Hetal woke up with a start. The russet alley cat had playfully jumped onto her tummy from the windowsill. “Hat re Alisha, dhurr,” Hetal chided gamely, maternal love dripping from her doe-eyes as she nuzzled the feline; her only true soul-mate in far away Cairo.
That’s when the enormity of what happened last night hit her like a sharp claw. As if on cue, Alisha mewed sweet nothings to her adopted mistress and began licking Hetal’s ear, swollen to double its size now. At first Hetal winced, but the wet flicks of Alisha’s tongue soothed her wounds -- those gaping on the surface and those festering deep within.
“Meoooww, meeeoowww…” the furry bundle comforted her again and again, but the flimsy dam of self control burst open releasing a deluge of hot, hurtful tears. Rivulets of self pity rolled down her youthful cheeks forming a damp patch on her Kutchi kurti.
Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Hetal tried to fight the sorrow, but it seemed stuck like shrapnel somewhere between her heart and throat in leaden lumps, choking her. The heavy-handed pounding last night had been so sudden, that Hetal was dazed by the impact and couldn’t react till much after Hemesh had slammed the door and walked out in a raging huff. The tip of her tongue soon found the raw gash in her mouth and gently poked the fleshy hollow releasing waves of dull pain that throbbed in sync with her headache.
The flicker of a movement in her stomach brought her back to the now and she realized how hungry she was. Hetal quickly swung her tiny frame off the couch with a “Hey Krishna maaf karna,” heading to the kitchen counter two feet away.
There were a few baladi breads neatly packed in aluminum foil along with some falafel, white onions and green chillies. A half-eaten plastic case of koshari lay in the garbage bin spilling its contents – rice, noodles, pasta and gravy in an ugly red splatter. Hetal felt a wave of nausea rise up to her throat and she ran to the toilet down the sweltering corridor outside.
Her one-room apartment in this cheap Maadi neighbourhood was a steal at 450 Egyptian pounds. So what if she had to share the toilet with her septuagenarian landlady Sabina. It was a small price to pay for the precious gift of companionship in this strange land -- so different, yet, in some ways very similar to her village in Kutch.
“Sab theek hai bachche?” Sabina’s silver mop instantly poked out of her window in maternal concern.
“Theek hai. Shukran Omm Sabina,” replied Hetal, puking out the slimy bile onto the ornate lapis blue sink tiles. The view of the cool Nile flowing serenely into the golden horizon distracted her. Holding the edge of the sink with both hands for support she shut her eyes for a bit, breathing in the surprisingly cool breeze.
Hetal always pictured herself as a white-sailed felucca floating free on those blue waters letting the Nile take charge and guide her to new shores. There was a boatman too, expertly playing the flute with his honey glaze fingers. But she could never quite distinguish his features in the loose brown robe.
The glistening Neel was the other reason why Hetal was quite fond of this dilapidated apartment block tucked away behind the fancy façade of Cairo high-rises that claimed an obscene amount of “Nile view” premium. In comparison, her little oasis of peace and quit in this bustling metropolis was priceless, and gradually she had begun to accept it as “home.” A soft shroud of calm fell upon her and she went back to thinking about food.
Su khao? Bread-butter…. farsaan…???
A sudden craving for her mom’s melt-in-the-mouth dhokla, tossed in crisp fried karipatta and freshly-grated coconut, filled her mouth with saliva and her stomach growled loudly.
Embarrassed, she looked here and there and quickly rushed to her apartment -- #13, talattaasar. Some would say unlucky, but when you’re born on September13, it doesn’t matter anymore. Today was in fact, August13.
“Arre kal toh Puranmasi che,” Hetal calculated realizing to her horror that she hadn’t done a thing in preparation for the pooja. “Ouff Bhagwaan…”
“Kintu pehle dhokla!” The desire was overpowering. For the very first time in her life Hetal felt like cooking something just for herself.
Abandoned, abused and alone at the precipise of uncertainty, she felt reckless, without the slightest tinge of guilt. Strange! What’s happening to me? she smiled through her pain at the absurdity of it all.
“Barabar pauna cup besan, pani, dahi, adrak, teekha mirch, haldi and hing….”
Ma’s sing song voice resonated in her ears and she felt a deep longing for the warmth of her kitchen back home. Hetal fluffed up the mishran nicely with her slim fingers. “Teri bindiya re, aye hai…,” she hummed now transported to a completely different zone; mixing, slicing, roasting, frying, rolling, grating and chopping ingredients to perfection.
The angry knock shook Hetal out of her siesta and she rushed to open the door by habit, almost tripping on her embroidered ghagra. Hemesh did not like waiting at the door. But it wasn’t Hemesh. It was Sabina, with a tray of mint tea and two pieces of pishta-filled baklava.
“Of course,” realized Hetal, “hadn’t Hemesh shouted last night that it was all over. That he had had enough. That…that… he did not love her! That this marriage, forced upon him by his parents, was a lie!”
It took him a whole year to realize this? Why did he ruin my life? What was my fault? What will I do now? What about the baby? When did I fall asleep? Is that dhokla on the plate? What was I thinking?
Hetal was about to collapse when Sabina’s strong hands steadied her onto the couch right next to the open window. The setting sun cast a rani pink glow on Cairo, delineating the city’s concrete core in ethereal hues. A dense sheet of mottled pigeons could be seen flying back to their roof-top lofts in this poorer part of Al-Qahira.
"Kya hua bachche?" Sabina ran her fingers through Hetal’s dishevelled hair, gently massaging her temple. It was like déjà vu. That wisp of girl so many years ago, lost and lonely? Sabina pushed the sepia memory firmly away and coaxed Hetal to sip the refreshing brew and eat something “in her state,” for even though Hetal hadn’t actually told anyone, Sabina had the inherent intuition of an elder in such matters.
Her soft voice and gentle touch loosened the tight knots tormenting Hetal within, and the young mum-to-be for once completely surrendered to the matron’s ministrations, sobbing silently.
The muezzins call for prayer broke the spell of sadness binding the two women huddled together in a small room that summer evening. Hetal vented and Sabina nodded in heart-felt sympathy, feeling the young woman’s pain as if it were her own.
The shattering of fledgling dreams was so familiar. As was the all encompassing hopelessness. The helplessness of a stranger in a strange land. The transience of love. The pointlessness of life itself. And the final trance at the edge of the precipice.
Ahmed had heard everything from the alcove outside. Having shut his prized pigeons in their bamboo shed, he was about to leave for Shisha with his friends when the woeful moaning from room #13 tugged him in. Even though he and Hemesh shared a birthday, somehow, he never warmed up to the shifty-eyed salesman in all these years.
In fact, last year when Hemesh came back from India with his new bride, Ahmed was shocked at the obvious mis-match. She’s so vulnerable, so out of place next to him, he recalled, just like a beautiful gulab in the dreary desert.
Had he said that out loud? he wondered even today, for the bride had blushed a deep shade of red under his penetrating gaze. Hadn’t his own heart belly-flopped when she raised her liquid brown eyes to meet his at this very door? The forbidden moment was etched in his soul like a passionate Persian poem... “because my love for you is higher than words, I have decided to fall silent.”
And now here he was, at that door again…
“Aaaa… Mother…ahem…,” he cleared his throat politely, standing behind the hand-woven Sadu curtain, “I am going out ok. Don’t forget about the festival tomorrow. I am in-charge of the Omm Ali counter okay? Maʿ al-salāmah,” he waved her a cheery good bye.
The festival, of course! exclaimed Sabina, shaking the lethargy off her rotund frame. That’s it.
“Stop moping my child and come with me right now. Get up. Get moving. Yalla, yalla. We’ve got 5 kgs of Omm Ali to prepare. And it’s got to be my very best for the posh palates of the Maadi Expats Club.”
August 14. A new dawn.
Puranmasi and a Sunday. At home in Kutch, this meant a double celebration with heaps of laddoos and Surati Jamun, spicy Kathiawadi Undhiyu and generous helpings of golden khandavi. Hetal woke up from this pleasant dream at first light with a heady feel, all set for her ritual bath before entering the kitchen to make prasad for the pooja. Last night, the Omm Ali had taken a full two hours to prepare with all the chit chat and laughter. Sabina was overly lavish with the nuts and raisins, for “wasn’t it her pretty daughter’s first traditional bread pudding!”
The result was mind blowing. Hetal had gobbled up a full bowl of creamy pudding swiping the sides of the bowl clean just like she used to when Ma made kheer-puri. Sabina felt a sudden catch in her throat looking at the innocence in those big brown child-like eyes. Weren’t they just like Alisha’s when she had first taken the battered mongrel in: heavily pregnant and disoriented.
Unashamedly, Hetal had gone on and asked for a second helping smacking her lips. Really. What is wrong with me? she did wonder, but only for a second before devouring the sweet dish greedily.
The florescent pink “Helper” tag next to the camel leather saddle read 12 noon, which meant she still had four hours before the dishes were to be loaded onto Ahmed’s yellow Volkswagen. We’ll get a full hour to set up our stall, Ma Sabina had chuckled, grating soft green pistachios for the final flourish.
With nothing much to do but wait, Hetal sensed her mind once again beginning to wander down the dark road to gloom. She could feel tears stinging the back of her eyes and a slow sadness strangling her. Celebrate? Celebrate what? The end of my life? How will I ever face anyone like this? A burden. A big zero. Hetal was breathless. Her hands automatically clutched at her throat in despair.
Right then, her Samsung buzzed to life. O palan hare, nirgun aur nyare, tumre bin hamra kauno nahin…
Hai, tsked Hetal annoyed, why had her otherwise docile mom insisted on putting this old filmi bhajan as her caller tune, when SHE really wanted kyonki tum hi ho… Prude. The bhajan and this gaudy pic of laddoo Gopal.
“Preeti.” The name flashed incessantly on the screen and Hetal pressed “talk” taking a deep breath to calm her jangled nerves.
“JSK Hetalben kem cho, maja ma?” her classmate from the Bharat Culture Centre in Zamalek cackled. “Pehlee toh, Heyppy, Heyppy Puranmasi Hetu,” she gushed, moving on straight to the point. “Ek favour ne. Please, please, please. Can you make some snakes and meet me at the Maadi Club for lunch?”
“…Indian dignitaries coming… cook made a mess… phika matri… Oh My God… bekaar dhokla… lose my job…”
By now Hetal was quite used to Preeti’s last-minute food emergencies. But this one looked particularly serious. Without even contemplating her own situation, she whispered, “Okay, okay… calm down. I’ll see what I can do.”
How about kali mirch-ajwain matri, while the peas and potatoes boil for the samosa filling? And some Chakli? No, no, that’ll take too much time. What’s for meetha? I think Gurpara will be nice with a pinch of sauf and some rice kheer, too.
Hetal’s mind was racing madly amid the sizzle and steam. Every minute was precious. Even the packing was crucial, so she dug out ornate silver gota mawa boxes that she had saved. Also the white metal dry fruit bowls. They looked exactly like silver, she marveled.
At 11 am, when Sabina peeped in chanting “yalla, yalla,” all decked up in a satin abaya and rhinestone hijab, Hetal was ready and beaming. She too had dressed up traditionally in her favourite chaaniya-choli; its large round Kapadvanj mirrors dangling gracefully by the side of her still slim waist. She had specially got this expensive Kharek-embroidery piece from Ranga Rang in Amdavad.
The Omm Ali stall was a huge success. The goodies were swiped off within the hour by eager Nuniz-toting expat housewives and the diplomats couldn’t stop gushing over the lip-smacking Indian snacks.
Hetal had never felt so good. The handshakes and the applause were intoxicating. She was delirious with joy and felt a little unsteady on her feet when Preeti rushed up to her and scooped her in a girlie embrace. Round and round they jumped in glee like little school kids.
Is all of this for real? Can this moment never stop? This must be a dream, Hetal gingerly smiled. Something glittered in the grass distracting her. Once. Twice. Yes there definitely was something there. Half buried in the soft mud.
Ahmed and Hetal reached out for it at the exact same instant. Their hands brushed lightly, seconds before Ahmed pulled the bauble out, grinning boyishly. An awkward moment passed before he realized it was a pendant in Arabic.
What does it say? Hetal stuttered, furiously blushing again despite herself.
Ahmed reluctantly plucked his gaze from the mesmerizing doe-eyes to the totem in his large honey-glaze hand, and offering the pendant to Hetal said: “Alhamdullilah!”