ABOUT THE STORY The most constant and pressing of life’s quotidian tasks: that of running a household. Meals perpetually to be made, the furniture and floors to be kept in shape, surfaces tended and the depths beneath scrutinised. And visitors always coming and going, including those employed to ensure the house’s upkeep and and uphold the householder’s honour and prestige.
In Aamer Hussein’s story, domestic thinking is beautifully mingled with the thinking of domestics in a series of tableaux from the residence of Mrs Meer of London, featuring its many visitors, mostly from the subcontinent. Some characters age visibly over just the span of a few pages, while others seem to stay just the same, the progress of time and human alliances marked unmistakably by the changes that appear in such things as moustaches, carpets, dress and deference. Pleasingly, the narrator measures out his warm mockery even-handedly across classes and genders, and even Mrs Meer, who otherwise controls the world of the story, is subjected to a moment of unconscious self-exposure when she claims she cannot train a new servant because “my time is fully occupied already.” As the story winds down, we are shown an orange being cut up into segments; but the narrative effect is just the reverse, and we have pieced together in our minds a physical space, a social world, and a view of human nature that we continue to imagine into life beyond the boundaries of the story.
‘The Visitors’ was first published in 2012 as ‘Hauslamand’ in the Karachi literary journal Dunyazad. The translator, Sabeeha Ahmed Husain, is also the author’s mother, and has long presided over a flourishing household in Maida Vale in London.
translated from Urdu by Sabeeha Ahmed Husain with the collaboration of Carole Smith and the author
‘YOU HAVE TO TRY THE BIRYANI I MAKE,’ Mr Beg said as he stitched a cushion cover. ‘I swear it would leave lords and princes licking their fingers, ma’am.’
Then the conversation turned to different types of biryani, and Beg probably dropped a few stitches as he prepared his imaginary feast.
Beg had arrived in London only a short while ago; he said he’d had a big furniture business in the Gulf. ‘I employed several craftsmen, ma’am, and picked up all their different lingos. Then one by one they left for home when they’d earned enough money, some to Thailand, others to the Philippines or Indonesia. The business ground to a standstill, so I packed up and left for London.’
Lean and lanky, with grizzled hair and protruding teeth, Beg was a talkative man. His continuous chatter was, in Mrs Meer’s words, enough to wash out all the wax from one’s ears.
It so happened that Mrs Meer talked about Beg’s culinary expertise to several of her friends and set their tastebuds tingling. One offered her kitchen for a cooking session. ‘Why not come to my place, which is more spacious, and bring your lovely apricot pudding?’ another suggested. A young doctor friend from Bihar said he’d make a dish of haleem; his wife vetoed the idea because serving biryani and haleem at the same meal was profligate and the haleem could be enjoyed better on its own on another occasion.
For several days, as he completed the upholstering of the sofa, Beg made plans for the fantasy banquet he would serve. When his stitching and stretching were complete, Mrs Meer requested: ‘How about a date for the promised biryani? Could you come along and cook it here next Sunday?’
Beg agreed with alacrity. The date was fixed, and he asked for some cash in advance to buy the ingredients.
On Saturday, Mrs Meer tried to contact Beg but received no response from his mobile. She thought he had probably gone shopping. But Sunday came with still no news from Beg. Mrs Meer grew anxious. The arrangement was for Beg to come and start preparing the feast in the morning. Had he misunderstood? Perhaps he intended to cook the rice at his home and bring it over?
The guests were expected at six. No sign of Beg with his biryani. It’s already four o’clock, too late to make it here, Mrs Meer said to herself. What next? I’ll ring Memon Biryaniwala’s restaurant and order a pot of that famous biryani of his that they’ve all been raving about, to keep on standby.
However, as the guests were turning out on that freezing evening in the hope of a steaming fragrant dish of rice and lamb, serving something lesser would be an anti-climax and the special occasion would fall flat.
It was nearly five when Beg finally rang. ‘Ma’am, I’m in Birmingham refurbishing a huge mansion. New curtains, new cushions, new covers for a great number of armchairs and sofas, I’ll be here for at least another week. Whatever made you think I’d be cooking for you today? Had we fixed a day, ma’am?’
‘But Mr Beg, you took an advance for the shopping…’
‘What advance, ma’am? Honest to God, I gratefully accepted what you gave me for my labour and I thought that you’d given me a bonus because you were pleased with my work. No date was fixed for the biryani, ma’am!’
The bell rang. Mrs Meer wearily put down the receiver and went to the door.
About seven years later, Mrs Meer received a call from a girl called Safia who said she was a skilled chef and could cook all the classic dishes, including biryani. A mutual acquaintance had suggested she get in touch to offer her services to Mrs Meer.
‘Could you bring me a sample of your biryani to taste? What do you charge for one portion? If it’s the way we like it we’ll order more.’
Safia arrived on a blustery Saturday in February. Torrents of rain had fallen in the morning; by noon the pavements were thick with snow. The phone rang and rang again. The girl seemed to have lost her way. Mrs Meer’s grandson Ali, who was visiting for the weekend and had been texting friends on his mobile, got to his feet with a groan, slipped on his shoes, threw on his overcoat and set off to look for her. He couldn’t see much through the swirling sleet, but a female form emerged in the middle of the road in front of the building. Bundled up in a great coat, plus balaclava and boots, she was waving her arms about frantically. Ali gestured towards the entrance and she crossed over to greet him.
Safia was about forty, small, plump and rosy-cheeked like a northerner. The rice she brought was fragrant, sprinkled with almonds and perhaps pistachios, and surrounded by tiny meatballs. It tasted fine, but it wasn’t, in Mrs Meer’s book, an authentic biryani: she’d call it a pulao. Safia was clearly a good cook, though, and versatile. Mrs Meer decided to have her over to cook a meal once or twice a week.
Mrs Meer learnt that Safia was a widow. Her husband had been shot at by some mad man while he was strolling on a Karachi street and had died as he waited for the ambulance a witness from a nearby stall had summoned. Their son was now with Safia’s mother while she had come to London to work for an expatriate family.
She wasn’t only a good cook; she was also skilled at ironing, sewing and dressmaking. One day she looked at Beg’s cushions and said: ‘Ma’am, these covers are really old now. If you like I can make new ones for you.’
Within a week or two she produced the new covers. She said that she had made wedding dresses for various friends and neighbours in Karachi, and, though her husband didn’t approve, she’d enjoyed a small income from her work. She needed additional work in London as the money she made working for a businessman’s family twice a week wasn’t enough to manage on in this city.
‘Why don’t you keep me here with you?’ she’d say to Mrs Meer. ‘I can take care of everything around the house. I can occasionally do other work here and there to supplement what you pay me. If you have no objection, that is.’
Mrs Meer was in a dilemma. The girl’s really useful to have around, she thought. She charges a lot, but she’s most capable and her courage is remarkable. But I’m no longer used to having someone hovering around me all day. Besides, I’ll have to teach her how I like things done, and my time is fully occupied already.
So for the time being the question of Safia coming to live with Mrs Meer was put to one side.
Mrs Meer’s friend Parveen was constantly in need of help around the house. Every time she heard that Mrs Meer had acquired new domestic help, she’d say: ‘Do send her along to me, dear.’ And that was how Safia started going to her on Tuesday mornings. Parveen was well satisfied with her work.
At about this time Mrs Meer took it in into her head that insects were crawling beneath the carpet in her bedroom. When she mentioned it to Safia, she said right away, ‘Don’t you worry ma’am, I’ll call someone in to take care of that,’ and picking up her mobile, she began a rapid conversation in a flurry of Punjabi.
A couple of days later, Parveen rang to say: ‘The silly woman hasn’t shown up and I’ve invited two friends to lunch. Can you give me the number of a decent takeaway nearby? I can’t possibly stand and cook with my arthritic knees.’
A couple of days went by and then Mrs Meer heard from Safia. She apologised profusely. A business magnate was over from Bombay: she had a permanent ‘live-in’ job with him and needed to stay there for a few months. ‘I’m so ashamed, I should have let you know. But if you should need me especially, ma’am, just call and I’ll be there.’
Summer came, and though the rain hardly stopped for a day, London’s parks and lanes were leafier and greener than ever. Safia would phone now and again. Sometimes she had a job and sometimes she didn’t. She had problems with her visa, but then managed to obtain a work permit. On occasion she would drop in with a delicacy Mrs Meer had ordered, or she would come to do some small job around the house.
One day Mrs Meer reminded her about the need to get rid of the insects under the carpet.
‘I’ll get hold of the exterminators right away,’ Safia said, and again there came a rapid flurry of Punjabi on her mobile.
A few weeks later, the exterminator called, ringing the doorbell loudly on a Sunday morning. Mohammad Ameen was an Afghan lad from Cricklewood, robust and green-eyed. Behind closed doors he gave the carpet a thorough going-over, but as he left announced that he hadn’t found a single insect that needed exterminating. ‘But sister, your carpet’s worn out. Just say the word and we’ll fit a new one.’
Mrs Meer chuckled. ‘So you sell carpets too?’
‘Me an’ my friends do a whole lot of things. But fitting a carpet for you, I’d do it all by meself. Beg sent me over as he couldn’t find anyone else to kill them insects.’
Mrs Meer made up her mind to have two rooms re-carpeted. She chose a sandalwood shade which reminded her of the shimmering golden sands of Clifton’s beach in Karachi.
Ameen arrived the following Thursday and worked diligently for a few hours laying the carpet in the first room. The next day, after only a short while, he stopped work, exhausted. ‘Sister, it’s the first day of fasting, aren’t you fasting too? I won’t be able to do all the fetching and carrying by meself. If you’ll allow me to, I’ll ask my mate to come and help me. But it’ll cost you another thirty pound.’
There didn’t seem much alternative, with the work half done and her precious objects and other bric-a-brac scattered all over the place.
‘Go ahead,’ Mrs Meer said.
Not long after that the door-bell rang and Ali opened the door to a woman with bobbed reddish hair, dressed in clothes that looked as if they came from a Littlewood’s catalogue. He felt he’d seen her before.
‘You don’t recognise me, sir. Safia!’
How much she’s changed in just a few months, Ali thought.
She worked purposefully with Ameen and by evening the second carpet was down.
On Saturday evening, Ali had just showered and changed to go out. At five o’clock, a colleague at his university was reading a paper on art and exile, and several academics from South Asia and the diaspora were there for the conference. Safia was working with Mrs Meer in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. Ali hurried to the door to find Beg, of the fantasy banquets, standing there, lean and lanky, protruding teeth intact but his grizzled hair now quite white, though his moustache was still black. He held out his hand in greeting. He seemed not to recognise Ali. (Had he changed that much in seven years, or was this pretence?)
‘I’m Beg, boss of the carpet company, come to collect my cheque,’ he said.
Mrs Meer had already written out the cheque, which Ali handed to Beg, who put it in his pocket and asked, ‘Is Miss Safia still here?’
‘Yes, come this way,’ Ali said, showing him to the kitchen. Mrs Meer looked at Beg coldly, and he didn’t show any sign of recognising her.
Outside, the summer rain was pouring down. Ali picked up his umbrella and left the house.
‘She’s one tough lady, our Safia,’ Mrs Meer said as Ali entered, looking up from watching the Pakistani news on television. ‘You know she cleared up all the mess after the furniture men had gone.’
Ali had come back very wet and rather disgruntled from the conference. The panellists had spent a very long time discussing a series of photographs called ‘Sunrise, Sunset’, taken in the US and in Karachi by a Pakistani woman. They were inspired by an Urdu children’s poem that said that the cradle of the sun was in the east and its graveyard in the west; the juxtaposed images told a different story. Ali, who had lived all over the world since his early childhood and styled himself a rootless cosmopolitan, was disturbed by the photographer’s advocacy of roots, and hadn’t been given a chance to say so because the time for the session had run out.
‘More killings in Karachi. Even in Ramadan.’ Mrs Meer had switched the television off and was cutting the peel of an orange with a silver knife into fine juliennes.
‘Granma, did you meet the man who was running the company?’
‘The one who came for the money was the old joker Beg…’
‘Uhm. However did he get hold of Safia?’
‘Maybe he passed on my number to Safia to make up for the let-down over the biryani. By the way, I asked her where she lived. Kilburn, she said. I live in Mr Beg’s house now.’
‘But Beg is…’
‘Yes, he has a wife and three or four children. He’s just back from spending time with them in Karachi.’
‘So you think he’s made Safia his second wife?’
‘I never asked.’
Mrs Meer was separating the orange she’d peeled into smooth segments.
‘Do you think they have some sort of understanding?’ Ali asked, then guffawed. ‘Sounds like a situation from one of your Karachi soaps.’
‘Can you imagine me asking her that sort of question? I’m not one of God’s little soldiers. She didn’t ask for my advice and I didn’t offer it.’
Mrs Meer had arranged the bright orange segments on a silver platter. ‘Have some,’ she said, pushing the plate towards Ali.