* * *
The driver stopped the van and got out to relieve himself. It was obvious, however, that he didn’t want to smoke in their presence.
“Let him smoke,” Parvati said. “He has to stay awake. He doesn’t need to hide from us. What a respectful young man.”
Sarita checked if Sunny was asleep and then asked, “Have you ever smoked, Bhauju?”
“Why would I?”
“Never at all?”
“I tried khaini once, but it put my entire mouth on fire. Never trying it again. I am not going to ask you if you’ve tried smoking, but I have a feeling you have.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Some girls in college decided to try some Hulas aft er school. I took several puffs, too. It relaxed me.”
“Something tells me that wasn’t the only time.”
“No, I smoke about one every day before I head home. It helps me think with a clear head. Only Aamaa knows about it. She doesn’t approve of doing it around Sunny.”
When she saw the driver return, Sarita pinched Parvati, signaling that they should stop talking about the matter.
“Well, at least I am glad it’s not the gori who has yet again put another idea into your head,” Parvati said.
“Aamaa has been a calming influence in my life. She’d never condone that.”
They had barely covered a few kilometers when, a few minutes before they would have reached the Koshi Barrage, a flat tire befell them.
“Every time I have traveled this road, I have fallen prey to a puncture,” Parvati said. “It’s like the road has nails and needles growing on it.”
“Thankfully, the Maoists do tourists no harm, so once they see Aamaa with us, we are safe,” Sarita said with a yawn. “Aamaa
is so important.”
The Maoists have destroyed Nepal, he had said. Even if you escape the clutches of your cruel mistress one day, what will you do in this country? Join the Maoists? Carry a gun and shoot innocent villagers? Give in to their extortions? It’s time for you to leave the country and make a life for yourself, Kaali. The rich go to America, to England. You will go to Bombay and become the biggest star in Bollywood.
“Come here,” Parvati said to Kaali, who, after getting out from the back of the van, seemed lost. “You’ll be safe here.”
Kaali hesitantly moved in her direction.
“It looks like you were the most comfortable of us all. Are you hungry? Go eat some chiwda.”
“I couldn’t sleep at all. I heard you talk about me.”
“Liar. You were almost snoring when we stopped for dinner.”
Kaali’s loud chewing of beaten rice complemented the clanging of the driver’s tools. Erin and Sarita had vanished into the jungle despite Parvati’s warning them not to wander off too far. When they returned, Sarita looked fresher than before. Parvati guessed that her sister-in-law had smoked a cigarette. The gum Sarita was chewing could hardly disguise the smell.
Once the tire was replaced and all returned to their seats, the driver complained to Sarita about tiredness. A little music would keep him awake for the remainder of the drive, but the van had no radio, he said. Sarita repeated his predicament to Erin, who handed him her Discman and showed him how to wear the headphones before falling back asleep. Parvati and Sarita smiled in the backseat.
Some silence later, Sarita said, “I am thinking of divorcing him.”
Parvati let out a yelp. All along, she had sensed the warmup conversation was leading somewhere—maybe her sister-in-law would talk about some murky waters she was in with her husband’s family or financial troubles she’d need Parvati’s help to get out of—but Parvati wasn’t expecting news of this magnitude. Divorce? Divorce was something that didn’t happen in their world. You heard about a woman filing for divorce when the beatings from her husband got unbearable. You talked about how ostracized a woman became after the divorce. You talked about some rich hotelier’s wife wanting a divorce. What made the idea of divorce even more inappropriate was that Sarita was talking about it not twenty-four hours after her mother’s death.
“You haven’t slept,” Parvati said. “And you’re talking nonsense because you’re in shock about your mother’s death. You need sleep.”
“No, I am serious. I feel alive. I feel right. And I am glad I am talking about it with you. Daai is dead, and he was our only connection. I’ve nothing to gain and nothing to lose from you. We barely see each other once a year. You are the right person
to talk to.”
“I am still your dead brother’s wife, Sarita,” Parvati feebly said, all the while fully registering that Sarita was right. The one bond between them—her husband, Sarita’s brother—was long gone. Th ey didn’t know each other very well. In fact, Parvati didn’t even remember what Sarita’s dera in Teenkune looked like—that’s how long ago she had last been there despite the close distance—and she didn’t know Sarita’s phone number. They were practically strangers, so the fear of being judged wasn’t so severe. It was natural for her sister-in-law to confide in her. That she chose a few hours before her mother’s funeral to do so was only circumstantial. If this was the only time in the last year they had seen each other, there was no better—or worse—time to share.
“Aamaa thinks I have the ability to do a lot more in the world,” Sarita said.
“The world is your family, Sarita. What you do with them is how you use your potential.”
“I know you think Aamaa is useless, but she’s the first person who has shown an appreciation for my opinions and talents. She has encouraged me to take up sewing again. I gathered the courage to go to college because of her. If she wants to help me realize my dreams, why should I stop her?”
You need to be someplace you will be appreciated, not shouted at all day long, he had said. I am not going to lie—the process of becoming a famous star will be difficult. You will have to forget a great deal of what you’ve been taught. Th e competition is tough, and my cousin will teach you about things you might have to do with rich, powerful men to gain favor from them. You’ve a bright future, Kaali, don’t let your mistress tell you otherwise. You have to promise not to forget about us lesser people when you are rich. All right, promise me that, keti.
“And what about your husband and son, Sarita? They should be your dream. Th is college dream will end once you realize how difficult life is alone. I’ve done it, and it isn’t nice. At least you have a husband who doesn’t beat you up. You’ve been married fourteen years. Don’t throw it all away on this wild notion of love. We are Nepalis. We are diff erent from these people.”
“But I’ve been unhappy, Bhauju, really, really unhappy. I love my son and thought I’d suffer through this for him, but—”
“What sufferings are you talking about, Sarita? Suffering is your husband beating you up, coming home drunk, and throwing utensils at your head. Suff ering is your husband cavorting with other women and having mistresses. Suff ering is not having a husband at all. You have a husband, and he is a nice, reliable man. He takes care of your son and is a good father. He has even allowed you to go to college although he clearly doesn’t like it. Why throw it all away just because some white woman lectures you on love? She sees marriage through her Western eyeglasses. What you and jwaai have is special. Don’t let anyone—least of all a sixty-year-old white woman who’s spent her life alone and is now living in a foreign country with a foreign family—tell you otherwise. It’s a great marriage. You just need to be on the outside to see how beautiful it is.”
“Aamaa says I could go to Australia.”
“You could also go to Australia with your husband and son. You could start a new life there with your husband and son. You could work, study, earn with your husband and son by your side. You don’t need to sacrifice one to have the other. You’ll have disagreements, arguments, and fights, but that’s the beauty in it. If I could bring your brother back from the dead, even if I were told all we’d do once he came back is fight, I’d happily have him. Life is so much better when you have someone to share it with. You don’t want to be alone, Sarita. Five years of loneliness has half killed me. I sometimes don’t recognize who I am. I see fully the differences between the person I was before your brother passed away and the person I am now. Take my advice—talk it out with your husband. He might be willing to move to Australia. If it’s a great opportunity, why not? Then talk to your Aamaa. Tell her you can’t leave your husband because you don’t want to. If she’s the goddess you claim she is, I am sure she’ll understand.”