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The Night of White Bhairab
By Lucius Shepard

From Shepard's collection The Jaguar Hunter


Whenever Mr. Chatterji went to Delhi on business, twice yearly, he would leave Eliot Blackford in charge of his Katmandu home, and prior to each trip the transfer of keys and instructions would be made at the Hotel Anapurna. Eliot—an angular sharp-featured man in his mid-thirties, with thinning blond hair and a perpetually ardent expression—knew Mr. Chatterji for a subtle soul, and he suspected that this subtlety had dictated the choice of meeting place. The Anapurna was the Nepalese equivalent of a Hilton, its bar equipped in vinyl and plastic, with a choirlike arrangement of bottles fronting the mirror. Lights were muted, napkins monogrammed. Mr. Chatterji, plump and prosperous in a business suit, would consider it an elegant refutation of Kipling’s famous couplet (“East is East,” etc.) that he was at home here, whereas Eliot, wearing a scruffy robe and sandals, was not; he would argue that not only had the twain met, they had actually exchanged places. It was Eliot’s own measure of subtlety that restrained him from pointing out what Mr. Chatterji could not perceive: that the Anapurna was a skewed version of the American Dream. The carpeting was indoor-outdoor runner; the menu was rife with ludicrous misprints (Skotch Miss, Screwdiver); and the lounge act—two turbaned, tuxedoed Indians on electric guitar and traps—was managing to turn “Evergreen” into a doleful raga.

“There will be one important delivery.” Mr. Chatterji hailed the waiter and nudged Eliot’s shot glass forward. “It should have been here days ago, but you know these customs people.” He gave an effeminate shudder to express his distaste for the bureaucracy and cast an expectant eye on Eliot, who did not disappoint.

“What is it?” he asked, certain that it would be an addition to Mr. Chatterji’s collection: He enjoyed discussing the collection with Americans; it proved that he had an overview of their culture.

“Something delicious!” said Mr. Chatterji. He took the tequila bottle from the waiter and—with a fond look—passed it to Eliot. “Are you familiar with the Carversville Terror?”

“Yeah, sure.” Eliot knocked back another shot. “There was a book about it.”

“Indeed,” said Mr. Chatterji. “A bestseller. The Cousineau mansion was once the most notorious haunted house of your New England. It was torn down several months ago, and I’ve succeeded in acquiring the fireplace, which”—he sipped his drink—“which was the locus of power. I’m very fortunate to have obtained it.” He fitted his glass into the circle of moisture on the bar and waxed scholarly. “Aim�e Cousineau was a most unusual spirit, capable of a variety of. . . .”

Eliot concentrated on his tequila. These recitals never failed to annoy him, as did—for different reasons—the sleek Western disguise. When Eliot had arrived in Katmandu as a member of the Peace Corps, Mr. Chatterji had presented a far less pompous image: a scrawny kid dressed in Levi’s that he had wheedled from a tourist. He’d been one of the hangers-on—mostly young Tibetans—who frequented the grubby tearooms on Freak Street, watching the American hippies giggle over their hash yogurt, lusting after their clothes, their women, their entire culture. The hippies had respected the Tibetans: They were a people of legend, symbols of the occultism then in vogue, and the fact that they liked James Bond movies, fast cars, and Jimi Hendrix had increased the hippies’ self-esteem. But they had found laughable the fact that Rajneesh Chatterji—another Westernized Indian—had liked these same things, and they had treated him with mean condescension. Now, thirteen years later, the roles had been reversed; it was Eliot who had become the hanger-on.

He had settled in Katmandu after his tour was up, his idea being to practice meditation, to achieve enlightenment. But it had not gone well. There was an impediment in his mind—he pictured it as a dark stone, a stone compounded of worldly attachments—that no amount of practice could wear down, and his life had fallen into a futile pattern. He would spend ten months of the year living in a small room near the temple of Swayambhunath, meditating, rubbing away at the stone; and then, during March and September, he would occupy Mr. Chatterji’s house and debauch himself with liquor and sex and drugs. He was aware that Mr. Chatterji considered him a burnout, that the position of caretaker was in effect a form of revenge, a means by which his employer could exercise his own brand of condescension; but Eliot minded neither the label nor the attitude. There were worse things to be than a burnout in Nepal. It was beautiful country, it was inexpensive, it was far from Minnesota (Eliot’s home). And the concept of personal failure was meaningless here. You lived, died, and were reborn over and over until at last you attained the ultimate success of nonbeing: a terrific consolation for failure.

“. . . yet in your country,” Mr. Chatterji was saying, “evil has a sultry character. Sexy! It’s as if the spirits were adopting vibrant personalities in order to contend with pop groups and movie stars.”

Eliot thought of a comment, but the tequila backed up on him and he belched instead. Everything about Mr. Chatterji—teeth, eyes, hair, gold rings—seemed to be gleaming with extraordinary brilliance. He looked as unstable as a soap bubble, a fat little Hindu illusion.

Mr. Chatterji clapped a hand to his forehead. “I nearly forgot. There will be another American staying at the house. A girl. Very shapely!” He shaped an hourglass in the air. “I’m quite mad for her, but I don’t know if she’s trustworthy. Please see she doesn’t bring in any strays.”

“Right,” said Eliot. “No problem.”

“I believe I will gamble now,” said Mr. Chatterji, standing and gazing toward the lobby. “Will you join me?”

“No, I think I’ll get drunk. I guess I’ll see you in October.”

“You’re drunk already, Eliot.” Mr. Chatterji patted him on the shoulder. “Hadn’t you noticed?”

* * *

Early the next morning, hung over, tongue cleaving to the roof of his mouth, Eliot sat himself down for a final bout of trying to visualize the Avalokitesvara Buddha. All the sounds outside—the buzzing of a motor scooter, birdsong, a girl’s laughter—seemed to be repeating the mantra, and the gray stone walls of his room looked at once intensely real and yet incredibly fragile, papery, a painted backdrop he could rip with his hands. He began to feel the same fragility, as if he were being immersed in a liquid that was turning him opaque, filling him with clarity. A breath of wind could float him out the window, drift him across the fields, and he would pass through the trees and mountains, all the phantoms of the material world . . . but then a trickle of panic welled up from the bottom of his soul, from that dark stone. It was beginning to smolder, to give off poison fumes: a little briquette of anger and lust and fear. Cracks were spreading across the clear substance he had become, and if he didn’t move soon, if he didn’t break off the meditation, he would shatter.

He toppled out of the lotus position and lay propped on his elbows. His heart raced, his chest heaved, and he felt very much like screaming his frustration. Yeah, that was a temptation. To just say the Hell with it and scream, to achieve through chaos what he could not through clarity: to empty himself into the scream. He was trembling, his emotions flowing between self-hate and self-pity. Finally, he struggled up and put on jeans and a cotton shirt. He knew he was close to a breakdown, and he realized that he usually reached this point just before taking up residence at Mr. Chatterji’s. His life was a frayed thread stretched tight between those two poles of debauchery. One day it would snap.

“The Hell with it,” he said. He stuffed the remainder of his clothes into a duffel bag and headed into town.

* * *

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5