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Desi Coming of Age Fiction

It had been twenty-four years since she had last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Kadeeja stood on the veranda and looked at the pale golden name plate on which was inscribed ‘1920’. Underneath was the name ‘Kadeeja Manzil’. Slowly she walked in through the huge wooden doors bound with great iron bars. The high ceilinged rooms, the ornate metal fans, the embroidered tapestry on the wall with scenes of fantastic tales, the colored glass panes and the floor of red oxide spoke of a bygone era.

Her father Ibrahim had bought the old mansion when she was four years old. In southern Kerala in a little village called Chengal, Ibrahim the son of a farmer had bought a beautiful old mansion. He had made his fortune during the war. It was said that Ibrahim cursed the Congress and hoped the British would remain in India. Today Ibrahim is no more. He had left for his heavenly abode. His four daughters and two sons were married and settled in faraway lands. The British too had long left for their homeland.

Kadeeja’s mother lived alone in the ancestral home. There was young girl from the village who came over to cook and clean the house. Kadeeja had brought a single suitcase which she had left on the veranda. As she moved from one room to another, as slow smile spread on her face. It seemed but yesterday that she stood beside Kunnammina, her grandmother, as she plucked the ripe pieces of jackfruit. She could still see in her minds eye Kunnammina sitting on a low stool, her foot on the handle of a sickle as she split open the jackfruit on the sharp blade end. She loved the smell of the ripe jackfruit and ate them with relish.

“Stop eating child, your stomach will pain” her mother would call out as she cut the fish for the day. But her grandmother would retort “Eat all the jackfruit and mangoes that you can eat, for it is the season and you will not get it till next season”. The Kitchen was filled with a warm luscious aroma. Thin wiry Asma who ground the spices and filled the spice boxes would regale them with all the local news, the wind dared not change its course lest Asma ferreted out the reason, she worked hard in various houses yet managed to concern herself with the goings on of all the inmates. Rabiya, the sweet grand Aunt, who churned the buttermilk so fast. Kadeeja would watch with fascination as the pale-yellow blobs of butter appeared. ‘’Go, braid your hair, the evil spirits will get into a young girl’s hair if you left untied” Asma called out. “What will the spirit do?” asked Kadeeja. “Why, it will fill you with mischief…” One of the women would reply.

Grandmother was no more. The stone grain grinder, the brick oven, the copper water pot still stood there. There was no one in the kitchen, yet Kadeeja felt that the laughter and songs were all there. With a pang of pain, she turned away. Slowly she walked into her mother Ayesha’s bedroom. Ayesha sat up to see her daughter. Her daughter who had come home after twenty-four years. Ayesha always kept the daily newspaper beside her and she kept looking at it, for she must remember the date. The girl who came to clean complained about the mistress’s loss of memory. The girl was hysterical, rather silly wasn’t she, thought Ayesha…now what was her name…ah never mind.

“Well Kadeeja my daughter, have you come alone? Where is Naseeb?”.

Even though she was seeing her daughter after several years, her memory no longer as keen as before, Ayesha could not disregard the fact that it was appropriate for a married woman to be escorted by her husband. It would be unbecoming for a woman to travel alone. A woman in her mid-forties, a woman who had two grown daughters.

Kadeeja slowly removed her black abaya and headgear. She picked her mother’s lined hands and she raised it to her forehead before kissing both hands fervently.

“Mother, I have come to stay with you” Kadeeja announced. “Is Naseeb on the way? Hasn’t he come with you? Where are the girls?” Ayesha asked. Kadeeja merely smiled.

She walked into the bathroom. It was a large high-ceilinged room next to the kitchen from which you could draw from the well. For a moment she looked at the faded blue tiles on the walls.

Slowly she dropped the old aluminum pail into the water. The brown wet rope felt hard against her fingers. Slowly the pail travelled down the steps of the well. The steps she and her sisters had counted so often long ago.

As she poured the clear water over herself, first to her chest, then onto her long hair she felt an indescribable pleasure. Surely this water surpassed all forms of water. The breeze came through the window bringing in the scent of jasmine. He same flowers that were always by the well side. The colored glass window had a crack. A crack made by a small boy’s catapult. Kadeeja remembered how her brother Ahmed had broken the window pane and remained hidden for the entire day behind the washing stone in fear of having chili powder thrown into his eyes. A punishment quite often mentioned yet never carried out.

Kadeeja poured water over her hair. Absentmindedly she looked at the few strands of white hair. When did they turn white? She looked at her fair plump feet as she poured water over them. Cool water that washed away the dust, the weariness. Her feet were very fair, they seemed stark white against the dark stone bathroom floor.

“The fair girl sleeps on an empty stomach” she remembered her Aunt Mariyah and cousins teasing her. It was a saying in the village that the fairest girl would have no rice boiling on her stove. It meant that her life would be filled with trials. Yet she had found a match without any difficulty. ‘Naseeb’ meant good fortune.

Kadeeja took one of her mother’s old white sari and draped it around herself. The crisp cotton sari caressed her skin. Her suitcase still lay on the veranda.

She walked into her bedroom. The colored glass panes made her smile. She pushed open the windows, letting the sunlight in.

How often had she and her sisters hugged each other, fearful and excited as they saw the shadows shivering on the window panes? Ah, the many spirits that came to visit them.

Kadeeja laughed aloud. The culprit of those shadows still stood there. The great mango tree. It had the juiciest mangoes in the whole world. All six children would climb on the branches.

She had sat in this bedroom waiting for Naseeb on her wedding day. The women looked through the glass windows at the procession. The following day of the wedding she had laughed out loud as a friend came to visit her, the joyous new bride. That night Naseeb told her “Don’t laugh so loud, in fact why do you need to laugh? Just smile”. It all felt now like a dream.

When did she stop singing as she worked in the kitchen? In the years that followed Kadeeja Manzil become a distant memory. Mrs. Naseeb threw herself into her newfound life. In the nights they were two strangers naked together. A woman must never stay alone, she had been told from childhood. It was inappropriate, indecent and dangerous. But then was it alright to be alone even while living with another? That there were truths one did not speak about? Of maids paid to be quiet, of a brother who came on a last visit and whispered ‘’I am sorry’’ for he had heard the appellation by which his sister was addressed as he stood on the other side of her door. Yet as he walked in, the house seemed serene, the man of the house in excellent spirits.

She did not know when her folks stopped visiting her. Until Ibrahim was alive, he and Ayesha would visit their daughter and the two little girls. They would bring mangoes and jackfruit. Naseeb was the perfect son-in-law. Considerate and loving. The bottles of medicine that he would pack for Ayesha, she would distribute as soon as she went back to the village. Kadeeja threw herself into mosque activities, her children’s schooling, the local women’s welfare organization. She never smiled or laughed those days but merely existed.

Then one day Rahmath, her eldest daughter walked in sobbing. “I want a divorce” she cried. Her husband Sherif had hit her, not once. Kadeeja spoke to Naseeb about it. “I will look into the matter but tell her she must behave according to the values of my family honor, moreover the abode of god quakes with horror when a divorce occurs” said he. The years the girls were growing up, they were hers. But at that instant, his family name had to be honored.

Kadeeja felt the scent of jasmine waft into the kitchen as she set the steel pot for tea. The local milk man had dropped two bottles of milk. She was alone now. But strangely the childhood tale did not hold true. No demons come when you are alone. No spirit clutches at hair that is not tied up. Her long-wet tresses proved that. All the stories were just that - stories.                          

The tea was boiling. She added the milk.  A cup of tea for mother, a cup for herself. She sat beside her mother.

“When will Naseeb come?” asked Ayesha. Kadeeja merely smiled. The stubble on his flabby chin flashed before her eyes, reminding her of the underside of a duck. She sat silent for a minute. She looked out into the courtyard. The hens picking at the grains on the ground. The green mosaic staircase leading to the attic. The window was ajar. A ray of sunlight floated into the room. It rested on the sleeping kitten. A fuzzball of yellow and orange lay on her mother’s prayer mat. Kadeeja Manzil remained the same, the same ray of sunlight shone and that was all that mattered. 

November 16, 2020 20:59

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1 comment

Kevin B
20:40 Nov 28, 2020

Your sensory details are so wonderful. I really felt as though I was there amongst the characters.


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