Since its grand opening in Nepal, everyone has been raving about McRonald’s. You see, we’re such a poor country even McDonald’s hasn’t sniffed us out. Thirty-eight thousand locations in over hundred countries, and who’s ignored? Kathmandu, Nepal. We’re so neglected, our politicians profit from it. They own our lands, our rivers. They make us pay a cut for the air we breathe. So, when a charitable American opens a fake McDonald’s with the slogan, “the taste of freedom,” of course we get in line.
As for me, I have the temperament of the poor. A migrant from a village, I know how to skip meals. Water fasting is not always a choice. I go on a liquid diet, save enough to be able to afford a McRonald’s burger, and a month after the grand launch, I put on my fake beard and head out. Why the fake beard? Let me not digress.
The line outside the yellow arches is long. I hang around for a while, find a kind face, and sneak in front.
“My third time,” the man says. He is a stocky fellow, and his briefcase suggests that he has skipped work. “Big Box. Combo Meal. Grilled. Crispy. My daughter doesn’t eat rice anymore,” he says.
“The owner is Chinese American. Knock-off American as usual. That is our destiny,” the man behind me says. He has his motorcycle helmet on. “For safety, in case something happens,” he says.
The line moves slowly, and as young men and women come out of the sliding doors, a TV camera follows them.
You can’t move your head without banging into someone, but still, what a far cry the air-conditioned joint is from the hustle and bustle of the streets. Under the bright lights and peppy music even old people look like they’re in love.
The briefcase man taps my shoulder. “Freedom combo is to die for,” he says.
“Freedom combo,” I say to the lady behind the counter.
“Jumbo or medium? Fries or coleslaw? Crispy or regular?”
I too want to blow some English back at her, so I say, “Make it jumbo crispy with some ketchup, please.”
With my tray full of burger, fries, and fried chicken, I search for an empty seat. That is when the first glass shatters. Suddenly rocks and pebbles fly in. People run like wild animals, and the YHL mob barges in with cricket bats and metal rods. I want to run for my life but how can I let go of the chicken, so I wolf it down. One after another. I push and push until I choke on a bone. There is still a whole piece of breast left on the plate, but the bone lodges itself between the walls of my throat. I start to gag. The pain explodes in my chest. I feel my face turning blue. I grab my throat with my hands and drop on the floor. The dust from the debris rises before me and I lay still, wondering if I have died.
The mob raids the kitchen and the cash registers. Soon there are phones and cameras, people hanging on roof beams and pillars for the best shot. They find me and zoom in. Someone shakes me, pokes my chest, checks my pulse. A lady journalist looks straight into a TV camera and declares, like a leader in a national crisis, that enough is enough. Me, a common man, has been caught in a carnage of burger imperialism. She shakes my body in full view of the camera when her finger gets caught in my hastily stitched beard. She tugs at it slowly then yanks it out leaving half the beard hanging on the side of my face. A gasp goes around the room. A man standing over me slaps his thigh and laughs. The lady brandishes the beard at the camera. “Fake,” she says. “The story of our nation. Lack of genuine leaders, starved of genuine vision, mobs, protest, angry, hungry, violence with a masked agenda, against bogus American burger, and a man, caught in the middle, concealing identity—for what? From whom?”
When the police sirens are finally heard in the distance, the vandals vanish through the backdoor stealing this and that on their way out. The TV lady is still talking into the lens when I spring to my feet and run. Thirty minutes later, McRonald’s goes up in flames.
Other than that, it’s the glorious season of Dasain when thousands of goats are slain in temples and homes, their blood offered as sacrifice to the goddess of prosperity and power. Our most beloved festival is also a season of slaughter, and the weather, peeling away from the last layers of summer, is beautiful.
I snatch off what’s left on my face and pass through a back alley where a bleating flock is being sold to the highest bidder. Climbing over various walls, I finally reach my apartment. The TV needs a few thuds before it comes on. There I am, on split screen. Martyr of modernization or a mysterious fraud? The image of me scooting away with half a beard flashes incessantly. No one is hurt in the fire and the perpetrators go scot free, but I have somehow become breaking news.
The real problem is this: a radical group who calls itself YHL (Young Hindu League) has been making a big noise in our college recently. Anyone caught red handed with the American burger will be held to account, which I take to mean, charred like dead meat. Such threats are often made by small-time gangs, but YHL is a brand new, right-wing Hindu party, backed by deep pockets of society. With general elections only a few months away, YHL is going through extreme lengths to whip up a nationalistic fervor. They have infiltrated every college campus, and Bhagwan Guru, the party’s leader, a soft-spoken reformed gangster who wants a seat in the parliament, has issued a warning, aimed specifically at college students—stay away from McRonald’s or face the consequence. A conspiracy theory about the Chinese American owner has also been doing the rounds. If we succumb to the taste of freedom, McR’s next stop is our northern neighbor, Tibet. Rumor is, McR uses beef disguised as chicken, because beef is fatty and generates more body heat, increasing our lust for American-style freedom. Does that mean America is pulling the strings? Do we finally matter? I don’t want to admit it, but I feel a tad bit excited about this possibility.
Guru isn’t anti-America per say. On his morning TV show, where he teaches yoga, he implies a deep fascination for many things American—the war on terror, for example. Every Muslim, he says, is a potential terrorist because Islam arrived at our borders from UP and Bihar. Those barbaric invaders plunder, pillage, exploit the inherent hospitality of Hindus, and their disturbing ideology poisons our young minds in mosques and neighborhoods. Guru delivers the most hateful messages by contorting his body into inhuman shapes, sometimes conducting an entire show in the Sirsa Padasana pose, and he uses his prowess to sell patriotic Auyrvedic medicines. A rich celebrity with millions of followers on Instagram, one can’t say Guru is anti-capitalist either. His current ire, curated for the election, is targeted against a hodge-podge of impurities—Americanism, beef eaters, Muslims, and homosexuality. Guru’s slogan for his campaign? Make Nepal Great Again.
To the world, Nepal may sound exotic, far-flung, full of mountains and enlightened monks. But inferiority complex is our national disease. Like any third-world disease, our inferiority complex is incurable. It will eventually kill us. Conspiracy theories aside, the only time we matter to the world is when we’re ravaged by a natural disaster—scroll all the way down to find us! We’re so isolated, we only get fake brands. Like my Eye-Phone, a Bangladeshi knock-off mobile whose tag line is “your eye and ear to the world.” I’ll take it. Anything to feel like I too am a version of a global citizen. But YHL wants to keep us suspicious and afraid. They want to lock our land, our minds.
Someone knocks on the door.
“We know it was you, princess.” That unmistakable voice of a YHL cadet from our college. They call me princess because I’m a man with delicate hands and a penchant to polish my fingernails black.
A fellow in a saffron-colored kurta pushes his way in.
I’m not wearing a shirt, and the rose tattoo etched onto my chest sparkles like an ornament. “Who are you trying to impress with those tits?” he says.
I’m overcome with so much fear that I start throwing punches. Not a single blow hits the target because the guy bends his knees and moves to the left and to the right, ducking under my rather erratic swings. This goes on for a while like a Jackie Chan movie. Then he slips away and bends my arms behind my back, tackles me to the ground. When he raises his fist in the air, as if in slow motion, I pause for an introspection. The thing is, I’m not a brainwashed American wannabe. A son of poor farmers in a remote village, I know too well that power stems from fear, not assurances. That’s why landlords rule over us. I came to the city in search of acceptance. B.A. in community service. Bachelor in romance because misfortune is contagious if you’re gay. I can’t afford a pet, so I collect stones. Not gemstones, not idols, but stones gathered from roadsides. Sandstones, limestones, schists, and slates. Stones that build our bridges, witness our history. Stones that give off an energy. You can feel it in my tin boxes, my windowsills.
The man feels it too. He doesn’t know what to do with his fist. He grabs my hair.
“Guru wants to see you at dusk,” he says. His breath smells of hunger. There really is no difference between him and me. We’ve created godmen in our young democracy who sweep past the rest of us in flag-flying cars. The Guru-worshipping crony knows he will never smell the leather in the car.
I open a window in my apartment after he leaves. The wind has picked up. Trash cans have toppled over. The road is littered with used condoms, abandoned socks, rotten potatoes, detritus of lives who, until this morning, had been quietly planning for weddings and exams. A police van speeds toward a smoldering McRonald’s, carrying starving soldiers whose guns fail to glisten in the afternoon sun. I stand close to the window to hack a neighbor’s Wi-fi. Curfew has been announced. I’m viral on Twitter–#fakebeard, #deadmeat, #burgerrevolution.
I shut the window, slump on the floor. Men are shouting on TV. In the corner of the screen, a clock is counting down to dusk. My lips have become morbidly captivating. They’re zooming in to the part exposed by the loose beard. A swamy draped in saffron dhoti is rich with explanation. In the male species, the outer skin must bristle with hair but the skin around my lips is bald as an egg. “It’s the lack of testosterone being pumped into the nerve endings,” the swamy says. He offers to examine my testicles. Why do I live alone? Why do I have lady lips? Speculation about my sexuality causes fever pitch excitement.
As dusk approaches, the sky turns into a scatter of blue and orange. Curfew has been lifted to prepare for my encounter with Guru. Outside my apartment, masses gather, some demanding globalization, freedom of choice and voice; others march against foreign intrusion/aggression/transgression.
Water shortage means I can’t shower. We have six thousand rivers in our country but no water in our taps. I take an imaginary dip in Bagmati where fish bloated with river trash peck at my dirty skin. That’s my ablution. We have trained our brain cells to be delusional.
I put on a crisp white shirt and pleated pants, spend half an hour polishing my shoes. I put them on with the laces tied into perfect bowknots. My sleek hair is brushed back. A splash of aftershave and I’m all set.
A loud roar greets me when I step out. Media vultures have climbed on top of trees and the army has been dispatched on to rooftops. Pictures of my hanging beard have turned into flags and towels–a cottage industry for hustlers who walk amongst the crowd shouting out bargain deals.
I pass by tea shops and cafés, where young people are grasping at words and ideas blowing into a frenzy. They pull me into different directions for selfies. I’m quickly mobbed by a swell of humanity. People aim their slingshots, bearing stones and roses. I manage to duck and dart, push my way over. At a check post, a policewoman offers me the opportunity to bribe my way out of trouble. I’m a broke college student, madam. I make ends meet by volunteering at an NGO that repatriates refugees and sex-trafficking victims. Out of employment for the foreseeable future, madam, because during this election season, refugees and prostitutes have been thrown in jail to restore law and order. As I’m pushed forward, a pride parade marches towards me—dancing, singing, jangling their bangles, curling their fingers in the air. Men, women, nonbinary, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans—an explosion of new voices recognized by the new constitution. Article 18. Didn’t I know this already? They lift me up and throw me in the air like the coach of a soccer team who has just won a trophy.
“Why are you hiding from us?” they say.
“I’m not ready to come out,” I say as I’m hurled into the rapturous wind. I know I’m doomed to land with a thud when the parade is assaulted by a bigger crowd with machetes, bearers of tradition. They carry decapitated goat heads, slaughtered for the festival, awash in the sparkle of blood. The pride parade scrambles for cover, dispensing with their shoes and sandals as they flee.
After a long ordeal, I finally reach the yellow arches, still rising above a smoldering heap. Next to it is an elevated stage. Guru sits on a throne engraved in gold arms. He curls the end of his moustache with his fingers, and his forehead is smeared in ash. Cronies surround him, sharpening pieces of coal gathered from scorched earth. The crowd, barricaded behind bamboo poles, jostle for front-row seats. A scaffold with wooden frames has been attached to the golden arches. YHL cadets escort me to the stage, and with every step I take, the ground shakes with the roar of the crowd. I dare not look behind me at the enormity of hope and anger. From farmers waving sickles against GMO seeds to artists demanding freedom of speech, a tumultuous country lost in the labyrinth of new promises has descended upon us, beating drums made of goatskin and strapped leather. I march with a shaky conviction that I, for mysterious reasons, have been chosen by the forces of nature and this is now a matter of destiny.
They hang me by my arms on to the wooden frames of the fast-food logo. They strip me down to my underwear. The crowd goes wild. I am thirty feet above ground and the whole process takes time; at one point I almost drop because a rope snaps, leaving me hanging by one arm. After I’m restored and touched up with powder puff, Guru pokes my crotch with a stick.
“Fake or Real?” He asks the crowd. They laugh and hoot. Guru walks to the dais. He taps the microphone—”testing, testing”—causing a static echo. The crowd falls into a hush as Guru’s voice blares from the speakers.
“Brothers and sisters, our society is under threat from foreign invaders trying to divide us with their junk ideas, their junk food, their moral corruption, obscene lifestyle choices. Let us not forget the traditions we have inherited. Let us not forget our sanskar that has kept us sovereign in all of history. We may not be at war with a foreign army, but we are at war with foreign ideas. From polluted hamburgers to homosexual sex, our national security is in grave danger. Rise above your petty rivalries and vote YHL to make Nepal great again!”
The crowd boos and cheers.
“In this festive season, let us now make the ultimate sacrifice for the future of our great nation.”
Guru climbs a ladder. He holds a stick with a smoldering coal attached to it. The crowd is beating drums, blowing conch shells. Guru flourishes the stick as if he were cueing for an orchestra. He then carves the rock into my flesh, slowly. He picks his spots with glee. Blood drips down my ankles onto a brass cauldron. I start to lose consciousness. I’m a low-growling beast, focusing its entire concentration on its wounds. They leave me hanging for a while. The roar of the crowd is deafening. The cronies argue about the next step. Should I be left to die as a martyr? Their attempt at speaking to Guru fetches a blank stare. The extent of his power made him so giddy, he forgot to think this through. He starts chanting a prayer. He clanks hand cymbals to conjure a deity.
Even as my concentration slips, I feel a heatwave from the mob. They shimmer like a mirage. When they break through the barricades, they run around waving their machetes. Most of them don’t know what to do or where to go. A father carries his son on his shoulders and takes a picture next to me. Before I can ask for a glass of water, they dance and disappear into mutinous joy.
Ranjan Adiga’s stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Huff Post, Story Quarterly, Salt Lake Tribune, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Westminster College, Salt Lake City.