Menuka’s Triumph

Amar Bahadur Sherma

Menuka stood alone on the balcony of her hillside apartment, her gaze locked onto the vast expanse of the rosy horizon that stretched before her. The serenity of the early morning was momentarily disrupted by the return of a platoon that had spent the night on patrol. They had meticulously combed a radius of forty-two miles, tracking the winding canal system along the road, their senses alert, watchful for any signs of enemy activity. Now, as they returned to their base, they had paused for a moment’s respite, indulging in warm beer while their carryalls lined the hillside.

Above, the distant rumble in the sky was not thunder, but the familiar hum of their own helicopters on a routine mission. Menuka shifted her focus for a moment as a police van passed by, then felt an unusual stillness envelop her—a unique, early-morning hush reminiscent of a village coming to life with the first light of day. Yet, within her, a different kind of turbulence swirled—an anxious heartbeat that thudded audibly, heard only by her.

Menuka was a slender woman with delicate features, her wispy brown hair framing her watery black eyes. Her beauty was reminiscent of her mother’s, and like her, Menuka exuded a contentment akin to the fragrance of moist earth. But on this particular day, contentment eluded her.

With panic and anxiety coursing through her veins, she hurriedly dialed a clinic, securing an appointment with a female doctor. “What is happening to my vagina?” she murmured, her voice trembling with embarrassment. Standing alone on the balcony, she grappled with the relentless itching and burning sensations that had plagued her. Like many women, she feared that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. She sighed when the doctor said, “It must be vaginal infection.” However, memories of intimate moments with her boyfriend, protected by a condom, flooded her mind.

Menuka hailed from Nepal, where, for the first two years of her college life, she commuted to campus via a public bus from her apartment. It was not her preferred mode of transportation, but financial constraints left her with limited options. She concocted all manner of plans and strategies to make ends meet, yet the meager wages she earned from her part-time job at a supermarket near the university barely prevented financial collapse. So, she found herself sharing her apartment with a roommate who was often visited by handsome and affluent suitors.

The pivotal moment in Menuka ‘s life arrived when her boyfriend admitted to loving her appealing body but not her soul. Heartbroken, she began wandering the town alone, nursing her emotional wounds. Occasionally, she sought solace in the arms of American boyfriends, while often seeking refuge in alcohol to drown her sorrows. On one ill-fated night, her reckless drinking led to pancreatitis, which landed her in the hospital. Back in Nepal, her family perceived her as a cultured and hardworking daughter, and that wasn’t entirely untrue. However, they remained oblivious to her adventures overseas; she was not an exception.

Living on the precipice of financial ruin, Menuka learned to stretch her meager resources. She registered for charity programs to secure free meals and even ventured into a nearby church, despite her Hindu faith, to request nourishment. She discovered that, in the United States, wine was often more affordable than drinking water or juice, leading her to indulge in many six-dollar bottles.

Her first breakup marked a turning point in her life. To cope with the heartache, she began dating a spectrum of men—rich, poor, handsome, and less so. She pursued them not out of genuine interest but out of sheer ennui and the need to feel desired. The prospect of being alone with her thoughts had become unbearable. That year, she made numerous regrettable decisions, including copulation with a four-year junior virgin lad.

As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, the incessant itching and pain in her vagina persisted—a relentless presence that haunted her every waking moment. Whether in her apartment, the classroom, the library, or a restaurant, the discomfort was an unwelcome companion. She sought help from the ABC Women’s Clinic, embarking on a journey of medical consultations and treatments. There, she pretended to be relaxed and confident, but she wasn’t inside. “Look carefully. It’s pink and healthy,” she said with a smile. “Regardless of infection, my genital looks good and well-shaped,” she thought.

Months passed, and despite numerous medications and treatments, the infection showed no signs of relenting. At one point, Menuka even gathered the courage to ask her friends,

“Is it possible to get a vaginal transplant? Has science advanced to that point?”

Shame and fear began to consume her, eroding her confidence bit by bit. Back in Nepal, her family had warned her against succumbing to temptation and losing focus on her studies, branding her as common and materialistic. In theory, she had yearned to be sexually liberated, to assert control over her body, to be a woman who defied tradition and gender norms. Yet, she had not yet comprehended the intricate web of sex and shame that ensnared a Nepali girl.

Like a relentless game of hide and seek, the itching and pain would abate for a while, only to return with renewed intensity. Menuka continued her weekly visits to the ABC Women’s Clinic, where they tried every conceivable treatment. After months of failed remedies and medications, she resorted to cutting sugar and carbohydrates from her diet. Moreover, she stopped drinking and engaging in intimate encounters—a painful choice for her at the time. In her moments of respite, she embarked on a quest for knowledge, researching the causes of persistent yeast infections. She soon learned that the two primary culprits were diabetes and HIV. She was certain she did not have diabetes, which led her to the terrifying realization that she might have, in a drunken moment, forgotten to use a condom. She convinced herself that she was destined to die of AIDS, a source of profound shame for her family. In Nepal, neighbors did not celebrate one’s success; rather, they reveled in the misfortunes of others. Who else could provide such scintillating gossip as the neighbors in Nepal?

Menuka ‘s journey was further complicated by her own contradictions. She had been introduced to the concept of sex education in seventh grade in Nepal, and she had even engaged in self-discovery through masturbation during her eighth-grade year. She had harbored a lingering shyness, fearful that God would witness her actions. Her journey had led her to the U.S., where she was now grappling with these perplexing issues.

As winter gave way to spring, America began to emerge from its cocoon, bearing the scars of its experiences but infused with hope. Menuka, however, wrestled with apervasive fear. She contemplated that it might be better to die just once, for the relentless dread of AIDS felt like a daily death sentence.

Summoning all her courage, she decided to undergo an HIV test at the same clinic. After the test, she ventured out into her neighborhood and the college campus, basking in the warmth of the sun and the beauty of blooming flowers and trees. All is well, she said but she battled her obsessive thoughts of a positive result. By this time, she had lost approximately five kilograms of her weight. She was convinced that if she received a positive HIV result, she would not return to Nepal to burden her parents; instead, she would choose to commit suicide. She was aware that some Nepali HIV-positive individuals had used their personal tragedies as a source of empowerment and hope for others. However, she couldn’t envision herself as a beacon of inspiration; instead, she anticipated drowning in a mire of self-pity and misery.

The morning of her appointment to collect the test results arrived, and Menuka ‘s heart was heavy with trepidation. She arrived at the clinic, clutching the appointment letter, her legs quivering beneath her. The staff member responsible for delivering the results asked her,

“May I know your name, please?”

“….nuka” she stammered.

The staff, gazed at her for seconds and said “Negative,” exposing her long, stained teeth. Menuka  asked her,

“Can….can….. you repeat what you just said?” “NEGATIVE!”

Her heart leapt. “Thank you, dear,” she said as she hugged her tightly. She had hugged many since she was born, but that hug was different—really different. It felt like she had been blessed with a new life.

Menuka ‘s journey had been a tumultuous one, marked by fear, shame, and stigma. However, she had emerged from the crucible stronger and more resilient than ever before. Her battle against the persistent infection had tested her resolve, but in the end, she found the strength to confront her fears head-on. Menuka now faced life with renewed courage, determination, and a profound appreciation for the fragility of existence.

(Amar Bahadur Sherma is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Arlington, U.S.)