By Mehreen Ahmed
Blood oranges were endowed with a certain pigmentation. I called it the fruit’s pizzazz, because of its lustre, which defined it and gave it the distinctive characteristics of dark flesh. I wanted it to grow in mother’s orchard. But the gardener said it wouldn’t grow here, because the climate wouldn’t allow it. If the blood orange didn’t flourish in this soil, then neither did many things in this culture. All these nefarious old customs and habits that had become fossilised, resisting change, inhibiting growth.
One afternoon, I sat in the balcony of mother’s house. A brilliant midday sun shone yet another monsoon day. I took a sip of lemonade my mother made with the orchard’s freshly squeezed lemons. Lemons, which grew in our orchard. I was recovering at her place, from an illness. Lemons and limes were not the only citrus that grew in this orchard, oranges too. Except, the blood orange.
The monsoon winds whipped up my spirits. The orchard revitalised as the winds touched it to a new glow. The wet fern unfurled along the mossy edges on the orchard’s brick fence. Nature’s drama ensued. These were months of recapitulations. They always were. Recapping past events that happened not only in my life, but also in the lives of the others. A maid once worked in our house some years now. I don’t know, I found myself thinking about her without a reason. Her loyalty had far surpassed that of any other who worked for us then. Her name was Lily. She was our loving Lily of the Valley. She possessed an exceptional quality of gritty honesty.
I was in high school then. One evening, my friend had come for a sleep over. We decided to order a meal with mother’s permission. It was a native delicacy, namely Biriyani. When the order arrived, Lily came up to my bedroom to hand it to us. I took it, and rudely closed the door. We sat down in my bed, and didn’t think of sharing it with anyone, not even with Lily. However, as we began to gorge on our first mouthful, there was a knock. We startled and panicked. The door burst open. Lily entered. Instinctively, we covered the food, guarding it with our palms. Really, we were such mean little creatures in those days. Lily looked at our rather delinquent expressions and became befuddled herself. In all this confusion, she screamed out, “No, no. I didn’t come here to snatch a share. I came to tell you that your maa is calling you.”
Saying so, she left like a shot of bolt. It was awful.
I looked at my friend and said,“We should’ve offered her a couple of spoons, huh?”
“I reckon. But although she’s poor, she is not greedy, mind you, we do tend to underestimate their human qualities because of who they are,” my wise friend replied.
“Yes, I’m so ashamed. My God, you’re right. We have built an invisible fortress for ourselves. And we have completely shut them out.”
“Yes, we have. Walled them out. They’re almost like outsiders to us. It is very hard for them to break through this class barrier.”
This incidence had shaken me. It was both unforgivable and unforgettable. In a way, it compelled me to decipher these centuries old customs that had prevailed upon us. Many years had passed since, but the “invisibles” still teetered on the edge of the elite-dom. Not to mention, all the pains inflicted upon them. This thin veil of class segregation was almost akin to treating them as plague-ridden, as though they belonged to an outsider reality.
Our glasses, cups and saucers, plates — everything was separate. On no account we ate out of their plates and glasses, as they didn’t out of ours. Seriously, if perchance we were to visit them in their huts, contrarily, they would lay out their best dinnerware, the most ‘suitable’ kind for us.
No matter, whatever had happened to our maid, it never crossed my mind even once to find out. Where was she in all these years? Was she happy? Was she even living? As a general rule of thumb, wealth blindsided many of the pay masters. Many of such sick employers took them for granted. That peasants would work for them 24/7, since the day they were born until they died; employers treated them like some kind of a machine to run errands at a minimum wage without a sick leave, or a respite or even a decent meal of dry bread and half rotten food. Some pay masters even withheld their meagre salaries, and didn’t pay them at all, in case they decided to leave or escape.
Again, if an employer turned out lecherous by any stroke of bad luck, then the fully fledged or unfledged would be used brutally, then held culpable for crimes they never committed. Night in and night out. Day in and day out. Their under-classed guardians, on many counts, would be rendered powerless to handle such situations. On the first count, they would be bashful and want to suppress it. On a second, incapable financially to move the matter through horrendously circuitous courts.
In order to punish them for the unwarranted crime the innocuous souls never committed, the solution for an employer was then to kick them out on the street and pin them up with the burden of shame, while the privileged victimiser, got away scot-free. Once the victim was on the streets, the next bad thing was exposure to the horrors of street life, begging, and prostitution, and what not, unleashed upon them.
Such was the sad state of the “invisibles,” with or without whom, this sense of a fancy class hierarchy wouldn’t prevail. In a way it was them, these innumerable minions, who justified the notion of the class, although unwittingly. It was always in the interest of the rich that the poor had to remain poor. This idea of classlessness, a figment of imagination, was never going to be stamped out, not today, not in a million years, not in this society or anywhere else. I made a mental note of the great Hollywood movie Sabrina, which could be construed in so many levels.
Enough said. I ventured out to learn more about our Lily. Not out of any moral dilemma or to pioneer a cause, such as the eradication of a stultifying class system, but out of a genuine interest. I took my glass of lemonade and stepped out into the orchard. The citrus infused breeze titillated my nostrils. Had there been a blood orange tree, that extra pizzazz would have flavoured the air today. I thought in reminiscence, how the orchard lacked the potency of such vibrant glamor of its pigmentation.
Down the hollyhock path and fuchsia strewn deep velvet and crimson, I met the gardener. He sat pruning under a tree. When he saw me, he greeted me with a smile. I smiled back. Then I went up to him and stood watching him weed and unearth the unwanted.
“Do you know where Lily is now?” I asked him.
He looked at me briefly and said, “Yes madam. I do in fact.”
“Where is she? Can you ask her to see me one day?”
“Sure, I will. I’ll call her today. I have her mobile number,” he nodded.
“She has a mobile phone?” I asked surprise.
“Yes, she does. You’ll see the transformation, when she comes.”
“Transformation?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll ask her to see you tomorrow.”
“Okay. That would be really great.”
I walked away feeling good that Lily had a mobile phone now. I heard the gardener speak on the mobile. Maybe, it was Lily. However, as I came around the bend of the verandah, I saw a woman standing with three children. Her mouth, red with betel juices. The woman saw me and came forward. She greeted me and said,“Hello, madam. Do you remember me?”
She was chewing the paan in her mouth.
“Hmm, Not really sure. I have been away a long time now.”
“I’m the gardener’s wife, Jasmine.”
She answered, as she curved her mouth to cup the paan juices, like open tulips held rain water.
“Oh! Yes, of course, how are you?”
I pretended as though, I remembered.
“I’m very well. My husband just shouted out to me to come say hello to you.”
“That’s very nice. Please sit.”
“That’s okay, I’m good standing. These are my three kids.”
I smiled at them. They hid back behind their mother. I sat down on a nearby chair and waited for them to sit as well. There were plenty of garden chairs around. Then she had a change of heart and decided to sit, but on the cold floor. While her children leaned against her and kept looking at me in awe, as though I were from outer space: To them, I probably looked that way. My mother came by in a bit and sat down in the next chair. The gardener had finished in the meantime and walked up to us.
“I’m finished for the day,” he said.
“Okay, you can go now. Here, take this. Buy them lollies.”
My mother gesticulated at the kids, as she handed over a generous tip to the gardener.
The gardener felt obliged. He took the tip from mother, the mistress of the house. As he extended both his arms towards her, he curled his palm like a turned leaf under a battered storm. Then he pulled the money gently. In the meantime, the wife stood up and said,“Okay, madam, you will be around for sometime now, won’t you?”
“Yes, I think so I’ll be here for a while.”
“I hope, I’ll see you again.”
“Yes, I hope so too,” I said.
The gardener then looked at me and said. “I’ve given Lily a call. She said , she’ll come over tomorrow to see you.”
“Very good, then,” I said.
I saw the family saunter out of our compound. The gardener’s wife had a gaudy sari on. Her children looked healthy. I inclined my head towards mother and asked.
“How come they still sit on the floor?”
Mother laughed and said, “Old habits die hard.”
“Some customs never change, in spite of affluence, isn’t that right?” I asked.
“Customs and affluence are two different issues. Money cannot always change customs and social practices, as it cannot change subtle human mannerisms. Some mannerisms are innate.
“Surely education could help? No? Yes?”
“It could in some cases, but, not a whole lot, not in one generation, anyway, maybe in many generations to come, if at all.”
I pondered and looked forward to seeing Lily the next day. I even thought of giving her an old sari of mine and some money for her children, just as mother did to the gardener’s family. Mother and I sat quietly, gazing at a full monsoon afternoon and inhaling the fresh fruity smells.
“Let me ask you something,” Mother said after a pause. “Would you be happy marrying your son or daughter off to a class of the nouveau rich?”
“Hmm, I haven’t given it much thought, but what if they were good individuals? What then?” I asked.
“Exactly, What then? Are you prepared to make such allowances, and adjustments? The mental wave length, sophistication, the endowed family traditions and so many trade offs to be made. New money individuals may amass plenty of wealth, but they also cling to cultural crudity and embarrassing cringe like pith to the rind. However, I am not saying that aristocrats are entirely flawless without their own share of sins. Still…”
“Not entirely flawless? They’re the ones with all the flaws, really, mother.”
Mother pursed her lips. We were both quiet. An uncomfortable stillness descended in the balcony. I wanted this demarcation to go away. I wanted a society to be built on equality, rather than this deplorable hierarchy. I thought there was a conspiracy in keeping the poor, poor. And I often had been told off on account of it. That I had been branded as cynical, distrusting the upper class, who in my view went to great lengths to keep the poor, always in a one down situation to feel powerful themselves.
By now the sun had wafted. The late afternoon had doused in an atmospheric feverish heaviness. My mother left me to my ponders. A maid came out to ask me if I required anything. In the backdrop of the grey monsoon clouds, I smiled at her and said, no. She began to tell me that I shouldn’t be sitting here any more. A storm was about to break out. This girl’s loyalty was unmatched. Like our rare Lily, her cares and caresses were beyond the limits of the salary range of peasant servitude. While her own family could be perishing in punishing squalor, under a leaky roof in some remote and unadorned corner of earth, here she was keeping me well rugged-up against this nature’s incoming disaster. My eyes welled up.
Next morning, I showered early in anticipation of Lily. She told the gardener a while that she was on her way. Eagerly, I pulled a relatively new sari out of my suitcase which I thought I would give her. I also took some money out of my purse and kept it handy. Then the moment arrived. The door-bell finally rang. Our maid opened it. I stood in the middle of the room to greet her. She stepped through over the threshold.
Was this Lily? I was astounded. The gardener did warn me of a transformation. But this? Lily was nearly three times over-weight. She wore a burqa, and underneath an expensive, but glittery silk sari. She had her three sons with her, and she carried a pricey fruit hamper of oranges, grapefruit and apples — a gift for mother. She walked across the room with a huge beam and came right up to me and gave me terse hug.
“Oh my God, the moment I heard about you, I just felt I had to rush to see you,” she declared.
“I’m so glad too that you could come, Lily. Please, have a seat.”
I invited her to sit in one of our aged sofas. I sat her down next to her. Mother didn’t mind. But maids scurried with a kitchen stool. She sat down with her legs splayed, leaning against the headrest, as though she had earned all this. As though she had earned a title and a family lineage.
“How are you?” I asked once the confounding moments passed.
“I’m really good,” she said. “Sorry, I got held up in the traffic. Our new driver is a novice. He still can’t handle rush hour traffic.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “What else?”
“My husband has a fish hatchery. He is doing very well. We have a huge house. My children go to a paying school. The chairman of the village is my husband’s first cousin. We have a huge refrigerator and an exotic, modern stove. Say, do you have an iphone? I’ll send you a video of my house and the new stove.”
Of course, I had an iphone. But it wasn’t the latest, like the one she clutched on in-between her two rugged hands. Neither did our old stove have a sheen. She said it all in unbroken breath. And I swallowed it all in uninterrupted gulp. It was unbelievable. It was laudable too that out of trillions of under-classed people, she was one of very few to break through the veneer of age old class conventions. Lily, who trembled at the sight of my father’s formidable personality. Lily, who would retreat to the kitchen’s darkest corner for comfort, had now come to tell me this. A long way away, this rare breed, this new air of confidence, her’s a success story, a far cry from the shy Lily back in the day. The incident of the Biriyani faux pas crossed my mind inadvertently, to brush a blush on my cheek.
Once she had told me everything, there was a long silence.Our conversation began to stall. Awkward that there was nothing else to say. To break this ice, I told her that I had a sari for her and some lolly tip for the kids. She looked at me and blurted out.
“I don’t take handouts. I’m well off.”
Her bluntness shocked me. That I was not prepared for. I must have looked like a real idiot. She smiled at me, stood up. She took her three sons, leaning against her all this time, the half hour we had been chatting.
“I’ll see you before I leave. I must go into the kitchen for now. I want to catch up with their news over tea.”
Ah tea! An insensitive oversight — I should have offered her tea, like we normally do to our guests. However, she hadn’t quite forgotten her comfort zone of the “otherness” of similar mindsets; the social mingles and the familiar tinkles of cups and saucers, the unwritten laws of forbiddance to use the master’s fine bone china.
Society had set its boundary. The not-so-easily malleable strict parameters, prevented class finesse to crossover her loud breed. Her otherwise solid narrative had a sharp pitfall. In its rags to riches turnings, the partial transformation fell short to gather the lustre of upper class nuances. The hangover of rough edges replete in the stale air, thwarted the magic of polish and posh to seep into this new money domain. Turnings had begun for that distinctive pizzazz to be wheeled in to form the full circle. Mother’s moot point, one had to be high bred to acquire certain mannerisms. They were innate like the blood orange pigmentation. To boot, they were a dead giveaway.
Mehreen Ahmed is an internationally acclaimed author. Her books, The Pacifist, is “Drunken Druid The Editors’ Choice for June 2018″, and Jacaranda Blues,”The Best of Novels for 2017 – Family Novels of the Year” by Novel Writing Festival. Her flash fiction, “The Portrait” chosen to be broadcast by Immortal Works, Flash Fiction Friday, 2018. Her books have also been nominated for other prestigious awards such as Aurealis Award for Fantasy Short Story/Novella (2015), Ditmar Award for Best Novels (2016), and The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, (2018). She published with Ellipsis Zine, The Bombay Review, Straylight Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Portland Metrozine, Ginosko Literary Journal, The Piker Press, The Creativity Webzine, Scarlet Leaf Review, The World of Myth Magazine, Literary Yard, Terror House Magazine, Connotation Press, Furtive Dalliance Literary Review and elsewhere.
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