Rich. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly stuffed with things they don’t need. Like my grandmother’s brother’s plastic bag suffocating with free rice every Friday outside the mosque in Malpur, my village. My dado always spoke about luscious green giants of the Marghala Hills that protected our homes from the Djinns. I remember thinking about whether they’d protect us from the humans too.
My heart runs fast, almost like it’ll die if it doesn’t escape. I don’t like to wash these deeshes that baji ji’s(madam boss) sister brought from Englaaand. I also don’t like to dust the creepy faces baji ji’s uncle collected from Afreeka. My baji ji makes it a point to remind me every day. “I will throw you to the dogs if you break anything!!!” I always smile my big smile, but in my head when she threatens me. Everything gets worse when she sees me smile. Back home, we have plenty of fur-scratching homefull dogs. They have no home, but they have me and my sister.
Then there are the children. Ali is ten, a year younger than I am. Sara is only five and she is my secret city sister. That’s what she and I whisper to each other when I braid her hair or play hide ‘n seek. I don’t know what my ‘baji ji’ will do if she ever found out. Probably throw me to the dogs. I can’t help but smile again, but inside my head.
Unhappy. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly unhappy. Baji’s husband, the rich man who gives me money at the end of the month is stranger than our village crazy person who goes around with a half moustache and screams that the world is going to end soon. Baji ji’s husband has angry eyebrows, like they will jump right out and smack you. He rarely speaks, even to his children. When he is at home, which is not often, he sits in his room, staring at something called a lattpop…lappitop or something like that. I think it’s what they call a baby compooter.
Once I was sent by baji to give him tea. It was a rare occasion when I saw his eyebrows at peace, while crazily punching the buttons on that thing. Like his fingers were tiny fly swatters and the keys, flies. We don’t have fly killers in the village. We roll up old papers and practice our aiming skills. He has tie-dyed marble eyes and a grey-greenish shaved face that reminds me of the sticky lizards swimming on our roof back home. Our roof with all the patchy cement looks like snake skin. Snake Vs. Lizard. I’d like the front seats to that show. Wrestling is serious business in my village. You can joke about the Mosque’s Imam’s crooked eyes, or about the neighbor aunti’s monkeyish screams at night, but never about wrestling.
Baji ji mostly speaks on four occasions. First, when she is scolding me. Second, when she is scolding her children. Third, when she is fighting with her husband. And fourth, when she is talking to faces on her lappitop or the phone. Ali stays in his room after school. His fingers crawling all over gadgets like spider legs. I once woke up to a spider scurrying across my face when I was six. My sister came to the rescue and smashed it on my nose, then ran away crying. Another time she cried till she couldn’t breath was when I was leaving for Islamabad. Abba didn’t say goodbye. I blamed his gangerine-infested leg.
I can’t talk to a ‘box’ like they do. I can’t even watch TV for long. The TV at my parents’ place doesn’t have a remote control. So my sister and I run to adjust the volume or change the channels more than we actually sit down to watch. One time, we were in such a hurry to win our abba’s praise and see who turned it off first, we almost knocked it off from the stack of faded beetroot coloured bricks used as its table. My amma had spread her favourite embroidered dupatta over the bricks to make the table look pretty. Abba didn’t mind the almost-accident and just muttered something about it being a good riddance. And that, “…it creates unhappy minds and unsatisfied hearts. ” I wonder how he came up with that. Baji ji never gives away anything until her husband forces it out of her. Like he did with this TV. It’s just her bad words that she can’t keep inside her teeth-brimming mouth. I’ve never seen so much white in one mouth. It reminds me of my dado’s funeral.
A light bulb hangs in the centre of our main room that’s the size of baji ji’s kitchen. I feel sad for the bulb, alone and hanging upside down like a post-sacrificial goat.But I like electricity. It lets me see my family’s faces when the sky tucks itself into its favourite black blanket. We only have one blanket. Baji’s husband gave it to us one winter morning after I heard her scream like a cat who’s tail got caught in the door and then the whole house caught fire. Fire does’t scare me. It lets me see my family’s faces when there’s no electricity. Amma says that the fire makes her see greenish-brown fairies of Malpur dancing in my eyes. I have my abba’s skinny arms, legs and broad feet. Amma says she only gave me her best, her perky nose with a bump at the end. The sort that would break the fall when rolling down a steep hill. And her almond-coloured skin.
We like to sit and talk around the fire that abba builds for us. We all merge into each other and form a giant sunflower, huddled towards the warm light. They are the happiest flowers I know. My mother doesn’t talk much when we gather. She just smiles wide enough for her thin lips to disappear between each other. Instead, she prefers stringing together colourful beads on weak threads that she sells outside our village’s one-door girls’ school. Colourful, small, round, shiny beaded bracelets are a hit with young school girls.
“Salma!” I hear Baji ji shouting my name. I try to numb by head by thinking of abba. Nights when he’d take me out for walks after a meal of lentils and roti. Nights when Abba still had his good leg, he gathered wood with hands that had veins protruding like roots from our Malpur trees. I’d tag along and watch the stars. My abba never went to school. But he knew his specks in the sky. An old employer when abba worked as a driver in the city taught him about the faraway worlds. The stars are the same here in the city. But they don’t seem as bright as my village stars.
My ears warn me about Baji ji stomping towards me with her noisy shoes. I don’t think I will last long here. I say this every other month. I think I will go back home. I say this every other day. But then I think about Sara. And how few years from now she’ll be sitting locked in her room, getting sucked into a star-less world, with no light except from the TV or lappitop machines. That thought makes it hard to breathe. Like someone just sneaked in and strangled my neck from the inside.
“I am done with you! I will surely throw you to the dogs today!” Baji ji digs her nails into my arms and drags me. I remember the colourful beads nudging each other to keep hanging, keep shining, keep being. I remember my mother’s lip-lost face. I smile my big smile again, but inside my head.