In the dim light glimmering from an oil lamp, Mother saw an unusual sight — a pout and a frown on Fatima’s angelic face. Mother was unable to digest the rarity of the event — Fatima was behaving irascibly, and that too for a new frock? She never behaved this way, what has happened to my little girl, Mother wondered in suppressed anguish. Adding to her surprise worry here was the strange insistence of her girl on not providing any convincing reason for so extravagant an expense. Why, forget convincing, Fatima insisted that she need not provide any reason at all, and that she wanted a new frock for the upcoming wedding reception simply because she wanted it.
Mother stared, in darkness and silence now, at the only light in her life, all of eight years old. Fatima, to her, was the most beautiful girl in the world, and certainly her only pretty daughter. Her two other daughters looked — and, to her utter chagrin, behaved — like her inexplicably arrogant husband, who, in her mind, was hardly a man to admire; average, unaesthetic looks, uncouth demeanour, and always annoyingly loud. Fatima was her daughter, meaning that Fatima was like her, in every regard. Even before the pain of labour had settled, Mother had gathered a firm conviction that her then-newborn Fatima had her face, her eyes, and that she will certainly go on to have her heart. In moments of anguish, she would hiss at her husband: “Your daughters are annoying me so much!” As she sat staring at Fatima’s furrowed eyebrows now, she realised she had never said the same about Fatima. In fact, at all times, and to whomsoever she spoke, she referred to Fatima as ‘meri bachchi’ — my daughter, with a possessive emphasis on ‘my’.
Mother knew she will have a hard time asking money from her husband to buy Fatima a new frock; the man would be furious. But, she told herself, I cannot make my daughter cry.
“Why are you not telling me the reason you want a new frock for, Fatima?” Mother tried again.
“I don’t ‘want’ a new frock, I need one. I have nothing worth wearing to the party!” screamed Fatima.
“But, Fatima, none of us do! We will all be wearing old clothes. The wedding is not in our family, and we will just be like any other average guests there…”
“I want a new frock, Ma. Otherwise I am not going. And, I am going,” Fatima said gravely.
As Mother gasped, the power came back on, and suddenly there was so much work to get back to.
In a narrow, winding lane of the Old City, three houses were festively lit up. All three belonged to one extended family. The eldest son from one of these families was to be wedded this week, and every house in the lane was abuzz with activity and excitement. It had to be so; each house in the lane was home to the same families for generations; nobody was new here. A wedding in any one of the many families meant gala time for all, especially children and women. The old men wouldn’t be so moved, but the younger men, the boys, would always be thrilled about dancing and bursting firecrackers. The women would huddle every day to discuss the newest shopping gossip, and the children would be animated about how much they would get to play together, and what all they would play.
The house Fatima lived in was a one-room temporary set-up on the premises of the most prominent feature of this lane: the Mosque. All adults in her family were servants, most of them employed with the groom’s family, immediate and extended. Her father worked as a peon in a government office. Fatima did go to school, but it was a government school, which made her day life terribly devoid of excitement. Her only thrill was the daily but brief brushes with one boy, a neighbour of hers, who lived in an imposing four-storey house just opposite the Mosque.
From her window, the only window in her house, Fatima could see the boy go up and down the stairs of his bungalow. If she craned her neck hard, she could see him standing on the terrace, alone, always alone, busy doing not a thing. Fatima found him the cutest thing alive, she told her friends this, but only the friends who would never come home or befriend her sisters.
Because, in the neighbourhood, nobody knew she crushed on him, except, of course, the boy himself, for she always gave him the brightest of her smiles. But Fatima wondered if the boy even knew. He never returned her smile the same way, although he never ignored her greetings either, returning them always with a coquettish smile; or a blush, was it?
At the wedding, thought Fatima, I will find out anyway, because every boy and girl and guest and host will come together at the ceremony – there would be no walls between her and her crush. At previous social dos, Fatima had noticed that the boy was always immaculately dressed, as if he were a gentleman. Not just were clothes fancy, they were also invariably new. Fatima knew that this time, she would have to wear a new dress, an attractive one, something similar to the bright, shoulder-less frocks the boy’s sister wore to such gatherings.
“I’ll be President Lincoln because I know about President Lincoln. You didn’t even know he existed until I told you. Why should you get to be him?” the boy, with only a mild anger perceptible in his voice, questioned his brother. He was holding his new toy car named Lincoln, and was trying to explain the significance of the game to his younger brother, who thought it was just something fun to do until the power came back on.
Before his brother could say anything, his mother barged into their room, and, giving him a cold stare, asked for the umpteenth time: “What will you be wearing to the wedding, son?”
“Mummy, I told you, I do not know. Just pick anything; please?”
“What do you mean, pick anything? And don’t make that face! I bought you three new sets of clothes for Eid. Tell me how many of them have you worn already, or have you worn all of them?”
“Mummy, I really don’t remember. Please ask Naani, no?”
“Ugh! This child!”
Fatima sat in the cycle-rickshaw smiling, with her mother by her side, on the way to the garments market in the busiest part of the city. Mother noticed how Fatima’s eyes always got glued to anything bright. How could she possibly break a heart this young, this beautiful, she asked herself.
When she was Fatima’s age, she loved blue, green, and orange; all bright hues. She used to ask for lovely new frocks too, but she was never given any. Fatima’s father was indeed furious, but my Fatima is worth any measure of quarrelling, Mother told herself. A sharp pain shot up her tired back every time the rickshaw survived a pothole, but she didn’t curse. She usually would, but this day she was preoccupied with the fear that Fatima is growing up, and that her needs, her material needs, may soon traverse the boundaries of their meagre finances. She couldn’t bear the thought of Fatima losing her vigour the way she lost hers, growing up in a family of servants.
She was already tired from fighting off the wails of her other daughters, all of whom demanded to know why Fatima would be getting a new dress for the wedding when none of them had any better. To her elder daughter she made the appeal of sacrifice. “What have I not done for you? Can you not do this much for your little sister?” she asked. To her younger daughter she gave a mild reprimand, reminding her that she didn’t even want a new frock until now and was just cribbing out of envy. “You wanted chocolates, I promised you I will get them, didn’t I? So just shut up and give me some time.”
This was thoroughly unfair, Mother knew. But, she would do this for Fatima, and Fatima alone. As she walked into the shop where the old man knew her well enough to give her a discount, she felt as if she were here to buy a new dress for herself; she was excited, shy, nervous.
In the moment, Mother felt a wave of joy rush through her as she saw Fatima all wide-eyed and chirpy, almost wrestling her way through the stack of bright new frocks displayed out for her. By the end of it all, Mother saw, Fatima had selected three frocks to choose one from. They were blue, green, and orange.
While in the rickshaw, Fatima clutched hard to her new dress, pressing it against her chest. It seemed to Mother that she had just bought Fatima the most precious gift ever, and it made her wonder what could possibly make her little angel so anxious about a dress. She never cared for clothes much, but clearly, Mother thought, something has changed. Soon, she found Fatima stirring, and then hurriedly waving at somebody in the crowd not far from home. Mother peered and recognised a face, a boy Fatima’s age, leaving from a grocery store. She saw Fatima blushing profusely now, and the boy shyly waving back a little, before quickly looking away. The boy seemed embarrassed, and his smile was obviously reluctant, Mother thought, then saw Fatima giggling and squirming in the seat.
The sight disturbed Mother profoundly, not so much because her favourite daughter had gotten her heart set on a boy who was not keen about her, but because the boy was their neighbour’s son, from a family of masters, and hence a master himself, and the frightening truth was that Fatima may well have to work as a maid in his house someday.
The wedding function arena was grand, with vast gardens and opulent dining halls. There, in a well-lit open garden filled with plastic chairs and playing children, Mother stood watching helplessly as Fatima tried, and tried in miserable vain to catch the boy’s attention. She would go near him, cross by him, stand near him, call out to her friends and sisters while standing two feet from him, and ‘lead’ the gang of girls in all the games they played. Mother kept wondering what could possibly stir a boy like this — he was just sitting there; stoic, his siblings by his side, talking away about things that seemed to be of State significance. Which kid sits so still while all others are running around, Mother thought to herself, shaking her head. Not that she wanted Fatima and this boy to start playing together suddenly and then grow a strong bond of… What could possibly come out of this? Mother sighed, and Fatima growled at her friends with anger that had nothing to do with them, and then they both saw the boy stand up, check his clothes and hair once, and, as if he were the host of the event, walk up to a family entering the gate to welcome them warmly. These people arrived in a swanky SUV, and, by the sophistication of their attire, looked wealthier than most people around. Fatima stopped running around now, and Mother wasn’t even looking at Fatima anymore. They both saw the boy shaking hands with a girl his age, and swiftly those two moved away from the family and stood at a side chatting. Now, he looked perked up. Now, he was squirming. Now, he forgot about his siblings and all the worries of the world that had kept him engaged in conversation until a minute ago. As Mother turned to look at Fatima, she knew what she would see — an open mouth, a pale face, a pair of eyes wide open in disbelief and despair.
In the dim light glimmering from the old oil lamp, Mother saw the dreaded sight — a pout and a frown on Fatima’s angelic face.
“I wanted the chicken leg piece! How could you give it to her? I asked for it first!” Fatima screamed, her eyes closed while screaming, her head tilting towards the tin roof of their little shed-house, as if she were questioning God and not Mother.
“Shut up Fatima! You got a new frock and we did not cry. You couldn’t give up a piece of chicken for me?” her sister shot back; dispassionate.
“Don’t talk to her like that. You go to sleep. Fatima is asking me, I will answer her. Why do you have to be so rude?” Mother chided her youngest daughter at once.
“It is not just the food. Even in the auto (rickshaw), I wanted to sit by the window, but you let her sit just because she jumped into place first. You know I like the window seat. It will be months before we sit in an auto again. Why didn’t you ask her to move?” Fatima complained to her Mother, her voice furious but also sounding hurt, defeated.
“Come here, sweetheart, come to Mummy.”
Mother knew Fatima wasn’t upset, really, about the chicken or the auto seat. Mother knew they mattered more to her youngest daughter than to Fatima, but today Fatima had asked for them, and Mother couldn’t give them to her, even though she wanted to. As Fatima walked towards her, stomping her feet, Mother raised and opened her arms, and Fatima, seeing this, stopped in her tracks. She stood there, scowling, looking at Mother and her raised arms, as if to say no, but unable to say no, she ran in.
“It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s okay,” Mother whispered to Fatima, kissing her forehead. Fatima stood with her arms by her side for a moment, as if unsure or unable to do anything more. But the moment passed, and Fatima wrapped her arms around Mother and broke down; and Mother held her tightly, kissing her face, patting her head lightly.