“Aye, Sarita maiyya, you look like you’ve been crying all day long,” Parvati said as she climbed into the van. “Now, you must remember her age. She had a good life.”
“No, I haven’t really been crying,” replied Sarita. “I didn’t feel bad, but when the servant girl told me you couldn’t come to the phone because you were crying, I felt bad that I wasn’t feeling so bad. Must have been the guilt. Aamaa never treated you well, and yet you are sad about her death. It’s funny.”
Kaali, after shrugging off a stinging remark about her ugliness from Sarita’s teenage son, was now safely on top of all the luggage bags in the trunk. She was staring at one of her co-passengers—the one seated up front—and trying to hold back a giggle. Parvati tried staring her down with bulging eyes, but Kaali paid no attention to anyone but the old white passenger—a big, perspiring woman who grunted when the van fi nally moved.
“She didn’t treat me that badly, Sarita,” said Parvati. “What family hasn’t had saasu-buhaari spats? It’s two women trying to win the affections of the same man, so there’s bound to be some friction. You yourself told me you had problems with your mother-in-law. By the way, is this the woman staying with you?”
“Yes, although the man whose affections you were both fighting for has long been dead.”
“So is your mother now. It wouldn’t be right for us to talk about how she treated me. Who’s this woman again?”
“Oh, this is Erin, my mother,” Sarita said, and in English added, “Erin, this is my sister-in-law. I am telling her about how you’re my mother from today onward.”
Erin smiled at Parvati, who tried to smile back.
Sarita broke into Nepali. “She’s a paying guest. She’s been with me for a month. After the news of Aamaa’s death today, she told me she’d be my mother from now on. I call her Aamaa, and she likes it. She wanted to see a proper Nepali funeral, so I told her to come along. You don’t happen to have the money with you right now, do you? I figured we should fill up before we run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.”
Be careful of the money, he reminded her every time they spoke. Don’t let anyone know you have money with you. The bus fare from Birtamod to the border should be no more than ten rupees. In fact, you may even be able to ride for free because you have the kind of pleasant disposition that inspires kindness in the most hard-hearted strangers.
“You’re taking her to attend your mother’s funeral?” Parvati asked, not making an eff ort to hide her horror while she ferreted for two thousand- rupee notes in her purse. “Your mother dies, and you already have a new mother. That’s a convenient life you lead.”
“Arrey, you never know with these Australians. Once they like you, they could even sponsor you. In two years, you become an Australian citizen. And she’s already grateful to me for taking her to my mother’s—my birth mother’s—funeral.”
“Would it bother you if Sunny found himself another mother too?” Parvati asked, pointing at Sarita’s son, who sat sulking by the window.
“Why not? If it benefi ts him, why not? He can even have one when I am alive.”
“And when is your husband coming to the funeral?” Parvati asked.
“He may not be able to make it. He has to go to China for work tomorrow. But he’ll be there for the thirteen-day kaam. The representatives from our family are my son, me, and Aamaa.”
“Yes, your family’s representatives for your dead mother’s funeral are you, your son, and your new mother,” Parvati said, aware the sarcasm was lost on Sarita.
They had now left the main city and the heavy traffic behind and were traversing serpentine roads. Erin clicked pictures when a particularly scenic mountain view greeted them. Sarita, ever the dutiful daughter, asked her if she wanted to get out and take photos.
“That’s fine,” Erin muttered.
“No, Aamaa, that’s no trouble, please, please,” she said and then asked the driver to stop, following which Erin got out, stared at the mountains, sighed, shot pictures, said a prayer, and got back in.
“Her camera is the size of a TV,” Parvati said.
“When you use English words that way, she knows we are talking about her.”
“People would think we are on a sightseeing trip and not mourning Aamaa’s death,” Parvati added. “And why does she keep praying? Is she calling her Yeshu to bless her?”
“She’s a Hindu.”
“Like these white people are ever Hindu.”
Sarita switched to English: “Hey, Erin, my sister-in-law doesn’t believe me when I tell her you’re Hindu.”
“Maybe I should recite the shlokas for her,” Erin said.
“You should,” Sarita replied with recently formed filial indulgence.
“So, she knows the shlokas too?” Parvati asked Sarita, impressed with herself for having gathered some information from a conversation in a language she barely understood.
“Yes, she does. You know, they wouldn’t allow her entry into the Pashupatinath Temple; they said only Hindus allowed. She then recited the Hanuman Chalisa in front of the priests. You should have seen the look on those priests’ faces.”
Erin chuckled in the front seat. She turned pinker when she laughed. Kaali let out a giggle.
“Does she understand our language?” Parvati whispered.
“No, but she knows what story I am narrating because I tell it to everyone. I think it makes her proud.”
“I can’t believe you call her Aamaa. She doesn’t even speak Nepali. I could never do it.”
“But doesn’t the servant girl—this one in the back—call you Aamaa?”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“I thought she did. Maybe you should ask her to call you Aamaa. It could make things easier for you. Does this one still steal?”
“No, Kaali doesn’t steal. She’s been with us five years. She’s good.” Parvati looked at Kaali from the corner of her eye; her servant was listening intently. “If she continues behaving, we can maybe get her lip operated on. It will cost us a lot of money, but I don’t have anyone else to spend it on.”
My mistress promised to get someone to teach me how to drive when I turned fifteen, he had said. I turned sixteen, and she said I wasn’t tall enough. I turned seventeen, and she said it was better to wait until the legal age. I turned eighteen, and she said I hadn’t been satisfactory all of last year and didn’t deserve to learn it. I didn’t learn how to drive until I ran away. These people love making false promises. Tell me, does your mistress tell you she will one day get your lip fixed?
“Yes, at least Daai built the house before he passed away. You’re lucky you don’t need to save for your children’s education. Nowadays even the most stupid of them wants to go to America. I wonder where we’ll get the money from.”
“We’ve had three deaths in six years,” Parvati observed, cautious of any money talk. “Does that say something to you? Maybe we are cursed.”
“I don’t know. Baba died because he was sick and because it was time.”
“Yes, that was expected. Do you think Aamaa will go to heaven?”
“I don’t think so. She has always made a lot of people suffer. She doesn’t deserve to go to heaven. I know she’s my mother—my biological mother—but a fact is a fact. Thankfully, God gave me another mother.”
Sarita squeezed Erin’s right shoulder and lightly massaged it.
“Don’t think she only treated me badly. She was sometimes nice. Maybe if I tried to understand what she was going through—a son’s accident, a husband’s passing—I’d have been able to tolerate her better. She could have stayed with me in Kathmandu instead of Birtamod. I could have offered.”
“She’d have burned you alive if you women lived together. She’d have sucked out your blood, minced you into pieces, roasted you, and eaten you like a khasi. Honestly, Bhauju, how did you feel when you heard the news?”
“I was sad. Ask Kaali. I couldn’t help crying. I am better now—more in control—but then the tears just wouldn’t stop flowing. They went on and on and on like the Simara rains. I didn’t know I’d be so aff ected by all this.”
“You’re definitely a better person than I’ll ever be. I need to feel sad, I know I need to cry, but I just can’t. It’s my mother we’re talking about, you know, my biological mother.”
“Your only mother, Sarita. All this talk about another mother is nonsense.”
“No, I knew you’d fi nd the concept ridiculous. I would be grateful if you didn’t. Th is woman is nice. You would discover how nice she is if you could talk to her.”
“Oh, what will I talk to her about in my tutey-futey English?”