Beneath the staircase leading to the second floor was Kaali’s tiny bed, under which lay cardboard boxes that housed her prized belongings: three colorful new skirts with their price tags still on them and four hundred-rupee notes in a Liv-52 plastic container. Kaali threw the skirts into a plastic bag, forked out the notes, and shoved them in a skirt pocket. She looked at her face in her purple compact mirror, wiped the droplets of perspiration that had gathered on her forehead, and returned to help Parvati with her packing.
All you need to do is get to the Indian border, he had said. A relative of mine will then pick you up. Here’s some money for you. Do you know when your mistress will take you to Birtamod next? The border is just half an hour away from there.
Parvati already had a suitcase ready and was washing her hair in the kitchen sink. She ordered Kaali to hold portions of her hair while she shampooed the rest.
“Look at it falling out,” Parvati said. “Soon I won’t have any left .”
“Your hair is thick,” Kaali offered. “It will take many years for it to completely fall out.”
“You know nothing. How long have you been with us? Four years? You came as a baby and still have the brains of a baby.”
“I think I came when I was eight. I’ve been here five years.”
“Yes, yes, four years, five years—what’s the diff erence? You were nothing but bones when we brought you in. Your mother didn’t want another girl child.”
Parvati had narrated the story before. In fact, Kaali heard it on a weekly basis. Her mother, pressured by the growing number of mouths to feed, decided to chop off the weakest link in her family. It had to be a girl, and Kaali, with her cleft lip, was the most useless of them all. She was a sickly child, a liability who’d never be an asset. When a young widow came to their shanty in Dooars, on the India-Bhutan border, looking for a servant girl, Kaali’s mother offered her for free.
“Your life was sad then,” Parvati said. “Do you remember it?”
“No, I don’t,” Kaali replied. “I only remember my life from after I moved here.”
“It’s good you have no recollection. You were sick from eating all that mud outside your hut. Your brothers and sisters hated you, and I shouldn’t blame them, for you were scary to look at. Your father was a useless man. I wonder if he’s still alive.”
“I don’t remember him either.”
“You don’t even remember how I ran after your eight-year-old self because you had instinctively guessed I was taking you away. What an imbecile—you had no clue you were going to lead a better life with me. You don’t remember how many spoons of sugar I need. You don’t even remember the insults Sarita just heaped on you. You remember nothing. What do I do with you?”
Kaali knew what was coming next. It was the underwear story. Parvati never tired of it.
“And you didn’t have any underwear on, you uncivilized being—how often have I told you about the panties you wore on your head after I bought you a pair? You thought they didn’t fit. Look at how far you’ve come, but your brains are still the same—you’re still adivasi in your mentality.”
Parvati brought up the underwear episode so frequently that Kaali no longer associated it with shame. The first few days after Kaali started living with her, Parvati made it a point to regale everyone with the story of the maid who had never before worn panties. It was on one of the various toilet breaks that punctuated their overnight bus journey from Birtamod to Kathmandu that she saw, Parvati said, to her horror, her recently acquired eight-year-old maid squat on the road, right next to the bus, and urinate, giving the world a well-defined view of her lower regions.
“And she wasn’t wearing anything underneath her skirt,” Parvati would say, aghast, and call for Kaali so her guests could see the little girl from the forests who had never seen panties until Parvati bought her a pair.
“Sarita told me to wipe off the snot from my face,” Kaali said. “But my nose is clean, isn’t it?”
You have a pretty face, he always said. It’s a pity your bad lip conceals it. Your eyes are so expressive; they are an actress’s eyes. Have you ever dreamed of being an actress? Do you have a good voice? Can you sing for me?
“You have no respect for my family members. You should call Sarita didi. She’s my sister-in-law. Sarita is just being condescending. She has to make others feel bad about themselves so she can feel good about herself.”
“Should I pack something to eat for the road?”
“Always thinking of food, you khanchuwee. Must be the extra hole in your lip that makes you hungry all the time. Yes, pack some chiwda for yourself. And let me eat something here. I’ll be expected to eat some unsavory food for thirteen days. Or maybe it’s forty-five days. No salt, no oil, nothing, and I may even be forced to eat just one meal a day. That woman is gone, but she’ll forever continue to trouble us. We have last night’s vegetables and some rice. Go warm them up for me.”
As Kaali turned the gas on to warm some cauliflower, Parvati went around the house, bolting and locking the doors.