22 Mayfair

22 Mayfair by Zuha Sidduiqui

Society usually does not treats fortune tellers or psychics really well, especially when they are women. This story, smartly written in a humorous tone attempts at finding an answer. Another side note, not a thing would have changed if the word ‘Karachi’ was replaced by a ‘Delhi’ or a‘Mumbai’. It reminds us that irrespective of the political(ly) (created) tensions, the societies of the two conflicting countries are really not very different.

Karachi

December 13th, 1986

The Pastor’s wife was due any day and Ali’s usual mischief – which invariably involved pelting the pastor’s window with pebbles until his wife threw the curtains open and threw cutlery at Ali’s rapidly retreating behind – had simmered down considerably. His mother had threatened to tie him to a chair and whack him with a belan, and Ali took his mother’s threats seriously. She always kept her word. When Ali had managed to secretly purchase tickets for the latest Bond film – one screening only, at Bambino, six pm sharp, only-for-adults-but-anyone-with-a-ticket-could-watch – his mother found out and tore up the tickets in front of him. She then put the shreds in his outstretched palm. The entire episode was a shame, really, considering how well thought and well executed Ali’s plan had been: He bought a bottle of coke for eight anas from Rashid Milk Corner every evening, gulped down the contents of the bottle in two minutes, then returned the glass bottle back to Rashid to get four anas back. The next day, he’d ask his mother for another eight anas. It took him twelve days to accumulate three rupees – that, added to the two rupees he had saved up from his measly pocket money, was enough for a ticket! But as Ali stepped out of his room wearing his shiny shoes, hair slicked back with Dippity-Do, a hint of cologne on his collar, he knew, as did the rest of the residents of 22 Mayfair, that his mother knew everything.

She knew that Nighat-from-the-third-floor had been getting it on with the headmaster of the YMCA school. She knew the right cure for Mrs Fernandes’ laryngitis – haldi doodh niharmoonh. And, she had arrived at 22 Mayfair three years ago knowing that only two reasons had prevented the 22 Mayfair Residential Committee from making a case for her eviction: the first being the fact that Niaz Begum ­– who was moving to the United States with her son, mashallah, alhamdulilah – was in urgent need of a responsible caretaker for her vacant apartment. The second, that Ali’s mother happened to be Niaz Begum’s niece, and the Residential Committee wouldn’t dare to question Begum’s bloodline without good reason. They tried, Ali’s mother knew, to stir up stories about how an unmarried woman with a young child would make people question 22 Mayfair’s spotless reputation. She also knew that Begum had told them, just as she was about to leave for the airport, that their new tenant was a widow. The day she moved into Begum’s ground floor apartment, young son in tow, the residents of 22 Mayfair had stood on their balconies and peeked through gauzy curtains, trying to catch a glimpse of their newest resident. They continued to watch her for several days, as if they had never seen a woman before, stealing casual glances through her partially opened front door or through a slit between carelessly shut drapes.

That morning, Ali’s mother knew, as she marched up the paan-stained staircase to the first floor – braid swishing behind her – that the pastor’s wife was going to go into labour that night. She could feel it in her bones. She rapped on the pastor’s door with her ring clad knuckles, steadying the sooji ka halwa in the crook of her left arm. For the expecting woman, of course. One must never go to one’s neighbour’s house empty handed. She thought back to the Christmas fruitcake she had thrown into the trash last year, and the box of halwa slipped just a little.

As the pastor opened the door – groggy-eyed, crusts of dried saliva around his mouth – she decided to deliver the news immediately.

‘But madam –’

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