I flirt with the help. I do it everywhere I go. It’s a sickness. When my aging parents are hovering around, I’m not quite so overt about it, but those bearers know precisely what I’m thinking as they bend over with the tea tray. Heavenly specimens, all.
I keep it simple, crass, discreet. They squirm at first, no madam please I can’t, but they’re degenerates by the end of it. They even forget to call me baaji afterwards.
There’s one in particular, young tender Salim, bronzed as a cockroach. We in these parts despise dark skin, abuse the sun for baking us daily and denying us modernity. The other servants make fun of him for it. The cook once called him black as sin. I like Salim all the same. I like him the best.
He came to our family as the seventeen-year-old son of a gardener and sweeper combo (gardener since dead). But then, it is so rare for these people to keep track of their age. They usually guess, relay the information as if trying to gauge the temperature: “Seventeen, eighteen, something like that, baaji.”
I left him alone at first because he seemed fragile. If he put the cups away in the wrong cabinet and my mother gently corrected him, he looked as if he were having a toenail removed. Poor boy. He aimed to please. He wanted to do well.
We’re all fattened on one thing or another in this house. My father, for example, is fattened on bribes and gifts and money. As are the rest of us by extension, even the help who people our kitchen, garden, hallways, gutters: After my parents and I eat ourselves into a coma, the help (heavenly specimens, all) descend on us to whisk away the goods and put away into their stomachs small hills of rice and soft chicken breast marinated in yogurt, eggplant, spinach, turnip (potatoes they consider too low class) and scrape at the sides of the dessert bowls. There is no concept of leftovers. We eat every meal like it’s our last. Wages aren’t high in the country, but the food is plenty. Nevertheless, our household has a high turnover rate. I take only partial responsibility for this. My father screams a lot. As a former director of the Water Board Karachi, he has sunk his claws into that engorged beast of an institution, an entity to be lanced by him and his friends. Legions of Abba’s bootlicker school buddies staffed the place during his reign, in turn granting appointments to relatives or men of similar political or ethnic persuasion, enjoying kickbacks, even telling the water mafia where to puncture the mains to siphon the goods and re-sell to the thirsty populace at eleven times the going rate. Even in Defence and Clifton people were pissing in their backyards to conserve water, and it helped quench the thirst of the plants that after all were sufferers too. We live off mafia water ourselves, but Abba doesn’t bat an eyelid at 5,000 rupees for a water tanker. It’s more reliable than the official provider, his old workplace, and in any case, he receives a discount. Fifteen years ago, when I was twenty-two and back from college, fresh off the American undergrad press, head brimming with justice and Marx, I told Abba exactly what I thought of his dealings.
“When did you get so wordy?” He rolled his frog eyes in disgust. “Someone should marry you now and take you off my hands. You women don’t understand how anything is run unless it involves my cheque book.” I cried very hard that night, the night Abba booted me off my soapbox.
Where was Ammi in all this? Oh, she was there. In the shadows, like a good wife and woman, she was there. That night fifteen years ago she watched me thrash around like an angry teenager on my bed, an exquisite handmade piece created from only a cursory glance at a picture Abba had printed off the internet of some royal’s bed at Versailles. Ver-sales, he’d said. A graduation gift. Odd one too, a bed, when I was expected to jump into another.
“Don’t cry, jaani. He’s your father, and he loves you.” My mother sank into the softness of quilts and exhaled deeply, laying her newly greying head next to mine. “He’s not wrong about marriage. You’re an adult now. Educated and ready.” I looked Ammi right in the eyes, and at that moment I wasn’t sure if I was sad for myself or for her. She spread across the craftsman’s handiwork like a sack of gelatin, this alien creature who echoed my father’s voice in kinder words, echoed his life in softer tones.
In Salim’s early days, while he accustomed himself to the rhythms of the place, I had entered into one of my cycles of apathy, brought on this time by having suddenly and for no good reason left my post as an editor at a national paper some months prior. Late mornings were spent stretched on the lounge sofa in a kind of mental sweat, reading the papers, squinting over the crosswords and word scrambles, muttering at the op-eds, even pouring over the funnies and the horoscopes and the bridge hand although I possessed only the vaguest notion of the game, anything to delay getting dressed and beginning a day that held no promise. Salim shuffled into the living room by noon, kicked off his chappals and stepped onto the carpet. Prior to these entrances, I took my breakfast, which he prepared, in the adjoining dining room, a two-egg omelette with dhania and green chillies, cooked in so much oil it may as well have been deep fried, buttered toast, tea (no sugar).
Next commenced his ritual of dusting, polishing, cleaning the windows and fans. From the glass tabletops he retrieved each object with astonishing care, placing it between his long black feet. A porcelain bird, a silver box, crystal figurines of Turkish dervishes in ecstatic mid-twirl. Squatting like a yogi before the table, he dusted its surface and underside in wide, sweeping arcs. Predecessors were not so fastidious, instead working around the trinkets, a habit that drove my mother mad. In order to reach the farther corners of the table, he had to arch his feet in a pleasing curve, hoist himself on his toes, and lean forward with the yellow duster. From my repose, I peered above the paper like a private eye, taking in his delicate, deliberate movements. The boy was fluid. If cleaning the surfaces comprised his kittenish first act, in the second, more forceful one, Salim, having produced a small stool, thwacked madly with his rag at the blackened ceiling fan to dislodge the dirt. Wisps of dust hung halo-like in the air above his head, then evaporated. I pretended Salim did this on purpose, that despite the hard work of act one, he left a little grime behind in protest in act two. Or maybe he was really that stupid. His arms strained overhead, and patches of perspiration flowered under his armpits. When he had finished and made his exit, I submitted to my last resort and clicked on the idiot box. The final blow.
Salim’s brains also pickled in the melodrama of Pakistani television. My parents had given him an old set for his quarter by the kitchen. In between the bloodiness of the headlines and the dung-slinging of the political talk show hosts, Salim (and the neighbours, my parents, everyone) submitted himself to hours of soap operas involving ruined wives, spurned women, evil men and in-laws, conniving servants and the enormous residences within which they were housed. Now that the newsroom no longer occupied my sleepless nights, I’d go out into the garden in the early hours to feel the cool grass beneath my feet. Even at two, three in the morning, I could hear the sound of the TV coming from his room, a standalone cell-like structure built behind the main house. One evening I followed the voices to his door. Through its mesh, the television cast its glow on his slender figure, reclined sideways like a woman in a painting, head propped by a hand. I’d never entered his domain before.
“Hello?” No acknowledgement. “Hello? Hello?”
He sat up quickly. “Baaji?”
“Yes, yes, baaji,” I replied in a stage whisper, though my parents were snoring inside, upstairs, a world away. “What are you doing?”
Someone began sobbing onscreen. He remained unmoving. I gently pushed open the door and took a step inside. He began to stand, froze, sat down again. I let the door close quietly behind me.
“Where are your manners?” I asked, trying to sound playful. He arose once more, to his full height now, several inches over me. It was too dark to read his face, no longer illuminated by the artificial light. He continued to offer nothing. “What are you watching?”
The question solicited a smile. I think. At least, I sensed a shift in the dark room, a lifting of the veil of panic. One arm behind his back, he gestured to the charpai as a waiter gesturing to a table.
“They play the old shows when it’s late.” He retrieved the remote from the bed and turned the volume up a few notches.
We sat together, backs against the wall, feet dangling over the charpai’s edge, his bare. When a fair-faced woman was unceremoniously chucked out of her husband’s house, wrongfully accused of some sexual treachery, Salim stared aghast at the small screen. He exploded, “How can you? How can you?” Turning to me, he asked, “Where will she go in the middle of the night, all alone?” I shrugged. Of the villain who had connived to ruin the woman: “He should have his thing cut off and fed to dogs!” Shocked and pleased by this candour from a servant, from a male, I took his hand and squeezed it with my fleshier paw. He stared at our fingers and then at me. You see, it started innocently enough. Later, weeks later, when the house was empty and we lay entangled in the sheets like vines, I tried to educate his mind with talk of weightier things. Being naked, my clamp on authority was somewhat tenuous. How much schooling had he done? Could he read? Or did he sign papers with a thumb print?
“I can read,” he drew himself up a little in the bed. The ceiling fan sliced the cool hair above us. As I went on, he bobbed his head obediently, staring at my mouth. As our encounters wore on, his mind flew away with the crows. For now though, I had him.
The jamun season is short. We are blessed with an old tree in our garden, which for three weeks a year splashes its fruit across the grass. Salim or one of the others collects the offering in a bamboo basket. They keep some, we keep some. The ants, who circle the purple-black residue, take their share. I was admiring this grand old tree, as I often do, while taking my tea on the lawn one evening. The gardener was planting Ammi’s latest bulbs in the soil beds lining the driveway.
Ammi had planted the jamun tree when we moved into the house some thirty years ago. She took great interest in the plants, and it flourished even in the desert summer. An oasis, you might say, where in the cooler, breezier evenings of childhood I darted around with the other kids at our frequent barbecues and family dinners or winter bonfires. While the jamun came and departed in a blink, the old tree wept leaves all year round. Someone was always sent to sweep them up before the guests arrived, or else I volunteered. The first time I brushed the grass, I gripped the jharoo with both hands like it was one of my father’s golf clubs. I worked lazily, assembling little mounds of green to be tossed away into the garbage bins outside the kitchen. These were the early days of my return, and images of the past I’d left behind kept me company during the sweeping.
Before Salim, before a few before Salim, I’d been deeply afflicted by youthful optimism. I told myself and others it was the disease that had brought me home after my American graduation all those years ago. In truth I couldn’t find work, and my visa expired. My long-time flame, plucked from an intro-to-something class our freshman year, bolted at my romantic visa-marriage proposal in the park at sunset and soon afterwards Homeland Security had the joy of stamping a final exit stamp into my passport. I cried the entire PK-120 flight back to Karachi. The cruel internet tells me he’s a father now.
After my teary return, suddenly repulsed by the heat and crowds and smells I’d known and probably loved my entire childhood, I joined a national paper with the aim of writing features on crime, corruption, human rights, what have you, all the things youthful optimism loves, that would force the place to right its wrongs and bandage its wounds. Really, I wanted to bandage my own, make the four years of doomed coupling and foreign education worth it. After all, my brothers had studied in Lahore, where they remain, but I’d gone away; I was special. I was also promoted and bagged a small award now and then. When the editor suggested an entire issue devoted to the water crisis, Abba had been miffed. How would it look, a daughter going against her family like that? “You can’t spend a minute at home without the air conditioner, but somehow you’re the saviour of the poor and hungry?”
When my story came out, replete with photographs of riots, women holding babies with black spots on their feet (they somehow believed it was the result of drinking unclean water), water tankers leaking their precious cargo, queues in front of public taps—well, he only murmured, “I wish I could understand you.”
The issue reared itself often. His buddies, his network, had their sticky fingers in every pie. I suppose I could have taken lighter editorial work or covered the thriving baked goods sector (well-heeled women seemed always to be selling cupcakes out of their kitchens) or soft feminism (“Meet Nadia, whose husband used to thrash her, but now she runs a small sewing business and gives hope”), but my hard heart wasn’t in it. Besides, Ammi needed help with her charity engagements.
There are the occasional suitors. Divorcés, perverts or older men who never got around to it. Take, for instance, the recent arrival of one Dr. Mammo, through a cell phone video and word of mouth. In the video, Mammo, complete with scrubs, gloves and medical cap, is informing women of the importance of regular mammograms. He oscillates between seriousness and levity, but the effect is destabilizing and makes him appear nervous. He delivers his lecture seated on a stretcher, one knee crossed over the other and clasped by interlacing fingers, leaning back like a fat uncle at a party. Then he stomps both feet flat on the ground, scrunching up the bed paper, and the camera zooms in on his face as he wags a finger—early detection saves lives!
Dr. Mammo, or Dr. Shahid if we’re splitting hairs, was a forty-something divorcé my aunt had rustled up from somewhere. He’d been alone for almost three years now, hadn’t propagated his genes, and was looking to take a wife as casually as one does a crumpet or samosa. Moreover, he was a Sunni, a doctor, Urdu speaking, age appropriate and willing to give an old gal like me a second chance at life. My parents were pleased as punch. They still love entertaining, and I see the same faces, reliable as the heat, getting jowlier each year by the jamun tree. Now I’m on the outside looking in. These evenings have become cloying, like the fruit itself after the first bite, how it pulls on the gums. Their casual questioning erodes the night. At my ripe age, they are still holding out for procreation, or weight loss, or good humour, or something. But then after dinner something changes. I’m comfortably stuffed on the seafood, caught and prepared by Baloch cooks, whose fathers made the same dishes and whose sons would too, warmed a little from the whiskey hidden in my glass of cola, and I hone in on the small details, the hairy, sturdy arms of the uncles in their safari shirts, enveloping their kids and grandkids around the waist, and the wives, imparting information right into their small eager ears. I used to know what they were saying.
Salim wriggled into his shalwar. Ammi and Abba were at a wedding, whacking back the jumbo shrimp, livid that I had refused to attend the union of my second cousin with the ape-son of a provincial cabinet member. “She’s set for life now, you know,” my patient mother prodded. I stayed home despite Abba’s slamming of doors.
Salim went to the bathroom to splash water on his chest. He said he liked the feeling of the droplets turning cold on his skin in the air-conditioned room. When he returned, he sat on the edge of the bed and asked softy if he could take a bottle or two of water to his family in Orangi. The taps had run dry thirty-four days prior. The pumping station nearby, meant to service 4,000 households, was squatting uselessly in the summer heat because the operator had sold off the fuel it needed to run. If Salim had had an audacious tongue like, say, the gardener, I would at first have pretended to refuse just to screw him up a bit. Yet the way he hunched over the bedside in that moment, eyes downcast and a sheet of greasy black hair hanging in his face, had he asked for the blood in my veins I’d have set up a transfusion. One imagined all sorts of things in the immediate aftermath of Salim.
“What do they do then? Your family?”
“Sometimes they borrow.”
“Are there any standpipes?”
“They’re a bit far off.”
“And the mafia water?”
“We buy it when we can. Families pool in.”
“Come back to bed.”
“It’s getting late, ma’am.”
But he remained where he was and talked about his parched relatives. The water, nestled in the scruff of his chest, meandered down his torso, gathering in his belly button. In a moment of misplaced warmth, I decided to accompany Salim to Orangi Town and deliver the water myself. He was grateful not to take the bus.
Ammi and Abba approved of the charity but not my desire to go. They were right, as they always were in their way. “He can take it himself,” Ammi said the following day in our sunny living room. She had stretched her heft across the sofa and gave a wide yawn.
“How can he carry it on public transport?”
“He’ll figure it out. I’m sure someone in his family has a motorbike.”
“What about the petrol?”
“Motorbikes don’t eat much fuel, don’t you know that?” Abba asked, turning a newspaper page. He pretended to read the op-eds and foreign affairs page, but his real concern was the city news. Water riots had been dominating the local headlines again. Perhaps his pals felt a twinge in their hearts. Ammi kept up to date with everything but held no known opinion on what she read. “You’re not going,” he announced, putting the paper down on his lap. “It’s not good to get too involved in this sort of thing. Anyway, Orangi’s a slum.”
Why would I know that motorbikes don’t eat much fuel? There are moments, when I glare at the closed curtains at dawn, waiting in dread for the sun to announce yet another repetition, I imagine him exploding into the room, face purple as liver, to catch me out. “You fat fornicator!” he’d roar. “How could you bring such shame upon this family!” Like something out of the television soaps. And I’d be free, in a way.
Down the street we flew, Salim and I and Nawaz the driver. Salim in front for propriety’s sake, I languid in the back with four large jerry cans on the seat beside me, their stomachs glugging as we swung around turns. It felt good to gaze down on the road from the blackened windows of Abba’s Pajero. Nawaz leapt forward and smashed the horn on still vacant roads. In the rear-view mirror his eyebrows leapt up into his hairline. His whole body was in on the action. We sailed past sagging trees and flickering traffic lights, clustered markets whose yawning tradesmen were un-shuttering dusty little shops, and empty plots of land carpeted in soil and glittering litter and dozing street dogs.
Gradually the road clogged with vehicles, and we slowed down until we found ourselves trapped between a Toyota and a rickshaw. Nawaz offered me a cigarette. He twisted in his seat to thrust the golden carton against my shawl-draped chest, eyes still on the road, making a show of our former familiarity. I ignored him. He didn’t bother to offer Salim. By the time we reached the industrial area, a sombre parcel of land where the marble cutting industry also did its business (and wasted much water in the softening of stone), I had already tired of the journey and wondered whether Abba had been right, and this was all a mistake. He did say that motorbikes didn’t take much fuel. Then on the horizon I saw flames.
Nawaz growled, slowing to a halt. “They’re burning tyres.”
If not for the grim backdrop and chanting men, whose voices touched us faintly, it might have been the world’s ugliest and least responsible fire show. The flames churned in their own private rings, contained by the tyres we couldn’t see, terminating in thick smoke that billowed like petticoats.
“What should we do?” I asked.
The drivers behind us, oblivious to the circus ahead, began blaring their horns and flapping their arms. Necks stretched past windows to catch the commotion.
“What should we do?”
“We have to turn around!”
“So turn around!”
“The only turn is ahead.”
One by one cars tried to spin around on the one-way, slowed by the confusion, the single-mindedness of withdrawal, the awful lack of space, the cacophony of horns. The small blaze was still some distance off. I found Salim’s eyes in the rearview. I couldn’t read them. Nawaz cursed and added to the noise. Then, somehow, the jigsaw puzzle of ensnarled cars seemed to move intuitively into place, and we slowly rotated to retreat.
Emerging onto a side street, I wanted nothing more than to forget the entire excursion, to go home and lie down, draw the heavy curtains, safe again in the dark. Yet I persisted: “Is there another way?”
“They’re burning their water bills, electricity bills,” Nawaz announced by way of response.
Mutely, Salim raised his hand and pointed left, indicating an alternative direction. I realized I should have taken the smaller car, not this tinted conspicuous monster.
Orangi inflicts itself over 60 or so beige square kilometres. Portions are passable—paved roads, schools, police stations, even cricket pitches—and others oceans of corrugated tin roofs below which people are squeezed casually into or out of this world. In between, the routine dramas and perversions of bottom feeder living play out amid open gutters. From this smelly underworld, Salim had tiptoed out, bashful.
At some point in his childhood, his family had moved to the home we were now making our way towards (he always gave me, when pressed, somewhat differing versions of his biography). Those earlier years he purports to have completely forgotten. But here is where he had played street cricket with his brothers, where he once shot a stray dog with a kid’s bb gun after someone at school called him a girl. The school where, his teachers had said, placing a Quran on the floor resulted in the unexpected death of a loved one and listening to pop music attracted bad djinns, where they whispered not so discreetly during their chai break about an evil creature lurking about the house of a lascivious woman who raised her children alone and entertained visitors at night.
Small roundabouts dotting sandy open squares soon gave way to slim rows of open-door general stores, dhabas with their sooty tandoors, pharmacies, across from lines of parked motorbikes devouring half the road. Rickshaws sputtered back and forth along the pebbly lanes. Cars were few. The town was still waking, caught in a yawn. The day as yet retained its potential; nobody had been given the chance to ruin it for someone else.
As we drew closer to Salim’s childhood home, young boys pushing wooden carts burdened with jerry cans became more frequent a sight. Sometimes the cart materialized before the boy, not yet tall enough to peer over the railing he gripped. At the corner of Salim’s street, so narrow that the jeep could only just about pass through, two men crouched by a motorbike, examining some invisible ailment. The thin ribbon of uncooked road drifted its way uphill. The family lived halfway up this gentle slope, but it could only have felt like a steep incline for the cart pushers. There were no trees, no morsel of vegetation, beneath which to park the car. It would have to cook in the sun.
The house didn’t look as shabby as I’d expected. It was a proper two-storied cement structure coated in an unorthodox pink, a curious choice in a place where attention led to nowhere good. Had Salim been talking up the whole thing, making his circumstances seem worse than they were? I had expected to be received in a single room.
I jumped down, landing heavily, so that Salim and Nawaz could unload the back seat. Each one dragged a jerry can through the dust to the door, and Nawaz, older but bigger, returned for the rest. We stood in a little circle, looking from face to face. Nawaz yawned and scratched his armpit with the car key.
Salim’s mother had stopped sweeping for us years ago, almost as soon as she’d started, and I hadn’t seen or thought of her since. Now she stood in the open doorway. The woman was her son’s spitting image, only more used up by life.
She welcomed us into a little living room, sparse but impeccable, arranged around a small television set that had been placed on a three-legged stool. The walls were bare, except for a framed Quranic verse above the TV, but money plants dangled from all corners, in lieu of art, in sawed open plastic bottles. A few table chairs were scattered around. Perhaps she’d been expecting more people. She and I sat inclined towards each other, our knees grazing together on the cane loveseat as the men retreated down a short, wide corridor to deposit the loot. A staircase climbed towards an empty landing at the other end of the room. Wet coughing from upstairs, life stirring.
A barefoot child, seven or eight, appeared as if on cue and thrust a large glass of Sprite at me, staring open-mouthed. “Thank you,” I smiled. “And how old are you?”
She waved the child away, gave an order I didn’t understand, but he lowered himself to the floor, cross-legged. His shalwar travelled up and his little legs were smooth as a newborn. I took a polite sip. Then, unable to help myself on tasting sugar, a big gulp.
“Thank you for helping us,” his mother said demurely and, for a moment, placed a hand on my knee. Somehow, I couldn’t picture my own mother giving her instructions on how to clean the house, though she must have.
“Not at all.”
“You take care of him. He needs it. Nobody does that for others unless there’s something in it for them. You’re a good person.”
Gratitude feels worse than the sob stories, the nauseating pleading. If anything, I deserved a kick in the face. Or perhaps Abba did. Before she could go on thanking me, the child stood up, grabbed my empty glass and scurried off. I quickly changed the subject.
“Your plants are beautiful.”
“They’re my joy.” She scanned the room, taking them in. I told her of my mother’s green thumb. As she spoke, I tried to comprehend who Salim was untethered from our kitchen, from his yellow duster, my bedroom, his charpai. What had her name been?
She may have given her dark aspect and soft features to her son, but the similarities ended there. She spoke smartly, conversing for the both of us in a confident voice that belied her small size. She was instantly likeable, charming somehow in her garish yellow and green kurta. A genuine diplomat for her class. She spoke of the family, Salim’s brothers, the neighbourhood, the decaying infrastructure. She related, as Salim had, the incidence of the pumping station closing down, the “shameful” man who had sold off its fuel, though “only Allah can judge.” I learned that her in-laws, Salim’s uncles, lived upstairs with their families, that she’d taken the position at our house during particularly bad times that had remedied themselves, that she cooked in several different households across Defence and Clifton, that her husband had died of malaria one spring.
Salim, it turned out, was something of a family failure. His brothers had managed low-level office jobs, one hit the jackpot with the army, but Salim, the youngest, hadn’t come close to passing his matriculation. His options were screwing bottle caps at a factory or being my young tender Salim. I wondered if he had, once upon a time, been a cart pusher too.
“You’ll come to the wedding na?”
“He hasn’t told you? Trust him. I hope at least he has told the sahib.”
“Oh yes . . . yes, he must have.”
It shouldn’t have felt like a gut punch. He was just our idiot houseboy, gliding through his chores as if in a dream. Of course he’d get married eventually. They all do.
“You’ll come.” Now a statement.
“We will of course help with the expenses.”
The news sat in my belly like a lump of coal.
“We weren’t able to find a girl from the kind of family we wanted, you know with Salim’s lack of . . . but they’re nice people, good enough.”
“Congratulations.” Obliged to inquire: “When is the wedding?”
“We haven’t set the date yet. It’s too hot for a wedding right now.” She grew animated talking about all the preparations her son’s big day would entail, even from the groom’s side. Bangles, flowers, ghararas, the rising cost of bridal make-up. She must have thought I cared about these things. Somewhere, a shy slum girl would be counting the days to dress-up.
The journey home was uneventful. The only minor occurrence was that someone (a cart pusher?) had scribbled an obscenity on the car in chalk. A makeshift market had sprouted up under a series of multicoloured tents selling everything from cloth to green chillies to cows blinking sadly in the sun. Closing my eyes, trying unsuccessfully to recall the mother’s name, I imagined her, with a wardrobe adjustment, giving a fervid speech to the provincial assembly while her son mopped the steps leading to the podium. “He’s a good boy! A fantastic boy! Any family would be lucky to have him!” I’d give her my vote, but the subsequent land redistribution would be inevitable. I dozed off, and we were home for lunch.
“Listen,” I said to Nawaz as he handed me the car key in the driveway, “you’re not to tell the sahib where we went today.”
“What should I tell him then?”
“Tell him nothing.”
“Muslims aren’t supposed to lie.”
I tossed him a five hundred. Nothing is free. Not even the water. Soon we’ll be paying for the air on a sliding scale of filth per particle, and Abba will find a way to capitalize, and maybe I’ll get a bigger emptier bed.
At dinner, soothing my soul over several helpings, I casually mentioned Salim’s upcoming nuptials. If Salim was getting married, would the lovebirds shack up together somewhere? Would he leave the house? Or, considering a houseboy’s salary, would they sweat and snuggle on a single mattress in his mother’s pink house? Would he start coming late to work, miss the bus? Hard to picture a sparrow like Salim on a public bus, those lions’ dens on wheels.
“Oh God,” sighed Abba, “he’ll need money.”
“Should we fire him? I think it’s the only solution.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ammi chided, scooping rice onto her plate. “As it is, they leave so often. So hard to find decent help. I suppose she’ll move in.”
Abba exhaled sharply. “Before you know it, there’ll be twelve children. God, the crying . . .”
Young, tender Salim was a little sneak like the rest of them. He deserved to ride the bus.
Outside the gate, I had Salim heave a water cooler onto a low stool. From beneath the jamun tree, I oversaw his five or six trips from the kitchen to fill it up, then to fetch the paper cups. For the final touch, I placed the cups into the holder on its side and fitted on the lid, feeling so triumphant I might as well have been inaugurating a dam building project. I couldn’t save the cart pushers, and whoever stopped for a drink would have to crouch to retrieve it. But there it was, for the thirsty passer-by, the man wheeling his cart of junk or a too-covered woman en route to her job in one of the houses.
“What do you think?” I asked.
He shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. Across the street one of the chowkidaars was walking a muzzled German Shepherd.
He looked down the street after the retreating dog for a long while. He said, “These things are not in my hands.”
Within an hour or two the cooler was stolen, stool and all. Abba laughed. Ammi squeezed my shoulders. I bought another one, along with a fat chain and padlock.
Jahanara—so regal a designation—moved in on a Friday. When I returned, I noticed she (it had to be she) had placed a white bedsheet over the open entrance of Salim’s quarter by the kitchen. He, like us, had two doorways to his domain. One made of netting to allow in the breeze, and an outer, solid door with a thick bolt. She had also, touchingly and like her mother-in-law, placed a money plant in a plastic water bottle by the steps that led into the room. I stood for a moment in the waning dusk, pink and purpled by pollution, digesting these small domestic changes. The cheap curtain fluttered inwards, revealing a foot. I went inside, through my own double doors, for my evening tea and pound cake.
Jana, as he called her, proved to be a fair bit more competent and assertive than her husband. She was slight, like him, barely five feet tall, with a sweet crowded smile wide enough to let insects in. Her wrists were the thinnest I’d ever seen, and her fingers, elongated and delicate, sometimes terminated in post-box red nails (not that we have post boxes; mail is simply flung, like the newspapers, over the gate). She couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen. In the days following the wedding, as is customary, she dolled herself up and wore the glittery joras her in-laws had gifted her, and Salim whisked her off, side saddle, to what must have been celebratory family dinners, on Nawaz’s motorbike. Other times they departed late at night.
From the balcony, like a rejected repulsive Juliet, I watched them leave in the dark. For some dessert in the bazaar, maybe. Where else would he take her? In the beginning they ate out a lot, or Salim would bring plastic bags of food from the market. Then slowly, learning her bearings, she began using the outdoor stove. From the garden, I’d see her from a distance washing clothes under the tap. If she saw me approaching, she’d smile brightly, say salaam, ask after my health. Salim appeared exhausted much of the day (I didn’t want to think about why), and it was often she who, barefoot, padded down to open the gate when the bell rang. Her husband and I seldom spoke now. I was being good. Inevitably, her stomach grew. These people can’t wait.
The weather cooled and lost its mean edge. Our water woes, the anchors told us, were less acute but, the riots remained commonplace, sometimes in Salim’s neighbourhood. I remembered his mother during the 9 o’ clock news, pictured her preparing dinner as chaos swirled beyond her. The only times I addressed Salim now was to ask after his family. Each time he nodded, yes all good baaji, all fine.
Driving home one evening, I noticed that part of the median strip on the main road off which we lived had been smashed to bits. It lay in neat cement chunks like a not-so-yellow brick road to some backwater. This happened about once every eighteen months or so. Sometimes they broke and rebuilt only a portion, sometimes all of it. Tomorrow, or one of these days, men staving off the sun in terry cloth turbans would rebuild the perfectly functioning boundary they had received directives to demolish, receiving no part of the kickbacks the contract generated. I slammed the car door, thinking about the rubble, and found Salim drying a glass alone in the kitchen.
“I told you the heat will dry the dishes in no time. Leave it in the dish rack.”
“Right away.” I rummaged in the fridge but found only stodgy leftovers.
Upstairs, Salim knocked on my door with the tea tray. I watched him from the bed. An inner, almost elemental exhaustion was spreading through me. He put the tray down on the bedside table and looked at me with a panicked expression as if any moment I’d attack him.
“Sit down.” Reluctantly, he did.
I patted the bed. “Closer.” He did.
“What’s the matter?”
“Baaji,” he almost whispered. “You know what’s the matter.”
“Oh come on,” I threw my arms in the air, “Don’t you miss me at all?”
I took his hand and watched him stare pathetically at the ground. Finally, he mustered, “I don’t understand your meaning.”
“Close the door.”
He hesitated. “Do you want tea?”
“No,” I sighed, feeling like a dog. “Close the door.”
His expression hardened ever so slightly around the eyes. I got up from the bed where I’d been pretending to read, walked over to him, took his hand, turned it over. I studied his palm as I used to do. His lifeline was long; it curved beautifully. Like the arches of his feet when he lay on his stomach on my bed. We stood like that in silence.
“What can I do for you?”
“I want to talk.”
“There is something you want?”
“Am I horrible?”
“No, baaji,” he smiled weakly, “why are you talking like this?”
Suddenly his features, lost in the black night of his face, crumpled like a tissue. “Baaji, what do I say? What do I do?”
I moved to touch his face, and he jumped back as if I were a live wire. He grabbed my outstretched hand and squeezed hard.
“I don’t care,” I declared. “Do it.” He held on, twisting my hand backwards and pulling me down to my knees. I tried to claw him off. “I’ve done so much for you!”
I bit down on his hand, trying to free myself. Tears splashed onto our hands. I tasted his blood, metallic. Then he pushed me backwards onto the ground.
“You’re a bad woman,” he spat, right in my face.
“I know it!” I lay my head on the carpet. “I know it.”
The shattered median strip looped in my side mirror, over and over. The streets seemed unwelcoming now. It’s a mystery how the world goes on. A dog barked. The divider returned. Up ahead a water tanker had parked outside a house, and two men were feeding the pipe inside through the overgrown foliage. What was the point of it all, going to school, going abroad, if all one had to do was accept life, any life, like a servant’s or a shepherd’s, and find peace? If all I had to do was marry Dr. Mammo and try, somehow, to squeeze fruit from the old loins? Was it that easy? What was all the resistance for? Why not laugh and burp and guffaw along with everyone else at family barbecues under the jamun tree? What was this thirst? I blew through a red light, imagining myself scrubbing Salim’s underwear under the tap or washing his feet or polishing his shoes or cooing at a faceless child. How dare that houseboy, that pipsqueak king, command all this attention from both Jana and me?
My hand purpled and expanded like a balloon. The cooler, perpetually empty now, remained chained outside. I hid my wound under long sleeves.
Jana had been washing her baby under the tap before the accident, the same one she used for dishes and the mali used for the garden. It had been a beautiful day, the kind full of promise. The child gurgled, waving its stubby arms and smiling its gums at the world. He was like one of those fat puppies on postcards, all layers of tender fat and big yearning eyes. “Salaam,” she greeted as I approached. A headache was blooming behind my eyes. I hadn’t been able to sleep all night. So this is what early morning looks like, I thought.
She swaddled the baby in a towel, humming softly. It sounded like the theme of one of the soaps I’d hear coming from Ammi’s room after dinner, where she curled up to watch TV while Abba did the same downstairs. The kid’s nose grew a bubble. Without thinking I put out my arms for him. It must have been the good weather, or his innocence, or my weariness, or the splash of brandy I’d started adding to my morning tea since the protest. She seemed, surprisingly, pleased by the gesture, standing up and gingerly handing me the bundle. He was heavier than I’d expected. Too young to resemble either parent in any definite way. He wriggled his body, trying to break free from my alien embrace, emitting small wet sounds. They had shaved his head. The carpet of fuzz felt wonderful against my skin. A bolt of pain shot up my sick hand. I shrieked. He was so utterly breakable. What could I do?
My Abba was listening to his after-dinner political talk shows, draped on the sofa with the remote control balanced on his paunch, when I knocked tentatively on the open door. He ignored me, his belly rising and falling under his safari shirt. I tried again, sensing the warm threat of tears.
I dove into his amazed embrace, sending the remote to the floor. “Is Dr. Mammo still available?” As I was crying into his downy arms, heavy like tree trunks, he reassured me. He had accompanied me, all that time ago, to Salim’s valima, a protective shield for me then as now. We had sat at a table in the corner morosely throwing back barbecue, a rare occasion of meat-eating for the family.
He assured me, “It was a mistake.”
His voice, authoritative and deep, in that moment was the voice of God. In that moment, all platitudes came true. Yes, it would be alright, yes, this too shall pass. Yes, yes, but the baby had fallen on the rubber mat alhamdulillah, if the doctor said he was fine, then he was fine, you didn’t mean to, it’s over now.
My old Ammi is gallivanting around town like a spring chicken, planning the details. She wants one of those desperate invitations that come in a glittery box. Sania and Majid Mueenuddin request the pleasure of your company at the wedding of their daughter Eman with Dr. Arsalan Shahid, son of Dr. and Mrs. . . . Meanwhile, I spend my last days in this home under the jamun tree, leaves raining pleasantly down on me, enjoying the relief of submission, of giving up the game. It’s a relative peace because what can quench this frightful longing, this thirst?
Jana sings to her baby these days. An aunt of an aunt declared it would heal faster that way. Also to blow on its head six times a day, including at prayer time. I could hear her when replenishing the water reserves chained outside the gate or collecting water from the leaky ACs, or watching the street from the balcony, or comfort eating in the kitchen. If the kid was awake, Jana was chirping away. Some years ago, when hiking up north with friends (I tailed the group, wheezing and flat-footed), we came across an old shepherd on our daily jaunts. He sat on a rock like Pan with a bamboo flute against his stained red lips. When questioned about the hard living of the hills, he simply responded, “Allah takes care of us all.” His stupid certainty was impressive, enviable even. He didn’t ask for money. Only accepted it with a sleepy smile, smelling strongly of earth and hash. Jana reminded me of him now, utterly devoted to the new life.
Salim began addressing me again when I agreed to pay for the baby’s schooling. He managed only the basics; here’s your tea, may I come in, a parcel has arrived. In fact, I’m paying for everything now. Everything. The child’s clothes, toys, checkups. It’s the right thing to do, I suppose, the only thing to do, to solve this mess. There’s nothing you can’t buy. My father taught me that.