By Ayesha Pervez – an English Literature graduate from the University of Karachi who has completed courses in short-fiction and journalism from Harvard University.
I lay bruised, my temples throbbing, the steel pot with which I was struck still spinning noisily next to me.
My seething abuser stared at me with monstrous eyes, as he wiped sweat off his forehead.
“Nimra!” he bellowed. “Get me water and turn on the TV!”
My eyes turned to the line of faces staring at me from across the room. Five dark and dirty figures stood against the wall, looking at me with terrified, wet eyes. It was not an unusual occurrence, yet every time, it shook them. One of the dirty figures, the second eldest and the darkest, shivered momentarily and then moved to the water cooler in the corner of the room.
In the next few minutes, the small quarter filled with the loud beats of Hindi movie songs. I got to my feet and, picking up the pot, made my way into the small pantry. Filling it with water, I placed it on the burner.
Two little hands curled around my leg. “Rasheed, my Babaa, my Shehzada (prince),” I cooed, picking up my youngest child – and the only son.
“Maa, why didn’t you bring his cigarettes today?” Zunera asked me, as she joined me in the pantry. She curled one hand around Rasheed’s dimpled brown leg and curved an arm around my waist.
“It’s okay, Zuni. I felt like giving him a piece of my mind today, the loafer!”
“Shh, Maa – he might hear you.”
“Now, take Rasheed to the toilet; he hasn’t gone for some time now. Quick, take him; otherwise you’ll be wiping it up, if he lets go here.”
As Zunera took the toddler away, I waited in anticipation for the water to boil. I am addicted to tea. I have it when I am happy, angry or sad. It instantly makes me feel better. Why am I not crying? Because abuse, both oral and physical, is something I am used to. Every evening, when I return home from work, I am expected to bring half a pack of cigarettes for him, which I do most of the time. But on days, when I don’t have the money or use the spare change to buy a treat from the market for the children, then it means a couple of abusive words or even battering. Today, after I had cleared the dinner plates, Sabir asked me for his pack as usual.
“I didn’t have the money today,” I replied calmly.
“Why did you not take it from your Bajis (employers)?” Sabir asked, his anger rising.
“Because it’s not nice to take money from them every other day.”
“I don’t care, whether it is nice or not. Why didn’t you get it?”
“You should also find some work now; then you can smoke as many packs as you like,” I retorted with a sudden burst of courage.
“Don’t you speak to me like that, you evil woman!” he spat, and then I watched as he backed into the kitchen, picked a steel pot from the bench and flung it at me.
As I poured the tea into a cup, I thought of the time, when my husband took a second wife, a few years ago. The girl, half my years, was quiet by nature. When he brought her from the village to live in the city with me and my children, I screamed at her and tried to make her life hell. But the poor thing never complained to Sabir, or he surely would have beaten me black and blue, in aspirations of becoming a hero in his new and young wife’s eyes. She passed away due to severe blood loss in her first delivery. At the time, I’ll admit that I was not too saddened by her death. But I often wish now that she hadn’t died. Had she lived, he would have divided some of his wrath and violent lovemaking between the two of us, and that would have spared me from the grueling activity at least some of the time.
Sabir is the reason I love working. Despite the fact that I work as a maid, sweeping and mopping rich folks’ bungalows, being away from home gives me immense relief from not having to see my husband’s despicable face for a large part of the day.
To be honest, he isn’t always abusive. Sabir is often found in a lively mood, when he plays with his favourite child, Rasheed, or when he watches his favourite actress dancing on TV. After the film ended, Sabir lifted the snoring toddler wrapped around his stomach and went to his usual place on the floor mattress, right next to the pedestal fan. There, father wrapped himself and son under a summer quilt and drifted into immediate and peaceful sleep. Five slim bodies lay some distance away, covered head to toe with a stained bed sheet, their small abdomens slowly rising and falling.
Although I wake the earliest, I am always the last to sleep. It is difficult to sleep, while our one-room quarter is filled with booming music and the incessant giggling of the girls, while they play with their shabbily dressed dolls. My daughters, although in the majority, are placid in their activity, whereas my son roams about as if he were the king, loud and pompous. Whoever said majority is power knew nothing.
So now, when the room is as silent as an empty cave, I realize that I have waited the entire day for this time. And so, making my way to the other side of the room from where Sabir lies against the moaning fan, I nearly trip over Rasheed’s dinky but upon lying am instantly captivated by slumber.
In the dark of the night – when my sleep is at its most intense – I hear a child bellowing madly. At first, I am almost too dead to care – but when the cries begin to echo off the walls, I gather all my energy to crawl towards Rasheed and drag him back to my side. Then, as I nurse him, the two of us are once again fast asleep.
I wake to the rooster’s crow at six in the morning and begin preparing potato curry and flat bread for the afternoon lunch. Then, I sip my tea by the single window in our quarter and watch the sun rise, throwing a loud splash of rust against the pale sky. Before leaving, I take one look at my children, who are beginning to shift and turn, reacting to the brightening of the room by the sun’s light.
At my first house, which belongs to a benign lady called Samar, I was dusting the dressing table, when I saw a new bottle among all the others that I was accustomed to see every day. It was shaped like a duck but with a longer neck.
“This is new, right, Baji? But why is it shaped like a duck?”
My Baji laughed, as she slipped a boot on her toddler’s foot. “That’s not supposed to be like a duck, Sanjeeda; it’s like a swan, which is a more beautiful bird.”
“Oh, is it new? I just saw it today.”
“Yes, your sir got it for me on our anniversary yesterday.”
“We were married on the same date as yesterday four years ago, so we celebrate it every year,” Baji replied, fishing around in her purse.
“You get gifts for those days? You’re lucky, Baji,” I said.
My Baji stared at me with sympathetic eyes. “Is that a bruise on your head?”
I remained silent.
“It’s your husband again, isn’t it? Oh, why must you poor women put up with it?”
“And don’t try to defend him, as you always do, Sanjeeda. Oh dear – it looks horrible, let me get you some ointment.”
“What can I do, Baji? We are so weak in front of these brutes.”
“Must one suffer such atrocities? Stand up for yourself, Sanjeeda,” she shouted from her bathroom. I heard bottles being moved around and a cabinet door being shut; then, Baji emerged from the bathroom. “You only get one life to live. Now, take this and rub it on that bruise.”
“You’re really nice, Baji.”
“Do you need money?”
At this point the toddler began to move restlessly inside his cot, holding his hands up and making a face, as if about to cry.
“Well, keep this money, all right? And just get done with the cleaning. I have an appointment to keep.” She thrust a single note in my hand and picked up the child.
My feelings for this Baji are torn between adoration and envy. She has a nice life, lives in a nice house, owns wonderful crockery and perfumes and has a loving, generous husband who, it seems, never laid a finger on her.
I gingerly felt the blue bump on my temple, as I walked to the next house, which stood three units down the same street. I was not looking forward to it. The miserable old woman in this house is jealous of her daughter-in-law but, unable to do anything, vents her anger out on me.
As I walked, lost in thoughts, a car jerked to a stop beside me, and a dark, moustached face popped out of the window. “Hop in, Sanjeeda, you’ll get tired walking,” he said, baring large teeth.
“You, rascal! Why don’t you give my husband a ride sometime, eh?”
“Come on, I know you don’t love him, let me buy you a cold drink.”
Seizing a stone off the ground, I threw it with all my might at the car. The impact seemed to make a minuscule dent on the rear door.
“Have your way!” he shouted and sped away.
Car drivers, like this one, tease and offer rides to us, maids, on our way home. They often spy on us and find out about our dwellings and family members. Some of the maids I know even have risky affairs with them, while many others, like me, remain wary.
At dusk, when I reached the market of my area, I saw a man selling Gola Gandas amidst shabbily dressed, barefoot children. Many of these children had luckily attained some coins for a treat. Sweat flecked my forehead, and I realized that summer had come in full swing. I fingered the corner of my Dupatta, where I had folded the note Baji had given me. I knew I could get cigarettes with it. I knew I could get sponge cake for the children. But today I wanted to think for myself – for my parched throat, for the sweat I had produced, while wiping stained floors.
I unfolded the corner of my Dupatta and handed the note to the seller.
The lanky man looked at me. “You can afford the one with fruits and cream with that note, do you want that?”
“Yes, make me the best stick you can with this money.”
Sanjeeda: A female name, meaning sadness, sober.
Gola ganda: In its most basic form, it is crushed ice mixed with coloured Sherbets (essences).
This short story was submitted as part of “She’s an Inspiration” short-story-writing competition organized by Hiba Magazine.