“Lily, are you done with the chicken?” My mom-in law asked on the top of her voice from her bedroom.
“Yes Ma, it’s all done. I have simmered it,” I replied.
“Okay; once you are done fry the shami kebabs”
“And don’t forget to check the hall. Especially the sofa. I asked Tania to change the cushion covers.’’
“Okay, Ma. I’ll do that.’’
It’s late afternoon on a nice weekend and I could see the sun yawning and moving slowly to the west spreading a tint of golden yellow everywhere. Our house is filled with the aroma of pulao, shami kebabs and other delicacies. It’s nothing unusual to have guests for dinner on weekend nights here in Dhanmondi. This plush neighbourhood always exudes the air of festivity during the weekends. One can easily hear the departing conversations between the host and guests with an occasional laughter creating a rhythmic pause.
I finished with my cooking and went to the living room to see if all other arrangements were properly made, despite failing to find the slightest necessity of doing this. Our guest today is totally aware of the fact that this house is a well-organized, plush one that complements the class consciousness of the people residing here.
“So everything is set?” My mom-in-law came out her room while fingering the pleats of her sari to arrange them – a last moment touch-up of course. It was the funniest question I’ve ever heard. It seemed as if we were going to have a matchmaker coming with a potential groom and his family for a matrimonial discussion regarding Tania, my sister-in-law.
“Yes Ma, all done,” I said.
“Great!” She showed me a thumbs-up and received a dry smile in return.
“You also go and freshen up,” she volleyed the instruction to me, glided towards the sofa and made herself cosy. The whole thing seems quite strange to me. In fact, I’m not sure what’ll be the perfect word – absurd? Weird? The way everything is going would give anyone an impression that it is a normal dawat or dinner invitation that usually happens in this house. But it’s not.
I was having this stream of weird thought when the doorbell rang. I knew it was my duty to open the door now, so I rushed to do so. There she was! The person responsible for all mundane chores in this house and the guest tonight.
“Assalam walekum, Bhabhi,” said Rahimar Ma or Rahima’s mother. Her identity is restricted in two aspects in this world. Her work and her motherhood. That she is our domestic help and mother of Rahima. None of us ever bothered to ask her name. Never did we know her daughter Rahima but kept on calling her Rahimar Ma for years. I knew it seems a bit strange for this family to invite their maid with her family for a post-Eid dinner but this is what was truly happening today.
“Come in,” I smiled genuinely. But Rahimar Ma and her family was not prompt enough. The restlessness of her eyeballs along with the rubbing of her palms didn’t miss my sight. I felt it was more for her family than herself. She could not fathom the mystery behind such generosity where my mother-in-law ‘invites’ only her family for a formal dinner. She stepped in with her husband and children, all of them clad in their best clothes trying to look decent if not stunning.
“Assalam walekum, Khalamma,” said our maid’s husband to my mom-in-law before Rahimar Ma could say anything. He was earnestly showing respect to my mom-in-law but a frown of disapproval appeared on Rahimar Ma’s face. She was well aware what kind of address would be appreciated by her employer. Something that never made her feel old. But my mom-in-law smiled gracefully and greeted all of them.
They were all welcomed and asked to settle down while my sister-in-law rushed out of her room, with her nude make-up, carrying a new Nikon camera. “Oh no! I think I missed the entry,” she regretted sincerely. Our guests looked to each other and then gave us a baffled look. Tania was about to request them to go out of the main door so she can take some snaps of their entry but mom-in-law’s raised eyebrows and pursed lips prevented her.
It all started with Mrs. Khan posting her photo of the ‘Rice bucket challenge’ in the social media where she gleefully posed offering a bucket full of rice to a beggar. The composition of the photo was awesome where the blue sky in the background contrasts with her forest-green sari. But my mom-in-law would be the last one to copy Mrs. Khan. Hence the idea of inviting Rahimar Ma with her family for a post-Eid dinner popped up in Tania’s mind. She had recently emerged as a blogger and nowadays spent a lot of time in the internet; much more than she spends in a beauty salon.
We all settled on the sofas while Rahimar Ma remained standing.
“Hey, what happened? Why are you standing?” asked my mother-in-law.
“It’s okay madam! How can I sit along with all of you? I am fine here only.”
But my mom-in-law with her unique smile managed to convince her. Finally, she sat on the sofa flanked by my mom-in-law and her family and Tania got her perfect frame to click.
After the initial greetings there was a prolonged silence. No one knew what to talk about. The younger girl Sabina sat on the sofa diagonally opposite to me. Her sight was gliding through the room and lowered down each time it met mine. Being her age, curiosity was her second nature. It seemed she wanted to look around and talk but could never overcome her shyness. I noticed her looking at the collection of books in our living room with much interest.
“Do you want to go and have a look?” I asked. “You can go and see.” But the girl was very shy and just nodded her head saying no. There was almost a pin-drop silence when suddenly Rahimar Ma’s husband broke it and began to talk about themselves. It started with common courtesy questions and quickly shifted to their issues; their daily routine, their past, how they ended up settling in a slum in the city although his father was a farmer. My mom-in-law seemed to take interest in it and by the time we reached the dining table she was having a decently engaging conversation with Awal, our maid’s husband.
“But it is good that now more or less you’re settled with your own family,” my mom-in-law said.
“What to say, Khalamma,” Awal began his dialogue exuding an air of real concern. “With my meagre income as a plumber we can hardly make both ends meet,” he said.
“But Rahimar Ma is also working and I believe the salary we provide her is quite competitive,” said my mom-in-law.
Rahimar Ma made a weird sound with her palate as if she was about to say something but her husband left no scope for her to do so.
“What to say, Khalamma!” he picked up again from where he left. “Room rent in the slum has gone high….”
“Oh is it so?” this time my mom-in-law interrupted. “I see. Lily can tell it better. Her parent’s house is in the adjacent area of your slum, right Lily?” she turned towards me.
I was looking through our living room window to our next door neighbour’s house. His little boy was making a wall with his set of blocks. It seemed quite sturdy and appeared unbreakable. I turned towards my mom-in-law and just nodded as I had become immune to her covert sarcasm by now. I rather concentrated on the younger girl’s smile – a little smile that epitomises innocence, curiosity and embarrassment. A little smile that was rewarded to me for my effort to befriend her.
“What to say, Khalamma!” Awal continued, “Nasima was stubborn enough to put our daughters in school. There’s no government-run school in our area, so I had to ….”
“Who’s Nasima?” snapped my mom-in-law.
“It’s my name, madam,” replied Rahimar Ma with a coy look.
For the first time we heard her name. For the first time her identity moved beyond her wedlock, motherhood or her work. For the first time we got to know that Rahimar Ma or Rahima’s mother is a person who has, among other possessions, a name. I didn’t know what caused her husband calling her by name which is unusual for people of his socio-economic background. Was it the enlightenment of a progressive mind caused by exposure to NGO activities or just a copying of the people who belong to a higher tier in society than him?
“She always wants to make her daughters educated. She always says that it is very important for girls to have education. I always tell her that it is extra cost for poor people like us to get education,” he paused for a breath. “I always tell her that they are daughters, just marry them off”. My mom-in-law was listening with her eyebrows raised and a smile that looked snide rather than warm.
“There’s no government or NGO-run school in the area so I had to put them in a private one. You know those schools. The fees won’t mean anything for you but for us it is exorbitant,” Awal didn’t allow himself to breathe.
“At least in the government schools they provide stipend for girls but here even that is not possible. No chance at all.” Awal was nothing but a bottle of cola that someone has shaken vigorously and opened. All his sorrows, concerns and plight were gushing out although with a little pinch of greed in it.
“Oh she is absolutely right,” my mom-in-law replied. “Girls should always have proper education even if they do nothing and get married. In fact, they can have a better groom. Girls don’t need any great family background or financial status to get an eligible groom. All they need to have is a decent face and proper education and they can become the queen of such a house.” She waved her hand around the room and looked at me, “Right Lily?”
I was again looking through the window where the little boy added two more tiers of blocks to his wall. It’ll be hard to dismantle the wall for anyone. I passed the shami kebabs to Sabina, the younger daughter of our maid. She gave a coy look at me and smiled. The poor girl was shy even to eat the delicacies; as if she was not worth it. Mom-in-law continued to talk.
“My husband and my son went to meet Lily before their wedding and chose her. She was a very good student.” Awal looked at me and nodded with a great sign of appreciation, unable to decipher my mom-in-law’s dialogues. “So you should never stop your daughters’ education.”
The dinner came to an end amidst similar conversation and of course with a big burp from Awal. Tania brought in the gifts and my mom-in-law handed them over to Nasima’s family, which was again an idea of Tania who kept on clicking photographs. A cheap printed shirt for Awal, a georgette sari for Nasima and salwar kameez sets for Rahima and Sabina which otherwise Tania would have termed ‘tacky’; everything was captured in her camera. Our maid constantly kept on saying that it was not needed.
“Why did you take such trouble madam?” she asked. My mom-in-law just smiled enough to exude her benevolence. They were all walking to the door when for the first time little Sabina said something.
“Can I have copy of the photos?” She could just utter those words while rolling the end of her mother’s sari in her finger and it almost sounded like a whisper.
Before anyone of us could reply, Tania responded gleefully saying, “Oh, I’ll upload them all in the social networking site so that everyone can see it. You can see it too. Hundreds of people will see you there and you’ll become famous.” The little girl stared at her and then looked at her mother who seemed puzzled too.
‘Thud’! I heard a small noise and turned to our neighbour’s house. The little boy was standing in the middle of a heap of blocks. His strong and sturdy wall was broken by a cat jumping on it. I turned to Sabina and smiled. “I’ll print your photos and send them to you.” Those were the only words I could muster and tell her.