very respectable people,” he said.
“So?” So I'm not good enough for them? Is that it Mr Pradhan?
“One day Sunita will marry a Pradhan. I know the young man. He's from a good family and he has good prospects. He is training to be a doctor.”
“Good” Frank said, trying, but failing, to sound pleased for Sunita. He struggled to keep his body from sinking under the weight of this information. He tried to smile, but neither his mouth nor his eyes would do what was required of them. “Thank you for the information. Excuse me.” He could stand no more of his company, and turned on his heels, leaving his tormentor to enjoy the moment.
“Is there anything the matter?” Mr Pradhan called out after him.
Frank could not leave the party until the King left, so he stood apart for a while keeping an eye on his movements. He watched him address Boris, and this was interesting because Boris had been arrested and thrown into prison at the start of the year on the charge of illegally exporting antiques. He had been released after the Royal wedding, but had been forced out of the Royal Hotel. He had subsequently opened a restaurant, inevitably called the Yak & Yeti, in the defunct theatre of another old Rana palace, from where he continued his catering business. His glory days were over, but it was interesting that the King still thought it was worth having a word with him.
As soon as the Royal party left, he took a cycle rickshaw back into the heart of the bazaar, where he headed for a popular dive called Ravi's Spot for a 'buff thugpa' (a bowl of noodle soup containing bits of chewy buffalo meat), and a glass of sugary hot lemon. Food and drink: the primeval comforters.
Sunita was cool in the office the next day, addressing him formally, and giving him none of those enchanting glances that used to keep his heart fluttering throughout the day. He knew why, and so wrote her the following note: Mr Pradhan says you have a Newari boy-friend. Why didn't you tell me?
He had to wait until the next day before he got her reply: Mr Pradhan is right. I have a Newari boy-friend. He is very brilliant and handsome. You are very clever and so you know it is impossible for east and west to marry. I hope you will be happy with your beautiful, charming and diplomatic English wife. Please send me her photograph one day. Yours sincerely, Sunita.
So Mr Pradhan had been hard at work. Why couldn't he keep his nose out of their business?
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