I did not mean to sell you. How could I? I had been so happy when I heard it was going to be a baby girl. I’d already had a son. Your brother was eight when you were born. I didn’t need another one. I thought a daughter would love me better, that I’d be able to talk to her in my old age. You know I wanted you, didn’t you? Why don’t you believe me?
Your father was away to India when I had you. He came rushing back when I was going to give birth, but he came too late–you were already out by the time he arrived. Your grandmother, your father’s mother. She was there, that’s what saved you. She saw the nurse at the hospital shoving you back into the body. Why, you ask. The nurse thought it wasn’t your scheduled time, and the doctor wasn’t there yet, so she was trying to push you back. If your grandmother hadn’t seen her, you would have died, choked to death in the birth canal. You were saved by a miracle.
We were visiting my Ama in Kathmandu at this time. My heart was weak, she thought, and it was better to give birth at the hospital. It was also a big thing to give birth at the hospital at that time, you see. She didn’t realize… That’s why nobody in this village goes to the hospital to give birth–they heard my story.
Sugar in your tea? One teaspoon, or two? One’s good enough for me. Sugar has become so expensive these days I almost feel like not taking any. Oh, you don’t want any? Then I won’t put any in mine then, as well. You always said I gave you no milk as a child. Here, let me give you a drop more. Don’t refuse, it’s good milk. The neighbour’s cow just gave birth. She hates me, she is always fighting about my goat getting into her yard, but when she heard you were visiting she sent some over.
I know you thought I did more for your brother than for you. But what was I to do? Your father had raised your brother, giving him everything, never denying him anything he asked for… It’s hot, sip slowly. You burnt yourself, didn’t you? Oh, don’t cry, here’s a towel to wipe yourself with. Hush, hush, tears at this age? What will people say?
It’s true, I sent him to school, the best school in the district. I sent you to school too–but of course you were in the village school, and couldn’t go beyond Class 5 because the school with Class 6 was only in the district, and how could I send a young girl out alone to live by herself in the bazaar? Yes, so your brother got the education. Of course, he didn’t pass the SLC exam, but that’s no surprise. He was always so stupid, so lazy. He never worked hard, unlike you. He knew he would inherit this land one day, so education didn’t interest him. But what could I say to him? I knew that he would be able to get a jagir through his father’s connections. He was my only son, the one who would take care of me in my old age.
That’s why I sold my land to send him to Malaysia. I thought he would be able to make a lot of money there. How was I to know he would not work? He left his employer, grew long hair, and joined a band. Oh, when I think of all the money I put on him I get angry. Then he said he wanted to go to Korea. Lots of men were going to Korea at that time, and some of them came back with lots of money. Ever seen that pink building in the bazaar, the tall one? It was built by Bir-Bahadur, he only worked in Korea for five years, and then he returned and made that splendid mansion. So I sold the other bit of land. I believed my son would do something. After all, he was my only son. In Korea, he fell in with that girl, and kept asking us for more and more. Told us he was doing business, and of course we wanted to support him in his business. He was our only son, after all. He said he wanted to bring plastic wrapping back to Nepal, that it had a big market. We thought he knew what he was talking about.
Then he came back. He had more debts than when he left. All these people kept asking for him. He owed them money, they said. So we paid. I sold that bit of land–see that one, over there, with all that golden grain? Yes, that was the land we sold to pay his Korea debts. See that big tree in the distance? That’s how far our land used to stretch.
I know you think we gave him all this money, and we gave you nothing. But I hope you will understand why we acted the way we did. All the other villagers were doing the same. Sani had just given two lakhs for her son to go to Japan, and see how well he has done for himself! He has that restaurant in Kathmandu now, and I hear he goes back and forth every year. So how could we refuse our only son?
It’s not that we were poor. I know we used to tell you we had nothing, and only when your brother married and his wife arrived that you came to know we had all this land in Sarlahi. Yes, your father had been a wealthy man. When I remember the grandeur of those days, I almost can’t believe it… I know you wanted to start that shop in the bazaar. I refused the money you asked for, you say? You were always a bit of a daredevil as a child. I wanted you to be married safely, not run a shop in town. It’s not that I didn’t trust you, but after what your brother had done to us…
Then he asked to start that video store. We had lost all our land by then. I was desperate. The video store sounded like a good idea, I knew people who made good money running video stores. So I thought why not sell the front yard and start that video store? Everybody who ran video stores did so well. I know, because my nephew runs one. How was I to know his partners would run away with the money? I heard they went to the Gulf. Of course, it was also his fault, because he was stupid enough to let his partners get away with all the money.
So then we were just left with this house. And we were poor. And we had lost everything we had. I am sorry I could not marry you off as you deserved, but since you’re educated I knew you wouldn’t mind if we did a simple ceremony. Yes, your brother’s wedding was fancy, we were able to afford a fancy wedding. It was one that the whole village will remember. Your father even bought a large cake all the way from Kathmandu for this–it was the first time the people in the village had seen cake at a village wedding. Just like in the movies, your father said. He used to work with foreigners in Kathmandu, you see. So he really knew how to do things in style. I gave all my jewelry to his wife. It is her inheritance, after all. How were we to know she would run away with that good for nothing Thapa from the next village? Yes, she took all of it–I think it may have been worth five or six lakhs, if not more.
You were such a good little girl, so smart. We loved you so much. Your father used to bring you beautiful dresses from India, and you looked so pretty as a child. I had kept some jewelry for you. Of course I never showed them to you, but I had kept some aside for you, I swear. I don’t know how your brother came to know of it–I was afraid he would take it and I hadn’t told him either. Then one day he opened the safe and took it. I think he may have used it to buy drugs, he was doing drugs at this time, but I’m not sure. Heroin. Brown sugar, they called it. He fell in with a bad crowd after the video store closed. I didn’t talk to him after that. That’s when I finally stopped talking to him.
So when this man appeared at our door, so tall, so handsome… with that watch and sunglasses, saying that he would take you to a nice place far away from here, how could I refuse? I am just an old woman, I don’t know anything. He said he was a businessman, that he had lots of gold, that he would give you a good life.
And your husband, he agreed with everything I said. Such a nice man he was, I still think. He said that a marriage ceremony of a girl had to be simple, low-profile, without a lot of guests. None of this fancy wedding celebrations, so old-fashioned. After all, girls and boys are the same these days, and fancy weddings and fancy dowry is only a burden on the parents. Why, girls are set on fire by their husbands because their family didn’t provide a motorcycle! In India, all these cases happen in India. Thank god we don’t have that kind of dowry in Nepal. He said you would understand, since both you and he were educated. You didn’t want any of this hollow pomp and ceremony. How could I say no?
And then he said that you were so pretty, so quiet, so loving towards your family, that he wanted to give a specially good bride-price for you. Thirty thousand rupees, he said. I had never heard of this bride-price. Your husband explained to me that instead of giving a dowry, which was a burden on the parents, he would reverse it, and give me money instead. Because I was a widow, you see. Oh, he seemed like such a decent man, so generous. Just like your father. And I knew lots of people in the village were starting to take this bride-price. I wanted to see you go abroad, and live in a foreign country, like my niece. I wanted you to drive a car and have a husband and two children, and then you would invite me to visit you.
So I said yes. Do you believe me? You don’t believe me. You’re shaking your head, you’re crying… but please listen to me, chori! I really did it because I thought it was the best thing for you. You’d have a rich husband and live in a foreign country. An educated man, just like you.
I didn’t know what he planned, I swear. How could I sell my only daughter to a brothel? Those reporters, they came and asked me: how could you sell your only daughter to a brothel? I was so upset I refused to speak. What do they know? Do they know how much I worried about you, what pujas I held in your name? But you were getting older, and I always wondered what would happen to you if I died suddenly. I wanted to see you settled. And when your husband appeared in the doorway, it almost seemed like destiny. I always wondered why you never contacted me. When I heard again where you were, and what work you had been doing, I cried all day and night. For three days, I cried. Your father used to love you so much, I am so glad he never lived to see what had happened to you. Your father loved you a lot, but I have loved you more. How I wished then that I hadn’t given so much to your brother, and that I had kept a little aside for you…
Is your tea finished? Let me see your face one last time. I can’t tell you how much I love you–you, my only daughter. But you should hurry. The last bus leaves soon. Soon, I think. It’s getting dark, getting late. I am so glad to hear about that office. That office in Kathmandu that takes care of you. That disease… We wouldn’t know what to do in the village, you would never get the right medicine. People would talk. We’re still respectable people here in this village, you know. People remember your father, they still talk about him. But remember that no matter what that office in Kathmandu does for you, your mother still loves you the most. Blood is thicker than water. When I’m dead, you’ll realize that nobody loved you as much as your mother. I gave birth to you. I carried you inside me for nine months. I fed you and washed your shit. And still sometimes I feel my children don’t feel the proper gratitude. Nothing I do will ever be enough.
I wish I could give you this little hut, the only thing I own. Isn’t the yard lovely? I like this little mango tree, it still gives such good fruit. Yesterday, your brother’s son came to visit. He’s so smart, so loving. Such a charming, charming boy. A joy, unlike his father. He really is. I would never leave the house to your brother, after what he’s done to us. Your brother is angry because I told him I won’t give him this house. But I’m a poor old widow, I need a roof over my head or else, where will I go? Men never understand the hardships of a woman, do they? You only know what being a woman is like when you’re one.
Come closer, I’ll tell you a secret. Don’t ever share this with your brother. I’ve written the house over… to your nephew’s name. He is to get it after I die, not before. I don’t trust anybody, not even children, after what my son has done to me. I don’t know when that will be but I hope I will die before you, chori. It’s so unnatural for a parent to die before a child… Are you warm enough? You’re shivering. Do you want to take my sweater? Oh it has a hole in it, it won’t be much use in Kathmandu. You must have so many beautiful clothes that you bought in the city. Better to pull your shawl around your head as you walk to the road. The chill, you know, the chill…
jagir: a small piece of land
lakhs: the number 100 000, especially when referring to this sum of rupees
puja: a ritual in honour of the gods, performed either at home or in the temple
rupee: currency of Nepal
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer and filmmaker who was born in 1973 in Kathmandu. She has published The End of the World (2008), a collection of short stories, Art Matters (2008), a books of essays about contemporary art, and New Nepal, New Voices (co-editor, 2009), a selection of articles. Her short story, I Woke Up Last Night and I Cried, was published in the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology.
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