No. 215-S, Ata Turk Colony. And this afternoon in April.
She begins sifting the flour in a huge stainless steel pan and a delicate rain starts to descend from the sieve. She makes a valley in the middle of the mound and drizzles some water.
And keeps rolling. Like it’s the most natural, easiest thing to do. Like her hands were designed for kneading dough and nothing but.
Jay mein hondi dholna
Sonay di taveetrhi...
She hums and smiles. And suddenly giggles. She loved the silliness of it; wishing to become a gold chain.
She lifts up the smooth orb of the kneaded dough and instead of the usual plastic bowl, picks a prettier one from the rack. It is a creamy white porcelain piece with a brilliant, blue, thin rim and a stylised vine of sapphire leaves painted around it. She’s all of a sudden so glad to be working at such a fine place.
‘Go wake up Ahmer, Azra!’ the begum cries from the lounge, between sips of full cream strawberry milkshake.
She caresses the smooth, ethereal wooden railing up along the staircase. Who could tell machines carved this and not God himself, she thinks fondly. Upstairs, the 4-o’ clock sun pokes a hot inquisitive claw into Ahmer baba’s face like an eager kitten scratching a piece of furniture. She lovingly calls out his name. In vain, of course. And with her head resting against the door, she keeps gazing at the boy. He tosses about for a while, basted in sweat. When he’s well-done from all sides, he tumbles out of the bed, decidedly keeping his eyes closed.
The door-bell. Like a flock of sparrows making a ruckus.
‘Salaam Baaji,’ she chirrups. Begum’s elder sister is only about four feet high and chubby like a soft toy. The secret consensus among begum’s children is, that if you throw her at a wall, she would bounce back. No one wants to test the theory, of course. Baaji has the sweetest demeanour. She puts her hand over Azra’s head and winks.
‘I have brought an attaché full of laundry for you to iron. Chal shuru hoja.’ And laughs. No one can guess she is here on her mother’s chehlum.
Everyone knows, of all the chores, she loves ironing the most. All the silk saris and the explosively colourful lawn suits and those masterfully stitched pants; she could do it all day. If you are careful, the ironing can actually add to the beauty of the dress. It is a testimony to its worth, she would tell anyone who cared to listen.
Soon the men from the catering service arrive and nosily start erecting the pristine white marquee in the expansive lawn, for tomorrow’s chehlum. Snacks are ordered from the Club. She takes out the dainty little sandwiches - held together by toothpicks - and arranges them in a platter into a big circle. The crisp French-fries go in the middle. It pleases her; her ability to do things neatly.
Tea is served. Begum and baaji are the only ones interested.
Ahmer and Afifa are sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet, their heads bent together over a game of Ludo. The siblings, about thirteen and seven, are both secretly overjoyed. She, because she is learning a ‘big kid game’; he, because he will win, no doubt. I can sit here all night and watch them throw the dice, move their pieces.
‘You can go home now, Azra. And come early tomorrow,’ the Begum orders.
She tries to look ho-hum. Inside, she feels like stepping into a pond with stones in her pockets.
As she steps out with an old ice-cream-tub full of leftover club-sandwiches, she can see the tired orange sun. She wishes it were June already, when the world turned into a frying pan and the long days just lay there and sizzled. As she walks, the dahlias and rose-shrubs transform into drowsy pavement dwellers and street masseuses clinking their bottles of pungent oils. Twenty minutes and she’s skirting the old construction rubble that surrounds the slum.
She had come home late at night so often, she had learnt how to negotiate her way and ignore the erratic puddles of fecal waste and rotting garbage. Today, without the veil of the night, it suddenly looks uglier.
Lately everything has turned ugly. Everything. Everyone. Abdul, the next door widower, stands in front of his jhuggi. She can not believe she had accepted a cheap shawl from him this winter. He smells like cabbage today. He looks like cabbage. His paan-stained grin. And his trick of flashing his hand to his nostrils and then in a glimpse, to his crotch, scratching. Dog. Fleas. Dirt. Why can’t all men be like our sahib.
After bolting the flimsy door behind her, she slips her hand beneath the emaciated excuse of the mattress and scoops out the gold necklace. It twinkles. And a warm glee collects in the creases of her elbows and in the soft places between her toes.
Back at No. 215-S, Ata Turk Colony, the Begum nonchalantly opens her husband’s credit card statement labeled ‘Private and Confidential’, as he takes a shower. She can not help but grin as she reads about the purchase he has made at Almaas Jewelers last week.
So considerate. Trying to placate me; console me; distract me with gifts.