The Ashoka Superstore has the biggest parking lot in Kathmandu. Sarita frowns as she looks down from the balcony of the staff canteen at the cars, jeeps and rows of motorcycles that shimmer in the heat, the sun bouncing off them in a blaze of colour. Customers move in the gaps between, a guard loads bags of shopping. A skinny boy in a red bandana jumps out of a delivery van and hits the side rhythmically with the flat of his hand as the driver reverses up to the main doors and starts heaving out the battered cylinders of cooking gas.
Sarita wipes the back of her neck with her hand and shades her eyes to peer at the construction site opposite, at the half-built skeleton of yet another apartment block. There is a whirling, pre-monsoon wind gusting up the street. Dead earth and smoke fly up, moving in stale yellow columns that turn and spiral in the hot air then sink to the ground. The dust blows over the main road and into every corner of the Ashoka, coating chocolate bars, packets of tea, plastic hair clips, twin-tub washers and children’s clothes alike in a fine, brown grit.
The dust also blows in to the aisle of glassware on the windowless third floor. As the end of lunch bell rings, Sarita wonders for the hundredth time how it manages to coat everything on the third floor as equally as on the first. She doesn’t care about the two hours of cleaning; she just wants to be rid of it.
Sarita has been working here for nearly a year. She could set the date any time now, really, for her grandmother’s operation. Muwa pretends not to care, one way or the other. It’s nothing, she says, just cloudy, like looking through dirty spectacles, but Sarita knows she is waiting for a date to come to the city’s eye hospital.
The other girls on the first shift troop down the dingy stairwell and Sarita follows them, sweat breaking over her body. Maya is waiting for her at the bottom and they cross the car park together.
“I’ll be late back today, don’t wait, OK?”
Sarita has learned not to ask Maya where she is going, her reticence is answer enough.
Maya has been Sarita’s friend since childhood, their village homes just minutes apart. In the city they share a room in an old, swaying building with no water. Most evenings Maya goes down to the mossy courtyard and talks for hours on her new mobile; her words drift up to where Sarita sits rinsing spinach leaves or chopping cauliflower.
Sarita doesn’t know the boy’s name yet.
Maya works on the first floor, where she has recently been promoted to the till in front of women’s clothes. When they reach the first-floor landing she stops in front of the fake potted orange trees and squints into the glass behind to re-clip her hair and pull down a few wisps as a fringe.
Higher in the store the air is thick and curdled, the metallic smell of electronics mingling with shoe leather and perspiring bodies. Passing the second floor Sarita glances at an Indian couple on holiday. They shuffle into the plastic chairs by the door, the old lady balances an unsteady pink ice cream. Her husband wipes a handkerchief over his bald head, his glasses drooping on his nose.
The third floor is Sarita’s. She goes to her cubby-hole under the first till to find her special dusting cloths. Ignoring the highest shelf where floral, taped-up boxes sit side by side, she starts on the display of wine glasses on the shelf below.
It was Maya who’d got Sarita the job. They had been sitting on the shady ground floor verandah of Maya’s house in the wet, green steaming of last summer, before the results of the school leaving exams came out. Her mother had found them talking and giggling. Don’t just sit there gabbing like two old hens, she’d said, and brought out a tray piled with raw cotton and a small mound of ash. As they sat dipping their fingers in the ash and rolling the thin wicks for oil lamps, Maya mentioned casually that a certain uncle, a friend of her father’s, knew someone who had married into the family that owned the biggest store in Kathmandu. You can buy anything – she said, placing her neatly rolled wick at the end of the row – meat, stockings, vegetables, towels, televisions, fruit, mobiles, anything! The money was good and you got an i.d. card and a uniform, blue and white.
Sarita had been twisting out the same wick until it drooped and turned grey.
“So, will you go?”
“That’s too thin.” Maya took the wick from her and pinched out another skein of cotton. She didn’t say she had already been, to see how she’d like it. “See, like this… I might, if I had a friend to go with.”
That week Sarita had got her father to talk to Maya’s father, and the two families met Rakesh Uncle, a thin, spindly man whose wife wore real diamonds in her ears. The store must be doing well, Sarita’s mother thought, and sent her daughter. She can come back, if she wants, any time.
Wine is raksi, Maya had explained to Sarita on the first day. There are different glasses for different types. Sarita had listened, privately wondering how Maya knew this and whether her grandmother had been right all along to warn her about coming to the city.
But then people came so rarely to buy these glasses that she’d felt better and began to take pride in her display, like a garden. The glasses with the thin stems and long, fluted goblets were the trumpets of datura flowers; the ones with heavier, carved sides that went ping when you flicked them with your fingernail reminded her of lilies. The squat tumblers with bubbles in their base looked like they had caught a draught of tumbling river water. Sarita’s favourite, though, were the tiny winking glasses nestled in blue satin that darted sparks of dragonfly blue when you twirled them against the electric lights.
The first month when she and Maya were still working together, Sarita had gone through the whole aisle, picking up the different glasses, feeling their weight in her hand, even jokingly pretending to drink from one. Maya sped to her side.
“What are you doing? Don’t let Upstairs see you doing that! One of those sets cost more than your two month’s wages!” Maya took the glass from her and placed it back in its box. “Clean around them, hold them up just a little, don’t mess around, OK?”
Management weren’t upstairs at all, but operated out of a white concrete box at the side of the car park. Maya told her over rice that night how they made you pay for any mistakes you made. On the tills, each staff member had a number and the computer could pull up the records of all the transactions from their shift. But to begin with no one ever bothered signing in. If any money was short at the end of the day all would be summoned and made to stand in front of Management until one of them confessed. If no-one did, everyone on the tills that day had to repay equal portions of the amount lost.
Once, Maya said, the till had been four thousand rupees short. It was just before the trekking season, when the expedition leaders came through buying up trolley after trolley at once: twenty sacks of rice, thirty packets of biscuits, ten tins of custard at a time. There could be a hundred thousand rupees going through one till in an hour. The staff all argued bitterly amongst themselves as to who made the mistake, standing in an angry huddle in the corner of the car park. No-one could afford to lose money, especially this close to the holidays. It was said that the owner’s daughter had looked down from the restaurant where she’d just ordered a second plate of steamed buff momo and couldn’t bear it, and had paid the shortfall. If Management knew, they didn’t let on.
The last time she went home Sarita had asked her mother for old cotton saris – the cloths the floor manager supplied were too thick and left snagged yellow fibres in the cuts and flutings of the glasses. Her grandmother handed her a faded blue one and said, “See how hard she works, in such a big store. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t pass the exams, now, does it? Tell me, what sorts of things they sell again?”
They’d all sat in the weak winter sun, tearing the sari into polishing cloths. Her mother tied the bundle together with a thin strip from the hem. They decided her grandmother would come to the city as soon as Sarita has told them a date. Perhaps after the Dasain festival. The eye hospital is half an hour away, on the riverside.
Sarita finishes the plain Chinese wine glasses and moves on to the real Czech crystal. She smiles at the scrap of sari in her hand: soft, blue, with small white flowers. She polishes in the narrow grooves with her index finger, holding it up to the light, giving it one twirl. The glass twinkles.
She is startled by a smart rap on her shoulder from behind.
‘Hey, listen how much for…?’
But the sudden movement has bounced the small glass out of her hands and Sarita gasps as it explodes onto the floor in a million tiny shards of light.