By Juanita Kakoty
Sameera baji rushed down the narrow steep stairs of the building, her sandals going ‘clap clap’ with every step she descended, ignoring the pain in her knees that morning when every other day she cried out curses for the anonymous builder who planted these, what she called, ‘high rise stairs.’
She tore down the stairs of the scraggy yellow building calling out to her friend who lived in a small plot of land right across. Ameena baji! Ameena baji! Did you hear?
Ameena baji came out of the two-room humble dwelling into the courtyard and looked up. Thank God her husband had not succumbed to the lucrative temptation of selling their little plot of land to builders who have built stiff ugly buildings all over Shaheen Bagh such that if one wanted to stare at the sky, only a strip of it would peer through the mesh of buildings, or one would have to climb up to a terrace. But from Ameena baji’s house, one had the luxury to stare at a good patch of the sky from the ground – a rectangular piece of blue that soared above the pale yellow and grey buildings towering over her little plot of land.
There she saw Sameera baji at one corner of the second floor landing, leaning against the intricately carved black railing and looking down excitedly. The tenants living on that floor had tied a thick yellow synthetic rope above the railing from which hung a purple bed sheet with huge red and white flowers merging with each other, still moist. Sameera baji was so excited that she did not even push the bed sheet to the side. She stood there looking down at Ameena baji’s courtyard, the moist bed sheet clinging to her back.
What? Ameena baji cried out.
Did you get the white envelope? Sameera baji asked with a strange gleam in her eyes.
This happened around the time of the elections when the new political party first came to power in Delhi. A wave of hope surged in Shaheen Bagh, like the rest of the national capital territory, as promises of corruption free governance emerged overnight like a long forgotten lullaby. There was heightened enthusiasm across all quarters as the media gave great coverage to the concerns raised by this party as well as to the antics of its leader who left no stones unturned, with his monkey cap and modest mannerisms, to relay that he was but a common man. While the administration panicked at the law and order breakdown such antics could create, the citizens went crazy with hope and support for this new age leader.
Like everyone else, Sameera baji was also taken by this leader and his party. She stayed glued to the medium sized TV she had bought at two thousand rupees from a wealthy neighbour who was discarding it to buy a bigger one.
Whenever she was home, she sat in front of the TV grasping every move of the party flashed across the Hindi news channels. In her two room barsati – and it was her deftness that had turned the shed in the terrace into a beautiful home with a lovely kitchen garden – all she did those days was to cut vegetables in front of the TV, knead the dough in front of the TV and when in the kitchen, turn the volume full on so that she missed nothing. This became even more important than paying the rent on time. Hope. She emphasized. Hope for a better future.
When Sameera baji came to Shaheen Bagh from Buxar in Bihar more than two decades ago, she was all of eighteen, an age when one could conquer the world, and madly in love with the young Christian lad with whom she had eloped. A pampered daughter of the wealthy Ansari family that owned the huge marketplace next to the Buxar railway station, Sameera baji had not even appeared for her higher secondary examination when she met the lad for the first time outside her school gates. The boy was the youngest among seven siblings and the mother, a nurse at the mission hospital, worked so hard after the husband’s demise that by the time she reached home everyday, she was always too drained to invest emotionally in her children. Anyway, the lad did not think twice before suggesting to Sameera baji that they elope. And she was only too happy to escape the golden cage she found herself in at her mother’s house.
They took the train to Delhi, where the lad’s school friend received them. This friend, a school drop-out, worked as a tailor in one of the export houses in Okhla; for a few days after they landed in the country’s capital city, they lived with this friend. His rented flat was behind the Hari Masjid at Zakir Nagar, the mosque as green as its name. One had to enter it from the back lane, where buildings had pipes jutting out to drain the water from the bathrooms and the kitchens, and where there was just enough space to park a scooter. It was just a tiny one room accommodation with an attached slip of a kitchen and a bathroom next to it where there wasn’t much room to turn. A lean bed was the only furniture. A one-burner stove attached to a red Indane cylinder lay on the floor against the white-washed wall, a little away from the bed. The friend allowed the young couple to stay in this room while he spent the nights with a friend next door. Those days, besides the usual rice and dal, Sameera baji also cooked, once in a while, litti chokha and dumplings made of rice powder and dal, which she called ‘Bihari momos’ much to the delight of the friend. She was an excellent cook even at that young age. In the days that followed, her husband and the friend put on a considerable amount of weight while she stayed as slim as she was when she had left Buxar. Her shape began to change only when she gave birth to her first child, and then another, and then another – all beautiful girls now – and soon her once thin as reed constitution assumed the semblance of another lifetime, just like her years in Buxar.
The day she eloped, her family lodged an FIR at the Buxar police station where they accused the Christian lad of kidnapping their girl, who they said was not even eighteen. As the temperature in Buxar soared over the disappearance of the young lovers, far away in Delhi, a school friend tried his best to help them settle down. The problem was that the lad was not even a matriculate. He had failed the exam twice. But he knew how to drive. So the friend got him an auto rickshaw on rent from a fellow Bihari who lived in Shaheen Bagh, an emerging unauthorised colony by the Yamuna where the small town Muslim population from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in search of better opportunities in the city, flocked. But before that, he took them to Nizamudin dargah one morning and found a Qazi to unite them in nikaah after the lad had agreed to convert.
The nikahnama said that Sameera Ansari was married to Mohammad Islam Ansari; Ansari because it was her maiden name and she held on to it like a beam of strength in the changed circumstances where life would have to be written from scratch. This friend also found them a one-room rented accommodation at Shaheen Bagh. This is how, long ago, the young couple started their married life in Delhi, living a life of anonymity for almost nineteen years – moving from one rented place to another – before Sameera baji gathered the courage to phone her mother last year, at the age of thirty seven and already looking like a much aged woman. The two women spent the first five minutes on phone crying. Sameera baji, who spent her childhood in a house with seven rooms, was now living in a two room barsati. She didn’t tell it to her mother. Nor did she tell her that she started her life in Delhi in a one room accommodation, where she lived for many years and gave birth to her three girls. Anyway, it didn’t matter because no one from Buxar ever came to visit.
No, Ameena baji cried out, no one gave me any white envelope.
Sameera baji thumped down the rest of the stairs and crossed over to Ameena baji’s courtyard, adjusting the pink dupatta with a thick silver border that had slipped off her head. The dupatta didn’t quite go with the latest brown Pakistani suit that she was wearing, the kind where it seems three different pieces have been vertically patched together. There, in a corner of that courtyard, attached to the same wall as the main gate, was the little room with a tin shed where Sameera baji, years ago, had learnt tailoring under the guidance of Ameena baji, who was at least six years older than her. The room still looked the same with stitched and unstitched salwar suits stacked inside the same small black wooden cupboard, on the bed opposite the cupboard, and one sewing machine, now old, jammed between the wall and the bed. Ameena baji did the cutting of customers’ dress materials while Sameera baji worked on the machine and stitched the dresses together in this very room. Ameena baji kept sixty per cent of whatever they earned. Although the room looked the same, much had changed in Shaheen Bagh. It was now one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, with high rises on the river bank; builders didn’t really care if people died when the earth moved, as though it was a natural calamity and as if the crazy pressure on land didn’t matter.
I also didn’t get any, Sameera baji told Ameena baji who looked confounded.
So? What white envelope? And from whom? Ameena baji moved towards the tube well in front of the bathroom where a huge pile of clothes lay. The lower end of her salwar was wet and clung to her thin dark legs.
Arre! Wash these clothes later! Sameera baji grabbed at Ameena baji’s arm and pulled her away to the work station. The don is distributing white envelopes with thousand rupee notes inside, she announced. Ameena baji gaped at the woman before her, at the face with its lines of hardship, as if she was listening to a tale from ‘Tilism Hoshruba’.
Both women referred to the current political leader from their constituency as ‘the don.’ And don he indeed was with an office on the main road, which looked more like a resort with its palm trees and rows of seasonal plants around what looked like pretty cottages, while the interiors of Shaheen Bagh overflowed with sewers, vehicles, shops, illegal electricity wires bunched up in front of buildings and hanging close to the ground as little kids, half naked, roamed the narrow alleys now and then colliding with a cycle rickshaw or cart. Oh, and he also displayed his pet ostriches, a rare sight except maybe in the zoo, right in front of his office. The birds drew as much attention as any foreigner in the country.
Rubbish! dismissed Ameena baji. And why would he do that?
Why? mocked Sameera baji. Why? To win votes, that’s why!
So Sameera baji told Ameena baji what she heard from Ismail the barber, Sohail the vegetable grocer, Uma the maid who worked in at least five flats, and her husband, Mohammad Islam Ansari who now drove his own auto rickshaw that he had bought on loan five years ago. Their political representative had distributed white envelopes with several notes of thousand rupees in the colony of cycle rickshaw pullers right across the ground where the sabzi mandi was. Which is why yesterday, there was no cycle rickshaw to be seen on the roads in the evening and a mad rush prevailed at all the biryani stalls around Okhla Head, continued Sameera baji. It was at the busy intersection point, Okhla Head, where apparently many, including Sameera baji’s husband, heard of the white envelope from the rickshaw pullers gathered there to eat the meal of their lives with the money that had fallen into their laps from the sky. There were talks that white envelopes would now appear in every neighborhood at Shaheen Bagh.
Ameena baji’s head spun. Could this be true?
All these years when she first came to Shaheen Bagh as a young bride, from the days birds visited the Yamuna to the times when colonies came up around here and the Yamuna was littered to the extent that the birds stopped coming, to now when a tall fence had been put up by the Yamuna a few years ago and the birds were slowly beginning to come back, Ameena baji had never heard of any such thing. Yes the political parties paid households to put up their candidates’ banners outside their homes, or paid them per day to campaign for them. But this distribution of money? For nothing in return! Ameena baji couldn’t comprehend this. It was in the last two elections that the don’s party had paid her husband handsomely for allowing their party’s posters, with the don’s smiling face on it, to be put up on the walls outside their house. This year now that her husband’s loyalties had shifted, he did not offer the party the space outside his house for any advertisement. They pestered him though; he had been loyal the last two times. It was difficult convincing them that he didn’t want to be an ally but he managed.
It’s true, Sameera baji emphasized, tucking the dupatta behind her ears. Ameena baji’s eyes darted to the new gold bali adorning her ears, thin and perfectly round with a pale yellow lustre unlike most of the gold seen in the markets these days that are way too golden. She thought of the day when she first met this woman, a slim and pretty girl who looked not more than sixteen. It was a hot July afternoon and she came in with a protruding belly. There were two customers waiting by the dark cupboard in the small room as Ameena baji rummaged through the pile of clothes on the bed. Finally she managed to fish out six salwar suits for the customers. The girl kept standing at the threshold and stepped in only when the customers in the black burqa left. ‘Yes?’ the older woman inquired. Salaam aleikum, the girl greeted. I am Sameera and I would like to work as an apprentice with you. Ameena baji looked at the girl carefully; instinctively, she knew that she was one of those living in the city without support from family. How far along? Ameena baji asked her. Baby due in five months, the girl replied. And what does your husband do?
He is an autorickshawallah.
His own auto rickshaw?
No, the girl had replied quietly.
Ameena baji got up from the bed and began to walk out of the room, Sit here for a while, I will get you lunch. I have made some nice kadhi. That’s how their friendship had started all those years ago.
Sameera baji, taking more time than usual to tuck the dupatta behind her ears, maybe because of her desire to show off her new gold bali, gave a few more testimonies by people that they both knew. Slowly, if not belief, hope began to stir in Ameena baji.
Ameena baji had come to Shaheen Bagh from Azamgarh at a tender age with her young husband, who worked as a supervisor at construction sites around Okhla. They moved into this plot of land, which belonged to her husband’s uncle who was away in Dubai. The first few years went by in growing vegetables at home and getting used to swarms of mosquitoes — those days Shaheen Bagh was mostly wetland where people from Jasola came to farm — clearing water from the courtyard when it rained, and seeing the kids cycle freely all the way up to the Yamuna and back. Kingfishers often came to her courtyard during the season and pigeons and sparrows built nests in the hollows of her roof. She always kept an earthen bowl full of water for the birds, which she stopped later for a few years when the Yamuna almost died and the birds ceased to visit.
When her husband was suddenly paralysed, the task of running the household fell upon her, and except the uncle who let them live on in that plot of land, no other relative came forward to help. Thankfully she knew how to use the sewing machine and had one at home where she stitched salwar kameezes for herself and her daughters. She took to stitching for customers and that’s how she kept the stove in the kitchen burning, paid for her children’s education and her husband’s treatment. Eternally thankful to the uncle, they entered into an agreement that they would live there till her children flew the nest, and then she would go back to Azamgarh with her husband, to the old house, returning the uncle’s property to him. That’s how she was still around when this incident happened. She was not fiery like Sameera baji and hardly spoke of the good times she had seen in her mother’s house as a child.
That Sameera baji couldn’t break with her wealthy past was evident in how she patronized people, especially those who worked as maids in the flats, and other menial workers. She would stand for people and voice their concerns. Often, men and women caught in difficult situations came to her for help and she did the best she could, negotiating with associated parties for them, creating a pool of money for maids and cycle rickshaw pullers when their children were getting married, et cetera, et cetera. She advised the Chamars to stop clearing people’s garbage if they wanted to improve their lot. Do something else, she would tell them, Why collect people’s garbage? As long as you don’t stop doing that the conditions of your community will never improve! She also opened a ‘committee’ at the request of all those who knew how compassionate and honest she was and ran the committee system well, giving monetary help to whosoever she could from this pool of money that people kept with her every month without interest rates, but confident that at the end of a year, they would get the entire sum back. It was a big help, especially for the maids who saved a hundred rupees every month by depositing it in the ‘committee,’ an amount they didn’t want to deposit in the bank as savings. I understand the value of support, Sameera baji often told people while relating her story. When I was pregnant with my first child, there were times when I could have only tea, no meals. Maybe Allah put me through all this because I was a very arrogant child. Allah knows best; it’s only Allah who can say why I am where I am today, but I will always remain faithful to Him. One thing I know, in my maternal house, I lived in a cage; but now I am my own master, I am free.
Ameena baji, on the other hand, stuck to her tailoring and household chores. She showed no interest in social service, for which, many a time, Sameera baji had to face the blows of her husband when he came home after a long day in the Delhi heat, cold, pollution, and dirt, driving people around in his green and yellow auto rickshaw. This is the roti you have made! he would scream at her. This is what I come home to after a hard day! You didn’t have time to make food properly because you must have been busy with your bullshit social service or useless banter with neighbours! Who are you? Daughter of the wealthy Ansari from Buxar? You are the wife of an autorickshawallah, god damn it, remember that! Then he would deliver a few whacks as his three grown up daughters watched from behind the curtains, tears streaming down their cheeks.
Sameera baji’s husband was not always like this. During the early years, he took care of her like a child. But slowly, the struggles of daily hardship for a couple far away from home, deprived of any support, turned his heart cold as he shed all of his earlier identities to forge a new one. Maybe the harshness of surviving in the city made him turn into this. Maybe the way fate threw him into the throes of poverty turned him into this. While Sameera baji turned into a crusader for the poor’s rights, he was consumed by silence. Sameera baji had many questions – Why does one family need more than two cars? People should use coolers not air conditioning which is making the heat rise! Why is the government blind to the poor? Every month, my husband has to pay hafta to the goons to park his auto rickshaw at the stand. Can’t the government see this? Is the government blind to the fact that the husband and others like him also have to pay the police while crossing the Yamuna? Why talk of crime then if the poor turn to other means for augmenting their resources? Day in and day out, Sameera baji asked these questions. But her husband stayed quiet, ruthlessly quiet only to erupt at her, whosoever be at fault.
That day when Sameera baji informed Ameena baji about the don’s white envelope, she also used those two hours to scathingly reduce the don’s tactics to third degree politics. How can the country improve if the rulers are such? And in the night, she had a long discussion about this with her husband, who, by whatever providence, showed interest in conversation with her. Like he always did when he wanted sex. So they spoke at length about who else had received those white envelopes, how shameful a practice it was, that no matter what means the don resorted to, the new political party would still come to power in Delhi.
There were two more days left for the election. The white envelopes kept appearing here and there in the neighbourhood. Nothing was written on them. They were long plain white envelopes with no seals, no marks. But everyone knew they were from the don. During those two days, Sameera baji woke up in a rage. Such mean strategy for garnering votes! Yet, when no envelope appeared at her doorstep, sadness welled up inside her and took deep roots. Bitterness rose in the pit of her stomach and stayed with her even on the day she went to vote, like she knew she couldn’t trust her fate with it. In the morning, when a gorgeous kingfisher flew into her terrace and stayed quite a long time perched on the black railing, she’d thought it would bring her luck.
Juanita Kakoty is a writer, editor, journalist, and researcher with a sociological eye. Her short stories have been published in Himal Southasian, The Assam Tribune, Eastlit, Earthen Lamp Journal, New Asian Writing, and Writers’ Asylum.