Tuesday Magazine, The English Daily Khabarnaak (Pakistan)
The Maulwi Episodes
Dear Mickie Maulwi,
I started working two years ago. I have three school-going children and some days it gets too much, especially when the maid doesn’t show up. But my husband refuses to help with the house chores. He says I made the choice to work. It’s for my own fun. Besides, our religion requires women to put their home first. What can I do so he can help me at home without me sounding like a radical woman?
Your husband is right. You’re having too much fun. Let him have some fun too. Send the maid on a break and don’t wash the dishes for a week. Let him eat in the dirty plates.
And when he does so, tell him our faith also demands cleanliness. From everyone.
Her life is perpetual in its sameness except for the thin seaweed film that clings to Shehla’s wedding dress. When they moved to Rawalpindi two years ago, Shehla dumped her wedding trousseau in the basement cupboard, having no need for the heavily embroidered dresses that stung the then two-year old Hadi when she carried him. The mothballs, thrown in as an afterthought, have done nothing to keep away the mold that crawls along the intricately embroidered hem of her bridal dress. Shehla withdraws her hand from the cupboard, covering her nose to stop herself from inhaling the stench.
She would like to believe that the basement has suddenly been infested with mold, that this green-black intrusion in their lives is unexpected. But within her, Shehla has known. That the carpet always felt moist to her feet. That if she lifted the edge by an inch she would see a parallel green-black blanket running under it. That the humid smell lurking in this neglected dark room was always there and not a sensory invasion caused by fluctuating hormones, signaling her crossing past thirty. Change has been furrowing under the surface. Something Shehla relentlessly denied because it’s been easier to do so. And now it’s impossible to look away from it.
She came down to sift through old, unused bags. She’s never had a need for purses nor a desire for change but last night Hadi wrenched away the handle of the one she used. If it weren’t for the interview this wouldn’t be necessary.
A familiar dull ache crawls up her arms, like ants clambering to a favorite spot. But this time it’s accompanied by a bout of nausea. Is her body telling her to stop when her mind won’t listen? Against herself, she flings open the cupboard door and stares inside. In the dim light of the bulb that hangs from an untethered extension wire, Shehla sees a strap of the leather bag she’s looking for. She tugs at it with a finger as if trying not to contaminate herself and runs upstairs, two steps at a time.
The bag is soft and cold with hidden moisture, and a size too standard for the fashion nowadays, but the prominent golden G in the center is enough evidence that it was once a bag in vogue. She bends closer to look at the fading Gucci logo and instantly withdraws. Even in the open air of their living room the bag carries the musty smell of mold and mothballs.
She eyes the clock on the wall, only fifteen minutes before it’s seven, before the house is awake, before the day begins. She wonders how the time flew by her. A long list of to-dos runs through her head. There’s no time to let the bag hang on the clothesline even though the summer sun is strong. She’ll spray her perfume over its surface and hope that like her, her interviewers at the school believe that the odd combination of a perfume and meaty mold is a figment of their imaginations.
Change is uncomfortable. It tickles Shehla in the pit of her stomach to the point of making her jittery. Something doesn’t feel right. Is it Saqib with his unsmiling jaw wide, stretched out on the living room sofa where he fell asleep last night? Or is it the second helping of food he took late in the night, with the curry-stained dishes spread out on the living room table, inches from where his nose is? Or is it the sound of the clock ticking closer to seven reminding her it’s already too late? Or is it the looming interview?
Piqued, Shehla scoops the dirty dishes and stacks them one on top of the other, making as much noise as possible. Only when Saqib batters his eyelids allowing his gaze to settle on her like a lazy drawl, does she stop. He looks amused, if that’s possible for a half-awake man.
“It’s not even seven.” He mutters, snuggling into the thin blanket he took from the spare bedroom.
Shehla opens her mouth to remind him she’s in a rush today. How can he forget she has an interview at the school? She mentioned it at least seven times yesterday. Something thuds against the concrete pavement outside the house, forcing Shehla to sit upright.
“The newspaper,” Saqib mumbles, turning his back to her. “Bring it in before that incompetent man’s water-tank runs over.”
Saqib detests their neighbor, the man they share the two-storey house with — rather three-storey, when counting the storeroom in the basement. And so it’s just as well that the entrances and parking to each storey of the house are separate and demarcated by a two-foot bush wall. The only interference they experience occasionally is an overflowing water tank, left negligently running, dripping out first into the neighbor’s porch before trickling into their part of the driveway.
On several occasions, Shehla has reminded the hawker not to fling the newspaper over the gate. That’s why Saqib agreed to install the tube-like holder in the first place. Across the border of the twin cities, even the hawkers find themselves equal to those they are serving. Like her, her new city Rawalpindi is the lesser of the two siblings. Peeved by the comparison, Shehla picks the dirty dishes and carries them into the kitchen.
Minutes later the agitated clanging of last night’s dinner plates forces Saqib to get off the sofa.
“Did you bring in the newspaper?” Saqib asks, standing in the kitchen doorway. Shehla’s back stiffens but she doesn’t stop scrubbing the dishes, heavy with unwashed grease from yesterday’s chicken curry. She squeezes a handful of dishwashing liquid onto the greasy orange plates and lathers them with foam. Saqib walks away when he doesn’t get an answer. A while later he’s back in the doorway.
“My shirt?” He asks, his words clipped. “Where’s my blue checkered shirt?” His voice carries an accusation. It stings her, diminishing her to the state of a servant in servile duty. It reminds her of her mother’s servant, that received a scolding each time he didn’t get the job done properly. Propelled by the voice in her head, Shehla twists the knob to let a faster spray of water drown Saqib’s voice.
Something about it feels right. Something about it feels wrong.
“I’m asking you.” Saqib repeats his question.
How would I know? I don’t wear your shirts, Shehla wants to say. Instead she fixes her eyes on the hinges of the kitchen window, a series of metal bars that look like a prison cage, her back talking to Saqib. “Have you checked the laundry basket?”
“You haven’t washed it?” Shehla inhales sharply at the accusation. “It’s been a week now. What about the white shirt?”
Another one he must have casually dropped in the laundry. Her hands clutch the plate, her wedding china moaning under her grip. Is this it? Should she drop the interview and wash the shirts instead? She fights the Shehla-like urge to run to the bathroom and wash the culprit shirt. Her husband curses under his breath and stomps out of the kitchen. When she briefly turns around to confirm his absence, she can see his receding form, a crumpled trouser leg riding up the calf of a hairy leg. In a few strides he has covered the breadth of the living room, a short distance separating their kitchen and the spare bedroom. The bedroom handle jerks. The cupboard door bangs. And the legs of the iron stand groan as he pushes the heavy iron against his clothes. Shehla feels the anger directed at her.
She follows him into the room briskly, her shoulders aching with tightness. “I’ll iron them.” Her timid voice nothing like the voice in her head.
The bathroom door bangs in her face as Saqib drags the unpressed clothes with him. The electric cord is still hooked into the socket, the blazing light of the iron indicating that it hasn’t been switched off. Steam sizzles out from the iron and makes sputtering sounds. Shehla can hear the sound echo in her chest.
Come out and unplug the iron, she curls her palm into a fist but doesn’t voice her words. Her voice always lost in her own timidness. Her eyes, golden-brown angry jewels, turn back to the steaming iron and a multitude of shirts and pants strewn carelessly on the iron stand. She swoops the iron and presses it against the thighs of the cotton pants. One. Breathe. Two. Breathe. Three. Breathe.
“Mama!” a childish voice cries behind her.
Shehla jerks away the iron, staring at the unfamiliarly rebellious hand that holds it. The burning metal briefly grazes her fingers. The much-awaited sound of puckering finally comes, but it’s the fuming skin of her hand and not the pajamas.
“Ah!” She cries, tightening her grip on the handle with a mother’s instinct. The iron doesn’t drop.
“Mama.” Seven-year-old Pari darts towards her mother.
“No. Stop!” Shehla orders. “The iron’s hot. Wait there, Mama is fine.” Shehla blows at her hand, repeating. “Mama is fine.”
Pari watches her mother with wide awake eyes shadowed by ruffled brown curls.
“Go back to your room, I’m coming.” The demon within has been subdued by a burnt hand.
“Mama, I can’t sleep.” says Pari. “The bed is wet.”
Shehla’s brunt skin crimps sending painful reminders through her. That’s what she gets for expressing anger. It’s the devil in you that riles you, Amma’s voice far away yet palpable, fills her head. Shehla reaches for the half-filled glass of water on the bedside table. Left by Saqib. Of course. A few days old. Probably. But she’s grateful for it. She gulps down the water, drowning her devil before it overpowers her.
Outside in the living room the shorter hand of the clock touches seven. The day has just started, yet her head is throbbing and her shoulders aching already. Is this how it will be if she starts working? She shakes herself. It’s only an interview.
“Fire, Mama.” Pari points to the socket as Shehla strides towards her.
“Fire? Yes.” Shehla turns back and tugs the cord forcefully out of the socket, managing to force one leg of the plug into a thirty degrees limp. She drops the cable and follows Pari out of the room.
Hadi is four and still in diapers? Her mother’s question is fresh in her head ten days later.
For God’s sake, my boy peeing in diapers! That big a size costs fortunes. That was Saqib skimming through the last grocery bill.
Why had she risked letting Hadi sleep without the diaper last night, when she knew that wasn’t a good idea? He isn’t like Pari, trained and retrained since she was two. Or perhaps Shehla was more enthusiastic about motherhood back then.
Her mind simmers down as she switches to the usual ordeal ahead. Routine is strangely comforting. Shehla peels away Hadi’s night clothes, baring the pink rash she discovered two days ago. Still there and growing, but luckily no fever. She carries him away from the king size mahogany bed, one of the several articles from Shehla’s dowry that crowd the rented house they live in.
In the bathroom, she turns the shower knob and waits for the cold water to subside. Then she pushes a wailing Hadi under a warm blast of shower and leaves him on his own only when he stops protesting and starts playing with his shower ducks. Briskly, she peels away the bed linen, wets the mattress in the growing circle shadowed by Hadi’s untamed bladder, throws a fist of detergent on the mattress and rubs it with a cloth brush, then pours some more water to wash away the white powder. Finally she yanks the mattress to the backyard where the sun will dry it by the time they all return home.
That’s what I don’t like about girls nowadays. Letting everything soak in filth. Her mother scrunching her nose at the freshly soiled mattress when Pari was two. Wash it at once or your house will smell like sewage pipes!
Pari is next. Showered. Dried. Dressed. Combed.
When Shehla works on autopilot, it’s comforting. Taking decisions is not. Just like choosing what to wear. Her fingers momentarily brush the bright green shalwar kameez she had ironed last night. She had put some thought into choosing it then but isn’t certain anymore she can carry its brightness. Instead, she settles on the simplest option, a long black shirt over jeans, both of which don’t need any ironing. She pulls her hair back into a tight bun and briefly touches lip gloss to her dry lips. Safe choices. Finally, she considers if she should pull her dupatta over her head the way most of the women in their new neighborhood did but decides against it. The Elite School is a modern school. Even the Principal didn’t cover her head.
Shehla’s eyes stray from her reflection to the bride staring back at her from a gilded frame on her dressing table. Nine years too old. It feels like a century. Two pairs of eyes are following her like Mona Lisa. That of her reflection and the woman nine years younger. Instinctively she looks towards the window. Just a tiny parting in the curtains can reveal too much. Suddenly feeling exposed to external eyes, Shehla pulls the grey curtains tightly together.
By the time she gathers the children at the dining table, Saqib is pacing the living room, his hair wet from the shower, his face cleanly shaven, his entire self, resplendent with a whiff of cologne that floats from meters away. He is so out-of-place in the rumpled setting of the living room. A blanket thrown lazily on the sofa. Two pillows against the armrest. Books lying on the floor with random papers crumpling under small feet. Tea-cup stains on the center-table. A film of dust on the far corner of the bookshelf. In the morning sun that tears in through the living room curtains, every minutiae of an unkempt life is starkly visible.
Saqib’s eyes follow Shehla and this time they accuse her of the mess. “Where’s breakfast?”
She opens her mouth to remind him she’s already late but stops. She can see Pari’s eyes narrow, mimicking Shehla’s own distorted emotions. “I was cleaning up. Hadi wet the bed.”
Saqib exhales. “When will you teach him a thing or two?”
“What do you want for breakfast?” Shehla looks away from Saqib. “I’d better hurry. I have an interview at the school.”
“Right. You have an important interview.” Her husband slides his silver quartz watch on his wrist. “I don’t want to be blamed for making you late. Just make sure you feed my kids before you go to this very important interview.”
His eyes drift disapprovingly from Pari, who makes no effort to greet her father, to Hadi, who claps his hands and wraps his arms around his father’s legs playfully. Slowly, but firmly, Saqib releases himself and pushes his son away. He picks up the car keys lying on the bookshelf next to a thick unread volume of the Quran wrapped in a brocaded red cloth, and as an afterthought touches his lips lightly against the Holy Book. Slinging his laptop case over his shoulder, he walks out of the door without saying goodbye.
Shehla doesn’t stop her husband of nine years and two children. Perhaps as he kissed the Quran he was reminding her that he stood with what was right and she with what was wrong. Perhaps she should have washed that shirt. Perhaps she should have made his breakfast before she got busy with the kids. Perhaps she shouldn’t have said yes to the interview. Perhaps it’s all her fault.
The frying pan she puts on the stove weighs a ton. She would rather jump back into bed and forget the interview.
Now you’re paying for your mistakes, her mother’s words again, not in the least diminished by Shehla’s dwindling visits to her mother’s home. Amma’s warnings shadow her even when their contact is reduced to a daily fifteen-minute phone conversation.
The frying pan slips from her hands clanking against the iron grates of the stove. Did Saqib forget? He had promised to take Hadi to the doctor to check his rash. She runs to the front door to call after Saqib but his sleek grey City is already swerving around the corner of the street billowing a cloud of dust behind it. She dials his number, but he cuts her call. Redial. Cut. Redial. Cut. Redial. Switched off. Nervous sweat breaks out on her forehead as she paces the front porch, chewing on her lower lip until she can feel a bump against her tongue mingled with the taste of salt.