‘I will call you Tooba. Tarannum sounds too …’ the baji’s voice trailed off, but her silence had said more than her words ever could.
Doesn’t sound like a maid’s name, the girl completed the woman’s sentence in her heart.
Just then, the woman’s cellphone rang and the girl watched as she picked it up with her delicate, fair hands, and started speaking in English. The girl loved the sound of English and observed closely, picking up familiar words here and there, tucking them into her memory, the way she collected shells at the dirty, garbage-filled beach her Abba took her to on Sundays, hoping to string them in a necklace someday.
‘Okay …’ the baji said, clicking off her phone and turning to where the girl sat on the floor. She looked distracted for a second, trying to remember the name she had given the new maid.
‘Tooba,’ the girl supplied helpfully.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ the woman said. ‘Saima,’ she bellowed, and a stocky, middle-aged woman appeared almost instantly. ‘Now listen, Tooba. Saima here is my oldest maid. She will show you the work around the house. You can share her quarters. Now look, I didn’t argue about the salary, so you must not give me a reason to cut any. No going outside without my permission; no talking to the cook or driver. I want you to take a bath every other day. There is a water problem, so don’t get carried away, okay? One bucket per bath for all servants. And most importantly, trust. My things … any of my things … better not go missing. Understand? Okay, now go.’
The girl got up, thinking, same rules everywhere. She wondered if there was a baji rule book they all followed religiously. She placed her hands on the cold floor to raise herself and was about to follow the tough-looking Saima, when the baji called her back.
‘Tooba,’ she said, and at first the girl, unused to the new name, continued to walk.
‘Girl, are you deaf?’ the older maid nudged her. ‘Hah?’ The girl turned around to see the baji looking irritably at her as she ran her fingers through her long, expensive-looking hair.
‘I almost forgot,’ the baji said, looking sternly at her as if it were her fault, ‘Hand over your cellphone.’
The girl looked at her toes. Hard and stubby with chipped red polish that looked more angry than stylish.
She looked back up to the baji’s hand, outstretched and impatient. ‘Hurry up,’ she said.
The girl continued to look down.
‘Listen, I will give it to you if you need to call home.’ ‘Baji,’ she began, ‘I … I…’
The woman leaned forward in her chair. ‘Look, I don’t allow any affairs-shaffairs, okay? Now hand over the phone and go.’
‘I don’t have one,’ the girl said without looking up.
The woman stared at her in silence for a good few seconds before she spoke.
‘Listen, if I find one on you, I’ll fire you without pay!’ The baji’s face took on a hard, impenetrable quality and for a moment the girl considered surrendering it. But then she thought, What if he calls?
The first thing the girl did as soon as they left the baji’s room was to ask for the toilet. There, she squatted down on the floor, putting her phone on silent, and rolled it into the waistband of her shalwar. She wondered if he would call. Their eyes had met, however briefly, in the car ride here, and she had made sure she gave her number out loud to the agent before stepping out of the car.
The baji had sent her driver to pick them up when the maid provider couldn’t find the address. And in the car, he had locked eyes with her in the rear-view mirror, of that she was sure. She chewed her chadder, partly covering her face, but when she got off the car, she had turned around to look.
Shift, shifty, shiftiest.
It took barely a few days for him to text her. And not surprising, for she had seen him stare at her when she went out to the terrace to dry the laundry.
‘I love u,’ the message read, and she felt a warmth surge up between her thighs. That night, she ducked into the bathroom and locked the door. She ignored the knocking on the door, feigning diarrhoea, as she texted back, ‘I love u 2.’
He rang back.
After ten minutes of hurried whispering, the phone began to beep ‘credit finished’.
The few minutes of talking did nothing for either of them, and so it was that after a few nights, the girl agreed to meet him.
‘About 3.00 a.m., I’ll call you when I’m outside the front door,’ the man had said.
The girl had not thought much about what she was about to do, for she didn’t have much to lose. Her possessions were few and her dignity was stripped every day by taunts and accusations of work not done. Hell, even her name was not her own.
And so it was she told the man: ‘I’ll open the front door and you slip in. That old maid Saima sleeps like a drunk. The baji stays up late watching TV, but she sits with the air-conditioner on, which drowns out all noise.’
Come, coming, came.
And that was how the girl lost her latest job and her latest name too, when one night, possessed by one of her sudden cleaning frenzies, the baji summoned all her staff in the middle of the night. Having come across an unexpected cobweb as she reached for a DVD in the wrought-iron rack, she squawked in terror when, instead of a disc, her hand pulled out a spider.
‘Saima! Tooba!’ the baji screamed as if her very self was under attack. ‘Cook! Houseboy!’ All the servants came running. Only, Tooba could not be found. A thorough inspection led to the girl being found on the formal dining table, under the driver. The cellphone lay guiltily next to them.
About the book:
A young kleptomaniac infuses thrill into her suffocating life by using her abaya to steal lipsticks and flash men. An office worker feels empowered through sex, shunning her inhibitions but not her hijab … until she realizes that the real veil is drawn across her desires and not her body. A British-Asian Muslim girl finds herself drawn to the jihad in Syria only to realize the real fight is inside her. A young Pakistani bride in the West asserts her identity through the hijab in her new and unfamiliar surroundings, leading to unexpected consequences. The hijab constricts as it liberates. Not just a piece of garment, it is a worldview, an emblem of the assertion of a Muslim woman’s identity, and equally a symbol of oppression. Set in Pakistan and the UK, this unusual and provocative collection of short stories explores the lives of women crushed under the weight of the all-encompassing veil and those who feel sheltered by it.
About the author:
Sabyn Javeri is an award-winning short-story writer and a novelist. She is a professor of literature and creative writing in Pakistan. Her first novel, Nobody Killed Her, was published by HarperCollins in 2017.