SitaShe was more than a child helper turned child bride
She towered over me like a lone poplar tree. She was four years older than I was at the time she came to live with us. Sita was the eldest of her siblings and her father had sent her to Kathmandu so she could contribute to the family income.
Ten-year-old Sita’s job was to babysit for one of our relatives—two babies watching one another. When a bunch of grapes disappeared, the employers decided to dismiss the babysitter. Sita was just being a child picking and popping into her mouth something she liked the taste of, but she was supposed to be an ‘employee’ and expected to behave like an adult.
Her father insisted that she stay in Kathmandu, and so the child remained, moving from one home to another, as employers tired of her antics. One of them had to yank her off the balcony railing, after which, she was sent to ours.
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When I asked my mother recently why she had accepted a child as helper, she said it was because she knew that she would be sent somewhere else if not to ours, and that she thought a house with two girls would be safer for her.
Sita showed up one afternoon on the motorbike of her former employer at our home on the outskirts of Kathmandu. She was carrying a small bag of clothes. She was wearing a kurta with traces of lint—something I had seen my relative wear before, now altered to fit a 14-year-old.
I had met Sita before when I had visited my relatives, a radiant face resting on tall, lean limbs. Her eyes were light brown and her hair the same colour, resting in an array of curls over her forehead and her temples. She did not look much different when she arrived at ours. And neither did she look nervous for someone coming to live in a new place.
My mother and Nini got busy after her arrival, making arrangements for a bedding of a single mattress, a pillow and a blanket. She would sleep in my room, on the floor. I couldn’t understand the arrangement, but I got used to it.
She folded her bedding every morning, arranging it under my bookshelf which hung on the wall. If sometimes she saw me sitting on it with a book between my fingers, she would tell me to get off in fluent Newa: “Maicha! Ana makhu.”
Sita made our home hers, quickly. She was expected to bring my sister and me to the bus stop everyday and help Mam run errands. But Mam complained that “the child” delayed her. Clearly, she also made her laugh.
Mam, with wisps of gray sticking over her head would sit under a tree in the afternoons, smoking her beedi. On a hot day, she would fall asleep under the tree, and Sita would get to work, poking her ear with a leaf. Furious, Mam would clench her hand into a fist and threaten to hit Sita. “This girl has too much energy. Utauli, chakchaki!”
And as if to prove the point, Sita made sure to punctuate our days with events. One morning, as we waited for our school bus to arrive, Sita pointed at the pipal tree and said, “Nests!” And before we knew, she was climbing the tree.
“Sita Didi!” we yelled from below, as she scrambled up like she knew the tree branch by branch. When we got into the school bus, I craned my neck to watch her from the window as the bus raced off with us inside. My heart pounding, I caught a glimpse of her stretching one arm to grab the nest.
When we stepped off at the bus stand that afternoon, Mam was waiting for us. Sita had been grounded. Upon entering my room, I saw two weaver birds’ nests. One was over a foot long, the other one was smaller. Sita had nailed them to two corners of our room. I dumped my bag on the floor to touch them.
“I saw you read about them in your sience book,” she beamed. My science book had a chapter on different kinds of bird nests, one of them had been the weaver bird’s nest.
A couple of weeks later, Sita was allowed to go to the bus stand again. As we waited under the pipal tree, my sister wept. She hadn’t finished her homework. Sita pulled out her notebook and hurriedly wrote her homework for her. “There, your teacher won’t scold you now.” She whacked my sister’s head, “Badmass!”
Coming home from school was also coming home to Sita’s radiant face. One time, she greeted us with bruises all over her limbs, spiky branches strewn over the front porch. She had climbed a thorny tree to gather firewood for Shivaratri, bringing down fresh branches that would not burn.
When my mother exclaimed how terrified she had been that she might fall, Sita reminded her that she had “conquered” a pipal tree. I did not understand my mother’s patience with her.
One afternoon, Sita locked herself in the kitchen for hours. When she unlocked the door, she had made aloo achar. She said it was her “especial” for us, the first time she had cooked. The potatoes were raw and I told her the achar was horrible. But my mother ate it, smiling as she did.
When Sita turned 15, her father showed up. Mam found her hiding at the dhunge dhara by the hillside. It was time for her to go home. When we returned from school her bedclothes still sat under my bookshelf but the lightness of her presence was missing. It angered me that no one had told me she was leaving, but no one tells a child such things.
Sita had been “given away in marriage” after she went back home, we heard. A decade later Sita visited my mother in our home in Maharajganj, when she brought a relative to the Teaching Hospital.
“She leaned against the wall the entire time we talked. She was wearing a red cotton sari and had grown much taller and fuller. But she looked tired,” my mother recalls.
We haven’t heard from her since, but my mother likes to punctuate our kitchen conversations with Sita anecdotes.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.