by Ayesha Pervez
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.
“Shabo!” he bellowed. “Get me water and turn on the TV.”
I 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. One of them, the second eldest and darkest, shivered momentarily then moved to the light brown water cooler placed on a wooden stool in the corner.
In the next few minutes, the small room was 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,” I cooed, picking up my youngest child and only son.
“Aadi, why didn’t you bring his cigarettes today?” Zunera said as she joined me in the pantry. She curled one hand around Rasheed’s dimpled brown leg and curved the other 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 peed for some time now. Quick, take him, otherwise you’ll be wiping it up if he lets go here.”
I waited in anticipation for the water to boil. I am addicted to tea; I have it when I am happy, angry or sad, I have it whenever I can. 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 Sabir, which I do most of the time.
But on days when I don’t have the money or would use spare change to buy a sponge cake from the kiosk in the market for the children, then it means a couple of abusive words and even a beating.
Today, after I had cleared the dinner plates, Sabir asked me for his pack as usual.
“I didn’t have the money today,” I said calmly.
“Why did you not take it from your bajis?” 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 did you not get it?”
“You should also find some work now, then you can smoke as many packs as you like,” I said with a sudden burst of courage.
“Don’t you speak to me like that, you bitch!” He spat, and then I watched as he backed into the kitchen, picked a steel pot from the bench and flung it at me.
I remember when my husband took a second wife a decade 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 his violent love making between the two of us and that would have spared me some of the time.
That’s why I love my job. I may work only as a maid, sweeping and mopping rich folks’ bungalows and wiping their toilet seats, but being away from home gives me immense relief from not having to see my husband’s despicable face.
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 a buxom actress dancing on TV, or when he receives no resistance from me as he forces his way in.
Which is just about every other night. I wonder why men have such insatiable appetites. Having had ten pregnancies (out of which six children survived), I no longer have the zeal to push another baby out. Hence after Rasheed was born, I begged my doctor to do something so I would not conceive again. She did a procedure, and I remember her telling me that she tied something together. Sabir was very upset and shouted at me when he came to know. The impudence of the man!
After the film had ended, Sabir lifted the snoring toddler wrapped around his stomach and went to his place on the floor mattress, right next to the pedestal fan. There father wrapped himself and son under a sheet and went to immediate and peaceful sleep. Five slim bodies lay some distance away, head to toe under a thin sheet, their small abdomens slowly rising and falling.
Although I woke the earliest, I was always the last to sleep. It was difficult to sleep while our one room quarter was filled with booming music and the giggling of the girls while they played with their shabbily dressed dolls.
And now, when the room was as silent as an empty cave, I realised that I had waited the entire day for this time. And so, making my way to the other side of the room from where Sabir lay against the moaning fan, I nearly tripped over Rasheed’s broken dinky, but when I lay down, I was captivated by instant slumber.
I woke at six in the morning and began making potato curry for lunch, and flat bread. Then I sipped my tea by the single window in our dwelling and watched the sun rise, throwing a loud splash of rust against the white sky.
At my first house, which belongs to a benign lady called Samar, I was dusting the dressing table, when I saw a new bottle amongst all the others I was accustomed to see everyday. It was shaped like a duck but with a longer neck.
“This is new, right, Baji? But why is it shaped like a duck?”
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.”
“Ohhh, is it new? I just saw it today.”
“Yes, your sahib 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, looking around in her purse.
“You get gifts for those days? You’re lucky, Baji,” I said.
Baji stared at me briefly with some sympathy in her eyes. “Is that a bruise on your head?”
I remained silent.
“It is 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,” Baji shouted from her bathroom. I heard bottles being moved around and a cupboard being shut. 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, kia?”
The toddler moved restlessly inside his cot, holding his hands up and making a face as if about to cry.
“Well keep this money and alright, just get done with your cleaning, I have an appointment to keep.” She thrust a single note in my hand and picked up the child.
I envy this baji of mine as much as I like her. She has a nice life. She lives in a nice house, owns wonderful cups and plates and perfumes and has a loving, generous husband who, it seems, has never laid a finger on her.
I gingerly felt the blue bump on my temple as I walked to the next house, which was three streets down. I was not looking forward to it. The miserable old woman in this house is jealous of her daughter-in-law, but since she is unable to do anything about it, she vents her anger on me.
A car stopped beside me and a dark, moustached face popped out of the window. “Hop in, Sanjeeda, You’ll get tired walking,” He was smiling, displaying bright white teeth against fawn lips.
“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.”
I picked up a stone and threw it with all my might at the car. It made a small dent on the rear door.
“Have your way, slut,” he shouted and sped away.
Car drivers like this one tease and offer rides to maids on their way to houses. They often spy on them and even know about their dwellings and family members. Some maids started promiscuous affairs with them while many others, like me, remained wary.
At dusk, when I reached the market of my neighborhood, I saw a man selling gola gandas — crushed ice mixed with coloured sherbets — amidst dirty, barefoot children. Many of the children had luckily gotten some coins for a treat.
I noticed that summer had come in full fling. Sweat flecked my forehead. I fingered the corner of my duppatta 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, to do something for my parched throat. For the sweat I had produced while wiping stained floors.
I unfolded the corner of my duppatta and produced 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.”
Copyright © 2009 by Ayesha Pervez