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Cheese

Gopi encountered cheese two years after he came down to Kathmandu.

     Prakash Babu was returning from Switzerland. That land of miraculous clocks which always told the time in minute precision, not like the few minutes late, few minutes early time of Nepal. That twin land of mountains, that mirror image of peaks, but so much more Westernized, so much more modern, than Nepal's own mythologically burdened ones. Everybody was sure the mountains of Switzerland must somehow be a little bit better, a little bit nicer, a little bit more civilized, than their own poor, benighted country's. Never mind if Nepal had the tallest ones in the world - who cared about tall when there were more important things to think about, like cleanliness and hygiene. Modernity and precision. Who cared about tall when you could have the cleanest, most sanitized, most modern mountains in the world.

     Prakash brought back with him a suitcase full of gifts: cashmere sweaters, Italian leather shoes, quartz watches, wooden birds that popped out of wooden houses and went "Cuckoo!", porcelain figurines holding hoes and buckets in pink and gold. And stuffed into some side pocket of the hard vinyl suitcase was the most important of them all - a grab-bag of airline goodies, embossed on the side with the name of the airline. After all, how could one prove one had flown an airline without one of those bags filled with mustard yellow socks, black eye-strain masks, little plastic containers of orange marmalade, plastic spoons and knives, little mint candies? How convince a country populated with disbelieving skeptics that those claims, indeed, were true? French chocolate was always good, a solid chunk of bitter foreign material melting into your tongue and signifying distance, travel, adventure, truth. But even chocolate, these days, could be bought at some shop, and was no longer a reliable indicator of long and distant travel. The only sure proof, these days, was cheese.

     The cheese sent the household in Mahaboudh into a minor furor, and got the neighbors talking even before Prakash Babu arrived. Sharmila, the recent married daughter-in-law, was so excited she boasted haughtily to no one other than Fulmaya, the teashop lady: "Prakash Babu wrote to us, telling us he'll bring some cheese. Cheese from Switzerland, if you can imagine what that is like. But how can Nepalis ever appreciate real cheese, when they haven't even tasted any?" Fulmaya, never one to give up a good piece of gossip, had told the entire neighborhood about the cheese by the end of the morning. "Those Tiwaris will be talking about the cheese - Surjyaland cheese, if you can imagine what that is like," she said, imitating the recent bride's stuck-up tones, "for the next ten years." The old woman who sat in the tiny butcher shop next door snorted. "Yeh, Sanokanchi. Who the fuck does that fool of a girl think she is, anyway? And cheese - that family can stick it up their insides, for all we care. After all, we're never going to see a piece of it, are we? Huh, huh?"

<  2  >

     So it was into a neighborhood bursting with rumors and resentment that Gopi, the ten year old cousin who had been brought down from the village to be the household help, stepped out to do his daily chores. His responsibilities included:

     1. Carrying the copper tray for the old lady and trotting behind her at the proper pace when she went out to do her morning prayers at five am in the morning.

     2. Bringing the wood, the coal, and the kindling so that the daughter-in-law could light the fire.

     3. Bringing water from the well to the fifth floor, where the kitchen was located.

     4. Cutting the vegetables, cleaning the rice, soaking the lentils, shelling the peas and any other sundry time-consuming tasks that arose in a kitchen with a mortar and pestle and precious little else.

     5. Taking care of the younger children, attending to the nitpicky demands of the older ones, and in general, being at the beck and call of anybody else in the household of twenty-four people who felt like taking a stab at him eighteen hours of the day.

     6. Shutting up and not speaking, unless spoken to.

     7. Taking the blame for everything that went wrong, including acts of God, nature and genetic insanity.

     8. Smiling and accept it all with a good grace. ("What did he think this was, some kind of bureaucratic post, where he could sit around and do nothing?").

 

Prakash Babu came back on one of those chilly winter mornings when all Gopi wanted to do was curl up and go back to sleep again. But the old woman wouldn't let him. "Gopi!!" she shouted, frantically tucking her wool shawl around herself. "Go fetch a taxi! Go, go! It's almost time for the plane to land." The plane was scheduled to come in at ten in the morning, and it was only seven. A thick mist still hid the milkman as he came by, clinking his milk cans, but Gopi was not going to argue with Mami. The older sons lined the mossy courtyard outside the house and chatted while their mother rushed to get ready.

<  3  >

     "Gopi!" The old woman shouted in irritation. "Why are the pots not out here yet?"

     "I'm bringing it, Mami," he called out. Mami, he called her. Mother, just like her sons. They were much older than him, and he was more the age of her grandchildren. But he still called her "Mami", an artifice of the wealthy in Kathmandu to give the illusion that their poor cousins were treated like family, not servants. Gopi said "Mami" with the wryness of a ten year old who knows his own place in the world, and who can barely wait to get out of it.

     Gopi ran in with two copper pots full of water and put them on either side of the wooden doors. He split some water by accident. Oops. Well, if some brat from the house slipped and fell, he wouldn't be too sorry about it.

     "Now go get the taxi. Hurry, hurry, hurry!" said Mami, as she busily sprinkled a little red vermilion and a few pink hibiscus on top of the pot, a big welcome for her prodigal son.

     Gopi opened the big, creaking tin gates, and ran down the narrow lane. Taxis were not easy to flag down. Several taxi-drivers, their back seats empty, drove by the frantically waving boy in his scruffy shoes before one small, dented turquoise taxi finally slowed down before him. "Where to, boss?" said the driver. He looked down at Gopi's worn Chinese sneakers, then up at the shirt meant for a grown man hanging on the ten year old body, and spat on the ground.

     "The airport," Gopi said. His voice was split between delight at the thought that this arrogant taxi-driver would know he was going to the airport, that exit-way into the heavens of foreign places, and anxiety that the man would not put the meter on and charge him double fare, making the old woman even more angry with him.

     "Oh." The man's eyebrows went up in a friendly arch. "Is your man coming from inside or outside?" he asked.

<  4  >

     "Outside," said Gopi, nonchalantly staring out of the window. "You'll put the meter on, dai?"

     "Alright, alright. And where is he coming from?" asked the taxi driver, checking Gopi's underfed silhouette once more in the overhead mirror.

     "Swizzilan."

 

Gopi swung the tin-gates open for the taxi, then waited for everybody to pile in, including Mami, her three sons and two grandchildren, before squeezing himself into the backseat. Mami, who was generously proportioned, took up more than her fair share of the seat.

     "Switzerland!" said the youngest son, releasing the word like a reverent mantra to his little daughter, perched on his knee. "Your uncle's coming back from Switzerland." "What is he bringing us?" Rukmini, her pigtails bouncing up and down, asked excitedly. "He probably ate cowmeat all year long," grumbled the oldest brother from the front seat. "I hope he doesn't bring any cowmeat with him." "Hush, Babu! Don't say these things on this day," Mami admonished, as she rifled in her plastic bag to make sure her marigold garlands and her vermilion were in order.

     Gopi loved coming to the airport. He loved to look inside the glass windows that were so transparent he was afraid he would run into them. He loved the smell that people brought with them, the odor of tiredness that had steeped in the pressure of high altitude for hours. And he loved the roar of the planes as they lifted their big bellies and took off, their steel bodies lighter than the sky. He had heard the noise of the planes for the first time a year ago when he had come down to work at the house of his distant relatives in the Valley. The sound was so loud it had made him run and hide behind the old woman. Now he waited for it, loving it and dreading it with equal fervor.

     He ran his fingers through the dividers that cut a blood-red, velvet line between the Nepalis and the foreigners. He licked the glass as he watched the radar spin and control the magical landings from the concrete rooftop of the Tribhuwan Airport.

<  5  >

     Gopi followed the family out to the roof just in time to see the Royal Nepal airplane circle the Valley, once, twice; an eagle with steel wings missing the tips of the hills, miraculously. Then it landed. Tiny people with tiny ladders ran around, opening the doors. He craned his neck to see Prakash as he got out of the airplane. When he spotted the long, lean body among the faceless crowd, he waved and yelled as loudly as the others.

     Prakash Babu came out, waving and smiling. He looked pale but well-fed, that unaccountable look that accompanied people who spent time in foreign countries. "Babu! You've become so thin!" said the old lady as she fell over Prakash, garlanding him with marigold flowers and smothering his forehead in vermilion tika. "Ama. Watch out for my glasses," he said, as he tried to fend off the marigolds as they suddenly pulled off his glasses and left him in a blurry, unfocused void. The old woman loved her third son a lot, Gopi had to say, as he watched the old lady tuck the glasses back on her son's face. She never came to pick up any of her other sons in the airport when they returned from traveling, which they frequently did in the course of their jobs.

     But Prakash had also gone away to a foreign country, crossing the ocean. Unlike his brothers, who had only traveled across the border to India, Prakash had gone to Europe. He had been chosen by the government to be one of the Nepalis to go and study at Lausanne's hotel management school in Switzerland. It was a big honor. The country had recently opened its boundaries to the outside world, letting in, for the first time, a small stream of foreigners. In exchange, other countries had graciously offered their support, including Switzerland, which had offered to show Nepalis the rules of commercial hospitality. Tribhuwan airport had only recently been built with a single runway, and cows still grazed around the tarmac before and after the plane landed. It was a time of encounters: a small stream of people poured in from either direction, bringing stories of other worlds, other horizons, other ways of being.

<  6  >

     Gopi, tussling with the heavy Samsonite suitcases, noticed that they were papered with small tags and colorful stickers. Swiss Air, Lufthansa, Air India, Royal Nepal. Gopi had no knowledge of English or even his native alphabet, but he knew enough to know that these were the names of the airlines that Prakash Babu had just flown across the world on.

 

Back in the house, Prakash Babu waited until evening, when all of his four brothers and their wives had come back from work to open up his suitcases. Everybody converged in the old parents' room, including Suntali, the seventy year old cook, and Lati, the woman who washed the dishes in complete silence because she had never learnt how to speak. The room was so crowded there was no room to sit, so Gopi stood by the door and watched. Prakash sat on a bolster in the middle of his parents' room and unpacked, telling them stories. How the plane had been delayed, how his school had been the most famous school in hospitality management, how his professor had given him good marks.

     Delay. Management. Professor. The foreign words filled the room along with the smells and crisp colors from the newly opened suitcases. Deliberately, he removed one gift after another from the suitcase. Shiny watches, soft wraps, toys made with real machinery. The gifts tumbled out, each one more enticing, more new, and more unreal than the last object.

     "A watch for you, father. The one you asked for," said Prakash.

     The old man took a sip of his hot milk, and spat it out of the window. "The milk is too hot," he said. His voice cut across the crowded room with the everyday anger of domestic tyranny. The elder daughter-in-law got up to take the glass. She handed it to Gopi so that he could put it in a bowl of cold water. "What kind of watch?"

     "A Rolex, Baba," said the older brother. He touched the links, which were made of solid gold. It was just like the kind they advertised inside the covers of Time magazine, featuring famous tennis players and Olympic swimmers.

<  7  >

     "A Rolex?" asked the old man. He took his spectacle case from below his pillow, blew on the glasses to steam them up, then wiped them with a little yellow cloth. Then he put them on his nose and inspected the watch. There was a minute of silence as the family watched the old man.

     "First class," he finally pronounced. Prakash looked relieved. It was hard to please his father.

     The old man took a long, gurgling pull at his hookah. "But the links are not twenty four karat," he said.

     "It's still gold," said the older brother, hastily trying to smooth over the old man's discontent.

     "Not real gold." The old man took a long, slow sip of milk. "The milk is too cold."

     The oldest daughter-in-law, silent, picked up the steel glass and gave it to Gopi so he could heat it up again.

 

Prakash had brought a cashmere stole for his mother. The old lady felt the wool, sighed, opened her metal safe with the bunch of keys that hung at her waist, and deposited the cashmere shawl into it. "It's beautiful, babu. It's beautiful," she assured him, in the tone of someone who had given up delighting in small things, and yet still keeps up the pretense. Almost as an afterthought, she pushed her hand deeper into the safe and emerged with a packet of crystallized sugar for the children.

     But the children, today, could not be distracted by the mundane sweetness of ordinary treasure. They sat transfixed over unknown, but undoubtedly more important things. There were less flashy but still authentic Swiss watches for the brothers. There was a red and brown toy train that went choo-choo and moved around on little tracks for Prakash's only son. The train, which was eight feet long, had real windows and benches inside, and a steering wheel in the engine cabin in the front. The boy sat in awe as his father handed him the enormous toy.

<  8  >

     There were woolen wraps in elegant grey and taupe colors for his sisters-in-law. The women took the wraps and put them on their laps demurely. The grey and green were not particularly beautiful, but there was something in their very dullness that signaled the indefinable stamp of authentic foreignness. The women would wear them proudly, not because the colors made them look good - they didn't - but because they knew everybody would know at once that they had the status of obviously exported items. Later, they would talk at length about the terrible quality, and Prakash Babu's cheapness, and how they were sure he got his own wife a golden chain that he was not showing to the other members of the family. But right now there was no room for complaints. People took what they were given and made sure to look satisfied.

     It seemed that the shiny, plastic wrapped packages were coming to an end. The girls were swallowing their disappointment when their uncle delved in his bag once more and came up with five bars of gold and red wrapped chocolate, which he gave to the eldest girl.

     "Chocolate," he said. The eldest girl, Rita accepted the bars importantly, glaring at the others in case they tried to grab them out of her hands.

     "I want the wrapper," Rukmini said, as she tried to take a bar away from her sister's hand. The wrapper glittered with the silver Alps in the background.

     Rita held the bar above her head. "You can have the foil."

     "I want the foil!" said Roshana, the youngest.

     "We'll split it in three," Rita said as she carefully divided the golden foil into three pieces and handed a piece each to her sisters. The girls folded their little squares of gold for later use and put them inside the pages of their textbooks for maximum safety.

     Rita broke off the pieces of chocolate and handed them out. Gopi watched in horrified fascination as brown sludge oozed out of the children's mouths. Suntali, the old cook, put her square into her mouth, squeezed her face like a dry lemon, and ran to spit it out.

<  9  >

     "Give some to Gopi," Mami reminded. Gopi, ten years old and hungry for experiences, could not wait until they handed him, grudgingly, his little square of chocolate. Gopi unwrapped the foil, a shiny, crinkly, golden treasure. It folded up in a neat square, the wrinkles miraculously disappearing as he pressed down on it. He popped the chocolate in his mouth. A faint smell, like that of alcohol, quickly gave way to a thick, bitter sludge on his own tongue.

     The taste was so unexpected he wanted to run and spit it out. He looked around. The girls were ecstatic, munching delightedly on the bars and loving it. It would be humiliating if he were the only one among the children to spit it out. He controlled the urge, closed his eyes, did not breathe, and swallowed. He knew the girls would laugh at him if they saw him acting like the old cook. The girls wanted more, but the chocolate had disappeared. They would have to wait for a few months, or a few years, before some relative went away again on a foreign tour.

     It seemed that the suitcase had finally emptied. There were no more gifts to be had. Gopi, his taste buds still spinning from some unknown bitterness, felt the dissatisfaction at the bottom of his stomach. Was that all there was to this bounty? What else existed beyond the hard and crisp edges of machine manufactured objects? Why did it feel like the guarantee of an unknown haven had fallen flat on its gold-wrapped promise? He felt the hunger of unfulfilled desires echoing in the hollow depth of his stomach.

     There should be something more than this, he thought, as he watching the empty suitcase's lid come down with a slap.

     "Oh, I almost forgot," said Prakash Babu, taking out a white, silver wrapped package carefully from a pouch on the side. "Here's cheese."

     "Chij!" said the children. Their eyes reflected their longing. Prakash had brought a box of cheese with him last time he came from Switzerland, and the children had tasted it. They had talked about it reverently ever since, dropping the word "chij" in their conversation casually, mysteriously. Gopi, in his ignorance, had been baffled why they kept on referring to that "thing" they had eaten. In Nepali, "chij" means, simply - a thing. How was Gopi to know that the "chij" of the children's conversation was a thing of monumental importance. A thing that was almost ambrosia, almost the food of the gods, only found in faraway spaces. The humble thing-i-ness of the word suddenly traveled to the exotic underworld of the senses and came up packaged in silver foil and cardboard, smelling faintly of time zones and jetlag, coated with the grime of airport lobbies and the sanitized crackle of guilders. The word, suddenly, had status.

<  10  >

     Now they eyed the package hungrily as their uncle took it out. They wanted their piece, but they knew they might not get it. There were twenty-six people gathered in that room. Prakash Babu handed over the precious cargo to his mother, relinquishing the responsibility of dividing it. The old lady asked for a knife, and when it was brought to her, cut the small, round white cake in uneven little pieces. The men got the biggest portions. The children got the second biggest. They stuffed the pieces in their mouths hungrily. The white pieces melted like butter in their mouth, gone in a second.

     "No, its alright" said the eldest daughter-in-law, when the old lady handed her a piece. The daughters-in-law were ruled by the guidelines of modesty, and could not accept any delicacies. The old lady, who was a devout Brahmin with a strict regimen of dietary taboos, would not eat anything that had been prepared, and therefore polluted, by the taint of the outside world. Tomatoes, onions and garlic were on her list of forbidden foods. She also avoided using glass, since one never knew the status of its profanity. Cheese, therefore, was unacceptable to her on three grounds - one for its public origins, second for its preparation by unknown hands, and third for its association with the dirty act of fermentation.

     "Gopi, get me a plate, will you?" said the old lady. Gopi, in a torment of anticipation, ran straight down to the kitchen, grabbed the plate, and was back in a minute. He became hopeful. There were a lot of little white wedges in the plate in front of the old woman. Maybe he would get to taste that thing the children constantly talked about.

     A moment later, the cheese was almost gone. On the plate lay one single slice of white cheese. Gopi could not bear it. All the children were munching contentedly. What did it taste like? What was so good about it?

     Gopi held his breath. Everybody had had a share, even the old cook, who again spit out her share with the same agonized look on her face. Would Mami give him the last wedge?

<  11  >

     "Mami. Can I have the last one?" said Roshana. Roshana, the youngest one, sitting demurely and avoiding, for once, her incessant picking of the scabs of her skinned knee. The one who he towed around in a bicycle and played badminton with all day long. The greedy monkey. She knew Gopi was standing right there by the door. She knew he hadn't had a piece. But what could he do? He couldn't ask for it in the same way she could.

     "Don't eat too much," said her grandmother absently, handing the last wedge over. Gopi felt the disappointment sinking through his body like a small stone as the little girl shoved the cheese into her mouth triumphantly. Kookurni. She knew he had been waiting with longing all evening long. She knew it, and yet she had ignored him like he wasn't even present in the room. Like he didn't exist.

 

Gopi could not forget the idea of cheese from that moment on. He desired it so much it become a constant longing in his mind, one that accompanied him in his waking and dreaming moments.

     That night, he dreamt about cheese. Huge white circles of cheese with giant holes in them hung from his ceiling. His body twitched restlessly as he climbed up the cheese, using the holes as foot-holes, until he got to the top. Then he put his small teeth down and started nibbling his way down, but wait - all the holes were collapsing, and there was no way to climb down. He was like Kalidas, who had cut off the branch he was sitting on and realized too late that he was falling off the tree. The next day, as he sweated in the small plot of land hoeing and planting cauliflower and soybeans, he thought longingly about the soft whiteness in his mouth.

     He thought about it for so long, and so much, he knew eventually there was nothing for him to do but get a piece of it. There was only one minor problem - it was so expensive even the rich families did not eat it. Even if I save all the coins that fall into my hand, I won't be able to buy a hundred grams of cheese by the time I die, he thought in despair. The old woman gave him five rupees a month, along with dal-bhatt, lodging and her sons' old clothes in exchange for his labor. The five rupees, which turned to ten, twenty, fifty, hundred, two hundred, and then five hundred over the next ten years, was swallowed up for the daily sustenance of his big family back in the village, from the mustard oil and salt of the daily meals to the tobacco that packed his grandfather's hookah.

<  12  >

     A week after he came down from his village to work in the city, he had discovered the existence of Nepal Diary, an institution that provided the milk to the households of Kathmandu. "Remember the old days when cows were still roaming the streets? The milk was so fresh then," the old folks reminisced, forgetting that the cows, in all likelihood, ate street garbage and provided milk that tasted of their urban diet. In their memories, the cows, the milk, and the extended, joint families took on the hazy glow of nostalgia. Those were the day, bygone, heavenly days when one did not have to drink milk from a bottle. Ah, those were the days. Nobody quite knew where the dairy milk came from, but there were long, dark speculations about its impurities, its dreaded composition, and its strange bluish color.

     One of the exotic items that the famous Dairy stocked, along with ice cream, was cheese. Prakash Babu had taken Gopi there once, and had bought him a cone of ice cream. His mouth had almost frozen from the shock of the cold, and the sugar had eaten away at his rotting tooth and given him a piercing moment of pain. A tear had squeezed out of one eye involuntarily with the pain of it all, but he had smiled and said that he liked it. But he still had not tasted cheese.

 

It took Gopi twenty years to realize his dream. Twenty years, during which he grew older, got married, grew a beard, acquired a strange tic in his speaking pattern, fiercely guarded his ambiguity toward politics, built a house, cremated his father, and reevaluated his revulsion toward that slimy vegetable known as okra. Throughout this period, he also watched an endless stream of relatives fly in and out of Nepal. His nephews and nieces, whom he had helped to put through school, themselves returned from foreign lands with suitcases full of gifts. But his responsibilities, which seemed to grow with each year, were still so binding he could not spare thirty rupees to buy anything other than bare necessities. The desire for cheese turned into a deferred dream, slowly maturing in his mind, year by year. It was almost twenty years after Prakash Babu came from Switzerland before Gopi, who had finally snagged a much coveted job at a hotel, found enough extra money to fulfill his desire. In a bright blue day covered with the purple bruises of jacaranda flowers, Gopi got on his old Chinese bike and cycled toward the city. "I'm going to buy some chij today," he told the old cook as he clanged his way out of the shiny new corrugated tin gate.

<  13  >

     "Why do you want to spend money on that demonic food? It smells like rot and tastes like vomit." The old cook was too old to mince her words, but Gopi was not going to let her deter him from his mission.

     "I've been waiting for this for almost twenty years, Didi," he confided. "I am not going to stop now."

     Lainchowr was almost twenty minutes away. The sun shone down fiercely, but Gopi was so happy to feel the scratchiness of the notes in his chest pocket he sang a family planning jingle all the way to the grilled gates of the Dairy.

     Big carts full of bottled milk stood outside in the yard. The whole place smelt of milk slowly turning sour, laced with the heavy rancid odor of old fat. The old world speculations of the impurity of Dairy milk had finally crystallized into fact when the news had finally broken in the newspapers. Gopi had been sitting in front of the television when he heard the news.

     The Nepal dairy milk was irradiated with the unknown, almost incomprehensible toxic accident of Chernobyl. Poland, desperate to get rid of its old stock of milk powder, had dumped it on the market of the Third World. A year after the news of the accident had swept the television sets of the world, the citizens of Kathmandu, getting up in the morning to drink their tea and standing on street corners reading newspapers, felt a shock as they realized that fallout was still happening in the "Third World", and that the Third World was them. The news had suddenly become their lives, their stories. It was all a bit unsettling.

     The placid, smiling fašade of the citizens of Nepal broke, for one brief moment, as they rebelled against this most intimate and intrusive radiation that was entering their bones and their blood. For a brief week, middle class households all over Kathmandu refused to buy milk from the Nepal Dairy Corporation. The bottles piled up outside the yard in Lainchowr, and finally, the chairman, in desperation, came on television and drank an entire bottle of milk straight out of the mouth. He waved the bottled and yelled at the screen: "Look at me! I am drinking this milk! This is the milk that my children are drinking every day!!"

<  14  >

     People had been impressed. Not by his lies, or his various claims and assurances his family was drinking Dairy milk. Of course everybody knew that a smart man like him was doing no such thing, and that anybody with a bit of sense, and a bit of money, was buying powdered milk from Australia. No, the people were impressed by the audacity of his performance, the sheer brilliant oratory which was going to force an entire nation to drink irradiated milk, simply because the people in the Corporation had received a generous kickback from the Polish companies. The audacity was delicious. People knew they were being exposed to cancerous substances. At the same time, they had to admire the passion, the drama, the theatre of the absurd. They had to admire the political convictions of leaders, who talked so convincingly and so sincerely and who believed their own stories so much they made their dissenters doubt their own knowledge. So a week after the big commotion, people, having voiced their objections and gotten political protest out of the way, once again went back to the business of living and lined up outside the Dairy to get their daily bottle of slightly bluish milk.

     Gopi, who could not be bothered about the futuristic possibilities of irradiated milk, locked his bicycle and walked up to the queue that stretched around the yard to the grilled window. People were lined up to buy their daily rations. The queue, sweating and dusty, shuffled slowly toward the grille. The sweat trickled down his face as he waited. After twenty minutes, his turn finally came.

     "Chij, Sauji," said Gopi.

     The man, the edges of his blue cotton cuffs lined with black grime, looked him up and down with impatience.

     "How much?" he asked. He was a busy man. He did not like small orders.

     "Thirty rupees," blurted Gopi.

     The man took down a big yellow round of cheese from a shelf above him. Gopi, watching him anxiously, got worried. The cheese, in the dim filtered light, looked yellow. The other cheese had been white. As the man sliced a piece, Gopi asked hesitantly: "Isn't cheese supposed to be white?"

<  15  >

     "Yes, well, if you are used to getting yours from Switzerland," said the man with nasty humor. "Here we have either Dairy or yak cheese. Which one do you want?"

     Yak was an animal that was relatively familiar and yet unknown. For a hill-born and bred man like Gopi, the thought of yak became tainted with dangerous, unknown taboos.

     "I'll take the Dairy cheese," he answered hesitantly.

     The man, exasperated with the slow decision, sliced a swift slice, scraped off the edges, and then wrapped the rest in a piece of newspaper.

     "What else?" He said, as he handed over the cheese.

     "This is enough," said Gopi, his voice reflecting dread as he handed over his hoard of crisp bank-notes. He could not wait to put it in his mouth. At the same time, now that the thing was in his hand, he was afraid to find out. What if it did not come up to his expectations?

     The yard was crowded with people fighting to get to the front of the line before the bottles ran out, which they frequently did. Gopi walked outside, clutching his precious cheese in one hand, towing his bike with another. A mangy dog came loping up as he came outside, putting a warm, wet muzzle toward his plastic bag. "Ja! Ja!" Gopi yelled at the animal. The dog, sensing an imminent beating, loped away mournfully into the distance.

     Gopi propped his bike on the wall that surrounded the Royal Palace, and pulled himself up on a low ledge. He slowly unwrapped the precious package. Inside was a big triangle of off-white chij. He picked it up on one edge, and slowly carried it toward his mouth. It smelt faintly repulsive, but Gopi wasn't going to let a smell stop him from tasting this thing now.

     He bit into it. His teeth went through, softly, satisfyingly. He felt his saliva swirl around it. A slight taste now, of some moldy, sweaty, fungi-like thing in his mouth. He chewed some more, but the taste started to get worse, more intense, moving from fungi to decomposing milkfat, from decomposing milkfat to dirty laundry, from dirty laundry to some existential hollow, vomit-inducing thing in his mouth. In horror, he swallowed.

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     The swallowing was a gag reaction in the wrong direction. As soon as he swallowed, his body reacted, and his stomach reacted, and he started gagging and retching by the walls of the Royal Palace. He retched, and he retched, until all the cheese finally came out of him. He wiped his mouth of the yellow slime. He looked around in shame to see nobody had seen him throwing up. Gopi had eaten the thing, but it felt almost as if it wasn't him who had eaten it - it had eaten him. All the longings at the hollow of his stomach had disgorged with the yellow slime. He slowly wiped his forehead, tied a small scarf around his neck, and cycled his way back to the house.

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