The public buses are filthy. Everyone who rides them is poor. They are never too full to take on more passengers. At every stop, they pick up men, their faces and clothes dirty from sweeping the streets, or cleaning the sewers. The women don’t look dirty, but they smell of cleaning fluid from mopping floors until they gleam, or scrubbing sinks until they shine. Naseema took the bus every day to Defence Housing Authority. They are painted in bright colors in geometric designs with gaudy baubles topped on the roof and rusty chains dangling from the bumper. There are drawings on windows, even on windshields, mostly of peacocks. Urdu phrases are painted on the rear of the buses. Naseema’s favorite is Dekh magar pyaar se, Look, but with love. Naseema boarded her bus at an unmarked bus stop ten minutes from her shabby house in Orangi Town. Even at ten in the morning, the bus smelled of sweat as bodies pressed against each other. She always tried to squeeze in between women. If she was lucky, she’d find a seat.
The bus stopped right across the street from the house where she worked. Pressing her purse into her armpit, she got off with the other passengers and made her way across the street. It was eleven in the morning and the sun beat down on her hands. Naseema held her chadar over her nose and breathed in the dusty odor, given off by clothes that have absorbed too much heat from the sun. Baji Sajda’s 10-year-old daughter’s school uniform exudes the same smell. Of sweat and dust. But it also carries the pungent smell of ink.
The gate of the house was open. Rafeeq, the gatekeeper, sat outside on a wooden chair, sipping his chai. He must have freshly dyed his beard with henna because it was a deeper shade of orange than yesterday. Naseema nodded at him and entered the house.
The first time Naseema came to meet Baji Sajda three years ago, she thought Baji Sajda would be an unkind woman like the rest of them. Naseema had looked at the lawn fenced in with raat ki raani and other pretty flowers she didn’t know the names of—the grass lush and trim, resembling a shaded green carpet, and she knew Baji Sajda would be hard on her like Baji Nadia had been, telling her to mop the floor again where her spoiled little son had muddied it with his shoes.
But Baji Sajda was a very kind woman, and started her out at Rs.7000, which was higher than what Naseema was getting paid at Baji Nadia’s house. She also gave Naseema rental for the bus every day.
The house was bigger than any house Naseema had worked at before, but it wasn’t dark inside like the others women’s houses. The curtains were always drawn open so daylight flooded everything: the sofas that were nicely arranged in the foyer, the chandelier that dangled from the ceiling. Even the gray walls appeared white.
“Asalaam-u-alaikum, baji,” Naseema said entering the house. She slipped off her purse and put it in the kitchen cabinet drawer where baji kept old Jang newspapers with which to clean table tops and bathroom mirrors.
“Wasalaam, wasalaam,” Baji Sajda said. A big screen TV sat next to the refrigerator. When Naseema came to work, Baji was always tuned into Star Plus to watch the Indian drama Ye Rishta Kia Kehlata Hai? What is this relationship called? Once the cable operator had shut down the channel after India blamed Pakistan for the bombings in Mumbai a few months ago. Baji was so upset she called the cable operator. They said they had orders from the higher authority to shut down all Indian channels in Pakistan. But they eventually reactivated the channel when the TRP dipped.
“Baji, did you watch what happened in yesterday’s episode?” Naseema said squatting on the floor beside Sajda. Every day when Naseema came, she would sit at Sajda’s heels and chat for a while before she went to tidy up the three rooms, and then later start the washing machine to do laundry. Naseema had an old TV at her house. The reception was not always good but she got Star Plus if she tweaked the antenna just right.
“Akshara should not have hidden the truth from Nitik,” Naseema said, rotating her bangles on her flimsy wrist. She picked on the gold plating that was chipping at the edges.
Sajda blew away the steam of the chai, misting her glasses. “No, it served him right,” she said.
“Yes, baji, but hiding something so big from your spouse?”
A month ago, Naseema’s husband, Mansoor, came home and told Naseema he had taken a second wife. They were sitting cross-legged on the charpoy, eating the bowl of lentils Baji Sajda had given Naseema to take home for her girl.
Naseema dug her fingers into the rough webbing that stretched on the wooden frame of the charpoy.
“Shameem?” Naseema asked quietly.
Since her husband had started working as a daytime guard at a small garment factory a few kilometers from home, he would come home disgruntled, always picking faults in Naseema. Naseema, you are getting darker, go rub your face with atta. The gravy is bekar, tasteless. Naseema, you have no flesh on your bones. Go Naseema, just go.
Nothing Naseema did pleased him. She saved the chicken breast pieces for him while she and her young daughter sucked on the necks, coaxing out as much juices as they could out of the brittle bones. She even managed to get Baji Sajda to increase her wages, and she used a chunk of it to buy more meat. Mansoor liked mutton, and though his face would light up while his teeth worked on the meat, he never did offer a compliment beyond, “It was good.” And then he began talking about Shameem, who was a seamstress at the factory, how she was so different from Naseema. He was never specific, but insisted she was nothing like Naseema.
“He brought that woman home, baji,” Naseema said.
Sajda muted the television, and Akshara’s pleading silenced. A pained look settled on Sajda’s face as she shook her head in despair. “What a shameful thing. These men privilege themselves, thinking they can take as many wives as they can, disregarding the conditions that make it permissible. Is she an orphan? A widow? Did she lose her husband at war?”
Naseema was well aware of the conditions laid out in the Koran under which a man could take up to four wives. The practice, however, was less common now than it had been during the time of Prophet Muhammad where wars instigated in the name of religion took lives of men, of husbands, and of fathers, leaving women clad in white shalwar kameez mourning and defenseless in their wake. Naseema shook her head.
“I hear them sometimes late in the night laughing in the other room. I hear the sound of their clapping like they’re mocking me. Baji, do you know how that feels, to hear your man laughing with another woman?” Naseema had never felt tired this early in the day. But her words weighed on her slender frame. They sagged her shoulders. A spasm of pain pushed against the small of her back. Her hair was coiled into a thick braid. She slid it down her chest and picked at the split ends.
“He’s keeping her in the house?”
Naseema nodded. She peeled a strand and tossed the braid back.
Last night, Mansoor snapped at Sairah, their 6-year-old daughter, for not listening to his new wife. He grabbed Sairah’s hand and shook her until her face grimaced and tears formed in her tiny eyes. “You answer when she tells you to do something, you hear me?” he said.
Saira just stood there crying.
“Do you hear me,” he repeated loudly. Even his new wife was a little shaken to see his face all red and angry.
“Jee baba,” Sairah had whimpered.
Naseema looked up at Sajda. “I don’t want to live with that man. I don’t know what has happened to him. He was a good man when we got married. He’s my late uncle’s son. Oh baji, what am I supposed to do?”
Sajda sipped the last of her chai. She held the cup against the edge of the table top and with a sweep of her hand, slid the crumbs of Marie biscuit into the tea dregs. Her dupatta trailed on the floor behind her as she walked to the sink.
“Pray Naseema. Allah will make everything right again,” Sajda said as she pressed the foamy sponge into the cup. She turned on the faucet and rinsed the cup and saucer and stuck it in the dish rack to dry. With the edge of her dupatta, she patted her hands.
Naseema exhaled deeply and got up. There was a lot of work to do. She had better get started. She hung her dupatta on the swinging door handle of the kitchen door.
“Where should I start baji?”
“Why don’t you do the dusting of the lounge, and then my bathroom.”
Naseema knew how to dust. With a damp cloth, she whacked the white grilles that barred every window three times and then swept the cloth up and down each bar. Whack whack whack. Sweep. As she whacked, the sounds of her husband and his new wife’s laugh echoed back. She had made up her mind. She was going to separate from him, and take her daughter with her until he divorced his new wife. Until then Naseema thought she could live in the attic of Baji Sajda’s house. Margaret, a plump woman with an ample bosom who worked in the house next door, lived in her Baji’s house and went home during the weekends. She had told this to Naseema one day as they both were cleaning the floor of the balconies of their Bajis’ homes.
It was not unusual for the cleaning ladies to stay with their Bajis. And Naseema had already begun entertaining the idea of living with Baji Sajda, whom she knew needed companionship. Amjad Sahib was renovating the factory and was very busy these days surveying and ordering new machinery for his mill. Naseema’s baba told her when she met him last weekend. Naseema had intended to share with her grief with her father, but seeing baba’s slouch, her strength failed her. So Naseema kept her worries to herself. She was at least glad that Sairah, and Baji Sajda’s 10-year-old daughter, Hania, got along well. Naseema had brought Sairah with her to work one day and Hania, after coming home from school, spent the day reading with Sairah. That night Sairah proudly showed her father that she had written her name in English.
Naseema noticed dirt encrusted where two of the bars met. She rubbed it vigorously with the cloth but the bar didn’t wipe clean. She scratched the bar with her nail, and then realized that it wasn’t dirt. The white paint of the bar had chipped and now exposed the rusted metal beneath like an open wound.
After Naseema finished dusting, she made the beds and swept the floor. She was on her haunches, sliding the phool jaaro across the marble floor when Sajda called her from the other room.
“Ayee, Baji,” she called back.
Sajda was standing beside the large bed that took much of the space in the room. Bright colored shalwar kameez were arrayed on it, and Sajda was sorting through them.
“Come, Naseema. See if you like any of these clothes.”
Naseema smiled and a flush crept up her cheeks. She had seen bags full of Baji’s old clothes up in the attic when she went to do dusting a few days before because Baji said cobwebs were everywhere. She wanted to ask baji then if she would be kind enough to give her some of the clothes.
Naseema picked up an orange kameez trimmed with a broad strip of black satin, and held it in front of her body. It reached down to her shins and could easily fit two of her. But she had seen young women in the Hedri bazaar wearing long and loose kameez.
“They are all very nice, baji.”
“There are some that will fit your daughter too.” Hania had already outgrown her old shalwar kameez.
Sajda stacked the clothes together and put them in a large plastic bag. She knotted the bag until it ballooned. “Don’t forget to take these home. What is it Naseema?”
Naseema shifted her feet. “Baji, you said a few weeks back you wish to keep me here for the nights and that I can sleep in the room upstairs.”
Sajda smoothed the crease in the bedspread. “And I still need you here. It would be nice if you could help clean up. Especially the weekends, when Amjad’s sisters visit.”
Naseema’s face lit up. “Then Baji, I will come tomorrow with my daughter and a few clothes. Just until my husband divorces that woman.”
Naseema knew that Baji Sajda was hesitant to keep her housekeepers overnight. On the first day she started work, gatekeeper Rafeeq told her about the previous maid who was caught stealing money from the house. And that maid worked only during the day.
“How do you know this?” Naseema had asked, careful to drape the edge of her dupatta over her nose.
Rafeeq sat outside his quarters built just inside the gates of the house. A charpoy, a small television set and a pedestal fan took up all the space.
“The cook told me,” he said rubbing his beard. His jaws worked on the chewing tobacco he put in his mouth.
“You have to be careful of who works at your house, no? They showed on T.V. yesterday that some men robbed a house in this area with the help of the cleaning lady who worked there. A young man had the owner at gunpoint while the rest swept through the house. Jewelry, money, everything.”
He clucked his tongue, touching his ears with exaggerated repentance. “Tauba, tauba.” Naseema never talked to Rafeeq again.
Naseema’s elderly father worked at Baji Sajda’s husband’s flour mill, and it was he who had told Naseema’s baba that he needed a maid. Naseema’s baba was one of the most trustworthy men at Amjad’s flour mill, always on time, working diligently. He was loyal to Amjad, and addressed him respectfully as sahib. When Naseema’s mother passed away a few years ago, he took up the quarters in the roof of the flour mill that Amjad had had built for the laborers who wished to stay there. Naseema worked at Baji Nadia’s house then. But after his baba told her that sahib needed a maid at his house, she requested Baji Nadia for her wages the very next day and counted the rumpled bills in her hands before tucking them in her bra.
Naseema unlocked the front door of her small house. She lived in a shanty town where small houses with thatched roofs were scattered on the unpaved land. The dwellings seemed neglected. The paint of the walls was flaking, revealing the drab cement underneath. The houses were linked to the next with clothesline on which people hung their washing. Brightly colored kameez and shalwar and dupatta billowed out in the open air, filling it with the salty smell of laundry soap.
She pushed open the door in the wall of her house to a small sitting area. A rusted T.V. sat in the corner beside a pedestal fan. On the charpoy, Sairah lay with a coloring book open in front of her. Baji Sajda had given the coloring book and crayons. A lady who lived a few houses down held classes for reading and writing for the children of the shantytown where Sairah spent four hours every afternoon. A crayon slipped through the webbing as Sairah got off the bed, her face bright.
“Amma, look what I made,” Saira bounced on her feet, waving the coloring book in her hand. Naseema bent down and rubbed the red color from her daughter’s nose and pinched it lovingly.
Just then Mansoor came out of the bathroom. He hadn’t gone to work, said his stomach was upset after eating the spicy lentils. His other wife had made it.
He had his shirt lifted and was knotting the strip of fabric that held his shalwar at the waist. A thick line of dark curling hair ran up from his deep navel. He scratched his stomach and looked at Naseema.
“Baji Sajda said she needs me at the house at nights,” Naseema said, then pinched her lips together. I need to be at Baji Sadia’s house. I need to be.
Her husband locked his fingers behind his head and looked at Naseema. There was something in the way he looked at Naseema. His eyes were not cold like they had been a couple days ago when Naseema barged into the other bedroom where he and the new wife sat on the floor talking and laughing in raucous voices. She demanded the woman to answer why she was doing this. “Mansoor’s life is already stitched together with mine.” She turned to Mansoor, dropping herself at his feet. “Have I not given you my heart, my body, a beautiful pari fairy? Our Sairah? She’s so young.” His forefinger drummed on his knees. Naseema touched his hand but it didn’t curl around hers the way it once did when Naseema needed reassurance. It sat limp and lifeless. His palm in hers. She looked at the new wife, the sautan, the co-wife. But she, too, said nothing and kept her head down. Naseema wanted to yank her hair then till it parted from her scalp. She wanted to gouge her eyes out, leaving her sockets bare, claw at her flesh, every area of skin exposed. She wanted to drain her youthfulness and drink it whole.
“What are you doing? Naseema. Naseema!”
Naseema had her hands on the wife’s shoulder. They were shaking the woman, spilling tears from the wife’s eyes.
Mansoor shoved Naseema. “Get out. Go, Naseema. Jao.” Feeling humiliated, Naseema got up. She clasped her bangles to stop them from jingling. Before she hurried out of the room, she turned back. Mansoor had clasped the wife’s hand. It was trembling. Her palm in his.
But today Naseema saw gentleness in his gaze, as if it were creating distance between the two of them, merely to gauge the effect, merely to see how far he could distance her.
“You’ll take Saira with you?” he said after a while.
Saira was picking up the crayons off the floor and stuffing them in her bag.
“You’re going to be away all day. Who’s going to look after her?”
He shook his head, his eyebrows creased. “No, no, you take her.”
Mansoor nodded to himself as if understanding that this would work well for the three of them.
As Naseema went to the kitchen to feed Sairah, she pressed her damp palm to her chest. In the silence, she could hear her wild heart pounding inside her.