Tales from a shrinking home

This is a composite of many stories I've heard and seen in my 17 years in Doha. Any resemblance to any person or event is likely to be true; I can only hope I've masked it well. 
As in all works of fiction, truth abounds.

I

There are two little bedrooms, a bathroom and a ‘powder’ room. I giggled, imagining walking into an exclusive little space to dab Cuticura talc under my arms, in the small of back, behind my ears. Then the special Lakme powder for my face.

Ikka wasn’t happy with my giggling fit. Powder room means just half bathroom, he hissed.

But I had made up my mind. That’s where I will powder all my parts, the parts Ikka liked to sniff at through my nightie as I served him his morning tea.

The kitchen was tiny and tiled. Green window frames, and dark glass windows. We didn’t even need a mirror. There were flimsy cabinets above and below the granite slab.

The agent, Ikka’s friend, says the washing machine will go into the bathroom. Washing machine. I cannot quite believe the luxury of it all. A room for my Cuticura talc, two bedrooms for two people, and a washing machine.

There was no car park, but there was plenty of space on the street, the agent pointed out.

Ikka nodded. We had a car. Not the Benz he dreamt of, but a white Nissan Sunny, second hand. Once we save enough for our home, he will buy a Toyota firsthand. It’s easy to get loans here, because you can’t leave the country till you pay it back. He will buy a Benz car when we have enough money. That will have to be a secondhand one, or even third hand.

I believe only Sheikhs have first hand Benz cars.

Ikka has lived here for more than four years, always in ‘bachelor’ room. We got married two years ago, but I didn’t get visa till now. So as soon as I came I stayed in the ‘bachelor’ room with him. One plywood wall halving a small bedroom. One side Ikka, one side an old man who has lived here for 25 years.

The man who rents that house had an old Benz, and he kept the stepney in his hall, chained to the door. He was a Malayalee too, but a Christian and from Bombay, so thought he was better than all of us.

Ikka finally found this two bedroom house for us. We will go to Souq Haraj on Friday and buy furniture. I love my house. My first house.

These Sheikhs use their sofas only for four months, six months if they are not too rich. Then they throw it out and buy new ones. So much money they have, they get bored of keeping it in the bank.

II

The sofa was blue with big brown flowers. There is one where three people can sit, and two one-seaters. But if Ikka’s mother comes she will take up the whole of the big sofa. Her buttocks are bigger than her mouth, and that’s saying something. I can’t tell him that. He thinks his Umma is Khadija herself.

We bought two side tables, and a foldable dining table. We can unfold the table in front of the sofa when we want to eat. The Bengali who sold us that said the Sheikhs take these tables to their tents in the desert, but never bring it back. Then the Pathans go in their trucks and round up all the things left behind in the desert, and sometimes they take things when the people are still in the tent, the Bengali sniggered.  

These Bengalis talk too much. Ikka says India went to war with Pakistan just to create a country of carpenters, barbers and laundrymen. The Bengalis run all the furniture and barber and ironing shops here.

Ikka knows everything about this country. He keeps talking about this and that to me, I will become an expert too.

The Sheikhs trust Malayalees and give them work in their homes and businesses. Malayalis also run all the grocery shops, what they call baqaala here. The Indians do all the other work. Accounts, engineering, and very poor Indians work in all the low class jobs. Ikka says Indians are jealous of people from Kerala. Especially these Indians from Tamil Nadu.

In my village we call those people paandis.

When we went to buy LG TV in Lulu, Ikka got me a saree, in my favourite colour, yellow. It’s Japan nylex the man said. Top quality. So soft. But I can’t wear it out in summer, it’s like wearing plastic.

We now have A/Cs–from Souq Haraj–in every room, but have to be careful using it. Too much money wasted if we keep it running whole day.

We also bought a bed from Souq Haraj. I asked Ikka if the mattress will be dirty, he said the Sheikhs must be bathing in rose water. But I put two bedsheets on it, just in case. They have four four wives, how much they must have used this bed?

Ikka keeps saying we will see, we will see when I ask him about decorating the second bedroom.

III

There is a young boy who rents the second bedroom. He works in the printing press here, doing typesetting work.

He moved in four months ago, and pays 800 riyals. If we give him food, we can increase it to 1200 riyals. That’s nearly half of the rent we pay, Ikka says.

What’s the big problem in cooking for one more person. So I said yes.

Ikka wants to save money quickly and move back to our country. To start a business there. So for just two of us we don’t need this big flat. Anyway, that boy leaves early and comes late. He comes in the afternoon for lunch because he works two shifts. Only now he started talking to me. Chechi this, chechi that.

Fawaz, that’s his name, also brings me old magazines from his company.  Nice boy he is.

IV

Fawaz last month asked if his cousin brother can stay with us for a few days. He came on a free visa and wants to find a job.

Ikka was not happy, so Fawaz said he will pay 200 riyals more and his cousin will stay only for one month.

The cousin, Fazal, got a job in one week itself. He must have paid a lot of money Ikka feels. Ikka told them he can stay here only, they have to pay 1800 riyals together, and if they want the bedroom with attached bathroom they have to pay 2200. The boys said they will use powder room.

I anyway apply Cuticura in the bedroom itself.

Ikka doesn’t like Fazal. He says that boy’s eyes are always roaming here and there, and that he stares at me as if he is a tailor taking measurement for my saree blouse. Ikka is funny, though he doesn’t realise he is.

Ikka feels I should start wearing salwar kameez or if I want to wear saree then put a burkha when that boy is around. Here these people call that abhaya.

Ikka is very modern but traditional. He is nadan-modern, that’s why he wanted a girl who studied in English-medium school. He says all the rich Malayalees when they go back now wear black shiny burkha. Only the very backward people still wear sarees.

V

This Fazal has a very long lunch break. He leaves for work at 6.30 am, but comes back by noon and doesn’t leave till 4 in the evening. After his lunch he naps, then comes and watches TV with me. Three families in this building share one dish antenna. Because we are all from same country, we pay for all the Malayalam channels.

I don’t tell Ikka Fazal watches TV with me. He will get very angry. But Fazal is like my brother. Just like Fawaz. Only thing, Fawaz won’t even look at my face when he talks, but this Fazal is very naughty. He calls me chechi when Ikka is around, but when I am alone he calls me by name.

He is very funny, and he knows it. He really makes me laugh.

These days Ikka is always tired when he comes back, and hardly has time to talk to me. He works very hard. He leaves home at 7 and drives nearly 1 hour to work. I pack his lunch, and he comes back only at 8 in the evening. He tries to do over time, because they get good money, and on those days he comes even later.

Every Friday he takes me out. We usually go to Lulu, to buy all the grocery for the house, and then we have shawarma, then go to one shop in souq where they sell latest Malayalam movie CDs for just 10 riyals. And if you return it, you pay only 5 riyals for the next CD.

VI

It is more than a year and still no good news. Every month when I buy Carefree Ikka looks so sad. He doesn’t know I cry too. When my stomach hurts around that time of the month I keep praying, please let it be food poison, let it be food poison.

At least here I can use Carefree. If I had been in my country then everyone would know when it’s that time of the month, as I have to use cloth and wash and dry it outside. I am lucky that way.

When we go to our country next year we will go for a check up to a lady doctor.

But his umma has the same question every Friday when we call her. What good news, what good news, as if this is Asianet channel.

Last week one evening I went to the terrace because I was feeling so homesick and sad. I speak to my parents only once a month. Fazal had come back early from work, and came up looking for me. He knew I liked sitting on the terrace, in the space between the water tank and dish antenna. The terrace was full of water tanks and dish antennae, but I had one particular corner.

He tried cheering me up. He is very good at imitating people. His boss, cinema heroes, Fawaz. I lost track of time and suddenly I heard Ikka calling out my name from the doorway to the terrace.

He was very angry. Later when he saw me crying he felt bad and hugged me.

After dinner when Fawaz came home Ikka told him that he and his cousin should find another house by the end of the month, we will need the full apartment because we are planning family. I knew that wasn’t true. I know Ikka by now.

Fawaz looked very sad.

VII

Fawaz and Fazal had found two separate rooms not very far from our flat. They will move soon.

When they were at work yesterday Ikka brought a middle-aged man home. He was looking for a ‘share’ apartment. He had a wife and a small son in class 1.

Ikka said now I will not feel lonely and homesick, because Basher bhai’s wife Shabnam will give me company. Ikka and I will move to the other bedroom, as the family will need the attached bathroom.

They will pay most of the rent now. Shabnam and I will make a timetable to use kitchen. Timetable. Like we are in school.

Fazal gave me a tin of Yardley powder as a gift before he left. I hide it in my suitcase.

VIII

Shabnam is very friendly, but now she also started every month, what no news? She also wanted to have another child, but she says some problem in her Ikka’s system. Basher bhai is very quiet. He listens to everything his wife says. He is a driver with a Sheikh, and the sheikh got Shabnam a maid visa though she doesn’t work. She doesn’t even work in this house. I do all the cleaning in the kitchen. They’ve been here for more than 10 years now, and the boy, Ahmed, was born here. He has never been to the country. Never. Shabnam says they just need 30000 riyals more and they can go back forever.

Ikka also says things like that. Every Friday the three of them will talk about what all they will do when they go back. I play with Ahmed every evening, and because I studied in English medium I help him with homework. I sometimes feel he loves me more than he loves his mother.

IX

Next week we are going to our country. We will stay there for two months. Basher bhai was helping Ikka tie the bags with a fat rope. There is one small suitcase and 3 large plastic bags tied with ropes. We will travel by Sri Lankan airlines, because we can take more luggage and it’s cheaper.

Almost everything in those bags are for the demon. Bring Tang, bring Nido, bring Cashews, bring this, bring that.

As if there are not enough milch cows in her town. And cashews? It comes from there only no? But she want to show off that her son got this and that.

He also had to buy a CD player and electric stove. Why does that old woman need so much.

We have to stay in the airport in Colombo for nearly six hours.

Ikka said good thing the tigers are all in the zoo so it will be safe now. Basher bhai and Shabnam laughed, but I didn’t understand the joke. I didn’t even know Sri Lanka had tigers.

Tomorrow Basher bhai’s friend will move into this house. The friend just brought his wife over and they will pay the rent and stay in our room for the two months.

Ikka says that way the full holiday money he can save, and not pay rent here.

I carefully packed the Yardley into my handbag.

X

I cried in the airport, though I was actually very happy to come back. To my own house. My own room. I will miss my mother and father and my sisters.

Basher bhai came to the airport to pick us up. We had only 2 small bags.

When we reached home I realised Basher bhai’s friends were still there.

Shabnam had made dinner for all of us.

Ikka and I will sleep in the hall today.

Ikka explained that Basher bhai has found a villa a little far from the city–45 minutes from Lulu–where even four or five families can stay. The rent will be very cheap. Ikka will have to pay only 800 riyals. There will be a bedroom and one bathroom we share with one more family–I hope not Shabnam, because she is messy.

There was one kitchen on the first floor and one kitchen on the ground floor. The villa had three bedrooms, but the hall was big and was divided into two portions. So five families can stay comfortably, Ikka said. By moving to the villa we can save more.

Next time we go to our country he doesn’t want to come back. He wants to go forever. His mother is old and needs us he says. I wanted to say his mother is healthier than me, she will drive me to my grave first. When we went to the lady doctor, that woman came and kept asking are you sure you checked everything? Is everything working? Is everything clear? As if I am a washing machine. The doctor said there was no problem and sometimes good news takes time.

My sister said maybe Ikka should go to the doctor, and I told Ikka. He didn’t mind, but the demon screamed and cried so much, and said she was having a heart attack. Where is the heart to have an attack, I want to know.

XI

Because we stay so far away now, it takes longer for Ikka to come home. And the Sunny car is giving a lot of trouble. After I cook, I bring the food and keep it in the room. We have a microwave to heat food. I sit and watch TV most of the time. Sometimes Ahmed comes and does his homework with me. He is also very busy because there are two more boys in the house now for him to play with.

I don’t like sitting outside with the other women. The walls are so thin we all know too much about each other as it is. They also keep talking about their children. And to hear each one boast, as if they are the sheikh’s children. The worst is they will look at me as if I am some pity case. No need for this drama in the house, so I sit in my room and watch the drama on TV. Shabnam also changed a lot. She thinks because she lives in a villa her husband rented she is the Sheikha.

I also don’t like going outside the room because Ikka says so many men in the house, I should wear that burkha when I go out. Especially during lunch time and evenings.

One of the other women told me once that Basher bhai doesn’t pay any rent, we all pay his share too. Who knows. Ikka doesn’t want to talk about all that.

Nowadays we go to Lulu only once a month. That’s enough he says, to buy everything. No more sarees also. Ikka thinks abhaya is traditional and fashionable. All the rich ladies here wear it. Actually all the rich Arabi ladies. Then there are those who wear pants so tight, you can see the colour of their panties. The Americans are the ones who dress like Sister Rosa in our village. Ikka says they are so scared of the Arabis, they try to cover everything. But not the women from England.

I want to remind him my favourite colour is yellow, not black. I don’t want to upset him, he works hard, so I don’t tell him anything.

It’s now five years since I came here, the only thing Ikka can talk about is going home forever. Forever.

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Postpartum… (Too short a story)

The cradle rocked ever so gently. Every time the door to the ward opened and a draught rushed in, the curtains swayed apart affording glimpses into other lives.
She lay on her side. Her left hand stretched out under her, as if ready to receive the bundle. Her manicured fingertips graze the metal hinges of the crib.
A baby cries out. Another joins in. And another…
A cacophony of hungry, indignant cries fill the ward.
In a snap her arms curl back into herself, palms resting on the flattened yet flabby stomach.
As other mothers shush and cajole, wincing she turns away from her cradle; her thighs move as if leaden.
It wasn’t an easy labour. The sutures pull and burn, as she clenches… A Kegel frozen in half motion. But she feels no pain; not even discomfort, as she bleeds into her bedding. Nothing was easy.
For a moment there is an eerie quiet. The little ones have been tended to. Ten toes and 10 little fingers, downy hair and pursed lips, wrinkled skin and unfocused eyes… all kissed, swaddled, cuddled and put to sleep.
Then there is one lonely little defiant cry. A sharp pain shoots across her engorged breasts. She chokes back a sob even as her pillow grows damp. She squeezes her eyes shut blocking out the smells and cries that were not hers to reach out to…
I gently open the door letting in another draught, hoping the cradle wouldn’t creak for the emptiness needs no reminding. I slip away from my dark corner wanting no part in her grief.