Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
The City of Gold
“Skin like the Taj Mahal,” he said, cataract eyes crawling like lice in her hair. Mother handed him a cup of cardamom-flavored tea and offered him a plate of sweets. The man waved the plate aside; “I’m diabetic,” he said, tongue darting, wetting a pendulous lower lip. Perhaps he didn’t eat food bought from tin-shack shops, feared adulterated ghee, or cheap food color.
“She’s still a child,” Mother said, resting her palm on Bina’s head.
Bony arms gestured towards mud walls and a rust-stained asbestos roof. White hairs grew like ferns from his ears and nostrils. “With the money that I give you, you could move to a new house. Buy gold. Clothes,” he said, smiling, revealing missing front teeth and gold-capped side ones.
Father got up from the charpoy, held the man’s hand in both of his, said, “Your proposal is a great honor. We’re grateful to you. God has been good to us.” Bina could see the relief in Father’s eyes—his card game debts paid; maybe he could open a ration shop.
That night Bina said, “I will drink phenol, if you make me marry him. You murdered Third Sister when she was a baby. Now, you want to kill me.”
Father raised his hand as if to slap her, then turned away; his scrawny shoulders bent inwards, his fists clenched to his side. Mother sat on the floor and wailed. “You wicked girl! God will punish you for talking to your parents like this. You’ll regret not accepting the rich man’s proposal. Chances like this don’t come again.”
But Bina had watched enough of Bollywood cinema to dream of love with a man who was rich and handsome and young, a man who she could love and who would love her in return. For Bina, rich meant a house with cement walls, not one with cow-dung floors; rich meant three piled-up meals a day, maybe even a plate of after-dinner fruit or crisp snacks in the evening.
“Two daughters dead, Mother. Can you live with that? Die with that?”
Mother said nothing. Mother knew that Third Sister was still on the Earth Plane watching them. At night, Third Sister crawled outside the house, whimpering, swinging on the hammock, tipping over the bucket under the steel tap. Mother didn’t want Bina to commit suicide; she didn’t want a second ghost haunting their mud hut, never giving her a moment of reprieve.
“How long can I keep feeding you?” Father said before he left the house and went to the cinema.
Bina knew that she would have to find a way to leave Father’s house, to leave the city of the Taj Mahal. That night, when Third Sister’s thin thighs dragged across the stone blocks beneath the courtyard steel tap, Bina prayed: “Third Sister help me. I have no one else but you.”
Third Sister’s hands and feet talked—scraped on the mud, poured out the water from the chipped green bucket, and made the flame of the kerosene lamp dance higher. “I’ll help you, Bina. God Promise,” she said.
Words passing through water, turning fire to steam. Less than two weeks later, a sunny morning in Deepu’s pharmacy store, Bina turned and saw a man with thick gold-rimmed glasses and a polyester shirt puffed-out over his hanging belly.
“I’m here on holiday,” the man said, chickpea eyes watching Bina as she waited for the pharmacist to give her a strip of Actifed. He’d said “holiday” in English; he must be a very educated man, Bina assumed, rich enough to go to a private school not one of the vernacular ones. His dark skin was brushed with talcum powder and his sparse hair was slick with oil. He looked a bit like Govinda, the North Indian actor. Bina fidgeted with the strip of Actifed, turned the corners of the foil inward and outwards, as “holiday” rolled beneath her breasts, settling beneath her sari blouse, as the man’s eyes looked politely at the word in its movement down. “I live in Dubai,” the man said, puffing his shirt out further.
Bina knew Dubai was in the Middle East. Pallavi’s sister worked as a housemaid in Muscat, earned a fat salary, ate food like at a wedding feast. “In Kuwait?” Bina asked, eyelids lowered.
“No, in the UAE….The United Arab Emirates. The City of Gold,” the man replied, leaned against the wall, “If you see the gold souq in Dubai, you’ll go crazy. Hundreds of gold shops. Italian designs. Indian designs. Damas. Allukas.” He moved forward and left behind a ring of hair oil on the wall.
“How can I see the gold souq?”
“I can get you a ticket to Dubai. I’ll be your Agent and arrange a Housemaid visa,” the man said, held the door open for her, and followed her outside.
Bina looked away from him and blushed. He knew so many English words—“holiday,” ticket.” Why was he offering to help her? “Holiday” fidgeted, jousted for space by coffee aureoles, kneaded breasts, not like her mother kneaded chapatti dough, but gently. “I wish I could speak English like you.”
“I’ll teach you.” The man smiled again, revealing rows of perfectly aligned teeth. “Once the plane was full. I traveled Business Class.”
Bina didn’t want to ask him what Business Class was. She’d seen planes in the sky, but had never been in one. The Agent was a man of the world. His steel watch was shiny like his shirt. Maybe he’d fallen in love with her like Prince Shahjahan fell in love with Mumtaz Mahal. When she died, Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal. Bina’s encounter with the Agent was like a scene from a Hindi movie. “Holiday” pushed “Ticket” and “Business” aside and rushed downwards.
The next day they arranged to meet secretly in Ram Bagh, a Mughal garden built by Babur in the sixteenth century. The Agent paid the five-rupee entrance fee for the two of them, and found a spot under a pepal tree.
A policeman waived his baton at them and walked towards them threateningly. Bina pulled her sari pullav over her face. “What are you doing in this dark corner? Are you married?” the policeman asked.
Bina peeked through her sari and saw the Agent hand the policeman crisp rupee notes. “We are not doing any hanky panky. Don’t bother us again and I’ll give you another thirty rupees before I return to Dubai,” the Agent said in a fluent mixture of Hindi and English.
The Agent bought Bina roasted groundnuts and a Kwality Choc-o-bar. He sat down on the grass besides her and adjusted the cuffs of his shirt. “My life is hale and hearty in Dubai. I work in Khalid Apartments. It has twenty-four floors. I wear a white uniform. I have connections.” Even though it was forty degrees Celsius, he had a leather jacket slung across his lap. He had a thick gold chain around his neck. Bina didn’t like the smell of neem oil that emanated from his scalp, but she knew that she could learn to like it; she guessed that he used the oil to control the dandruff that she could see on his hair. Bina licked the chocolate before she bit into the vanilla and watched the sweat trickle down the sides of his face, his features flowing into each other like melting jelly. God had brought the Agent to her, but Bina was scared that he might not want to see her again. After all, in Dubai he must know lots of women.
In a public bathroom, wet with urine and water, she’d prepared carefully for their meeting: washed her hair with a capful of shampoo that she stole from one of the houses where she worked part time—Sunsilk Almond; worn the sari that Mother had bought before the old man came to see her with his proposal of marriage; she had pushed her petticoat below her navel and tied a strand of fresh jasmine in her hair. Now, as she sat by the Agent biting the edge of a grass stalk, Bina flicked her hair off her face, let her pullav move sideways revealing more skin, and hoped he thought she looked nice, that he would love her, marry her, and take her away to Dubai.
The sound of a low-flying plane with blinking white lights made Bina look up. She watched the plane ascend into the whispery clouds of a dusk sky. She longed to fly in those steel birds and disembark in the city of gold.
“Skin like the Taj Mahal,” the Agent said, trailing a fingertip across her arm. He talked about a world of air-conditioned comfort, meals in abundance, perhaps a TV in her room. “Housework is a too much of a piece of cake,” the Agent said. Bina could not comprehend all the Agent talked about: washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, but she listened intently. She’d seen these appliances in some of the houses in which she worked, but she had rarely used them: most times the water supply was not enough to run the machines; or the Memsahibs said the electricity consumed would skyrocket their bill, or that Bina might turn the dials the wrong way and spoil the machine.
In Dubai there are fancy-shancy shops called “malls,” the Agent continued, with video arcades, food courts, ten cinema theaters under one roof: Lamcy Plaza, City Center, Wafi Mall and Mercatos. There, Bina could laze in air-conditioned comfort, watch her Memsahib’s child play, and eat a nice lunch with her—maybe a burger from MacDonald’s, noodles from the Chinese counter or a shwarma from the Lebanese grill. She would earn in a month what she now took half-a-year to earn.
After her parents murdered her baby sister, Bina had wanted to leave Agra. She’d worked hard, hid part of her earnings, and prayed for an opportunity to escape. “Why are you so kind to me?”
“Bina Oh Bina, dil tum ne hai cheena,” the Agent said, half-singing the words, scratching his head. “You robbed my heart! I can’t sponsor you on my job. But I want you to be with me in Dubai.”
In all her life, Bina had not known a happier day than this one. Heart bouncing forward like a paper boat on a stream, Bina said, “After Third Sister, there’s no one that I have loved like I love you.”
Over the next two weeks, Bina and the Agent met many times: seemingly coincidental meetings beneath shop awnings and at the bus stop, surreptitious, prolonged meetings in the colorful alleyways of Kinari Bazaar, and in the further recesses of public parks. In all those meetings the Agent never made any improper advances. “I want to marry you,” he said repeatedly.
The Agent was a man of his word. He took Bina to Rose Photo Studio to order passport photographs; he made trips to the Embassy to get her passport made; he arranged a forged birth certificate with a birth date that stated she was older than she actually was: twenty-four instead of nineteen. He wrote to his various connections in Dubai. Eventually he found a possible sponsor. He made an international call to a Punjabi couple that needed a maid; they lived at Khalid Apartments, the building where the Agent worked as a maintenance man.
The night he was supposed to leave for Delhi from where he would catch his international flight to Dubai, they met near Jama Masjid. They wandered through the Loha Mandi (Iron Market), Sabji Mandi (Vegetable Market), and the Nai-ki-Mandi (Barber’s Market). The Agent bought her a candy figure of the Monkey-God and half-dozen red and gold plastic bangles from one of the tube-lighted stalls. Bina handed the Agent an envelope of the money that she had saved over the years. “For my ticket. The rest I’ll pay you later.”
“You don’t need to pay me,” he said dismissively as he stuffed the money into his shiny ten-dirham wallet.
Two months later, just at the Agent promised, the visa papers arrived. Also, a letter.
Your ticket is confirmed on Emirates Airlines. My good friend in Agra has confirmed your railway ticket for 10 September on the 6:35 pm Taj Express to Delhi. I will be at Dubai airport. All you have to do my Dil ki Rani is to travel to me. I told your sponsors, the Kapoors, that you are my niece. So please behave accordingly. Hide your emotions for me and I will hide mine.
Two weeks later, Bina, Dil ki Rani, Queen of Agent-Uncle’s Heart, secretly left her father’s house. She took a cycle rickshaw to the Agra Cantonment train station. In Delhi, just as he’d promised, the Agent’s friend met Bina at the Nizamuddin train station and took her to Indira Gandhi International airport.
Then Bina, dressed in the sari bought before the old man came to see her, boarded the early morning Emirates flight to Dubai. When the flight attendant offered her meals on the plane, Bina’s mouth watered, but she didn’t take any; she thought she’d have to pay for the meals. She didn’t drink much water either because she dreaded using the toilet they showed in the flight demonstration tape: oval seats and push-button flushes. Where did all the waste go? Bina wondered. Did it spill out into open skies like the feces and sanitary pads that fell through the floor urinals onto the railway tracks?
Bina tried not to cry on the flight to Dubai. She would miss her two sisters, her brother. But Agent-Uncle had told her that she would get a ticket to Agra from her sponsors every two years. And she would write to her siblings and send them money. Maybe she could develop connections of her own and find a job for her sisters in Dubai.
But had Bina deserted Third Sister by leaving Agra? All these years, nearly eight years now, ever since Father wrapped a damp towel around Third Sister soon after her birth, and got the Doctor to write a certificate that said, “PNEUMONIA,” Bina had heard Third Sister’s knees knocking against the corners of walls, felt her hands clutch the charpoy bed where Father had thrown her down like a sack of rice. The night before she left Agra, Bina asked Third Sister to leave the Earth Plane and enter another happier body. “I’m scared to be reborn. A mother who didn’t love me. A Father who killed me because I was a girl,” Third Sister replied, making the kerosene lamp flame splutter.
Bina wished she could pull a chain, like the red one on the train, and make the plane stop. But when the Hindi movie came on, and the window shutters were pulled down, while some of the passengers slept, others drank Seven-Up and orange juice, ate sandwiches, and played video games, Bina dreamed of Third Sister. Third Sister in her arms, crying as the plane took off and pushing the bottle of milk away. Third Sister’s tears stopping when Bina unbuttoned her blouse (though she was shy doing that in a plane) pulled her sari forward and fixed Third Sister’s mouth against her breast. Third Sister holding the edge of Bina’s pullav, milk dribbling down her chin, falling asleep against Bina’s breasts, and waking up when the wheels of the plane touched the ground.
The Agent was at Dubai International Airport just as he had promised. He looked more impressive than Bina remembered, his shirt puffed out more than usual. Bina’s heart leapt when she saw him pointing her out and the remembered words were restive again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kapoor. Your sponsors,” Agent-Uncle said, gesturing deferentially at the smiling Punjabi couple. She stooped to touch their feet, but Memsahib held Bina’s shoulders and raised her up. There was much politeness and thanking on both sides; Bina looked younger than her age, Memsabib said, mascara eyes narrowing slightly.
Dubai looked like the American cities that Bina furtively watched on TV as she swept tiled floors. Tall buildings, glassy and gracious, six-lane highways with signboards pointing to places that she’d never heard of: Deira, Sharjah, Al Ghusais, Rashidya, Abu Dhabi, Bur Dubai. Most amazing of all, the city didn’t look like a desert. There were flowers everywhere and trees. Memsahib said, “During the one-month shopping festival the city looks like fairyland.”
Khalid Apartments was just as Agent-Uncle had described it: the floors gleamed like marble; there were lighted fountains in the lobby, elevators with shiny doors and mirrors, and a gym, babysitting room, and swimming pool in the mezzanine area. Memsahib showed Bina the “maid’s room” in Apartment 2109: a freshly painted room with a bed, a cupboard, and an attached bathroom of her own; she showed her how to sit bottom down on the toilet seat, not feet down like on the floor urinal, how to use the shower instead of a mug and bucket.
The Punjabi couple ate dinner and left large portions of leftovers on the table. Bina was surprised they didn’t serve her lots of rice with little vegetable, like her previous Memsahibs had done. “Please eat well and go to bed early,” Memsahib said. “I’m putting the rasgullas back in the fridge so that it will remain cold. You must have some.”
Could she have as many rasgullas as she wanted? Bina wondered. Had they counted how many were left? She remembered the shop that Father had worked in when she was a young girl, “Madhuri Sweets and Savories.” Father would bring her day-old petha or jellabis wrapped up in newspaper tied with string. Father was good to her then; Bina knew that he loved her; but after he killed Third Sister, she tried not to love him anymore. Her first morning in Dubai, Bina lay on her bed, heard the azaan, the call for prayer over the microphone, tried to feel the pressure of Third Sister’s vibrations of voice and breath, but there was nothing. Third Sister was not here. Bina was alone.
After the Thursday-Friday weekend, Agent-Uncle came to see her. The Punjabi couple had left for work. Bina was happy to be with him, yet the Agent seemed different. His eyes full of something other than smiles. Gently pinching the exposed skin of her midriff, Agent-Uncle said that he loved her, wanted to marry her: that was his only goal in life. “I don’t have much time. In fifteen minutes I have to go to check the AC ducts in apartment 1707.” His hand slid under her pullav and squeezed a breast tightly, as if he was trying to strain cheese from whey. “My friend in Delhi paid thousands of rupees to an agent. The agent took the money but never got him his visa. Another friend, when he came here his job was not what he expected. You’re lucky that you didn’t have to pay an agent fee. And for you, everything is as expected, my Dil ki Rani.”
Bina had heard her parents’ lovemaking ever since she could remember, but the actual transaction was still unclear. She’d wanted the Agent, but not like this. Agent-Uncle said, “Don’t tell me you don’t want it too. Your pullav dropping all the time, your sari tucked so low.”
She lay back on her narrow bed, shut her eyes, heard the baby whimper in the nursery, thought of the old man with cataract eyes, said, “Please don’t be angry. Don’t go.”
Agent-Uncle said that he’d not had a woman since the prostitute in Agra, and she’d coagulated powder between shriveled breasts and a mouth full of cavities. In Dubai prostitutes were expensive and he was scared of being caught. Impatient, he unzipped his pants, slid a condom over his penis, and pushed himself into her.
For a couple of days, Agent-Uncle didn’t visit her, and Bina was happy. Maybe he was sorry and he’d be slower next time. “Are you okay?” Memsahib said, peering at her face, patting her hand. “You must miss your family. In time, it will become easier.”
Two weeks later, after the Punjabi couple left for work, Agent-Uncle came to see her again. This time he smiled nicely when he bundled her petticoat beneath her chin, fondled breasts that had forgotten the words “holiday” “ticket” and “business,” his arms and legs slithering like the earthworms on her bathroom floor in Agra. He said that he hadn’t visited her earlier because he didn’t want to arouse suspicion; they could both lose their jobs if they were found out. Bina, acquiescent, spread-eagled, wondered if she would bleed again. She thought of Mr. Agarwal feeding laddus to a Madhuri Dixit poster on her Happy Birthday; of the field where she played with her sisters and brother, red lotuses and water lilies, stalks, spongy and soft, sinking deep in the sewer, waxy leaves glistening with water. All in all, this time with Agent-Uncle was better than the last time had been.
Some Fridays, Agent-Uncle asked her sponsors if he could take his niece out. He promised her father he would look after her, he said. At the cinema, Agent-Uncle sometimes managed a corner seat in the last row and dragged her hand over his unzipped trouser. Bina wished she could sit back and enjoy the film; her palm felt sticky though she wiped it clean with a tissue, and she hated resting her unwashed hand against her nice sari. But she reminded herself that Agent-Uncle had done so much for her.
After the movie, Bina and Agent-Uncle ate at Daily, the restaurant behind Strand Cinema, or in Karachi Darbar in Karama. Bina loved the green and red lights outside the restaurant, flashing the Indian and Pakistani flag, Chicken Tikka and Fresh Fruit Juice; the green and pink sweets arranged on aluminum trays propped-up by glass windows, the blue-orange flame beneath the large iron kadais. They ate kababs and naans, papaad, pickles and mint-flavored yogurt in a hall with a large TV screen—the family section, not in the dormitory style hall for single men. Bina usually paid because she owed the Agent money for her ticket. Whenever the Agent paid, she ate less. “You like biryani,” he would ask. “I’ll order some.” Bina loved the saffron-flavored rice filled with chunks of mutton, but she didn’t want to be obligated to him more than she was already.
“No please. I’m full,” she would lie with a bright smile.
Life as housemaid was just as Agent-Uncle promised. There wasn’t much to do in her sponsor’s home besides taking care of the baby; the baby was more attached to her than to Memsahib. The couple worked a split shift: 8:00 a.m.-1: 00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. In her free time, Bina watched Star TV and Hindi videos.
Agent-Uncle was who he’d said he was. He was a maintenance man in the building. He wore a white uniform. He shared a room with a Filipino worker. He spoke English with confidence to the white people who lived in the building; Bina was so impressed by that; she, on the other hand, could barely understand anything they said and was nervous when they acknowledged her in the elevator.
And, Agent-Uncle had given her the job he’d promised and had not taken an agent fee. Bina heard stories from the other maids in the building about women who’d mortgaged their land, taken loans from the bank, and paid lots of money to Indian agents for a housemaid visa—thirty to forty thousand rupees. When the women arrived in Dubai, the agent locked them in a flat and forced them to be with ten to fifteen men a day. If they didn’t agree to be prostitutes they were beaten and starved. Prostitution is illegal in Dubai, but the women didn’t manage to escape, or were too scared to go to the police. Some of the women tried to kill themselves because they couldn’t bear the shame of telling their families back home. The agents in Dubai charged fifty to three hundred dirhams a customer; but the women didn’t get any money; the agents kept everything. At the end of two years, all that the women possessed was a toothpaste, towel, couple saris, comb, and contraceptive pills. In one-year the Indian consulate had freed twenty to thirty girls, put them in the Shelter House of the Indian Association, and sent them back to India.
Agent-Uncle was a hardworking man. He told Bina that from his seven hundred dirham salary, he saved quite a bit. Besides his job as a maintenance man, he cleaned cars for the residents of Khalid Apartments, helped move furniture, fixed curtain rods, and watered houseplants when the expatriates went on holiday in the summer. He was saving money so that he could marry her, the Agent said; maybe Bina could open a joint account with him. Bina agreed because she didn’t want him to think that she didn’t trust him; but she kept aside some money to send to her sisters and brother in Agra.
Bina accompanied Memsahib to Spinneys or Safestway and watched her buy four-liter plastic boxes of ice cream for dinner parties, boxes of Belgian chocolate, peaches, and plums. (Memsahib never ate much; she was always worried about her weight, and ate low-fat, no-cholesterol foods). Bina wished she could mail some of the food to her sisters and brother. How they loved chocolate and ice cream!
Agent-Uncle had a more frugal diet because he bought groceries from his salary. Sometimes when he dropped in to see Bina, she would give him parcels of food: chicken curry, vegetable korma, ice cream, and apple pie. Bina appreciated Memsahib’s kindness, but rationalized that it was easy to be kind when one had so much. “They spend in one day what I earn in a month,” Bina thought; but she would eat less than she normally did; that way she felt she had given her share to Agent-Uncle and hadn’t stolen food.
Agent-Uncle spent only a hundred dirhams a month on food. Every weekend, on Friday, he went to the Deira or Karama Fish market, bought half-kilo Kingfish for seven dirhams. For dinner, he fried a fillet of fish and papaad and ate it with rice and dal, and some Mother’s Recipe lime pickle. For lunch, he ate the leftovers. The Agent spent another fifty dirhams on the occasional movie, or sometimes on Friday Thalis at one of the Karama restaurants—Venus or Saravan Bhavan. Sometimes Bina accompanied him; they ate curries, puries, rice, and dessert—an all-you-can-eat deal—for just ten dirhams. It was less than the price of some of the coffees her Memsahib bought—a Starbucks or Dome coffee for twelve dirhams each. Bina couldn’t imagine why people would spend so much for a cup of coffee. “One hundred and fifty rupees for a coffee! That would feed my family for a week,” she said. A two-dirham cup of Instant Nescafe was good enough for Bina and her Agent.
She envied the smiling Punjabi couple’s wealth: the heavy bags they brought back home bulging with shopping: Liz Claiborne clothes, Clark Shoes, Debenham and Armani ties and shirts; Memsahib bought Clinique Anti-aging serum, Lancôme face masks, and Paloma Picasso perfume for more than two hundred dirhams each. Bina knew the disparity of her sponsor’s existence was a fact of life: being their dependent was better than being independent in a hot mud hut with dry chapattis and lentils to eat. But with all their money, the Sahib and Memsahib didn’t seem very happy. They squabbled constantly, doors would bang, and most nights they slept in separate rooms. Bina didn’t really sympathize with Memsahib. The Sahib was nicer than Father: he didn’t beat Memsahib and didn’t make her pregnant all the time.
Bina worked very hard for her sponsors and tried to please them as much as she could. But she feared that her job continued to depend on Agent-Uncle’s recommendations: he cleaned the Kapoor’s four-wheel Pajero and BMW and did odd jobs for them, like bringing the suitcases down from the attic for Memsahib and fixing their light bulbs. They were very fond of him, and gave him the Sahib’s old shirts, complimentary watches, money, and shoes.
Despite Agent-Uncle’s scrupulousness and the infrequency of their surreptitious encounters, safe sex proved not always safe. A condom ruptured: Agent-Uncle held it up under the flickering tube-light and they watched it leak.
A month later it started, the nausea and the fatigue.
Agent-Uncle tried to persuade Bina to abort the baby in India. “Abortion is very illegal here. Just yesterday they put a doctor in prison for a year. After that, she will be deported to Iraq! The doctor was making abortions in her apartment and clinic in Karama. She charged four thousand dirhams for one abortion. And anyway, who can afford that!”
When Bina started to cry, Agent-Uncle grew more conciliatory. “I’ll marry you. You must be patient. Tell the Kapoors there’s a family emergency. They’ll give you a ticket home.” Before he shut the front door behind him, he said, “You mustn’t trouble me about this anymore. Maybe your nail tore the condom. I have worries of my own.”
Almost imperceptibly Agent-Uncle’s ardor began to cool. When they ate at Bombay Chowpatty in the Lamcy food court, he watched Spiderman on the plasma TV screen or flicked through the Gulf News as men from the subcontinent in red T-shirts stacked brown trays on steel trolleys and wiped tables. Bina drank masala chai and watched flickering lights reflecting off squares of mosaic, children squabbling around one-dirham gumball machines. “There’s war in Iraq,” Agent-Uncle said. Bina didn’t know where Iraq was, but she’d heard of America. “George Bush,” he pointed, “Saddam Hussein.”
In the maid’s room, on weekday mornings, Bina patiently kissed Agent-Uncle’s pear-shaped stomach and chubby legs. She needed to thaw the coldness that sheathed Agent-Uncle, thin as the sheath he’d stopped putting on himself. He had to marry her: Bina wanted her child. Tirelessly, she sought to please him—tried to be inventive and enthusiastic, all the while thinking of the new mutton recipe that Memsahib had taught her or how Memsahib’s baby swung her hands and hips when she heard nursery rhymes or Hindi film songs.
As the weeks passed, Bina’s stomach began to show beneath the loose kurtas that she now wore. Agent-Uncle grew increasingly panicky and angry; he told the Sahib that Bina’s father was very ill and she needed to make a visit to Agra. The Punjabi couple believed him and comforted her. They booked her ticket, bought her a suitcase, and filled it with clothes, fabric, deodorants, soaps, halwa, dates, and saris.
Memsahib hugged her tightly the evening before her flight. They’d miss her, she said. The baby would miss her. “You’re a good maid,” she said. “We’ve bought you a round trip ticket to Delhi and back. Please return.”
“I have to come back.” Bina slipped her sandals in a Spinney’s plastic bag and dropped it into her suitcase. “I must pay back Agent-Uncle for my earlier ticket.”
Memsahib stared at her. “What ticket? We paid for your ticket and visa. We also reimbursed your Uncle generously for all his efforts in finding us a good maid.”
“I meant my ticket from Agra to Delhi,” Bina said quickly, not looking at Memsahib. She could feel her face go hot and sweaty; she could hear her heart pounding.
For a moment Memsahib said nothing. Then she placed the pile of folded saris in Bina’s suitcase, and said, “If you need anything while you’re in Agra, please call me. You’re part of our family.”
Bina looked away to hide the tears that filled her eyes. Memsahib seemed to mean what she’d said, but Bina was not sure. Memsahib liked people quickly, but seemed to forget them when they were not around; Bina had seen her do that with her office friends who resigned and went away: to Australia or England or Pakistan; with her parents who lived in Chandigarh and her brother who lived in Hong Kong.
Her last night in Dubai, Bina lay awake. She could not understand how Agent-Uncle had lied to her, just as she could not understand how Mother and Father killed Third Sister. She wondered if she hated the Agent as much as she hated Father and Mother; she wondered if she loved the Agent as much as she loved Father and Mother. Agent-Uncle was the first man Bina had loved. He was the only man who’d touched her. How could she forget him? Sometimes she’d felt safe when he put his arms around her, stroked her hair and back, and let her sleep against his chest. And Agent-Uncle was the father of her child. Maybe that’s why she’d lied to Memsahib: Bina didn’t him to want to him lose his job; she didn’t want to cause him harm. But she didn’t know if she wanted to see him again.
That night, Bina longed for Third Sister and wondered where she was. Had Third Sister left the Earth Plane? Or was she still in Father’s home in Agra? Had Third Sister forgotten Bina? Bina missed her two younger sisters and brother in Agra. But she had always loved Third Sister best.
The next morning, before Bina left for the Airport, Agent-Uncle came to see her. He slipped an envelope into her hand with the phone number of his friend in Delhi and a five hundred dirham note. He had written in Hindi beneath the phone number:
Come back quickly, my Dil ki Rani. Don’t be sad. I wish I could come with you. God willing, we will be married and have another child soon.
Bina arrived in Delhi and didn’t contact Agent-Uncle’s friend. Nor did she travel to Agra; she didn’t want to see Father and Mother. She wrote a letter to her sisters at her friend Pallavi’s address; she also sent them a draft for two thousand rupees.
Bina slept in a plastic tent near a construction site in Kaka Nagar, near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “You’re beautiful. Young. Why don’t you become a prostitute? There’s money in that,” the other women who lived at the construction site said.
An auto-rickshaw boy arranged an appointment with a Bihari doctor who lived in a ground floor flat near Tilak Bridge. The Doctor agreed to see Bina before the clinic officially opened in the morning; he said that he’d abort the child for a thousand rupees. The boy told Bina that the Doctor might charge less if he found her pretty enough.
The night before she went to see the Doctor, Bina called Agent-Uncle. She asked him if she could keep the baby, give it to an adoption agency or something. He said the shame would be too much. The news might spread. His parents would never accept her as his wife. Trust me, my janaam, my darling, he said. She had to be patient and believe in his love. Their savings were increasing. He was cleaning more cars. He’d used their joint account money as down-payment for a plot of land near Faridabad.
“I’ll give you good discount,” the doctor said the next morning, fingering his handlebar moustache that stretched almost across his cheeks.
Bina lay back on the bed. Outside it began to rain. This year the rains were late: 1,100 people had already died of drought and heat; on dried lakebeds, children played and villagers offered prayers for rain. The baby turned and kicked. It was still alive. The doctor had not begun. Not with the scooping out bit.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Bina said, sitting up suddenly.
“It’s a very easy procedure. Nothing to get worried about. After this appointment, come and visit me again. Next time who knows, I’ll pay you,” the doctor said, returning to his desk, shifting his wife and children’s framed photograph to the side and playing with his ballpoint pen.
In the bathroom, Bina looked at her face that looked like someone else. Through the open window, she heard the street vendors pushing their carts, dogs barking, a scooter start, and a man blowing his nose. “All these years, I’ve waited for a mother who will love me,” Third Sister said suddenly, hiccupping, elbows pushing, feet kicking.
Heart filled with air like the stem of a free-floating water hyacinth, Bina draped on her sari, opened the side door and walked out into a street edged with light. She saw men and women, steel katoris in hand, squat on the railway tracks, a boy in a tattered shirt rummaging through garbage, and a school bus hurtling by. Bina rested her hand on her distended belly, turned her face upwards, and drank the rain.