Sushma Joshi: Shelling Peas and History Lessons

Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer and filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. End of the World, her book of short stories, was long-listed for the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award in 2009. She co-edited New Nepal, New Voices (Rupa 2008). Art Matters, a book of art essays, was supported by the Alliance Francaise De Katmandou. Inspired by Nepali history and contemporary politics, her fiction and reportage deal with issues of social inequality, environment and gender. Sound of Silence (1997) her first documentary, was screened at the New Asian Currents at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. Water (2000) was screened on the Q and A with Riz Khan on CNN International, and the UN World Water Forum in Kyoto. The Escape (2006), a short about a teacher targeted by rebels, was accepted to the Berlinale Talent Campus. Joshi was born and grew up in Kathmandu. She studied in Dowhill School, Kurseong, for four years before finishing her education in Mahendra Bhawan and Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute. She received a BA in international relations from Brown University in 1996. She has a MA in anthropology from the New School, NY, and a MA in English Literature from Middlebury College, Vermont.Joshi contributes The Global and the Local, a weekly op-ed, to Nepal’s leading English daily, The Kathmandu Post.


Shelling Peas and History Lessons

“And then? And then?” Sapana asked, six-year-old impatience catching up with the slow pace of thought of an old woman.

            “Yes, yes,” said the old woman absently, caught up in a world that was a long time away from this hot, dusty May afternoon. A long time ago, when the mist covered the early mornings, and the ice froze on top of wells. Long ago, when she was still young enough to clamber barefoot on the winding, stony paths of the hills. Young enough to drink the icy water of the springs and let it wash away the pain in her legs. Young enough to nibble the chutro berries from the branches like the goats, and then sit down with a sharp splinter to take out the thorns embedded in the soles of her feet.

Bubu moved easily between these two worlds. This hot afternoon, with the sun baking the tiles of the verandah as she sat in the shade with the six-year-old in her yellow frock, shelling peas together to the distant roar of the traffic. And that other world of brown dust between the toes, the water that sprung out of the hills like a blessing, the echoes of people calling from one valley to the other.

            “It was a long time ago. Sixty, sixty-five years ago? Maybe more. I was small then, about eight maybe. Just a little older than you are now. All the little ones would be sent into the hills every morning to search for firewood.”

 Sapana dragged a straw mat down from the wall so she could sit comfortably on the scorching tiles. She was the only one at home. Buba and Ama were in the office, and so were all her uncles and aunts. They would get home only in the evening. Her school ended at three pm, unlike all her cousins, who got off at five. Sapana, left alone in an empty house, had finally wandered up to the roof, where Bubu was engaged in endless chores. Bubu, who usually did not say a whole lot, sometimes could be egged on to reveal a parable or ukkan-tukki that Sapana had never heard before. The old woman, with a turban of faded red cloth wrapped around her head, continued to shell the peas. The two green halves exploded under her calloused fingers, pop-pop, like corn popping open in heat.

“The jungles were still very thick then, not like today, where you have to walk for half a day if you want to find a tree,” said Bubu, stretching out her long legs in front of her. She was tall, taller than some of the men in the house. A faded choli was tied around her thin chest. Sapana could occasionally catch a glimpse of a withered breast through the gap in the middle of her blouse, which didn’t close. “I don’t know how the people will manage when those start running out. Anyway, we wouldn’t have to go very far those days. We would fill our patuka with popped corn, and eat that when the sun got hot in the sky.”

“Just popcorn? Nothing else?” asked Sapana. She popped a pea and felt the tender juice spurt out in her mouth. The softness of the green halves turned to pulp between her teeth. She stuck her tongue out to see the squelchy remains.

            “When we went to get the firewood, we would take the goats with us to graze, and some of the younger children would drink straight out of the teats. I never did that though. Disgusting habit,” said Bubu, wrinkling her patrician nose. Bubu noticed the empty pea-shells wilting in the heat, and pushed them under the shadow cast by the huge bottlebrush tree. The red brushes hung down in drunken lethargy, filled with the sweet honey hum of a thousand bees.

“Then there were the berries and amla that grew in the forest. The forest floor would be covered with them, we would not even have to climb the trees. Sometimes, if it was the season, we would put some soybeans and peanuts into our patuka too. Ah, those were delicious. You have to roast them over the hadi pot to get the flavor out. Now I don’t even have the teeth to bite them…”

            “But you always grind them up and put them in your tea,” said Sapana, pulling out the ragged edges of the straw mat. She now had a long straw in her hand, and she was carefully weaving the two ends into little Os to make a pair of spectacle frames.

            “That’s right, Baba. I shouldn’t complain. I have all my cares taken care of.”

            There was a long silence as the woman drifted off into another reverie. Her hands moved swiftly, automatically, her mind elsewhere. Sapana’s fingers slipped and slid over the pods, unable to pop them open like her Bubu was doing so effortlessly. She wondered when she would be able to shell like the old woman, when she would be able to pick them up and pop them open with speed and efficiency without mangling anything. When she would not have to rip them open with her teeth, and she could have an entire bowl of round peas without tooth-marks in them. All of the peas she had managed to extract in various stages of wholeness had either rolled into the grass or ended up discreetly in her own appreciative mouth.

She was more a hindrance than help, and she knew it. She also knew that Bubu’s patience was limited. In a short while, she would start getting irritated by either the flow of questions, or the wasteful shelling, and that would be the end of Sapana’s daily dose of both stories and peas. Sapana, with six-year-old wisdom, knew that she had to be judicious in order not to cut off the flow to either of these precious things. So the peas were popped into the mouth with uncanny timing each time Bubu looked away, and the solicitations only piped in when it looked like the old woman was too lost in her own thoughts to notice the prompting. 

            Bubu tolerated Sapana’s presence, her inquisitiveness, more than she tolerated many other things. The child was her little baba, her darling. She was not a demonstrative woman, and she had strict rules of impartiality towards her nine charges. But there was something about Sapana, who was the smallest and followed her around mercilessly, begging for lumps of sugar and stories with equal insistence, that made her special among all the children she had nursed. Perhaps she was still too innocent, and didn’t yet realize the rules of the world. Perhaps she would grow up to become a cold-hearted woman who would forget old Bubu, like all the other children before her had done.

Nobody even bothered to talk to her nowadays. She was just there, the servant who had been around for so long that people took her for granted, like the giant empty grain-jars in the basement. But Sapana still ran to her with her questions.

“How do you know a spider’s web brings wealth to a home?

“Why can’t Ama touch the loukat tree when she is bleeding?”

“Why is Mami being nasty to Sanuama?

“Because a spider is lucky.”

“Because when a woman is bleeding she makes the crops die.”

“Because Mami thinks Sanuama is not doing enough work, and that she should stay at home instead of going to college.”

And then the answers, which were not really answers, would elicit more questions: Why is a spider lucky? How can a bleeding woman make the crops die? And why shouldn’t Sanuama go to college if her brothers can? The questions were never-ending, an answer promptly giving birth to the next inquiry, in an unending web of interrogation.

Bubu looked forwards to the times when the little girl would come running up, asking her slyly if she could help with shelling the peas, emptying herself of all of her questions in her head, and demanding to know the old woman’s too. The old woman hadn’t talked about her life for sixty-five years. Perhaps she had mentioned her brother to the woman who came to sell turmeric. It was difficult for her to talk about her life. Nobody had ever bothered to ask her, and she would not have told them anything even if they had asked. Indeed, why should they? But Sapana needed to know.

            “What about the tigers? You said there were tigers in the jungle. Weren’t you scared they were going to carry you away?”

            The old woman laughed, the laugh instantly turning to a hoarse cough. “The tigers never came near us. We would see them only from a distance; they were as scared of us as we were of them. I know of only one person who was attacked by a tiger, and that was by accident. He was walking at night alone, the idiot. You should never walk alone in the jungle at night, you never know what might happen.”

Sapana held her breath. It was one of those rare moments when the old woman’s mind rambled into exciting territory. She hoped Bubu would not lose her train of thought. Often times, Bubu would decide to stop the story randomly in the middle. Once in a while, she followed her stories to the end.

“He came too near to the cubs. The mother flew at him, and who can blame her. One has to protect one’s children, especially when their father is not around…”

“Did you have any children, Bubu?” asked Sapana.

            There was silence.  The traffic continued its muted roar in the distance. The koel bird went coo-hoo. Sapana felt a shock of fear at having breached an unknown taboo. Bubu had never talked about her children before.

“Did you?” Her voice muted was with fright, but she pressed on, because she was six and at six one knows only that one has to know, even when it is forbidden to know.

“Uuhuh. Long time ago. I had a son,” said Bubu. Her voice, rough as sandpaper, sounded almost soft.

“Where’s he now? Is he as big as me?” Sapana asked.

Bubu looked at the small figure sitting on the mat, straw frames perched on her nose. “He’s gone,” she replied gruffly. What would her son have looked like at the same age, she wondered.

“Oh.” Sapana felt a rush of pure shame, mixed with guilt. But death was a topic too close to her heart for her to stop wondering. The shame was overshadowed by the desire that had arisen to understand this sudden opening up of the secrets of Bubu’s life. Why had she never told Sapana that she had had a baby? Why had she kept it a secret? She knew it had to do with death, which was shadowy and smelt of old people and brought tears, hushed telephone conversations, and the puzzling disappearance of adults. Her father had not returned home when his great-uncle had died. He had re-appeared, with a shaved head, dressed all in white cotton, down to his tennis shoes, thirteen days later. Old people died all the time, and they were always talking about it right in front of her. But they always whispered when a baby died. 

“How did he die? Was he sick like Prerana diju? Will she die too? I don’t want her to die. We were planning to climb the loukat tree when she got well again. Now she’s covered with red blotches.” Sapana imagined her cousin being carried away on the back of men on green bamboo, tied up in a saffron shroud. She quickly wiped the thought out of her mind.

“Now don’t you two go up that old tree. Those branches are rickety. A branch might break and then you would be all set for the next six months. You saw what happened to Prakash, didn’t you?” Bubu asked sternly, waving a bony finger in front of Sapana’s face.

“He said he was Tarzan and he jumped out of the tree,” Sapana said, jumping up from the mat to show Bubu how Prakash Dada had done it. “He was right on top of a branch, and then he started to jump, and the branch went winggg!, and he fell. Like this,” she said, rolling on the floor to demonstrate.

“And broke his leg,” added Bubu.

“He has a white cast on his leg now,” said Sapana. Her cousin’s dare-devil exploit, which had brought him so much pain and popularity, had taken on the status of heroism in her mind. She could not help feeling that she needed a white cast, just like all her other cousins had done before her. Perhaps breaking a bone was like losing teeth. Everybody has to do it, and if you don’t, there must be something wrong with you, she thought.

“Are you planning to climb that tree?” queried Bubu, hearing the admiration in Sapana’s voice. 

“Nooo,” said Sapana. I can just climb the tree up to the fork between the two branches, and just sit there, she thought. I won’t jump on the branches.

“Yes? No?” Bubu asked, waving her finger threateningly. “Do I hear a lie?”

“No, I won’t do it,” Sapana said quickly, sensing threats bubbling in Bubu’s mind.

Bubu, satisfied, went back to her peas. “Of course, Prerana’s not going to die, you silly child. She’s just got the measles. Everybody gets it,” she said, wiping the sweat from her brows.

“Did Buba get it? Did Ama get it? Did you, Bubu?” Sapana looked at Bubu, her skin hanging like a soft, washed leather pouch from the bones of her face. It was unblemished, except for two big, black moles next to her lips.

“Sure I did. I got it particularly bad. I had to stay in bed for months,” Bubu said. She remembered the hours of loneliness sleeping in the bed, recovering from sickness. But her grandmother had been there to brew her concoctions, and she had slowly recovered.

            “Did everyone in your house catch it? Mami says I mustn’t go near Prerana Diju because I’ll get it, then it’ll pass to everyone, even the baby. Did your son get measles too?” Sapana added.

“No. He was too young to get measles,” Bubu answered.

“So how did he die?” Sapana knew she was going to get scolded very soon, but she had to know. She wet the tip of her index finger with spit and traced an elaborate face with three eyes on the hot tile.

“He died when I came down into the valley.” Bubu’s face, turned slightly away, looked lost in thought.

“Why did you come down, then? Why did you not stay at home?” Sapana asked. The saliva had evaporated instantly, leaving her with nothing.

“Stop asking so many questions. It’s rude. Women should not ask so many questions,” Bubu answered shortly.

“But I don’t want you to be all alone. Where are your Mamu and Buba?” Sapana asked, distressed. She could not believe Bubu was holding back this essential information from her.  

            “Well, it’s a little too late for me to be having a mother and father, let me tell you.” said the old woman, chuckling. “My mother and father are long dead. They lived in Bhimsen Tole, where my brother is now, and… “

            “When is your brother coming, Bubu?” Sapana interrupted. Bubu complained constantly about how her brother did not come to visit her more often. Sapana had been five when she first saw Bubu’s brother. They had sat outside on the bench, talking for hours in low voices. Sapana, running up to sit next to Bubu, had felt uncomfortable, as if she was not supposed to be there. Bubu had turned to look at her with a far-away glance. Sapana knew Bubu wanted to be alone, so she had left, reluctantly. Sapana felt jealous of the brother, who only came rarely but yet got such lavish attention. Bubu belongs to our family!, she wanted to clarify to the brother. But he was so big, and had such a gruff voice, that she decided it was safer not to say it. Maybe he wanted to take Bubu back to the village. Maybe Bubu would decide she no longer wanted to live with them, pack her boxes, and leave. Bubu’s brother, in his long-drawn out drawl, talked about whose land had been bought and sold, whose daughters had gotten married, whose sons had left the village to go to the city. Two days later, he left, carrying a tin trunk filled with clothes that Bubu had bought with her savings.

            “Uhh, who knows,” went on Bubu, without pausing. “He tells me he has too many things to do in the village. But he’s not too busy to come down when he needs the money. He was pampered because he was the only son. Not me. I was the eldest among eight.” Bubu shooed a crow that had been hopping closer and closer, head tilted consideringly on one side, eyeing the bowl of peas.

 “I didn’t get to live with my parents very long. I was married off to another village seven kos away when I was nine years old. Same age as your Priti Diju. Just two years older than you, my girl.”

            “Weren’t you sad about leaving all your friends, Bubu? Did you tell them that you wanted to live at home?” Sapana asked, troubled now. She imagined Prerana Diju getting married and going away to another place seven kos away. She didn’t even know how big a mile was. Maybe it was far away as India, or China, or even farther. How horrible. Then she would never be able to play with her Diju again.

            “That would have done me a lot of good now, wouldn’t it,” said Bubu derisively. The old woman had a bite to her that could sometimes scare the children. “It was different in those days. Not like now, where you have all these girls old enough to be the mothers of five babies staying at home. Behaving like children themselves. They have no shame nowadays. All the girls then were married by eight or nine. If one was not married by then, people would begin to think there was something wrong with the girl.”

            Sapana did not like it when Bubu got started to get into these frightening moods, when she suddenly became stern and started talking about marrying girls off. The worst was usually when she started singing:

euti chori, mayaki dori, abha kasle lane ho

One daughter, a thread of love, I wonder who will take her away. 

Sapana hated that song. She maintained a cautious silence.

“My parents were lucky to find me my husband. He was the son of a rich family. His family was rich, they were. Owned seven cows and hillsides of land,” Bubu reminisced almost triumphantly.

 “I’ll be seven in four months,” Sapana reminded Bubu. She wanted Bubu to know that she was too small to be married.

“Yes, that’s right. Seven, or eight? Seven, I think. I was nine when I got married. My husband was older, much older. Twenty-three-years older…”

            “Twenty-three-years?” Sapana could not fathom this age difference. It sounded enormous.

            The old woman looked at her with something like slightly condescending contempt; an almost benign malignancy. She alarmed Sapana when she became like this, almost as if she would declare that girls should still get married at nine even in these changed times. “We weren’t sitting at home going to school like you, Baba. We got married early. People didn’t look for husbands the same age, as they do nowadays. I got pregnant when I was thirteen.”

“Where’s your husband now?” Sapana asked, trying to change the conversation. She sneaked another pea into her mouth as the old woman turned to get a broom to sweep up the pods.

“The river took him. There was a massive flood, one, two years after we were married. The bridge was swept away. Then the men went down to see if they could re-build it. They say he went too close. There were lots of rocks under the water that you could not really see…”

” Did your Sasu kick you out of her house, like Sukumel did when Daya’s husband died?” Bubu swatted away the little hand that was sneaking into the bowl of peas as if it were a fly. Sapana retreated hastily. The old woman could be deceptive, appearing  to be lost in her thoughts when she really wasn’t at all. 

“My mother-in-law was a kind woman,” Bubu said reflectively. “Kinder than the rest. She let me live in the house until the baby was born. She could easily have sent me back to my parents house, but she didn’t. Then they thought I would have a better life if I came down to the valley, worked at one of the big houses. So they sent me down.”

“Did you want to leave your village, Bubu?” asked Sapana, anxiously. She wanted to think that Bubu was here because she wanted to be here, not because she had been forced to.

“It didn’t matter what I wanted,” said Bubu, tiredly. “Who would listen to me? But I wanted to leave too. I thought my son would have a better life down here. Old man Astha helped me to get into the Ranaji’s house. Then they sent me here because the Ranaji’s wife didn’t want me in her house.”

“Ranaji’s wife sent you here because she was afraid her husband would want to marry you. Because you were pretty. Ruku told me. She said the wife must have been jealous of you. Ruku said so.”

“Ruku is an old chatterbox,” said Bubu, straightening up and lifting her chin in the air. “She talks too much. When I came here, the eldest Dulahi-saab had just given birth. She couldn’t suckle her own child. She was a princess, you know, and princesses didn’t do that then. She was the granddaughter of Chandra Shamsher Maharaja. I hear the young women do whatever they want nowadays. Feeding children out of bottles. Whoever heard of such nonsense. The  women now, they have no sense.”

“Darshana drinks out of a bottle. Will she grow up to have no sense too?”

“No. She’s a bright child. She will have sense. Anyway, they hired me to be the dhai for Mohan-raja. Yes, he was a little baby then. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Now he’s balding, he looks old.” Bubu had been happy at the idea of nursing two babies. She had imagined that the two of them would suckle her together, one on the left, the other on the right. “But they said there was not enough milk.”

“And then?” Sapana held her breath. The peas were all shelled. Inside her closed hand Sapana had a fistful of peas that she had removed from the bowl and which she was saving for later. The old woman usually went inside the kitchen after all the vegetables were done. Would she leave Sapana hanging in the middle?

Bubu ambled around for a bit, then dragged out the comb from underneath the straw mat and started to comb her hair. “So my son had to be sent away. They gave him to Hira to look after. Remember the old woman with goitre who comes here and brings us bay leaves? That was Hira.” Bubu raked the bamboo comb through her hair. “She used to come here occasionally, so the mistress asked her to look after my child for a bit of money.” She stopped to pull out the strands of silver hair entangled in the bamboo teeth. Sapana knew there was no need for prompting. The old woman was talking almost as if she was all alone.

“I remember that last day, holding him in my arms, feeling him breath before Hira took him into her back. She stopped coming to the house after that. I heard she used to come looking for me with the child in her arms, but nobody called me because they thought that if I was upset that would effect the milk.”

             The sun slowly dipped down through the purple blooms of the jackaranda trees. A loud clamoring broke the silence as the crows came back home to roost in the bottlebrush branches. “And then?” said Sapana, underneath her breath.

“So then I never saw my child again. I heard he died six months later.” Bubu had found out about the death of her child only two years later. They had told her he was well and thriving. She had asked the mistress to give all of her salary to Hira. Hira later told Bubu that she never received any money, not even the promised stipend. Hira said she gave him all the food she had in the house, but that was just rice, and he couldn’t eat that, and she did not have the money to buy him any milk.

“She said that when he died he was just skin and bones…” Bubu’s face, pure silhouette in the sunset, was fathomless. But Sapana felt her pain, musky and old, curling up like smoke in the evening air.

A pack of street dogs started to howl, cutting through the sounds of the temple-bells. Sapana felt the loneliness in a way she never had before, a sharp cutting loneliness that seemed to transmit from the old woman and seep into her throat, making her heavy from hurting. She wanted to say something to comfort Bubu, but no words came. She waited, feeling the pain, dark blue as the night sky that was starting to descend. Slowly, the old woman picked up the bowl of peas, and walked into the kitchen. A few seconds later, a small bottle filled with kerosene and a wick flickered alight onto the surface of the windowsill. Only then did the little girl follow her inside.