By Hassaan Mirza
Her spoon played with the onions turning translucent. She tipped the bowl containing the chicken, garlic and ginger in the frying pan and the oil stopped hissing. Wiping her hands on her apron, Rashida looked at the clock. It was almost four, though from the dusty kitchen window the sky was the color of dirty socks, woolen with heavy monsoon clouds. The minnow-shaped leaflets of the big neem tree broke away, set free before the thunderstorm. If she weren’t so old she would leave her korma burning on the stove and undo the braid that held her knee-length hair and run onto the street where the children had gathered with their cricket bats to wait for the rain.
The garlic was burning.
She whipped round to find the clock’s large hand on two. Quickly she turned the fire off and vigorously scraped the black garlic cloves stuck to pan, remembering how her mother used to scold her when she was a girl: “Rashida Begum you’ll end up burning your husband’s house, you wretched thing.” No great harm was done, though. She had been cooking korma for sixty odd years in this house. She had watched her sisters serve tea to prospective mother-in-laws and be approved; she had known cancer barnacled on her mother’s breasts, whisky burning in her father’s throat. Nothing had been burned down. She had grown old in these four mildewed walls without the husband her mother had promised her, outliving them all. This korma too had survived.
Rashida reignited the fire and grabbed the spice wheel from the shelf. Using her hand, she scooped and sprinkled one spice a time— turmeric, cumin, garam masala, ground red chili. They settled like a rich layer of carpet dust as she stirred the concoction.
She felt a sneeze building up, a small storm within itself, fueled by spice and color itching on the inside of her nose. Her head rose higher with each gasp, preparing for the moment, eyes closing in anticipation.
There was no sneeze.
Well, that was disappointing, she thought, faintly angry. She liked sneezing; often as a child she would poke a sharpened pencil in her nostril, gently rubbing the tip on soft tissue to ignite a sneeze. Her mother used to smack Rashida when she found her doing this. She probably thought she was trying to find boogers to eat; she chuckled as she thought of it now.
And then, faint, somewhere from the mohallah sounded the first azan. Broadcast from speakers hanging like giant ears on slender minarets dotting the vicinity, calls to prayer slowly filled the sky, as if each was an echo of the first one, a word or a verse behind. Then they grew stronger and louder, chasing, tumbling into each other. Rashida imagined people walking towards mosques with umbrellas clutched under their armpits, just in case it started to rain on the way back. The children always forgot. Once she had seen one of the street children running away in the rain with a newspaper on his head, like a deer with something stuck in its antlers.
The korma was almost made. She poured the yoghurt and set the fire on low. She watched it starting to bubble for a while, then sliced almonds into narrow cuticles and set them aside for garnish.
The girls better eat this. McDonald-munching monkeys. Amina, their mother, prided in the fact that they never chewed their bones, that they left the marrow unsucked, the cartilage untouched. Wasteful little witches. She would keep them in place if she was their mother. She would ban their cartoons and their McDonald burgers, rap their knuckles if they forgot their umbrellas and came dripping like wet dogs on the carpet. Spoiled, ill-bred bitches. And of course they were late again. No respect for the old hobbling and making korma for them. She looked at the clock again. It was about four forty. This is too late. Just then, she heard the gate open and a car drive up the ramp.
The front door opened and the girls came running in, piping “Dadi! Dadi!” in piercing voices.
Amina had probably told them to call her that, even though she was their grandaunt, not their grandmother. She didn’t mind, not even when they tugged at her clothes, brandishing water filled plastic bags containing goldfishes. Amina followed them, her “salaam Aunty”. Rashida looked down at her apron to find it smeared red, yellow and orange from years of making korma. This time a patch near the hem was oranged by turmeric covered fingers. She gave a weak nod towards the girls. Shrill things, she thought.