Suddenly their driver jerked the wheel to avoid collision as a truck from the opposite direction veered close to the van.
“Bajiyaa,” he screamed.
The swerving and his swearing woke everyone up but Kaali.
“Drunk drivers in the night,” Parvati growled.
“Is everyone okay?” Erin asked. She counted the heads and discovered the number fewer than what they had set off with.
“Where’s her helper?”
“She’s sleeping, Aamaa,” Sarita reassured her, reaching out to pat her on her shoulder. “She’s fine.”
“Oh, all right,” Erin said, and closed her drooping eyes again.
The driver, shaken by this sudden encounter with death, asked if now might be the right time to stop for dinner. Parvati met his suggestion with happiness. She was hungry. Then, realizing that her mother-in-law’s death required that she abstain from proper meals and meat for at least another thirteen days, she retreated into her shell.
“It’s okay if you eat, Bhauju,” Sarita said. “I couldn’t eat in good conscience.”
“But I was married into this family, so it’s my family, Sarita. It’s acceptable if you eat because you were married outside the family. Just don’t eat any meat.”
“She is—was—my mother. You can’t possibly expect me to eat.”
“But you’re hungry. Maybe you could start the fasting and sacrificing tomorrow.”
“Yes, why don’t you, Bhauju? Tonight we eat, and tomorrow we start.”
But when the driver finally pulled up to a brightly lit restaurant in a town that bustled with night buses and diners, both announced they wouldn’t be able to forgive themselves if they ate. Kaali, Erin, Sunny, and the driver walked to the restaurant while Sarita and Parvati shopped for fruit and milk. Th ey couldn’t get milk thick enough for their taste anywhere this late, so they made do with tea and bananas. By the time the others had returned, Parvati and her sister-in-law had finished a dozen bananas between them. Parvati discarded her plan of surprising Kaali with a banana early in the morning as she snapped the last fruit in half.
“Six bananas each—we must have been hungry,” Parvati said, hoping Sarita couldn’t sleep either.
“What did you eat, Dinesh?” Sarita asked the driver.
“The food was good,” Dinesh said, with an appreciative burp.
“They had chicken and fish and mutton.”
“Did you eat like a pig, Kaali?” Parvati asked.
“Yes, she ate quite a bit,” the driver, unexpectedly talkative, answered. “But Madam ate the most. I’ve never seen a woman eat that way. I never knew a kuiree could eat so much Nepali food. Will the spices not destroy her stomach?”
Do you get to eat meat here? he had asked. How often do you eat meat? At my mistress’s place, they seldom ate meat. When they did, they usually left a smidgen of gravy and a small piece of chicken for me. I would put my plate to my face and lick it clean. Your new life will be different. You’ll get to eat as much as you want, but we don’t want you to be too fat. Have you seen a fat actress?
“She’s used to it. She loves Nepali food.”
“Oh, she eats everything you cook?” Parvati asked, surprised.
“Yes, everything. Earlier she had a problem with the bones, but now she’s used to them. She’s too old to cook. Otherwise, I am sure she’d make an excellent Nepali cook.”
“Maybe you could teach her. I’ve heard you make delicious chicken, Sarita.”
“I am learning other recipes. I am taking a home science class at PK. We get to experiment a lot.”
“So, you’re actually going to college to do a course you could study at home?” Parvati asked.
“No, this is just one of the classes. I’ve many others. I like this one best. Maybe I could do a bachelor’s in home science, then a master’s.”
“Who’s heard of a mother of a teenage son with such ambitions? I think you’re throwing a lot of time and money down the drain.”
“No, I am not. As Aamaa says, this is an investment. Education is always an investment.”
“Now you’re talking like Kaali. She’s been asking to be sent to school for some time now.”
“Why don’t you? She doesn’t do a lot during the day.”
“What will she do with an education and that face? It will all be a wasted effort.”
“She wouldn’t bother you during the day,” Sarita countered.
“I want her home during the day.”
“She keeps you company, doesn’t she? I always knew you were very attached to her.”
“Who gets attached to a servant, Sarita? But, yes, she keeps me company. If I had a son—or even a daughter—to keep me busy, like you do, I’d happily accept it and live that life. If I had a living husband, like you do, I’d attend to his needs and concentrate on making him happy instead of running off to some college.”
“I know, Bhauju, you wouldn’t expect to hear this from anyone, but I like your life.” Sarita looked straight ahead. “I envy the life you live.”
“Why would anyone envy a widow’s life, Sarita?” Parvati let out a sigh. “I have nothing to look forward to—no school, no children whose marriages to await, no sons to look after me, no husband’s arrival at home to anticipate, no daughter’s wellbeing to be afraid for—and I must be among the most miserable women there are. I wouldn’t wish my life on my enemy, Sarita.”
“See, that’s why. The only bad thing about your life was the occasional visit from your mother-in-law, who’s now dead. You don’t have a husband who questions your decisions. You don’t have a child who frustrates you with his mischief. You don’t have to save for his future. If I were you, I’d use Daai’s pension money on pilgrimages to Benares, Bodh Gaya, Tirupathi, everywhere in India. You can pack your bags and leave for anywhere any day. You have no children’s vacation days to coordinate and no household budget holding you back.”
“I am still a widow, Sarita,” Parvati said. “I am a Nepali widow. I get discriminated against. You’ll see that when we reach Birtamod I won’t be allowed to take part in any of the rituals. The world looks at us widows differently. When we haven’t been able to give birth, the stigma we face only becomes worse. I look at the colorful potey you wear around your neck and the thickness of your sindoor, and I get jealous. I have even stopped celebrating Teez. Why would I do that? I am a widow, you see.”