Kaali said she had to pee, which immediately flustered Sarita.
“We’ve only been on the road five hours, and you already have to pee?” Sarita said. “I told you to take care of your business before coming.”
After they passed a resort village, from which Sarita asked the driver to stop a good distance away, because it was crowded with rafters and tourists, they all got out to stretch their legs. Sarita and Erin disappeared behind the bushes. Kaali squatted by the van, and the rivulet springing from between her legs irrigated, among other things, a colony of red ants, spurring them to zigzag their way to dryness.
“Why don’t you pee standing up like a man, Kaali?” Sunny shouted from the other side of the road. “You look like a boy, and you should pee like a boy.” The comment provoked a guffaw from the quiet driver.
Parvati crouched down to relieve herself where Kaali had and, spotting an ant struggle for life, asked no one in particular, “The dead, do they know when they’re dying?”
“No, they don’t,” Kaali said with seriousness. “No, they don’t know when they’re dying. It just happens.”
“Shut up, Kaali,” Parvati said, getting in. “Talk only when you’re asked something. Have you even experienced the death of a loved one to know what it feels like?”
The driver claimed the van wouldn’t start because of overloading, so they all got out almost as soon as they’d got back in.
“Sunny, can you push the van?” The driver revved the engine up once again.
“Yes, Kaali should, too—she’s a boy after all,” Sunny yelled as he pushed the van with an exaggerated display of histrionics.
Erin joined Sunny. When the driver signaled to them that they could get in, Sarita looked proudly at Erin.
“Look, Aamaa doesn’t think any job is beneath her,” she said.
Within half an hour, the mauve in the sky would turn pitch black. It would be warmer as they descended into the plains, but it was getting colder now. Parvati asked Sunny to close the window on his side, but he was adamant about its remaining open. When she disagreed, they compromised that the window would be left partially open. When a truck roared past them, Parvati nudged Sarita to talk to Sunny. Sarita remained silent, forcing Parvati to take the matter up again.
“All right, Bhaanjaa, time to close the window now,” she said. “We have to be well rested for the funeral, and your mother will freeze to death if you keep the window open all night.”
Sunny scowled but said nothing. Sarita was quiet.
“Close the window, Bhaanjaa,” Parvati said, her voice hardening slightly.
“Half an hour more, Maaiju,” came the impudent reply.
“In half an hour, we’ll turn into ice.”
Sunny mumbled something under his breath and shut the window.
“Do you shout at him at all?” Parvati asked Sarita.
“No, not since Aamaa has lived with us. She has taught us several things about disciplining children. We allow him to do everything. She says that will make him a confi dent adult. She even told me not to scold him when he broke a windowpane with a cricket ball. They go on all these trips to Changunarayan and Nagarkot, and he comes back so much happier and more knowledgeable about plants and animals. I could also say he has learned more about Nepal from Aamaa than he has from us or from his exorbitant school.”
“But we’re different, Sarita. She’s white. She’s a foreigner. We bring up our children differently. We need to beat them. They need to listen to their elders. Sunny is thirteen. He’ll soon be more difficult for you to manage. Thirteen to nineteen—these are crucial years.”
“I don’t know, Bhauju, I was beaten as a child. Aamaa—the one who died—hit me all the time. It was something I could have done without.”
“But who from our generation wasn’t beaten growing up? I don’t know what nonsense this gori is feeding you, but you need to raise your children the way other Nepalis do.”
At the mention of the word gori, Sarita quickly stole a glance at Erin, who was fast asleep. Parvati looked to see what Kaali was up to. She was spread across three big luggage bags, with a shawl covering her body from neck to toe. She gave Parvati a cheeky smile, looking more comfortable than anyone else in the van.
“I think what Aamaa says makes sense,” Sarita said. “If I had been encouraged to stitch paper clothes when I was a child instead of Aamaa, the one who gave birth to me, telling me I’d end up as a low- caste tailor, I’d perhaps have been a fashion designer, making clothes for film stars. But when I said I wanted to study fashion designing, Aamaa actually had Daai give me a thrashing.”
Yes, you can even become an actress once people see your real beauty after the surgery, he had said. Bombay is a different world. I was the one who first encouraged Manisha Koirala to go to Bombay, and now look at what a big actress she has become. Of course, I can’t take all the credit for it, because she was already very beautiful. You will be a film star with the nicest clothes. Now, now, I must warn you not to wear those revealing clothes all these actresses wear. That will not make me happy.
“Daai, as in Sir?” Parvati asked, surprised that her docile husband would be asked to carry out so brutal a task.
“Yes, your Sir,” Sarita said. “He beat me with nettle leaves. He dipped them in cold water first and then brought the sishnu down on me—my hands, legs, everywhere—while Aamaa shouted encouragement. ‘No one in this family becomes a darji,’ she screamed. The memory is still alive. I was married six months later.”
“And it turned out well. You have a healthy son. Your husband makes good money. You’re about to move into your own house. I don’t see how the beating did any harm.”
“How do you think it looked? A grown eighteen-year-old daughter being beaten in full view of everyone? I was so ashamed that I refused to even walk down the street. Everyone in the tole talked about it. I’ve never been able to forgive Daai for it.”
“You and he were never really close.”
“We were, actually. It was aft er this episode that we drifted apart.”
“He never mentioned it to me.”
“Well, you and he weren’t all that close either.”
“But we were married.”
“That doesn’t mean you share everything with each other. I like what Aamaa says. She thinks marriages aren’t so important. The expectations are much lower when you remain unmarried.”
“Your Aamaa seems like a home wrecker to me. Soon you’ll be telling me that you think divorces are acceptable.”
“They should be,” Sarita said. “Did I tell you I’ve begun going to college?”
“Harey, college? At your age?”
“Yes, I joined classes at Padma Kanya three months ago. It’s strange going to class with students who are so much younger. They are so surprised when I tell them I have a teenage son.”
“They must think you’re a pagli, Sarita. I think you are mad. You have a husband and a growing son to take care of. You need to look aft er them. College? At your age? Please don’t tell me this was another of your Aamaa’s ideas. She will soon convert you to Christianity.”
“I told you she’s Hindu.”
“Let her be whatever she wants, but she’s definitely bent on wrecking your family life. What did jwaai have to say?”
“He thought I was being inconsiderate, but he doesn’t like to say that in front of Aamaa. When she’s around, he talks about things he doesn’t believe in, like women’s liberation, but once she’s out of the picture, he keeps telling me I am being unreasonable. He has even suggested driving her out, but because she pays so well, he can’t bring himself to do it.”