Daughter by Isha Karki
Isha Karki’s short story “Daughter” opens with a brutal yet striking revelation: “The day you killed your mother, you wished your father dead,” realistically capturing a complicated relationship between a daughter and her father. This relationship is further aggravated by the narrator’s complex navigations and constant renegotiations between culture, identity, social norms perpetuated by a gendered society, and autonomy. The narrator’s inability to live in a culturally predetermined state of resignation and resentment is juxtaposed with haunting references about her mother—“If it rains, even a drop, Ma will be alive” and “If only you’d been kind, Ma would be alive”—exploring how past frictions are often left unresolved in an unchanging present, while time becomes blurred.
Although second-person narration can often feel expository and repetitive, “Daughter” frames an intentional ambiguity that heightens the story’s realism. Each moment, observation, and reaction carry an affecting lyricism. Karki says in her author’s note, “The writing seems overwrought, burdened with emotion, overly stylised at times. But some aspects feel raw and true: the intrusive thoughts, the desperate wishes and bargains we make with the world.”
There’s a poetic nonlinear progression that moves the story, producing quiet resonances and textures. By the end of the piece, time remains unclear. Every rumination and memory are perhaps a signal to the story’s second paragraph: “A whole life of could-bes glittered in your mind.” —CRAFT
The day you killed your mother, you wished your father dead.
A whole life of could-bes glittered in your mind. A beauty parlour for your mother, reams of thread and pots of sticky wax. A lunchbox business, stacks of tiffins with puri, matar, chaat masala, and the sounds of tongue-snapping, finger-licking praise. No one to chide her for taking pleasure in food. No one to blame her for milk left on the doorstep, already curdled in its packet; for her expensive money plant, withered after growing only one leaf.
No one to stand at the door every night, eyes sharp as you walk in too late.
A whole other life without your father.
The fallout: Your mother is gone and you are at the bankside, the sweet smell of rot, things swollen by heat. The water makes a feeble reach toward land, depositing another lump of waste. You imagine a body sinking into its oiliness.
If you’re not careful, your feet bring you to this spot again and again. Your father hasn’t returned here since the final rites, not even for Masterji’s puja where they handed out dakshina to the whole town. You remember the bend of your father’s spine, his crooked elbows, the moment he turned from the pyre. He didn’t look back and you didn’t leave, squatting upwind until the ash turned cold.
If you’d waited longer, long enough, maybe Ma would be alive.
You’re almost at the river edge when the strap of your right chappal snaps. You look at the broken rubber, then at the blackened ground near the temple, the final place you saw your mother whole.
A lurch in the wind and you smell—flesh, burning.
There is a neat stack of wood further up the bank, another crowd in white cotton, the familiar crunch of fire devouring everything. You see your mother, engulfed. Breath tight in your throat, you slip out of your shoes, take quick steps away from the memory.
The soil blisters your skin, but you don’t stop.
This is only a fraction of the punishment the universe doles out. The balance it keeps. For every wish, a sacrifice. Every wager, a risk.
You know there is more to come.
If it rains, even a drop, Ma will be alive.
Days pass without moisture. You wind your way through thatched huts. Lumps of gobar, layered onto the walls, crumble under the sun.
A clang of metal makes you look up.
The cobbler’s son is crouched by a pile of bricks, bringing a hammer up above his head, swinging it down, heaving up, swinging down. His shirt sticks to his back. With every move, something ripples underneath. Even from here, you see the dirt line on his collar.
You think of another son—because you must—with paling skin and lips that crust at corners. Masterji’s son. Bony-shouldered, pristine-shirted, hot-tempered. Your mother once remarked how similar he was to your father. Masterji’s son went abroad to study, the only son who made it that far, and came back dutiful and resplendent. The town mothers clamour for his attention, clutching photographs, smudging fingerprints all over their daughters’ faces. When Masterji brings up the topic of marriage, you imagine the son licking his lips, thinking, how hard is it to be a husband, anyway? while surveying his father reclining, his mother sitting on the floor by his feet, grinding rice into powder, sweat soaking her cholo dark red.
How different sons can be.
Now, as you pass, the cobbler’s son calls to you. Though he is older than you, though you have spent hours tutoring him in English, he has not once addressed you familiarly. You think of him whispering new phrases as he bends over, scoring and stitching soles. He knows too well the world judges people on their looks, their sounds, their smells. His pronunciation has improved vastly, yet his words will always carry the ring of metal, his skin the whiff of leather and feet.
“Mam, sunnu ta.”
You pause. He disappears into the shack. It is small, this place where he carries out his trade and calls home, smaller than the toilet block at the English medium school you teach in. You have a sudden urge to peek into the coolness inside. You move forward, but the tinned roof reflects the sun’s glare. Your eyelids flutter. Sweat blooms at the top of your cheeks. A dark shape moves towards you, features blotted, light filtering around it. For a second, you think it’s your mother.
—you would give anything, peel off your fingernails, pluck out your eyelashes, spit out your kidneys—
Instead, the cobbler’s son holds out a pair of sandals. The leather looks freshly cut.
Your throat is clenched but you get the words out: “Who brought these here?”
For days, this old pair had lain under the khat, draped in cobwebs. You didn’t think to pick them up. You didn’t think to repair a dead person’s shoes.
“Your baba,” he says.
He steps close, and even under this sun, you feel the warmth of his body. He reaches forward and places the sandals in your hands, pausing to stroke the leather before closing your palms with his own. The blisters on his thumb scratch your skin.
“I wanted to give them to you before I left for the city.”
He hesitates on city, perhaps burdened by the guilt of the lucky. In your lessons, the conversation always looped back to the city. Your father never approved of you tutoring him because most days you returned without payment. The capital isn’t far, but for the cobbler’s son with his late fees and threadbare shirts, the distance is insurmountable, or so you had thought. When he couldn’t afford any more lessons, he told you he planned to go town to town, taking his tools as currency, until he got to the capital where he hoped to find a better job.
“There’s nothing here,” he’d whispered, staring at his hands, their grooves and whirls ingrained with dirt.
How easy it has proved, after all, for sons to leave.
He opens his mouth, something at the cusp of his tongue, but he pauses a moment too long to look behind you.
What he does say before releasing your hands: “Your mother chose the best shoes, haina? Wear these, I’m sure they’ll take you far.”
“And how far can we go for these strangers? We’ll let them in and they’ll eat us out of our homes.”
Your mother turns from your father’s words to light the gas and pour water into a large pot. The clicking of the stove fills the room. You wonder how many fathers in the capital are saying the same thing about people migrating from villages and towns like the one you live in.
Your father’s father moved here from a village up in the hills, built this home with his own hands. Your father tells that story proudly. You say nothing to him now. What is the use in pointing out that people don’t bring earthquakes? In reminding him that all the clothes, tents, dry foods that arrived in truckloads from the other side of the world, somehow ended up in your town, miles from the border, where there is no conflict, where disaster hasn’t ravaged the roof over people’s heads? Your father told you that himself, shaking his head at the carelessness of foreigners.
He hobbles as he gets up. There’s something wrong with his left knee, and you want to ask him what happened, but when you try to say something, you feel the bulk of stones in your mouth. Maybe that’s why when he looks at you, there are stones in his eyes.
When the two foreigners arrived with asylum seekers from the border settlements, your mother was already gone. They came to document the lives of ordinary people affected by natural disaster. To humanise an alienated place, they said. The foreigners are always accompanied by a local translator from the capital, Kalpana, a young woman not much older than you. The man wears a necklace of cameras, something feral about his gaze. The woman’s eyes, the first time she came to film you teaching, flitted from your clothes to the welts on your feet. You recognise what puckers the corner of her lids, what creases the skin around her mouth every time she looks at you.
After she filmed your class and your students stopped swarming around the tripod, you saw her hovering, perhaps wanting to make conversation. You pointed to her nails, “This is an unusual colour.”
Your mother brought home pots of lime green, turquoise, and pink for the best value from the weekend market, sequestering them on her dressing table, next to her powders and creams, hoping your father wouldn’t notice all the makeup nonsense.
“You know,” the woman said, “the nail polish. It’s flesh coloured.”
You’ve seen many kinds of flesh—the hides of cows, the fresh carcasses of goats, the skin of your mother’s corpse—and none have been that colour.
Now on their third visit, in between sips of tea, the woman asks, “Have you ever thought of moving to the city, to teach I mean? We’ve come across new schools that are always short-staffed. You could come with us when we’re finished. We know how difficult it is for young women to use public transport but we can provide safe travel.”
Kalpana raises her eyebrows. You notice the camera man looking over. You don’t say anything—if this man can learn your language in a day, you will go with them—and the woman adds, “Not that I can promise anything.”
“Then why do you ask?”
The woman looks at the camera man. The tea sloshes in her hand, cup knocking the edge of the table as she sets it down.
You return her question: “Would you consider staying here?”
If someone takes your place, fills the hole, maybe you can leave.
The woman smiles, though her forehead is grooved. “I couldn’t.”
“Because, well, I have a life somewhere else… family, commitments.” She shakes her head, “It’s a different world here, I could never…”’
She picks up her cup and takes another sip.
Later, when the foreigners have packed up for the day, Kalpana helps you wipe the blackboard with a damp cloth. Her words, when they come, are soft as if she’s talking to a skittish cow at the edge of a cliff.
“You could come with me, you know. It seems impossible, haina? But look at me, I got that aid grant and everything changed. Foreign charities are ready to fund you if you work for them, and you know English pretty well, haina bahini?” Turning her head to look at you, she adds, “You should speak to your baba.”
You pause in the wiping but don’t turn to her. You’ve made this wager, pleaded with the universe so many times—just a chance, any chance to leave, you’ll be good to your mother, kind to your father—the recognition sucks the air out of you.
“My thulo didi and bhinaju live there. They can help you settle.”
Kalpana puts the chalks back in their place. You don’t move.
If you move, her words will disappear.
She says, “We’re leaving in a few days. Just consider it la?”
In a few days, your father will mention Masterji’s son again. The son with bony shoulders and crusted lips who mothers long to make their own, who your father thinks is the only match for a daughter who teaches at an English medium school, the only match that can earn her a better life. Your mother was the one to speak to you about matters of marriage, but you recognised it, your father’s restless hum, even when it slipped out of your mother’s throat. As your own voice has changed, you’ve come to identify something in your father’s voice—years of something, pent-up, thwarted.
Masterji says what a bright child you are. As his son is to be the new Masterji—funny how he delivers weekly lectures on democracy—he needs to consider a fruitful union for him. You imagine your baba massaging Masterji’s legs while he swats mosquitoes with his imported battery-powered racket.
A few months ago, when Masterji’s son was still abroad and Masterji’s glasses were out for repair, he asked you to read a letter from his son:
The course is difficult but I’m studying hard, and I’ve found a temple nearby. The pundit is only there sometimes and he doesn’t seem as learned as you, which doesn’t surprise me. What can these belayatis really know?
My poor friend, Ram, shudh Brahmin like us, could only find work at a butcher’s. The old man who owns the place has a daughter doing aid work in our slums, so he took Ram in. Ram comes home stinking of meat. He’s cut his fingers many times, and one wound got infected so badly he had to pay for antibiotics. The worst of it, the owner cooks for him, thinking he’s being generous. Ram eats it all, meat, potatoes, vegetables. Between rent, transport and studies, he can’t afford much else, and no one ever taught him to cook. He comes home, vomits, and punishes himself. I try to stop him when I can, but he’s becoming a skeleton.
Then, an afterthought:
You wondered how interchangeable Masterji’s son and Ram were. Perhaps Masterji saw the question in your eyes as he folded the letter and tucked it into the breast pocket of his kurtha. Perhaps that’s why he wants you to marry his son, marry into the family, carry the secret into your womb.
He doesn’t know the thought of a child forms a rock in your throat. If you swallow it, it will shred everything inside before expelling itself months later.
As you walk around town, people still murmur behind their hands, wondering how your mother died. The town doctor couldn’t say. There had been no time to get her to the big hospital. The chemist hadn’t received a new stock of medicine for two months, and only foiled packets of pan parag lined the counter. After, when her unmarred body lay secreting liquids, there was no point insisting on an X-ray, paying six months’ wage on tests that would show her bones but would never reveal the story she carried within. The doctor’s best guess was exhaustion. People raised their eyebrows. They spent days out on farms, tilling the earth, chopping wood, carrying sacks of rice to neighbouring towns on foot.
You don’t need tests to tell you why she died. You know it’s because of you. Because your mother birthed a rock when she had you, and it grew to be a boulder, crushing her.
The stove has sat cold for weeks, the gas cylinder heavy and unused. You eat out of tiffins brought by neighbours who remember your mother threading their eyebrows and painting their nails for free. Every time you pass the stove, you hear jeera, methi, jwano crackling in hot oil. When your mother cooked, their smells gnarled themselves around your hair, your clothes, and you snapped at her, demanded she use the kitchen after you left for work.
If only you’d been kind, Ma would be alive.
The electricity is out often. In candlelight, you spoon grease out of the food for your father just as your mother taught you, watch him chew with his mouth open. The food doesn’t leave your plate.
Soon, the neighbours will stop visiting, and you won’t notice. It will be a few days before you realise your father hasn’t eaten anything. Though you think he should have learned to cook, that he had no right to tell your mother her tarkari was too salty or her rice too hard, you will see his sunken eyes and agitated step, and you will open your mother’s steel pots. You will light the stove and pinch out spices. You won’t touch the dried khursani because it was your mother who liked the sharp burn on her tongue. The khursani will heap, like cockroach skin glinting in sunlight, as all other ingredients dwindle.
This is how you will become the husk of your mother.
“Thank you for coming,” the cobbler’s son says. His father wants to send him off with all the good wishes he can gather, but people seem to place a status even on those. Hardly anyone has turned up. A few trickle in, the dhobi and his son, the tailor and his family, the postmaster, all crowding at the back around the khasi butchered for this auspicious event.
The smell of meat settles on your skin.
You look at the cobbler’s son, his earnest face, the furrow in his brow. Everyone else has forgotten, but the cobbler’s son doesn’t forget. He too has lived without a mother.
That final day on the riverside, he stood behind you as your father lit the bed of wood. Your eyes stung. You turned away, the blaze of the pyre etched in your mind, and the cobbler’s son was right there, with his steady gaze, firelight flickering on burnished skin. You remembered then a little boy, years ago, crouched by that very river, sobbing, hands covered in something powdery and grey. As a child, you didn’t understand what you were looking at. Having now plunged your hand into an urn and scattered your mother’s ashes, you understand it all too well. The shape of a child’s destiny, irrevocably changed.
His eyes roam your face. What does he see? Perhaps, the jut of bone where your mother’s food should be.
“Shall I serve you something, mam?” He asks, instead of have you been eating?
“No, that’s okay, I’ve eaten.”
His mouth twists. “Eaten what? Words?”
At that, he smiles openly. A muscle in his arm twitches. You imagine him lifting his hand and resting it on your head.
“You’re becoming a ghost.”
Maybe if you turn into a ghost, Ma will come back.
You look at the men squatting next to the glowing charcoals. A boy sits, humming loudly, tearing meat with his hands.
His bark of laughter makes your lips curve. He’s heard the kids calling the foreigners ghosts. Seto bhoot for the woman with translucent skin and rato bhoot for the one peeling like a tomato.
“Were you okay yesterday? The quakes?”
The shift of earth in distant villages that are a little too close, you’ve all become used to them these past months. Yet, concern laces his words. You think of the jar of honey your mother kept at the back of a cupboard, still untasted.
Something stirs in your stomach. For a brief second, you allow yourself to imagine his dark hands gripping your hips. You clench your eyes. Nod.
He continues, “The southern villages were swept away by the force of it. Not sure how many survivors.”
Someone, somewhere, has done hard wagering with the universe. What could it have been to demand such terrible payment?
He interrupts your thoughts. “Stay safe la?”
Surely, what he means is: Stop being careless, don’t wager, keep everyone safe.
He moves to stand in front of you, and you feel the lightest touch on your chin. You know someone’s eyes are on you, but you don’t care. You look up at him. His eyelashes cast sooty shadows on his cheeks.
“I’m leaving with the foreigners,” he says. “They’re heading towards the capital. Kalpana mentioned you might—”
You turn your face away, because you don’t have an answer for what he’s going to ask.
“You’ve talked of leaving, and this may be a good opportunity, haina?” He trails off when he sees your expression. Perhaps the little boy inside him recognises a kindred child, destiny misshapen by loss.
He rests his hand on your shoulder, and warmth seeps in through your clothes. “I’ll see you soon, la.”
This time, you are careful. You make no wagers, no wishes, just nod your head.
Your father is fixing a shelf, scraping his fingers against rough wood, instead of getting ready for work. Soon, with words that snap like a whip, he will ask your mother why she didn’t think to tell him the time. He overhears you confiding in your mother, unspoken futures shimmering in the air around you, dreams of lives beyond this town. His hands still. He puts down the hammer, places two nails on the table with a soft clink. You notice a bloated vein on his forehead as he turns to your mother: “So, this is your doing?”
You say, “It’s nothing to do with Ma. It’s how I feel.”
“Feel? Why does today’s generation shout about feelings? I don’t feel like eating, I don’t feel like working, I don’t feel this is right.” There is spit gathered at the corners of his mouth. “Is this what you spent years learning?”
The air is thick. His eyes burn your skin. He will stare at you until you answer, till you give him the answer he wants. You jerk your head, your own eyes hot and heavy.
“Until you have children…”
Until you have children, you won’t understand. It is your father’s destiny to have this kind of santaan, his punishment to suffer this fate.
Your tongue starts swelling where your teeth cut into it. Destiny, santaan, punishment. Your father uses big words without pausing to see the damage they do, to see how they calcify and stratify on the ridges of your bones, to see how they change you, from the inside.
You can do nothing but wish. A moment. A whole life of could-bes without your father glittering behind your eyes.
When your mother dies, suddenly, without saying anything, you know it’s because of you.
Because you cannot grasp the danger of wishes.
Because this is the punishment the universe doles out. The balance it keeps.
It is a couple of days after the farewell, and you haven’t let yourself be seen by Kalpana or the cobbler’s son. You stare at the jute tied around the broken straps of your chappal. The clothes you’ve wrapped and tied in your mother’s old dhoti rest near the door. You could pick up the bundle, right now, if you wanted. You think of your mother’s sandals, delivered to you as new. Surely, they are a boon from her.
You go to her room to find them, imagine slipping your feet into soft leather. As you turn into the doorway, you see your father sitting on the khat, head in his hands. He looks shrunken, back stooped as if he too is carrying a boulder. There’s a photograph on his lap, black and white, faded.
Yesterday, you told your father about Kalpana’s offer of help. For once, he didn’t say anything, just looked at the floor, at your mother’s shoes.
You think of the photo in his hands. In your mind, the young man and the baby come alive in technicolour and sound. The baby mewls, the father looks up and smiles. When he speaks, his voice is weightless, his eyes swim with hope. As a child, you made up so many stories about them—a childless maharajah meeting his rajkumari for the first time, an orphaned man rescuing a magical river baby—that sometimes you forget the young man is your father and the baby is you.
Your mother’s shoes are by his feet. They point towards him, not quite touching.
When was the last time anyone touched your father kindly? When was the last time anyone touched him at all?
Here it is, the tether, the final knot in your mother’s threads.
You walk to the window, limbs growing heavier with each step. You imagine four figures silhouetted in the distance. Seto bhoot, rato bhoot, Kalpana, and the cobbler’s son with his sooty eyelashes. You imagine him wearing a crisp new shirt, maybe the white one with checks. He asked you shyly to help him choose the right clothes. You imagine him reaching the capital and starting each day afresh, ironing the too-large suit he saved up weeks to have tailored.
The clouds are thick and yellow. Will it be a dry wind or a thunderstorm, soaking the earth wet?
If it rains, right now, if it rains even a drop, you will run out and follow them.
But the day passes, and so do the clouds.
You are eighteen when you kill your mother. You don’t want to know how old you will be when you kill your father too.
ISHA KARKI lives in London. Her short fiction won the Dinesh Allirajah Prize in 2021 and the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize and Mslexia Short Story Competition in 2020. She is a graduate of Clarion West and currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. @IshaKarki11
Featured image by Vikramjit Kakati courtesy of Pixabay