Pandi struggled to fall asleep. The mosquito net his parents had given him when they packed him off to the monastery was riddled with holes. A mosquito landed on his arm; he lifted the net and shooed the insect away. After surviving a month in the monastery, he felt other things calling him. It was time to leave.
Pandi left his quarters quietly and walked down the trail to where he had hidden his lay clothes. After changing out of his saffron kasaya robes into jeans and a t-shirt, he began winding his way down the mountain trail. It was a long walk to Kathmandu, and difficult to navigate in the dim light of dawn, but at least it was all downhill. Several times along the way, stones came tumbling down the scree slopes behind him. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being followed, yet there were no signs of goats or people.
As Pandi descended, he thought about a talk that abbot Batsa had given the young monks about straying from the monastery.
‘The city is full of temptations. Temptations fuel desire. Desire is the cause of suffering. It is a counterproductive place to be for one who wishes to follow the eightfold path. If you are in any doubt, ask yourself—do you want to be free of Samsara, or not?’
Life is imperfect and involves suffering, Pandi thought to himself. If my journey through Samsara takes longer, I do not mind. I need to see what I am missing.
After journeying down the mountainside for several hours, Pandi arrived in Kathmandu by mid afternoon; feet coated in fine brown dust. He began searching for work right away, hoping for a job with food and board like the monastery had provided. He was a cook at the monastery, but none of the city's eateries had an appropriate vacancy.
Pandi was drawn to Kathmandu by the experiences that were available to him now that he was of age; cigarettes, strip clubs, and drinking. He longed to be around lively and interesting people that were the polar opposite of the humdrum hill-folk he grew up around. When he came across a neon sign in a quiet back street, he felt excited at its prospects. The sign read: ‘Lord of the Drinks—The 52nd best nightclub in the world’.
Pandi found the entrance to the club and stood outside, psyching himself up by puffing out his cheeks and slapping the air out of them. He pushed his weight against the door, but it held fast. The club would not be open for another few hours. He was about to leave when a voice from a window on the first floor shouted down. ‘Are you the drinks man?’
Pandi hesitated. ‘Umm, yes.’
He had never touched a drop of alcohol in his life.
‘Just a second. I’ll be right down.’
When the club owner opened the door, she appeared terribly beautiful to Pandi. He hadn’t so much as laid eyes on a woman during his month as a monk and women in the city were very sophisticated.
‘Where’s your truck?’ She asked.
‘Um, I don’t have one.’
She sighed and flicked her long black hair back. ‘So you’re not a delivery driver. Why are you impersonating one then?’
‘Do you have any jobs available?’ Pandi asked.
The club owner looked Pandi up and down. She seemed impressed by his sturdy stature. ‘One of our bouncers left last week. Are you any good with security?’
‘I’ve guarded a monastery,’ Pandi said confidently.
‘Well, you’re a good size. Maybe a bit young, but you look strong. Come in and I’ll show you around.’
The 52nd best nightclub in the world was bigger than the monastery's temple. Pandi marvelled at the domed ceiling, criss-crossed with disco lights. Onstage there was a DJ booth and a smoke machine with built in lasers. As Pandi followed the owner to the bar, his sandals got stuck to the sticky floor. He shuddered at what Batsa would say if the monastery floors were allowed to get as filthy as these were. The owner cracked open a cold bottle of beer and handed it to Pandi. ‘I’m Bhavi, by the way.’ He took a big gulp; it almost fizzed out of his nose. ‘Pandi.’ He said, coughing up froth
into his mouth.
Bhavi smirked. ‘We need security in the basement club. Come on.’ She beckoned Pandi and led him down a staircase to a club named Medusa. It was far more chic than the boilerplate nightclub upstairs. Curved booths encircled several pole-dancing podiums, and the lack of sticky laminate flooring was pleasing; the deep pile carpeting could have been considered a trip hazard.
Bhavi, with her slender fingers, drew Pandi’s attention to a gold plaque on the wall. ‘Before I consider you for the role, you must read and understand the club rules.’
Pandi craned his head forwards and read aloud. ‘Please refrain from making eye contact with the dancers. Anyone found to be doing so will be ejected from the premises.’
This was familiar etiquette to Pandi; monasterial rules stated that there was to be no eye contact before noon. ‘That’s something I know how to uphold,’ he said.
Bhavi looked pleased. ‘It’s been our ethos for years, and the girls prefer it this way. It works best for the customers, too; it adds a layer of novelty and mystique.'
Bhavi placed her palms flat on Pandi’s chest, as if reading him. Having never had a job interview before, he wondered if this was standard practice. Bhavi closed her eyes and took a deep breath. ‘I think you’ll fit right in, Pandi. Can you start tonight?’
Entranced by Bhavi, he said, ‘yes.’
With an advance from Club Medusa, Pandi purchased a crisp new suit. When he arrived ready to bounce, the edges of the podiums glowed neon pink, and the freshly cleaned poles sparkled.
For Pandi, the anticipation of seeing a naked woman for the first time made him sick with excitement. When he was introduced to the dancers, they adored his kind and chubby face. Lola ran her fingers over the stubble on his head. ‘Don’t worry, you’re a bouncer. You can make eye contact with us,’ she said, ‘it’s essential for things to run smoothly. You’ll enjoy it here. Men always do.’
Pandi was in paradise; happily watching the girls get ready in their dressing room. If there were women in the monastery wearing these kinds of outfits, no chores would ever get done, he thought. Lola explained to Pandi how she would alert him of any rule breakers with a signal. ‘If I want rid of someone, I’ll point to my eyes, then to the man, okay?’
Pandi was well aware that he had been treated like a king after coming in off the street. But once the doors of the club opened and a group of brash, half-cut men arrived, it changed the easy-going feel of the place. As Lola walked to the podium, her face hardened like a fossil. Her happy-go-lucky energy subsided when she began writhing urgently. Pandi thought that years of crude remarks must have taken their toll on her and he felt guilty for enabling the interaction. But he didn’t need to feel sorry for her; she knew what she was doing. She had donned her armour and was conducting a business transaction; even though the men were becoming increasingly unpleasant, Lola performed perfunctorily. Pandi’s excitement about seeing his first pair of breasts in an erotic context had reached geriatric flaccidity. He’d become a cog in a machine that benefited no one. It dawned on him that the strippers, the patrons, and anyone who had ever dreamed of visiting a club like this—including himself—were all disgraceful. He began to feel ashamed that he had acted on his wanton impulse to visit the city. What would Batsa say if he knew he was here?
At midnight, the obnoxious group of men were still going strong. To Pandi’s surprise, they hadn’t broken any rules and had avoided making eye contact with the dancers. When each of the girls had done a stint on the podium, Lola returned with her desperate gyrations. Pandi was trying to avoid looking at her body by gazing into the middle distance. She began pointing her chin in his direction and giving him the signal. As he walked cooly over to the table of steaming drunk men, Lola repeated the signal, pointing at the man with the shaved head. Pandi put his hand on the back of the man’s shoulder. ‘Sir. Come with me,’ he said firmly.
The man refused to budge. ‘Oh please. Come on. Who can resist those eyes?’
‘It's time to leave,’ Pandi asserted.
The rest of the men were in hysterics. ‘There’s plenty else to look at, Batsa,’ one of them said. ‘Why bother with the eyes?’
The ocular transgressor stood up, pressed his palms together and bowed at Lola. ‘You have a beautiful soul. I saw it through your windows.’
Lola frowned as she slid down the pole, upside down; she was unable to hear the man’s compliments over the loud music. It wasn’t until Pandi had herded the man upstairs to the quiet of the cloakroom that he realised exactly who he was. By the green glow of the fire escape light, Batsa smiled shyly.
‘Batsa?’ Pandi asked.
A four-to-the-floor disco beat bled through the wall from the club next door. Batsa lowered his head and placed his palms together in greeting to Pandi. ‘Evidently, my talk didn’t dissuade you from leaving,’ he said. ‘Now we have both strayed.’
‘My mentor,’ Pandi said, pushing the fire exit open, ‘you have to leave.’
‘Wait; my bag.’
Batsa took his canvas bag from the cloakroom and followed Pandi out of the air-conditioned club into the alley; the night was hot.
‘Tell me, what benefits has your excursion provided you?’ Batsa asked.
‘None, that I can think of,’ Pandi said. ‘It wasn’t what I thought it would be. These false fixes don’t bring me happiness. I don’t think I would have been satisfied with any amount of pleasure.’
‘Very wise,' Batsa said. 'Please, do not tell anyone at the monastery of my behaviour. I would be embarrassed.’
‘I understand,’ Pandi said.
In the darkness above the city skyline, Pandi tried to pick out the mountains and the monastery, but the light pollution was too strong. ‘I think I’ve seen all I need to see. Shall we get out of here?’
‘Yes, let’s get a taxi,’ Batsa said, as they began walking down the street. ‘If we hold each other accountable, we’ll never return to places like these.’
‘Ah! My suit,’ Pandi said, grabbing his lapels. ‘I have to return it.’
He thought of the jeans and t-shirt he had left in the dressing room among the stripper’s g-strings and stockings, but didn’t want to face going back. He wasn’t supposed to have kept his lay clothes when he joined the monastery and didn't want Batsa to see them. As if reading Pandi’s mind, Batsa unzipped his bag and handed him a set of kasaya robes. Pandi noticed that they didn’t smell any different than his own robes; in fact, they fit so perfectly that he was convinced they were his own. As he brushed a dusty mud patch off the robes, he had the notion that Batsa was the invisible goat that had followed him down the mountain.
Batsa took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one up. ‘Care for a smoke?’ He asked, as if tempting Pandi with one final test.
‘No,’ Pandi said. ‘I’ve gone off the idea. They smell awful. Can you put that out, please?’
The corners of Batsa’s eyes creased when he smiled. ‘Of course. They taste horrible. Come on, let's walk to the taxi rank.’
Pandi wisely decided to keep his dalliance with Club Medusa secret from his parents. He and Batsa entered a pact of secrecy. When they disembarked outside the monastery by the faint light of dawn, Pandi left Batsa and went to look for the kasaya robes he had hidden a day earlier. The robes were nowhere to be seen; Batsa must have collected them in his bag and followed Pandi.
At sunrise, Pandi joined the fresh-faced monks in the temple as Batsa took to the altar and began incanting. Pandi tried to atone for his setback by concentrating deeply on the words and meaning of the prayers, but the familiar feeling that he was being watched returned. He dared to glance up fleetingly, and saw Batsa watching him. As the room of monks chanted, mentor and mentee locked eyes—the only heads upright in a sea of bowed ones. They exchanged a smile with a sentiment known only to the two of them; ‘No more bending of the four noble truths’.
Pandi bowed his head and focused.