Ma’s anxiety about her daughter’s future had grown steadily over the past few months. Meena’s philandering was getting out of control. Her older brother was studying law at Harvard, and Meena was expected to follow the family tradition in law, but since she passed her twelfth with distinction, the girl had taken up a strange obsession with poetry and drama. More worrying was the fact that she spent hours in her bedroom with a man under the pretense of writing a script even though the application deadline for U.S. colleges was less than a month away. The price a girl had to pay for misusing her freedom in Nepal could be enormous. It didn’t help that Sunil saw nothing wrong with his daughter.
“Meena’s brilliance will exceed our expectations,” he liked to say, but what if he had been miscalculating all along? It quietly anguished Ma that Sunil never took her side.
The morning heat was intense. Worms of sweat trickled behind Ma’s ears. She called Geeta who brought a glass of water on a tray to the verandah where Ma sat in an armchair under an awning covered with pink bougainvillea. Geeta gently scraped out an aspirin from its wrapper and let it drop into the water causing the liquid to sizzle. Ma took a sip, then rested her head in the groove of the chair as Geeta massaged her temples.
“How long has that drama-baazi been here?” Ma asked, alluding to the man who was currently in Meena’s bedroom. Rajesh? Ramesh? The so-called theater actor. Ma couldn’t stand the sight of him, his ponytail, his shabby kurta and jeans, and the unapologetic stench of cheap cigarette that lingered around him. What would people say if they saw the daughter of Sunil Raj Joshi mingling with a jobless actor, right under Ma’s nose? One nasty remark was enough to cut the man down to size, but Ma restrained herself, fearful of Meena’s reaction.
The maid told her he was on his third cup of coffee.
“What do they do in there?” Ma said.
“Young people these days,” Geeta sighed.
“And you, do you know how much trouble I went to in the market this morning? I’m tired of being treated like a slave in this house.”
“I’d go if you trusted me.” For a twelve-year-old, Geeta had a sharp tongue although what she said was true. Ma kept an account of every little purchase at home, which she recorded in her diary under two columns: items and expenses.
With her thumbs, Geeta pressed the curve of Ma’s eyebrows, rubbing away tiny morsels of pain.
“Can you believe those vendors fight like animals?” Ma said.
“What is this world coming to?”
Before leaving, the maid asked Ma if she needed another glass of water, but Ma was already scrolling the screen of her i-phone 8, which Sabita Lohani had purchased during her last U.S. visit and sold to Ma for a scandalous amount of one lakh, twenty percent higher than the $700 listed on Amazon. But Amazon didn’t deliver in Nepal, so Ma had to resort to the likes of Mrs. Lohani whose gastric problems hadn’t softened her greed. Next time Ma visited her son in Boston she would buy two i-phones, one of which would be used as a bait to return Mrs. Lohani’s favor.
Out of habit, Ma opened the stock market app and scrolled through the latest index, but her mind was elsewhere this morning. She knew that she struggled to tackle Meena’s arrogance because she wasn’t confident and cunning like her daughter. The night before her final exam Meena had come home past midnight, alcohol on her breath. Ma had fallen asleep on the sofa with her phone held to her chest. When she heard her daughter’s scooter, she sat up and turned on the T.V., pretending to be engrossed in a re-run of Kyoki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. As Meena removed her shoes at the door, Ma watched her from the corner of her eyes. She knew Meena had taken alcohol from the way she left a shoe upturned.
“Don’t you know that’s bad omen?” Ma had said, for which she got nothing but a shrug. Ma would’ve preferred an argument instead of this silent dismissiveness.
Her daughter walked past her, and with raksi-smelling breath said:
“I went out with some friends. It’s called stress-buster. Besides, Buwa doesn’t have a problem.”
No further explanation was needed after this. Ma tipped the shoe over with her toe, irritated at Sunil who could fall into a deep slumber even while his daughter was out in the middle of the night.
“Geetu?” Ma called, using the nickname when she craved the maid’s company.
The girl came running, wiping her wet hands with a mop tucked into the hem of her suruwal.
“Make me a nice cup of tea.”
Geeta went back and returned minutes later with the tea tray, which she placed on the side table. She put a spoon of sugar in the porcelain cup and stirred it carefully. Ma liked her tea piping hot so the maid had to first heat the empty cup in a microwave and then pour the steaming tea into it. If it wasn’t up to measure, she made Geeta throw it out and make a fresh cup all over again. Sometimes this process went on for a few rounds until Ma felt the temperature just right to calm or complement her mood. It wasn’t her intention to torture Geeta, but the chronic headache she was afflicted with meant that she just had to be fussy about certain things.
“What are they up to?” Ma asked.
“The door is locked from inside,” Geeta said.
Ma gave her a look.
“They’re writing a play,” Geeta added. “It’s about the plight of farmers.”
“As if you would know.”
“When I go in with coffee, I stand quietly and watch Meena Dijju read, thinking how easily English flows from her mouth. Dijju has promised that she’ll teach me to read like that, but I wonder if she remembers anything other than her new friend these days.”
“Does he sit on her bed?”
“Does he lie down?”
“Hugging the pillow. The chair in her room is useless.”
“Come sit here beside me. You can do the dishes later.”
Geeta excused herself and returned, this time with a bucket of soap-water and a dry piece of cloth tied around her wrist. She crouched down and started wiping the flower pots placed along the trough of the verandah, beneath the iron balustrade. How cheerful these flowers were—marigolds, geraniums, and roses. The geraniums were in full bloom at this time of the year. Ma had handpicked the flowers from the nursery, running her fingers through the soil, often breaking apart clumps to check for moisture. It was her wish to grow her own garden in the vast compound behind the house where the voices of crows rang out from tall dark trees. Presently, the tea allowed Ma’s thoughts to arrange themselves quietly.
From her cell phone she called up Bishnu-ji, the family accountant, to query the latest report in the stock market. Nepal Lever’s equity had shot up the day before and Ma sensed that it would rise still and she must buy some shares before the market fluctuated.
“Let’s wait until noon,” the accountant said. “The strike announced by the opposition might disrupt the market. There’s a rumor of a Nepal Bandh for the next three days.”
“Call me when you find out more,” Ma said and hung up. As always the country was teetering close to a collapse. Colleges were shut half the year due to this and that strike, and if Meena lost a year, she might be discouraged to apply next year what with her propensity to stray towards a world inspired by poverty. And Ma’s fault? Wishing her daughter would succeed in a way she hadn’t been able to.
“In a bad mood today?” Geeta’s voice startled Ma.
“I’m tired, Geeta,” Ma said.
“How about this?” The maid drummed her fingers on each pot, put her other hand up to her ear like she was holding a radio, and mimicked the morning broadcast: “This is Radio Nepal. It is 9:30 a.m. Time for some social messages.” She sang the Puja detergent jingle in a shrill, high pitch, prompting Ma to laugh and say, “Do that monkey dance.” The girl then squatted on the ground and beat an invisible bundle of clothes with an invisible stick, making a squelching sound from somewhere deep in her throat, and squatting still, she hopped from one spot to another, then bumped into a Chinese vase that sat atop a glass table. The expensive vase toppled and shattered to pieces, each shard sparkling like ruby on the marble floor.
The crash left a lingering silence. Despite an inner voice telling her to restrain herself, Ma slapped the maid’s cheek. Geeta lurched behind and fell onto the broken glass, then quickly lifted herself as a streak of blood trickled from her palm. Ma immediately regretted what she did. She had reacted out of habit. “Forget it happened. No need to cry,” she said. The girl’s shoulders hunched like she’d been pressed down with the weight of shock, but she didn’t cry.
“Did someone fall?” said Meena strolling in through the screen door that partitioned the veranda. Her hair looked rumpled, and the actor followed right behind her. The mustard oil in his hair gave off a sharp odor.
Meena poked the maid’s palm with her finger. “It’s a deep cut. Go wash your hands. I’ll put on a bandage.” The maid left without looking at Ma.
“It was an accident,” Ma said.
“You mean you didn’t push her deliberately?”
“She needs tetanus shots,” the drama-actor said.
“Why are you after my daughter?” Ma asked him.
“What do you mean?” He said, rolling up the frayed sleeve of his kurta.
“Mom, stop,” Meena said.
His feet were large and ugly, the dirt visible under his toenails. “What else do you do besides being a bad influence. Do you have a job?” Ma continued.
“Meena volunteered to work with our troupe. We’re writing a script,” he said.
“I’ll call you later,” Meena said to him, touching him lightly on his arm. He stood as if he didn’t know what to do, then left.
“Did you hit Geeta?” Meena asked.
“What about your college application?”
“My SAT scores came in. 2200. Aced it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ma instinctively reached out her hand, but Meena flinched as one would at the touch of ice. “Are you using Geeta to spy on me?” she asked.
“That’s wonderful news about the SAT score. Does Buwa know?”
“You think I’m having sex.”
“I just want you to think about your future.”
“You’re so crazy,” Meena said, slamming the screen door on her way out.
Forming the end of her sari into a knot, loosening and tightening it, Ma tried to console herself that the fault wasn’t necessarily hers, but she regretted her action all the same. Besides Geeta, she had no one to confide in, no one to share a passing thought with. A fresh headache crept up her scalp. It became more and more obvious to Ma that she may have bequeathed her stubbornness to her daughter, a trait that for years Ma had carried like a bite mark on her body, examining it every morning to make sure it was still there and quietly nursing it all day, the consequence of Sunil’s soft oppression.
Ma was barely nineteen when she married Sunil who, at twenty-seven, had just returned from America with a law degree. Perhaps Sunil’s parents—his father was the country’s first dermatologist and his mother, one of the first trained nurses—felt that a professor’s daughter from a simple background inherently possessed the virtue of diligence, and on the suggestion of a commonly acquainted priest, their wedding was arranged. Ma quickly discovered that Sunil’s opposition to her demure role in their marriage was a facade. He encouraged her to go to college, to pursue a career, but was irritated by her lack of knowledge about world affairs and implied that she’d be better off as a housewife. On her parents’ insistence, Ma had dropped out of B.A. first-year to get married, and though she’d never been particularly fond of college, she felt like she’d made the bigger sacrifice. Ma had had no say in the marriage. She had been groomed to be respectful above all else. It was simply assumed that she would accept the offer considering it had come from such a distinguished family. She met her future husband in her parents’ tiny living room, surrounded by relatives from both sides who shared a murmured agreement about the auspicious union. With her head bowed down, Ma had lifted her eyes to consider Sunil who sat opposite from her. He had the eyes of a man devoted to books, which confirmed her instinct that she would be the first love of his life. As the wafts of aloo-puri drifted through the open window, their marriage was confirmed and the wedding date set on ekadhasi, the third day of the same week.
Two weeks later Ma and Sunil were in New York City on their honeymoon. It was here that Ma realized that she did not really understand the world outside. The museums that Sunil insisted on visiting everyday bored her. She would watch him from over the brim of her coffee cup as he gravely nodded at each sculpture whose significance he would then try to explain to her while she smoothened the crease of her sari not knowing what to say. At Strand, he bought her Tom Wolf’s The Painted Word, a book that still aroused fearful pictures in her mind. In her halting English, she would try to read a few pages in their hotel room while Sunil hovered around expecting to see flashes of epiphany in her eyes. At night, she wept into the hotel towel in the bathroom, and perhaps sensing that she had cried, he stroked her hair and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn with time.” He took her kayaking on the Hudson River where they relied on each other to keep the skinny boat afloat. Their eyes locked as they stroked their paddles in a steady rhythm. “I love you,” Sunil said for the first time, while Ma, too nervous that the weight of those words might tip the canoe over, devoted her entire concentration on paddling. When Sunil slept soundly in her arms at night, Ma felt secure in his embrace, but knew that he had been quietly disappointed in her. Ma began to carry a silent resentment against an invisible fate for having so much power over her life. Their marriage had not been an inevitability, but a gamble. A visit to the New York Stock Exchange one day brought about some respite. Ma was fascinated with the electronic screens where numbers dazzled with the power to conjure up dread and hope, and those who gained were braced with a calculating instinct that a college degree could not provide. Seeing that she might finally be able to gamble on her own instincts, Ma asked Sunil about a career in stocks. He told her she shouldn’t get into such fads.
Upon her return, however, Ma took to the lure of stocks. She nosed around the local stock market, visiting the office of the Nepal Stock Exchange where screens were replaced with white boards on which brokers wrote down numbers with a marker and erased them with their palms. Ma would stand in a corner observing how stocks were traded. She made a binder of cut-up newspaper articles and attempted to study market patterns, and she came in contact with Binod-ji, a garrulous young broker. It may have been the sight of her Italian leather handbag, or her reticent posture in a room that reeked of male sweat that inspired Binod-ji to give her unsolicited advice. Soon Ma was buying and selling shares with the brisk confidence of a professional. She acquired bonds, invested on assets, and made a small fortune that enabled her to open her own savings account from which occasional withdrawals were made for cherished expenses such as the mahogany door that she’d installed with her own money. What she failed to acquire was the respect of her husband who saw her wheeling-dealing as a passable hobby. Despite his casual interest in Ma’s incomes and investments, Sunil expected her to acquiesce to a degree of pliancy that enabled him to mold her into an ideal. He bought her gray-covered books on economics, which Ma didn’t care for. He brought up the fact that his mother went to medical college after marriage, ending up as the head nurse of Bir Hospital. A professional career was not just about money, but an elevator to higher nobility, he said. But Ma was unwilling to make another big sacrifice for him. As a way to salvage her self-pride she even went to the extent of keeping Binod-ji as a salaried employee, and yet, she pined for her husband’s respect. “I’ve supported you, but we have little in common,” he said and in her lone moments, Ma wondered if she had let her single-mindedness affect their marriage; if indeed, a college education would have dignified her in her family’s eyes. Her guilt for lack of trying gathered like a lump in her throat, and she was now preoccupied with the thought that her daughter too was showing signs of being a victim of her own ego, perhaps to graver consequences.
After the dull pounding of her temples dissipated, Ma picked up a broom and swept away the shards on the floor. Sunil would be upset if he found out, though he had no real experience dealing with the maid. Geeta tiptoed on the periphery of his existence, serving his bedside tea every morning with her well-rehearsed “Thulo Hajur, Tea” which Sunil acknowledged with a “huncha ba” while his face remained buried under the quilt.
Hearing Sunil’s car outside the gate, Ma tied her hair into a bun and straightened the crease of her sari. Her husband was on the phone as she entered the living room. When he saw her he bunched his fingers towards his mouth signaling he was hungry, a routine gesture when he came home for lunch. Geeta hadn’t had the time to prepare anything, which reminded Ma that she couldn’t ask Meena about the maid because Sunil would find out, so Ma allowed those concerns to drift away momentarily. From the fridge she took out the previous night’s dal, chicken curry, and aloo kauli. Several minutes were spent finding the cilantro that Geeta had stuffed in the lowest compartment of the fridge as well as locating the methi seeds in the overhead cabinet. Ma fried the methi in a cauldron of hot oil, then poured the dal into it, making the lentil give off a jhwaaaaiah sound. In it went a handful of chopped cilantro for garnish, and another handful into the slow-burning chicken. Wistfully humming the Narayan Gopal classic, Euta Mancheko Maya Le Kati, Ma wiped the glass plates with the kitchen towel. She could feel his presence then. Sunil stood behind running his fingertip along the curve of her neck.
“What are you doing?” she said with a giggle.
He hummed the song along with her and she felt the back of her neck grow warm from his breath.
“We should go on another honeymoon,” he said.
Ma blushed. She turned around to face her husband.
“Where’s the maid, by the way?” he said.
“Sick,” she said. She played with the button of his shirt. Their eyes met. “You do appreciate how well I’ve managed this house, don’t you?”
“What’s the matter today? Looks like the news about the strike has flustered you. I hear Nepal Lever’s shares will drop like a dead bird.”
“Daddy—” Meena called from the living room.
Ma wrapped her arm around Sunil’s waist.
“Dad, I need to talk to you about something.”
Ma pulled him closer. “Don’t leave me,” she said.
“You’re her mother. Act your age.”
This really hurt Ma. She released him from her grip.
He rubbed his eye with the heel of his palm. Meena appeared at the door. “Daddy, something urgent needs your attention.”
“I’m not a free man in this house,” Sunil said aloud. He dismally looked at his wife. “Yes, darling,” he said and followed his daughter.
Ma carried the dishes and set them on the dining table. Meena and her father had taken their rightful seats, already engrossed in a conversation about labor laws for which the strike was rumored to happen. Ma stood next to her husband and served him the chicken curry, pouring a ladle-full over the steaming rice.
“How bad will this strike be?” she asked.
“Nothing on the news, yet,” he said.
“The beet pickle has been drying in the sun all morning. You want me to get some for you?”
“Not now,” Sunil said. Discussing Section 34 with her father, Meena went to the kitchen and brought her own plate, ignoring the one her mother had put in front of her.
“Not joining us?” Sunil turned around to ask his wife who was now hovering behind his chair.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
He glanced at his daughter. “What happened to the maid, anyway?” He asked.
Meena cleared her throat.
“Remind me to talk to you about something,” she said.
“This one seems reliable,” he said.
“What about sending her to school, Daddy?” Meena said, fingering the rice and dal into a ball. “By the way, is this last night’s food?”
“The maid is sick. Don’t blame your mother,” Sunil said.
“Anyway, don’t evade the topic, daddy. Let’s hear your argument.”
“Oh, education. Yes, she’s too young for that. Servants are made differently.”
Meena threw her arms in the air, a routine gesture at the dining table. “Such a typical elitist.”
“You maybe right.” He nodded slowly. Swirling his finger in the dal bowl, he looked at her and said, “Where’s your admissible evidence?”
She pointed her curry-stained finger at him: “Churchill: ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’ You, your honor, are essentially the same breed,” she said.
Father and daughter’s eyes were now locked. Soon Meena would start banging her fists on the table and scream out words like labor dispute and welfare arrangement. Her father would laugh, challenging her to replace her fists with the gavel, unmindful of the streak of gravy trickling down the edge of his lips to dissolve in his fleshy double-chin. Done with lunch, they would move to the living room where they’d indulge in more arguments. Then Sunil would stretch back on the sofa for a power nap before returning to work at exactly 12:55 p.m., leaving his daughter pining for his return to satiate each other’s hunger for that one last heated clash of ideas, all of which would leave Sunil too exhausted and ready for sleep.
Ma stood at the kitchen door and watched them when Binod-Ji called.
“Did you hear?” he said as Ma walked toward the sink. “The strike has been called off. Nepal Lever’s prices are hitting the roof. We’ll buy 500 at the asking price of 50 per share. We’ll also put in a few thousand on the Everest Bank scheme through Siddhartha Mutual. I foresee a good couple of months.”
“How much return? Give me a round figure.”
“Twenty-thousand give or take if we do this right.”
“Call me back in ten minutes. Not sure about Everest Bank. That one’s tricky,” Ma said. A smile broke out on her face as she hung up. If things went well, she would invest in that garden where she’d grow rows of buttercups and magnolias. Perhaps build a nursery and start a small business. Standing over the sink, Ma picked at threads of cilantro that clung to the knife mulling over this and that when she remembered that she needed to check up on Geeta who probably needed medical care.
“Geeta, Geeta,” she said, standing outside the maid’s one-room quarter.
There was no response.
“This is Ma Hajur, come out right now.”
Bruno, the family dog, whined from his cage, reluctantly wagging his tail. But there was no sign of the maid. Ma walked towards the door, a rough plank of wood without a knob. It opened with a creak. The room was about the size of Ma’s bathroom. In a corner she saw discarded taps, pipes, and a rusty power generator. A nylon rope nailed on opposite corners hung across the room from which dangled a few scraps of clothes, giving the place a dank odor. Ma realized she’d never been to this room before.
From the gatekeeper Ma found out that Geeta had left the vicinity with bloody hands, on her way to the market, according to what she told him.
Ma went back to the dining room. “Didn’t you nurse Geeta?” she asked Meena.
“I will,” Meena said. She made a show of leaving the table as if she had planned all along on doing just that at this very moment.
“You ungrateful brat,” Ma said.
“You pushed her. I didn’t,” Meena said prompting Sunil to look at Ma.
“What’s all this? I have to go,” he said, posing a questioning eye at Ma as if he had grown tired of constantly listening to her drama.
Moments later Ma was in her car speeding down the tree-lined street when she saw Geeta walking by the side of the road. Ma slowed the car down and opened the passenger door, but Geeta kept walking so Ma followed with a gentle release of the foot pedal. “Don’t waste your time and mine. You need to go to the doctor,” she said.
With the odor of dried blood emanating from her hands, Geeta took the seat next to Ma, looking physically smaller than she did in the morning. Somehow she had managed to bandage the wretched hands by herself.
“If you hit me one more time, I’ll leave,” Geeta said.
“I hope the doctor will also cure that black tongue of yours,” Ma said.
“If I leave, you’ll be all alone.”
Ma didn’t say anything.
“All. Alone,” Geeta repeated.
“Stop it, now.”
And they drove away hours before the sky would soften with an orange tinge and the voices of crows would ring out from tall dark trees.
Ranjan Adiga teaches creative writing at Westminster College, Salt Lake City. His works have appeared in Story Quarterly, The Salt Lake Tribune, among others. He is currently finishing up his debut story collection.