Hounslow, London, 2003
Dark, petite, plait-headed Salima sighed heavily and began chopping the vegetables for dinner, squatting in front of the TV in the Shahs’ mouldy bedsit. Ali would be home soon from Shah’s Groceries, and would hate seeing her like this. But there was no space in the kitchen, what with the sewing machine installed there, and everywhere his books, books, books. Anyway, there was nothing for her to do but watch TV and go collect the dole every week, standing in line behind mountainous black women dangling big bangles on one hand and two noisy kids on the other, and quiet, defeated, thin white men with stained teeth and moth-eaten coats. And always the questions, questions, questions she couldn’t make head nor tail of. ‘Mrs Shah, have you been looking into this month’s vacancies? Why don’t you try this one in Northfields? Lovely old man, can’t get out of bed, needs a bath and some help to poo in the loo every morning? No? How about distributing mobile phone pamphlets round Brixton, keeping warm in a nice mobile phone suit? No?? Bloody Pakis…’
Salima chopped beans, peeled potatoes and chopped them too. She crushed garlic, she crushed ginger, she chopped onions. She chopped one onion after another, and then some more, and her eyes watered mercilessly. But when Ali banged in through the door he didn’t even notice her shoulders shaking. His eyes went to the TV, where young, hooded brown men were facing off to thuggish policemen somewhere in East London.
‘This is a sorry sight, I say. Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in them?’ And off he went to sit at the Remington typewriter that his grandfather had carried on his back from Allahabad to Lahore during Partition. ‘If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me,’ he gasped, as Salima busied herself about the tiny flat, banging pots and pans. ‘But one day all will know who Ali Shah is!’
Salima dumped the mountain of onions into a saucepan gleaming with oil and began to fry them, adding cumin, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, salt, chilli powder and fenugreek in handfuls, then a hoick of asafoetida for good measure. Sizzling streams of steam and smoke all but obscured the small woman with the sour face, defeat written into every line. She shrieked, suddenly, ‘You know Rashid Abdullah son, that good-for-nothing Latif?’
Ali looked up irritably. ‘What?’
‘He start pray five times day.’
‘Bow, stubborn knees!’
‘He get mix up with mosque group. They holding meeting all over Feltham, say they start jihad.’
A crescent of smoke puffed out of the kitchen and headed to where Ali sat hunched behind the sofa, the typewriter balanced precariously on his potbelly.
‘Ahahahaha! Serves him right, that bloody Abdullah, for marrying that tart Evelyn and selling booze in his shop!’
Salima stared at Ali, dissolved into tears, and burst out of the flat. The smell of curry followed her all the way down the stairwell, graffittied with Shona iz a slag, Paki go home and Allah rulz, ok! She ran out onto the estate grounds, wailing, and hurried towards the main road. The scarecrow trees at the exit to the estate huddled together in the chill evening wind and she shuddered, thinking of poor Rashid Abdullah and that fat white woman he had married for love. Love! She didn’t even know what it meant, she reflected bitterly. The one person she could love, her daughter Nasreen, Ali had sent back to Karachi to his ageing parents. Bard was a fool like his father, though with brains enough to get a scholarship to study in Amrika, from where he wrote occasional, distant letters. Salima was sure he was sleeping around with American girls.
She stopped suddenly. She was lost, and cold in her thin dress. A couple of moths fluttered around a lamppost. Despite having lived in London for almost twenty years, she had never ventured beyond Shah’s Groceries. She must have taken a wrong turn somewhere … now she’d have to ask someone. She began to practice, nervously. ‘Excoos me you, I go home?’
As if on cue, a tall, kindly looking Britisher in a smart suit appeared out of the gloom. Hearing Salima, he smiled and motioned to her. She hesitated, then followed him to a nice detached house across the road. To her confusion, he gestured that she should come in.
Salima had never before been alone with another man, but this gentleman, who seemed to be saying, over and over, that his name was Haumuch, appeared so kind and considerate she felt at ease in his small, tidy living room. He indicated that she should sit down and left the room. Salima looked at the shelves packed with books and records. Now here was a house that books belonged in! Haumuch came back with a cup of tea. As he gave it to her, he looked into her eyes and smiled. Salima felt an undercurrent of desire welling up in her, and all the sadness in her was transformed as if by a lightning bolt into an embrace, and rolling on the sofa they groaned and moaned as if they had been waiting for this moment their entire lives.
Afterwards, she slipped out quietly while Haumuch went into the kitchen to make some more tea. She soon found her way back. She felt free, she felt good, and why not? She hadn’t said anything when she had found out about Ali and that white teenage whore-girl who he had been doing what-all with at the back of the shop while she was slaving away cooking him curry. Striding into the curried stairwell, she almost ran into a bearded youth in a kurta. His eyes burned into hers as they passed, and he murmured, ‘Innit?’ If she had lost her faith, now she was in serious danger of regaining it, and she would have fallen into the dashing young fundamentalist’s arms had she not seen clouds of smoke billowing down the stairs. ‘Alii!!! Aiee!!!’ She screamed and ran up the stairs, her heavy, oiled black plait swinging from side to side like a stampeding elephant’s trunk.
To her horror, Salima found Ali feeding the gas stove with pages from what appeared to be his latest manuscript. He began to talk to her for the first time, it seemed, since they had bid farewell to their teary relatives and nervously stepped onto the PIA flight from Karachi, twenty years ago. Suddenly, she thought of her sister Taslima, who had eloped with the gardener, and who had been exiled from the family, even when her good-for-nothing drunken bastard low-caste wife-beater black-as-cinders husband had been run over one night by the Lahore police commissioner’s son’s car. Salima missed Taslima terribly. Oh how they had played under the neem tree, fighting over the choicest mangoes, competing to make the best chapattis, listening to Grandmother Iqbal’s tales of having met the great Jinnah! What if the same thing happened to her daughter Nasreen? There was no guarantee that living in the East meant she would turn out like the rising sun. Where was she now?
‘My chapatti better!’
‘Ask Iqbal Nanni!’
‘Who chapatti better get choice mango!’
The two pigtailed girls turned to the old hag crouching over the stove, frantically chopping onions as the dusky light streamed through the windows like jewels born of the Arabian Nights. As usual, she was mumbling to herself. ‘Oh, and when he turned around, I realised it was Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself, and I wet myself. Can you imagine how that felt?’
‘Salima!’ She was jerked out of her reverie. ‘Salima, my wife and the mother of my children, though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. When you ran out just then, looking like a tart in that thin dress of yours, I went down to check the post. I found a letter from Bard.’ He added another bunch of pages to the fire. ‘No, no, not this,’ he said hastily, grabbing at a stained page in Salima’s saucepan. ‘Here. Listen:
‘“Father”, he says. “Ever since 9/11, things have changed. It’s now more important than ever to show you belong to America if you want to stay. I have been seeing this white American chokri, Jennifer, for a year now. We have decided to marry as soon as we graduate. We will then move to Boston, where I will teach at MIT while she thinks of how to please me when I get home. We will invite white Americans to come and have the disappointing curries that she will cook, and we will have affairs and be miserable, but we will be living the American dream.”’
At this point Ali’s face took on a fixed, glazed look, and he increased the speed at which he was feeding the flames. ‘“Father”, Bard says. “I have only one burning desire … that you stop writing. Frankly, there are too many hacks churning out these diaspora stories for even a billion Southasians and a sprinkling of postcolonial-lit classes to digest. It’s time to wake up and smell the curry. Do what you do best – run your corner shop like a man. It’s time to look after Mother as only you can.”’
‘Ah’, Ali sighed. ‘He lives in fame that died in virtue’s cause.’
He turned slowly, and was crushed in Salima’s embrace. As they stood there, a large, drab moth hurtled in from the doorway and immolated itself in the flames, fragments of its wings flying up and out, as if reborn as smaller, more perfect butterflies. Suddenly, all was clear. They stood there, sobbing with happiness, as the unbearable smell of curry rose and filled the dark London skies, out of which a thin drizzle was now beginning to fall, slicking the cracked pavements of the city and churning the estate’s gardens into the same mud that, if Ali and Salima had looked, would have reminded them of the monsoon lanes of their childhood, tracked by lowing water buffaloes, speaking of a simpler, better time. But they didn’t.
~ Rabi Thapa is a writer and editor in Kathmandu.