A trolley of hope and biscuits. Chai and wishes. Cashew nuts and maybes.
A trolley, that was presented to strangers her mother called guests, but was now ready to be cleared off. Wiped squeaky clean by the dampness of a dirty rag. The food – and the plates that contained it –to be pulled off, washed and then placed back into cabinets where only the “special-occasion” china was kept. China, so exclusive, that on most days it only peeked from behind a glass cabinet and a gathered coat of its own dust. Peeping patiently for evenings when it would be summoned out, but only for those certain special guests. Neither for neighbors nor for family. Not, even for friends. Especially not for her own friends or that annoying woman who showed up unannounced to brag about her daughters and their husbands. But, for those peculiar strangers who were politely referred to as guests. How a stranger could possibly manage to fit into the dignified role of a guest, she had no idea, nor did she question the logic. Probably because these strangers brought with them… hopeful wishes that maybe…it would happen this time. They might be the ones...
So they were presented fresh biscuits from the corner bakery, steaming cups of chai and a perfect assortment of nuts on a trolley so ornate and spotless it would reassuringly carry ingredients of a prayed miracle.
The guests were gone now. The chai had been enjoyed. The food, though not all devoured, was at least tasted. A few crumbs of the biscuits sprinkled over painted daisies of the exclusive china; like residue debris. The mixed assortment of nuts had even been poked at with tacky nail polish throughout the evening. The cashew nuts seemed to have been a definite hit with this family. Even pistachios were savored through lips that matched the color of the tacky pink nails. But almonds remained untouched. Maybe they were truly tasteless, maybe because they were stuck with brown skin and had not the paleness of other nuts.
She hoped she would never feel like an almond again after tonight.
Chai, though also the color of almond peels, was relished to its last sip. Saucers, boasting sticky brown halos around circles where cups were glued to the tea’s own sugariness. Different shades of red blemishing the edge of each cup where lips had touched slightly. Lips that blew away the scald before cautiously swallowing succinct gulps, like scared first kisses in the back of a storage room. The lingering sweetness of tanned sugar, at the bottom of these crimson-bordered cups.
And then the cake. There was always a cake. It was essential. Almost obligatory. For some reason or the other, her mother felt that the addition of a frosted cake would prove to be an apt substitute for a love potion. However, only a wedge was fractioned out, tasted and then put aside with a fork weighed down with a large glob of baked cream.
Then they were gone. The strangers, the guests. All that remained were the left-over biscuits, a few last drops of chai, and an unequal assortment of nuts, along with hope, wishes and many recurring maybes. She decided to clear up at least the trolley and deal with the hoping, wishing and maybe-ing later.
“Hello…who this speaking?”
“This is Mrs. Syed, may I know whose calling?”
“Oh, Salaam Mrs. Syed…it is Mrs. Ashraf speaking.”
“How you are doing?”
“Fine. I am sorry I don’t think I…”
“Yes, yes. Bhabi Sughra … you know she close family friend yours.”
“Oh, of course yes.”
“Yes, she tell me about you and your daughter Bushra.”
“Oh, yes sure.”
“My son Nido, he study MBA in USA college. Very smart boy!”
“Nadeem…Nido his nickname na.”
“Oh how adorable!”
“So he in USA but my daughter Sadia and I were wonder if we could come and meet you and Bushra sometime?”
“Why, of course. It would be a pleasure to have you over. Which day would work out better for you? Thursday?”
“No Thursday not good. I go swimming you know, every Thursday. It is good for my figure. I am not like old-fashioned women.”
“That’s wonderful! Very impressive!”
“Thank you, thank you. Wednesday not good?”
“No, why not. Wednesday is perfectly fine. Bushra usually has a study group at her university that day, but I’ll tell her to stay home specially.”
“Ok good! See you then at six in evening. Ok?”
“Ok, bye!” Click
…Biscuits. Reminded her of childhood. And how guests, though still strangers to her, never intimidated or questioned her beauty. A beauty she was sure she possessed, but despised when strangers searched for it. Peering at her flesh carefully and squeezing their eyes, as if it would suddenly appear out of her face. Jump at them like a gilded shine which would dim her cocoa complexion; magnified eyes hidden behind spectacles and a nose which was not quite so elfin.
She was so sure she was beautiful as a child. No matter what she wore and how she looked, the image she had, of herself, in an imagined mind, battled with all the perceptions others had. She was not short, fat or dark. She was beautiful. Like princesses with long blond tresses in Disney cartoons. She believed she also wore long frilly dresses like pictures of fairies in pop-up storybooks. And in her mind, she even walked, talked and felt like one. There was also a prince for her. A prince who would surely be enchanted by her beauty, someday. There would be no old woman staring at her and no photograph of a nicknamed man for whom the search for the woman of his dreams was a choice his mother was to make.
It was as simple as biscuits back then. As easy as a fairy-tale. And when the guests would leave, she would stealthily creep into the same kitchen, and eat the leftover cookies. Rounded baked rings sandwiching a layer of vanilla that she pulled apart and licked at. Brown biscuits sprinkled with sugar grains on top. And, oh those triangles of delight! She would devour them all before her mother would walk in. She never ate the salted crackers though, those tasteless biscuits. Who ate them anyway? Biscuits were supposed to be sweet. Gooey with sandwiched layers of chocolate and vanilla.
And if guests were strangers, she did not have to meet them.
But now she did. She was the reason strangers became respected guests all of a sudden. She was the reason the trolley was so ornate, so spotless, and full of lavish delicacies, as hopes of love potions.
She reminisced the days when the opposite sex meant obese boys in her Geography class. Their elastic ties slanting to the right of shirts, their tails dangling out of navy blue shorts. The only role their mothers played in her life was when they came to pick them up from school, the playground or birthday parties. Now these same boys did their Masters’ in business colleges abroad and their mothers proudly nicknamed them Nido as they searched for beauty in girls who were sinfully single.
Reminiscing of those exact same childhood days, she took a bite of a biscuit so sweet the pain pierced through her gums. It felt great! There were no salty or tasteless crackers left. All that was left were powdered crumbs. The strangers had finished them all. No, the guests had finished them all. They seemed to like the salt as they boasted of taste.
With a sugared taste in her mouth, the kind that pastries and Danishes invoked, she picked up the plate of biscuits; the sweetened rectangles lying opposite the one lone salty cracker and began placing them in their respective containers. She hoped they wouldn’t have to be taken out for strangers and guests anymore. She hoped that the strangers who had just left would no longer be strangers…
“Impossible Ma. I told you I am not doing this anymore.”
“Bushra are you mad? I stay up all night praying for a good proposal and you make it so much more difficult for me!”
“Ma, you know what happened the last time and the time before that.”
“It happens darling, maybe this family will like you. They sounded like a very nice family. Very posh! She was even speaking in English!”
“Well then just show them a picture of me like they show us a picture of their sons. I am not doing the whole bringing-out-the-trolley routine, serving chai and answering the questions over and over again. I refuse to. I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again after the last family.”
“But they are coming strictly to see you!”
“Well, then, tell them I am busy. I just won’t.”
“Wait till your father gets home and I tell him. He has spoiled you.”
“Ma, I can’t, I have a study group you know that.”
“Well, then, cancel it!”
“Yes! I don’t know why your father has planted this germ of seeking education into your head? Mark my words, you can collect a chest full of degrees but if you remain single, you will be taunted for the rest of your life.”
“Well I can handle that. At least I won’t be a commodity pushing a trolley out in front of picky strangers!”
“Fine, then don’t! Do as you please! I am tired of women all around the family asking me why you are still single and don’t get proposals. If you want to be stubborn, do as you please. I will live. If you don’t care about your parents, go ahead.”
“Ok, fine Ma! Just this once! But if they turn out like all the rest, I am no longer serving chai in hopes of proposals.”
“That’s fine. I promise you it will be different this time. She sounded very nice. Did I tell you he is doing his Master’s in America? She did not seem uneducated like the last one. This may actually be good for you. You come out wearing that satin green kurta we stitched for Eid, and there is no way any mother in her right mind would turn down my daughter for their son. He may be smart and intelligent but my Bushra is no less.”
“Oh! Stop Ma! Don’t get your hopes high yet.”
“Ok, and please stop going out in the sun so much. It has darkened your complexion even more. Go now fetch some milk and lemon juice.”
“Ma, please my skin won’t change and neither will my nose, nor my smile, not even…”
“Oh, just stop, give me a chance darling. These herbal remedies have worked since your grandmother’s time. I will ask Imran to take you to college on his motorbike. He is your brother, after all. I am sure he also sees that all this waiting for buses in the sun has made your skin way too dark. And please don’t come out wearing those damned eye-glasses this time! I will talk to your father. I think he has some money saved from last month’s lecture. We will go get you contact lenses. They do miracles…”
… She picked up the emptied teacups next. One by one. Each with its own shade of lipstick kissing its rim. Shocking pink, cherry red and cocoa brown. Lips she hoped were smiling at her when pasted on edges of cups like indifferent sighs. She wondered how chai tasted after years of drinking it every evening and in every lounge. She didn’t know.
As a young girl, not so slim, not so fair, and not so striking, she was told not to drink tea by her cautious mother because chai was dark and would only enhance the brown in her skin. So she didn’t. The same way she agreed not to play out in the sun as often as the boys. But now, in her late twenties, her skin was still as brown as the dark of chocolate. The black of night. The complexion synonymous with poverty, she could not help but wonder. Who decides? She did not know, but once again she did not question.
Teabags, as plump as herself, dangled along the edge of polished porcelain. Were they curvaceous or just plain obese? And when does a female frame border between a voluptuous figure to unattractive fat? Did her own silhouette resemble the pudgy tea bags or was she still considered just tastefully healthy. All she knew was that between the demands of her mothers and the sniggering of skinny and fair girls who fanned their faces with hands that bore engagement rings and pronounced the word ‘fiancé’ as if each syllable was to be crooned; she would never know. Maybe that’s why she abhorred the company of her own shadow. The irregularity of its shape with its dark tint was like a mirror that accompanied and daunted her. A walking companion she knew she could do without.
So she washed each cup carefully and then scrubbed the daisies on the saucers as if to wash away their trace with water so warm, it wrinkled the tips of her fingers into fleshy raisins. Fat and now unwanted teabags, she discarded them with apathy in the garbage. The tea-pot and the china all rinsed clear, as if tea had never browned their insides. Her fleshy raisins remained the same color, however. Fingers she avoided fanning herself with or even running through her hair during class; where she surrendered to smug diamonds which scraped against every other skin but hers. The flesh of her own pinky to her thumb, still bare.
But every now and then there would be a call from a strange woman who wanted to come over for tea. And hope that Nido – or his mother - would not notice her complexion, her nose, her body or her eyes but present her with her own diamond – even silver would do – so she, too, could join the club. She, too, could wave back at peers and aunts, and she, too, could enjoy the exclusive thrill of uttering the word ‘fiancé’.
“Oh, you must be Bushra! Leave the trolley over there. We drink tea later. Come sit here by me. I am Mrs. Ashraf.”
“Are you sure Aunty?”
“No, no, I watch my figure. It grow very big, very fast! Come here. This is Nido’s Auntie and this is his young sister Sadia. She doing A-levels.”
“Look at me… Very charming girl you are!”
“Look look, Sadia, she is charming na? Very charming.”
“So what you do my dear?”
“I am doing my Master’s in literature”
“Oh, that is real good. I love Romeo and Juliet. I read it a lot. How romantic, na?”
“Yes, it is Aunty.”
“My Nido love books too. All the time reading. All the time reading. But only English books.”
“That is wonderful. I am majoring in Urdu literature, though, Aunty.”
“Urdu literature? What for?”
“I believe that some of the finest writers were from this part of the world and wrote in Urdu.”
“Oh, ok. That is nice also. One should read everything. My Sadia is taking A-level Urdu. She says it is an easy A. I say then take it.”
“What else? I like your green dress… Very nice…very nice.”
“Thank you Aunty. My mother and I stitched it for Eid last year.”
“That is good. We buy clothes ready made but stitching also well.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Would you like some chai now Aunty?”
The cake had been put away. Back in the fridge where it would now lie and rot. Maybe another piece would be sliced away to satisfy midnight hunger pangs one night, and her mother would urge the rest of the household to finish the rest because it was food and there were children in the world who didn’t get to enjoy such goodies. Children who did not get to eat biscuits – neither salty nor sweet – or enjoy chai in airy drawing rooms. Neither did they have to push out a trolley that carried such treats.
But the trolley was almost empty now. Just a tiny plate of nuts to be put back into the jar and sealed shut. A fistful of almonds to munch on.
Almonds. So dark on the outside yet milky white once they shed their skin. Was she just as fair as an almond, hidden beneath a peel? Maybe just “charming” on the outside but truly beautiful inside? That may have been the reason that Mrs. Ashraf gazed deep and long into her skin with such conviction. Not because she was dark, but because – like almonds – she exuded a beauty that would unearth once the layer of charm was scraped away.
As charming as the skin of almonds. The color of chai. Charming and all the cautioned subtlety that the compliment entailed. Because of a dark complexion, she was not pretty or God forbid even gorgeous, but simply just… charming.
The trolley had done its deed. It had behaved itself and was now tired. She was exhausted too. She thought of Nido’s photograph and fantasized. Not necessarily of lust or their first kiss or even the manly touch of a warm hand on her flesh. But, just him and as much fantasy as the paper-flat photo could muster. She could not tell if he was as tall as the men whom she usually found attractive. Eyes concealed behind sunglasses, the color of his eyes were impossible to decipher. Was he somber? Was he witty? Did his breath reek in the morning? Did he snore? Was he a romantic like film heroes or just a heartbroken college student in the west for whom female sexuality was no longer a mystery, her nudity no longer a fantasy. Had he seen it all?
Still dreaming of what he may be like, she sat in front of a trolley she had now completely cleared up when her mother walked in and politely inquired “Are you done?”
Slightly embarrassed by the shameful thoughts that floated in her mind, with her mother still pacing around, she whispered an answer: “Yes.”
“Bushra dear you looked beautiful tonight.” her mother smiled.
“Thank you. I don’t know though…she called me charming. And I don’t know if she was too pleased by the fact that I am more fluent in Urdu than English.”
“Oh who cares about that? You speak wonderful English. I should thank Bhabi Sughra for thinking about us. Hopefully they will propose.”
“But what if they don’t?”
“Why shouldn’t they? Everything went so well.”
“He looks quite young. She said it is a recent photograph. Nice looking boy isn’t he?”
“You couldn’t tell much. It’s just a bust shot.”
“Look at you, girls of today, absolutely no shame. I didn’t even see your father till our wedding night! Be thankful for what you have.”
“They didn’t ask for my picture though? What if their son doesn’t like me?”
“Rubbish. Why wouldn’t he? Anyway, don’t keep the phone busy, they may call in the next few days.”
“Ma, now please don’t rush at every phone call like you did last time. They will call in their own time if they want to propose. Ok?”
“So when am I chasing after the phone? I am just saying don’t keep the line busy. You know how your brother spends hours calling up his friends. Don’t worry, I will tell Imran to stay away from the phone myself. Our phone should be available just in case they call.”
“Alright dear, they are about to air the last episode of ‘Tanha Khilari’ on PTV. Switch the light off when you come out and remember, tell Imran not to keep the phone busy for a while.”
Bushra nodded and then shoved the trolley back into its corner. She hoped that the next time she would beckon it out from that corner, it would not be for guests who were also strangers. She was hopeful. She could not help but wish. Maybe the next time the phone would ring it would be Mrs. Ashraf requesting to stop by again. Or maybe even a husky voice of a man called Nido!
For now, she was to go and watch a television drama full of gorgeous and skinny damsels in between countless interruptions by commercials of bleach creams and facial cleansers that guaranteed turning any female from just charming to beautiful.
Switching off the light, she walked out of the darkness wondering if the phone would ring. She walked out with her own set of inevitable hopes, wishes and maybes.
The phone did ring….
But they never called.