A shortlisted selection for the Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers, The Gurkha’s Daughter is Prajwal Parajuly’s literary debut set to release in the US and Canada this July. Visit the author’s Facebook page for the book tour’s upcoming dates and locations.
This collection of eight stories from Parajuly explores a diverse array of relationships among people in Nepal and throughout the Nepalese diaspora. In “The Cleft,” shared below by permission of Quercus Publishing, 13-year-old servant girl Kaali, disfigured by a cleft palate, plots to take a better life for herself while on a journey with widow Parvati, her verbally abusive, manipulative mistress.
When Parvati first heard the news, by way of a phone call from her youngest brother-in-law in Birtamod, she applied some coconut oil to her hair and called for the servant girl to massage her scalp and temples. The two perched themselves on the rickety wooden stairs leading to the house, Parvati with her legs wide apart,as the servant’s fingers adroitly negotiated their way through the thick tangle of hair on Parvati’s head.
“The demon,” Parvati said, smiling to herself. “She’s dead.” “She’s dead,” the girl echoed.
“Do you even know who I am talking about, you foolish girl?” Parvati gently hit the servant’s hand.
“Yes, your mother.”
“Not my mother, but my mother-in-law.Your name is Kaali, you dark girl, and your brain is as dark as your face.You understand nothing.”
“But you call her Aamaa, don’t you?”
“Of course, I have to. What else would I call my husband’s mother? Mydaughter? It’sa good thing you’ve found employment here, Kaali. With the way you think, you’d be thrown out of everywhere else. Not to forget the way you look—black as coal and those grotesque lips.Were my husband alive, he’d have kicked you out already.”
Parvati turned back to look at the servant’s lip. Kaali’s teeth protruded from under the cleft, and she looked like a mouse ready to nibble on a piece of cheese. Parvati touched the deformity with her fingers.
“Does it hurt?” she asked.
“No, I am used to it.”
“That’s the reason you still have a home, Kaali—you never complain. You wash plates like a blind woman—just today I had to rewash three plates—and you mop like a baby. You aren’t good at anything and look like that, but I’ll put up with you because of your attitude.”
Kaali was now forming slow circles around Parvati’s temples. Parvati’s hair glistened in the Kathmandu sun, which was frail and playing hide-and-seek, and she let out a cry when Kaali, through a rough motion of fingers, selected a strand of gray hair and, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger, extracted a big, fat louse.
“Look at it,” Kaali said, showing Parvati the insect crawling in between the lines of her palm. “That’s a dhaarey. It sucks more blood than a jumraa.”
Kaali threw the louse on the ground and, before it could escape, brought her thumb down to crush it, causing a tiny speck of blood to flick up and catch her cleft .
“I don’t know where I’ve been getting these from,” Parvati remarked. “It must be because I tie my hair right aft er washing it.”
“These things thrive in damp hair,” Kaali said.
“You know everything, don’t you?”
“I don’t see another one.”
“You know what they say—when you see one, you don’t see hundreds.”
“I don’t see any more of them.”
“That’s because you can’t do anything efficiently, didn’t I tell you?” Parvati said, adding in a resigned voice, “Maybe it is Aamaa’s spirit.”
“When will you go to Birtamod?” Kaali asked.
“Why? So you can watch TV all day? Think I don’t know what you do when I am gone?”
“No, no, I just want to know. When will you go?”
“I am mourning right now,” Parvati said with a wry smile. “I can’t think straight. I am sure the relatives will come up with some plan for me.”
“Will I go too?”
“Why? You want a plane ride, you greedy girl?”
“I didn’t know we’d take a plane.”
“There probably are no plane tickets available for today or tomorrow. Or the day after. The bokshee makes everything difficult. A woman who so easily made our lives difficult when alive is equally bad dead.”
“Do you think she can hear us?”
“Let her, I don’t care. But you haven’t said anything bad about her, so why do you worry? If her aatmaa is still hovering around here, I’ll be the one it will come to scare in the night. Your face would scare even the ghosts. Are you fourteen yet, Kaali?”
“If you stay with us for four more years, maybe we’ll arrange for some surgery. Will that make you happy?”
“And school?” She spotted another louse but didn’t pursue it.
“Why go to school?” Parvati looked straight at Kaali. “Look, I am high school pass, and yet I stay at home doing nothing. You need not go to school. Learn the basics from me. Show some initiative. Bring your notebook and pencil when I am free. But why would you? You’re too busy running around Battisputalli with the neighborhood children, too busy imagining what a beauty you will turn into after the surgery. Remember, the surgery only takes place aft er four years, and I shall take into account every misbehavior of yours before I decide on it.”
Yes, we will take care of the lip, he had said. And school, too. Now that you talk to me about going to school, it seems you have a brain we can’t waste, we shouldn’t waste. It’s just that all the mind-numbing chores at your mistress’s place have made you rusty.
The phone in the hallway put a stop to Kaali’s daydream.
“Go get it,” Parvati ordered. “Th e relatives must have made some travel arrangements. If anyone asks for me, tell them I am crying.”
“What if they want to talk to you?”
“Tell them I can’t talk.”
Kaali ran to the phone while Parvati followed to listen in on the extension.
“Hello, Bhauju,” the voice on the other end said. It was Sarita, Parvati’s dead husband’s sister.
“No, this is Kaali.”
The voice at once changed. “Where’s Bhauju?”
“I can’t. She’s crying.”
“I don’t care. Call her to the phone. It’s my mother who’s dead, not hers, and I am not crying.”
“She says no.”
“You’re so stupid. Are you the one with the bad lip?”
“Anyway, tell Bhauju to be ready. My brother-in-law has agreed to loan us his van and driver to go to Birtamod. There’s a seat left for Bhauju. Her share will be two thousand rupees.”
“What about me?”
“What will you do at a funeral? You can stay at home, or if you’re that desperate, you can come sit in the trunk of the van with the luggage. It’s a long journey, but you might have more space back there than we will in the front. All right, we’ll be there in an hour. Tell her to be ready.”
“I will, but what if she’s not willing to listen to me?”
“And you, please wipe that snot off your face and wear something clean. I want a clean skirt.”
Kaali didn’t have to tell her mistress about the chat. Parvati hobbled into the hallway, a traumatized look on her face.
“How dare she?” she hissed. “You’re clean. We’ve taught you clean habits. Don’t you bathe once and sometimes twice a week? And no one should comment on your bad lip. It’s not your fault you were born that way. Didn’t she say she’d be here in an hour? We need to pack, Kaali. We have some work to do.”
“Am I going too?”
“Of course, you are, you fool. I don’t know who else is going to fill up the van. No space? She’ll probably bring that Australian paying guest she takes everywhere with her—that elephant. You can sit in the trunk. After all, I am paying two thousand rupees. What are the others paying then? Nothing, I’m sure. Always taking advantage of our bigheartedness, all of Sir’s family. Nothing I ever do is enough for them.”