IF AVA COULD get back those ten lost days, she would swim to the whale rock at every chance, sunbathe on its surface and then plunge into the cool, sparkling water, losing herself in the depths, in the darkness, and staying underwater forever before coming up for a breath. Then she would plunge back down again. She wouldn't waste any time at the cottage talking – or trying to talk – with Gavin. She wouldn't miss a single chance to swim in the lake if she could get those ten days back.
She picked up a folder from her desk, put it down, and picked it up again. In front of her lay a hundred and seventy-one folders, stacked all the way from her attaché case to the crystal pyramid that she had received as a deal toy from her last big file, the Toralan file. Ava needed to locate the documents on some uncollected receivables for her current file, a small one generated from her own contacts. A large paper mill from Detroit was buying out a smaller one in Hamilton, but the owner of the mill in Hamilton would retain an ongoing interest, including a seat on the board. Both parties had already signed a letter of intent and a confidentiality agreement.
Why hadn't Cory assigned her to another file? Ava knew she would need to work on much larger ones if she were going to become a partner. She had spent the past eight months under constant stress as the only associate assigned to Toralan from M&A. During that time, unhappiness had settled like a fog in her life, but when the deal had succeeded, the celebration at Harbour Club had been awash in champagne. Then Lester had left the firm, and Cory had become the head of the corporate department, and the fog in Ava's life had only thickened.
Fuck it. She tossed aside the file and stared out the window. At which point, on seeing that you've taken a wrong turn, do you change direction? At which point is it too late? From the forty-fifth floor of Canada Tower, Lake Ontario gleamed like an impossible dream. Lester had stranded her on Bay Street.
Ava had always wanted to go into the non-profit sector. Lester had convinced her to do otherwise: he had recruited her as an articling student, and after law school, he had invited her to join the firm as a junior associate in the corporate department, where he had persuaded her to focus on his own specialty, mergers and acquisitions. "Look, I used to be – I still am – a hippie," he had said in his compelling way, "but nothing has laid bare the framework of human civilization more clearly than the files I've worked on in M&A." For seven years, he had mentored Ava through increasingly complex transactions, taking her to the brink of partnership. And now he had left to provide bench strength to First Nations in their negotiations with the Crown, doing exactly the kind of work that Ava had once longed for. At his farewell dinner, he had said, "I believe that in our lifetime the First Nations are going to redefine what it means to be Canadian. We're innovating an entirely new configuration for citizenship and statehood. I'm tremendously hopeful. Miigwech and mahsi cho."
Get back to work, Ava told herself. Instead, she got up and went out to the kitchenette. The floor was quiet today. Half the M&A team were in New York on a large new file. Why hadn't Cory assigned her to it? In the kitchenette, she turned on the kettle, fished out her cell phone, and left a voicemail for Gavin, letting him know that she'd be out tonight. Then she remembered that he'd be out too. For a function at the bank? For dinner? For drinks? "Av, I'll be at …" What had he told her this morning?
Jesus. How had she become so dreary, how had she become so dull? She who had been born to the jagged world: she had always known that there were alternative lives out there that she could slip into. She and Luke used to talk about this all the time growing up. When their parents adopted Ava as an infant and brought her from Kathmandu to Overland, Ontario, they had set her off in one direction, but she could choose another direction at any time. She could even reverse course if she wanted.
The kettle reached a boil and popped off. Ava made herself a cup of green tea and waited for it to steep, regretting those ten lost days.
She had spent all her time at the cottage talking. "Remember, Gav, when we got out of law school – we were different. I wanted to really do something, remember? I didn't want to end up on Bay Street. You didn't want to work at a bank. We're in a rut, Gav."
"A pretty comfortable rut, Av."
Georgian Bay had glittered around them as they spent every day – not arguing, because they never argued, but – deliberating. They hadn't got around to having sex even once. Ava couldn't actually remember the last time they had … was it after Gav's thirty-fifth at Oyster Boy? She had been busy on the Toralan file, and Gav had stopped initiating. Why had he stopped?
As she left the kitchenette with the cup of green tea, Ava saw Cory barrelling down the hall ahead of her. Her heart sank as she watched him barge into her office. When she came in, he was pacing back and forth like a caged animal.
Cory had a blunt manner that bordered on boorishness. "Ah-vah!" he said. He had told her, early on, that he found the pronunciation of her name pretentious. "What, were you taking a tea break, Ah-vah?" With a flick of a finger, he indicated that she should sit down.
Then he moved in closer to her desk, till his thighs were pressed up against the Toralan deal toy, and said, "Here's the thing, Ah-vah. Your evaluation's coming up, and, as you know, I'll be writing it this year."
A fog began to swirl in the office. Cory's voice floated in as if from far away:
"Now, we all know Lester was soft on his protegés, otherwise why would he have recommended you for partnership? But my view is? I'm not seeing a lot of motivation from your side, Ah-vah. I'm saying it as I see it, Ah-vah. You want a future at the firm? Then you and I, we need to talk."
Ava was already gone.
IN HIS NARROW room in Sharjah, they lay entwined in the sheets, wrapped up in each other's heat and contentment. Maleah was talking, Gyanu was caressing her hair. On their days off, he loved losing himself in her words, swimming in the swirl of the sea in her stories and drifting along with her voice. When Maleah stopped talking, he murmured, "Tell more, meri maya."
She smiled. "What more you want me to tell, mahal?"
"Tell me: the men who catch fish."
"You always want to listen about that," she said.
She nestled in closer and told him about her father and brothers going out on their nightly excursions from their village in the Philippines. Gyanu could see the lamps glinting off the water as the trawlers receded into the night. He could hear the roar of the sea in her voice, he could taste the salt water in his mouth. The trawlers returned at sunrise as lorries rumbled into the village, setting the day in motion. The tuna catch was transported to a cannery, from where it was shipped to towns all over the South China Sea.
Some of the leftovers ended up in the village homes. "Every day we eat fish, depends on the season," Maleah said. "There is rice and plantain, my mother cooks that first. My father and brothers come back, then she cooks" – her English fell away – "bilong-bilong, apahap, kabayo, lapu-lapu."
She often cooked sea bass for Gyanu, infusing his room with the coconut, lemongrass, and lime leaf of her fishing village. They usually shared leftovers from Five Spices, though when there was time, Gyanu would also cook, flavouring his meals with fenugreek and mustard, turmeric and dried chives: the hard rock and soil of Nepal.
With Maleah, Gyanu escaped his past. He loved everything about her. He knew that Maleah had married young. At sixteen she had run away with a boy from town who kept bad company, though with her he was tender. She was happy till his body showed up in the cannery garbage dump. Their son Crisanto now lived with his grandparents. "My anak will never know his father," Maleah had said once, and her sadness had unleashed Gyanu's.
But Maleah was talking, now, of happiness: the meals her mother used to cook as she and her father and brothers sat around the kitchen, waiting to eat. "There was nothing," she said, and he felt the innocence of childhood: a feeling of plenty. She said, "There was no big house, no fancy furniture, no nice clothes, no money. But there was love, so there was everything." She turned to Gyanu. "Like when you were a boy, mahal?"
He nodded, thinking back to the day Ma brought him to the village by the blue hills, to the house of the stranger who would become his ba. Gyanu was fortunate. His stepfather was a kind man. After Sapana's birth, the scandal around Ma and Ba's marriage subsided, and their family was whole – till encephalitis took Ma. Now cancer was claiming Ba. The last time Gyanu called home, his sister had said their father was asking for him: "Ba needs a son to light the funeral pyre, Dai. And he wants to see you one last time."
Maleah noticed his silence and asked, "You talked to your sister, mahal?"
"My father will not live long, meri maya."
"You booked the ticket?"
"I booked it," he said. He hadn't, however, asked Shantanu Kumar for leave. The Indian manager of Five Spices was fond of Gyanu; he used to call him his Nepali beta, his Nepali son; but Gyanu knew that no one was indispensable in the desert. He had learned this well over his years as a busboy at the Al Majaz in Abu Dhabi, a kitchen hand at the Safeer Café in Sharjah, and a mess chef in the Ramla Restaurant in Burj Khalifa. Only when Shantanu Kumar hired him as a sous chef at Five Spices had Gyanu found stability. He would have to risk it to visit his father.
He didn't say more on the subject, and neither did Maleah. They were accustomed to living in uncertainty in a land they could never settle in permanently. Maleah had come here on a two-year contract. One of her roommates was looking for work as an au pair in Europe. Another was looking for alternatives in childcare. Maleah was enrolled in an English class and had convinced Gyanu to do the same. She sometimes talked about moving elsewhere. She wanted to live with Crisanto somewhere, anywhere, where she could give him the kind of full, free childhood that she'd had.
For now, she reserved all of her love for Gyanu. Their few hours together always raced by. It was already quiet next door: the Tamil construction crew had left for the day. The neon sign at the Al Faraby Hyper Express blinked on as the dusk deepened. Maleah would have to leave soon.
Gyanu propped himself up in bed to look at her. Maleah Balana. He had seen her one Sunday while accompanying his roommate Jairus to church: her head bowed, her face framed by lace. "Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." He had heard her whispered incantations. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." How had he won her love, how was he going to keep her? Moving his hands over her shoulders, he felt the grace of her in his life. He removed the sheet and took in the sight of her pale body against his dark skin. They had been lovers for a year, and he couldn't envision a life without her.
"Mahal," she whispered.
"Meri maya," Gyanu said. My love. He leaned in to kiss her, and she arched her back, drawing her legs up to close him in to her.
OF ALL THE European cities Indira had travelled to for work – London and Brussels, Helsinki and Cologne, Copenhagen and of course Frankfurt, several times – Paris was definitely the prettiest. Indira had been here before, eighteen-nineteen years ago, for her first-ever international conference, a UNIFEM summit on women: she remembered it warmly as a blur of national costumes and inspirational speeches. The best part was the city tour at the end. The delegates had been taken to the famous boulevard, the Champs-élysées, and from a stone bridge Indira had taken photos of the Seine. Where were those photos now? Awed by all she had seen, she had vowed to return, and now here she was, back in Paris!
A fashionable lady in stilettos sashayed by. A boy drove his scooter onto the sidewalk and stopped in front of an automated teller. A tall man in a tailored suit cavorted down the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette.
Indira shadowed the man so as not to be spotted by the organizers of the Women's Empowerment Initiative. There were, in her experience, two kinds of conferences in this world. The first was organized by veterans from the developing world, who understood that formal interactions were greatly enhanced by informal activities such as sightseeing or gift shopping. Indira had formed lasting bonds at such conferences. Years later, she still kept in touch with Abena Kwasima from Accra, Rudo Gamble from Cape Town, W. Werry from Jakarta, Mei Wang from Shanghai, Juana Hernández from Lima, and the formidable Kadri Pütsep from Tallinn. Together they formed a sisterhood of global change-makers.
The Women's Empowerment Initiative was, however, the other kind of conference, the kind organized by amateurs, usually American, who tried to squeeze out too many outcomes in too little time. From the very first Inspire! Breakfast on, Indira had had to pursue an asset-based approach using the principles of appreciative inquiry to discuss her work at WDS-Nepal. All day long, she had been trapped in lectures and workshops, and in the evenings, she had had to attend Solidarity! Dinners with earnest cultural shows: a one-woman play set in Ciudad Juárez, an all-woman Roma folk band. Tonight there would be a slideshow on female genital mutilation. And tomorrow morning she would leave.
Why organize a conference in Paris at all? Why not meet, as WDS-International had one dire, under-funded year, at an airport hotel in Frankfurt? Why not save money and teleconference, for that matter, or video chat, Skype-shype, Viber-shiber – all that?
The tall man turned abruptly into an alley. Spotting a stately stone bridge directly ahead, Indira hurried towards it. Having stolen out of a session on role playing, she had two hours, or maybe three, to buy a present for Aakriti, for having passed out of ninth class. Indira also had to pick up something for Muwa, though nothing would ever please her witch of a mother-in-law. Aakaash was easy: she would buy him a computer game at the airport duty-free; and two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label would suffice for Uday Sharma.
Indira reached the bridge, and her heart fluttered: was it – could it be – it was! It was the very same bridge she had been to nineteen years ago! She reached for the railing as she would for an old friend, and found the stone smooth and hard and warm to the touch. Oh! She had once been young here.
She walked the length of the bridge, overcome with nostalgia.
On the far side of the bridge, she came across a row of boutiques. A mannequin in a slinky dress stood in one boutique window. A dress would be perfect for Aakriti, she thought – not this one, the neckline was low, but a dress from Paris would be perfect for her daughter.
The next window contained an array of jars filled with fruits, vegetables, and nuts: dried, oiled, marinated, pickled, preserved. Yet another window was decorated with fine white lace panties. Another contained nothing but wine. Here, she lingered. The bottles – white, red, rosé – glinted like precious gems in the sunlight. She imagined Uday Sharma lifting a long-stemmed goblet and toasting, "To you, Indira Sharma. To our marriage of twenty years."
"No, to you."
It wouldn't happen, not in this lifetime. Whenever Indira was in the developed world, she always rued the way she, as a Nepali, was obliged to blunder through life without grace, without refinement, merely getting the needful done. Emotionally it saddened her, though rationally she understood why it was so. There was no comparing and contrasting the life of a Kathmanduite with the life of a Parisian, because the developed world was the developed world, and Nepal was Nepal.
Next to the wine shop was a beauty parlour. On an impulse, she went in: she would buy a face cream for Muwa here. A bell tinkled. The interior smelled like roses. A redheaded saleslady came up to her, high heels clacking, and after babbling in French switched to English: "May I help you, Madame?"
"I need a face cream," Indira said, pointing at a jar on a shelf.
"Ah, oui, there is much desiccation." The saleslady whisked out a magnifying mirror and held it up to Indira's face, assaulting her with a vision of the furrows and grooves, dots and patches, stains and blotches on her middle-aged face. To Indira's horror, the lines under her eyes had deepened, and her complexion, once clear, looked mottled.
Briskly, the saleslady said, "I strongly recommend a treatment, for you it is urgent, Madame." She mentioned something called Eau Vitesse. "That will make the skin tight, but my advice is to go for microdermabrasion. It aids the revitalization of youth."
Indira noted that the saleslady herself had flawless complexion, even though she was – how old? Quite old. "How much?" she ventured to ask.
"Just one hour, Madame."
"No, no. How much money is it costing?"
It came to over twelve thousand, when converted into Nepali rupees!
Twelve thousand rupees for a beauty treatment! That was simply immoral! Though, of course, Indira's per diem could easily cover it, and it wasn't unreasonable when you converted the cost back into euros. Plus, a treatment, as the lady said, was urgent for her. A global change-maker ought to look good. Also, a beauty treatment in Paris: when would she ever get this chance again? But then again – twelve thousand rupees! Oof. Chances taken and opportunities missed, longings and qualms, desires and disappointments pulsated through Indira – yes, no, yes, no – till with profound regret she decided: "I will take one face cream only."
"Bof. Your choice, Madame."
High heels clacking, the saleslady took a jar to the cash register.
The bill came to nine thousand rupees.
Nine thousand rupees for a jar of face cream! A high-quality cream, to be sure, a cream from a beauty parlour in Paris. She shouldn't waste it on Muwa. It would be a gift to herself.
As Indira left, the saleslady called out, "Au revoir!"
"Bonjour," Indira replied grimly.
Outside, she felt just awful. What was she doing buying a nine-thousand-rupee face cream for herself? What did she think, that it would bring back her youth? That Uday Sharma would notice, and they would recover their marital happiness? What? Walking along the row of boutiques looking for a dress for Aakriti, she excoriated herself:
Look at yourself, Indira Sharma. Tchee! Look. Just look at what you've become.
A WATERY LIGHT filtered through the banana plants, dappling the lawn with crazy dancing shadows. Sapana was sitting with her back to Kakarvitta bazaar, looking out at a bridge. The land on this side of the bridge? This was Nepal. And the land on the other side was India.
"Can't we go?" Sapana asked, though she knew perfectly well that they couldn't. "Just for a minute," she said. "Just so we can tell everyone at home that we went abroad on this trip."
Around her, the women tittered. They were waiting around indolently for their midday meal on this, the final day of their study tour. They were completely worn out. Over the past five days they had visited a cooperative dairy, a pig farm, a carpet factory, a fish hatchery, and a tea estate. They had gone to a silk factory and seen silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves. They had met women who earned an income selling baskets, brooms, cardamom, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, and just about everything else. Every day had been full of discovery, every evening had been full of fun.
If only Chandra had been on the tour, then it would have been perfect, Sapana thought. Sapana was hoarding her observations to share with Chandra when she got home. There should have been other girls of her age on the tour, really. Sapana had, herself, been included by favour of her uncle, Thulo-ba, only after the chairperson of the women's committee pulled out, saying her family couldn't spare her for a week. Ba, her father, couldn't spare Sapana either, but Chandra had insisted: "Ey, girl, aren't I here to care for your ba? Haven't I been here for you all these years? Don't miss this chance. Go."
As far as Sapana could tell, this study tour was the only thing her thulo-ba's sham CBO had ever done for the women's committee. The women's committee was itself a sham: half of its members couldn't even read or write! No one in the village knew why the CBO had even bothered to set it up. But then the CBO – which, Sapana had learned on the tour, stood for "community-based organization" in English – was just a means to fund Thulo-ba's politics. There was no point expecting much from it.
But this was no time to be negative: this was a moment to savour. The light, the lawn, the women. There, past the bridge: India. "Can't we go?" Sapana asked again.
Rama-bhauju, who was sitting beside her, called out to their minder, the widower Jeevan Bhatta: "Lau, Secretary-ji, you're going to have to turn this into an international tour, re!"
The other women tittered.
Jeevan Bhatta flashed them a loopy grin. He looked a fool, but was the secretary of the CBO, and Thulo-ba's most trusted political worker. "If I were to take you across the border," he said, leering,"the police would nab me."
"Why?" Rama-bhauju demanded. "Is it against the law to go to India?"
"They'd think I was going to sell you-all to a brothel!"
"Haaa!" Rama-bhauju's face soured.
Jeevan Bhatta guffawed.
Sapana grimaced. What a horrid joke! It immediately made her think of Chandra's sister, Surya-di. After failing out of tenth class, Surya-di had decided not to marry. She had decided to look for work instead. She had always been a different kind of girl, plucky and bold. A family friend knew a manpower agent in Kathmandu, and over the phone, the agent said that he would find Surya-di a salaried job in India's capital, Delhi. "I'll be the son you never had," Surya-di had told her muwa-buwa. "I'll send money home so that Chandra and little Tara can study."
The lodge owner began to serve the women dal-bhat-tarkaari – a simple dish of rice, lentils, and vegetables – steaming hot in aluminum thalis, but Sapana didn't feel like eating any more.
What excitement there had been on the day Surya-di left! Sapana and Chandra had escorted Surya-di all the way to the highway. "You girls, don't be like me," Surya-di had said sternly. "Study hard. Pass out of school. Make something of yourselves. Take care of Muwa-Buwa. Help raise little Tara. Always be good."
The agent was waiting at the highway with a van. He had a wiry moustache, and Sapana and Chandra kept looking at him and giggling. They found that moustache so funny. Two of Surya-di's friends from school were also going with her. After they arrived, the van drove away, and Sapana and Chandra raced all the way home.
A few days later, when Chandra's muwa-buwa phoned the agent, they found his line disconnected. Neither they nor the other families ever heard from their daughters again.
"Ey, girl!" Rama-bhauju nudged Sapana. "Your food's getting cold."
"I'm not hungry, Bhauju."
"It's a twenty-hour bus ride! Think about how hungry you'll be in six hours, and eat!" After saying this, Rama-bhauju burst into laughter. "That's why I'm fat – I'm always eating because I think I might get hungry in six hours!"
Sapana looked at her. Rama-bhauju was so good-natured. Just last year, Rama-bhauju's schoolmaster husband left her for a young new wife. Rama-bhauju was raising their four children all by herself, but looking at her you would never know she had any troubles.
The others on the tour – Jethi-didi, Laxmi-aama, Kanchan-bhauju, Naina-di, Hasta-ma – all had their own troubles too, as, of course, did Sapana. Sapana had lost Ma only a few years ago, and now she was going to lose Ba. But then all of us experience sorrow, she thought: and yet here we are, across the country, on a study tour, in an animated discussion about – what?
Yogurt. "The yogurt from here is famous," Jethi-didi was saying, prompting Naina-di to say, "Ssss! A bowl of fresh yogurt would be so refreshing at the end of this meal!"
"There's nothing in this world like fresh yogurt," Rama-bhauju declared.
"Ssss, now I really want some!"
"Sahu-ji!" Rama-bhauju called out to the lodge owner. "Give us some yogurt, will you?"
The lodge owner shrugged. "The batch I made this morning is finished."
"Buy some from another hotel, then!"
"Do that!" The others chimed in: "We came all the way across the country to try the yogurt."
"Lau na, Sahu-ji!"
"We won't leave till we have some world-famous yogurt!"
With another shrug, the lodge owner went to find them some yogurt.
A cheer went up at this small victory. Sapana had to smile. As much of a sham as this women's committee was, it was fun to be part of. The tour had given her a respite from the sadness around Ba's cancer. Sapana felt lucky to be here. She felt grateful – to the committee, to Thulo-ba, and even to Jeevan Bhatta, for if the old widower hadn't started the women's committee, this tour wouldn't have taken place at all. So what if he and Thulo-ba were profiting off the CBO? Whoever had given them the money for the tour had also enriched Sapana's life; and anyway, maybe there's no such thing as ‘my life' or ‘your life,' Sapana thought. Maybe everyone's life is part of a whole. It felt so to her, because when she thought about it, she felt that the actions of one person shape the lives of others, and … don't all of us in our own lives shape the lives of others? We do. It's like a pattern, she thought. Not a pattern, but some kind of design, some kind of order. Chandra always said there's no God, and maybe she was right, but to Sapana it felt as though …
"Ey, girl! Eat! Or, you'll be hungry in six hours!"
Sapana smiled. She loved Rama-bhauju so much right now. She loved all the members of the women's committee; and actually, right now, she loved life.
She drew the dal-bhat-tarkaari towards her and began to eat.