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They were going to lift the lockdown, but Naomi felt nothing other than an annoyance. Jamal had been sending her one message after another on WhatsApp, with the last one having a furiously beating heart followed by a heart-eyed emoji. One of his messages read, “I m watng to c u 2mrrow.” And she knew he was serious because he was happy. Somewhere, she wanted to be happy, too. But she no longer remembered what happiness meant, or what sadness meant for that matter. She shrugged. Enough with the drama. It might be nice to just get out of the house with its smells of “Indian curries” for more than a few minutes of shopping for essentials – as the Indian government called it all the time. The memory of India dragged her down, and surprisingly, for she had long before stopped associating that word with “home.” Now with this sudden memory, though, she wanted to explore this feeling better, get down to its root, but just then the pressure cooker whistle went off. She covered her ears with a pillow, miserable and more annoyed. She picked up her phone and squinting through the pillow sent a message to Jamal that she was ready to meet him the next day.
The restaurants, including the one she worked for, would continue to take a while to open and so would the Primark stores, movie theatres, and other places she hung out in. So she agreed to meet Jamal in his room in the house that he shared with five men, all from South Asia. She was certain Jamal would have planned something, possibly arranged to have his roommates out at least for a couple of hours, if not the whole night. He had tried that before, too, but she always held more power, the kind of power her mother often told her she wished she held, in at least one of her two marital relationships. This time, though, she gently brushed aside that power at least for the little slab of time she spent in repairing her lockdown-ridden body.
Shaving, scrubbing, moisturising, hair colouring, and then a whole round of makeup like she had been decked up for one of those Canary Wharf investment bankers, the kind of men she had secretly dreamt were in love with her. But Jamal was no Canary Wharf banker. He was one of the cooks in the restaurant where she worked as a maître d’. They had moved to the United Kingdom on the same day, and Jamal told her there was a reason for that. There was also a reason why he decided to move from Glasgow to Southall and how he ended up in the same restaurant when he had in fact planned to join another restaurant in Hounslow.
“I was meant to meet you, Naumee,” he would often tell her. She thought of how his eyes would go soft as he said these words, as she now applied another coat of her red lipstick. The lockdown had clearly added inches to her waist, to her thighs, to her face, too, though she thought that made her cheeks look fuller. She found that funny because she had consciously skipped a meal almost every day since the lockdown started. It probably did not save her much money, but the absence of a paycheck gave her a false hope that she was doing her best to not deplete her savings by taking these kinds of drastic measures. Her housemates sometimes asked her to join them for their respective dinners, but Naomi politely refused. She would never be able to develop a taste for Arul’s sambhar and rasam-laden “ponni” rice. Roshni’s curries and parathas/fulkas were more appealing, but she was jealous of Roshni and so sharing her meal seemed more insulting than going to bed on an almost empty stomach.
Her mother would be shocked to know this, and she would burst into a tirade on how she was foolish to give up her good job in Dubai and move to England and “start all over again.” And deep down she knew her mother was right. She had lived in a much nicer house in Dubai, a neat studio apartment in a relatively safe area, equipped with a functioning kitchen, and furnished with a bed, cooling, and heating. There was even a shared laundry area. The travel agency where she worked was barely a few minutes away, but Joao always insisted on picking up and dropping her off…
Jamal offered to pick her up this time, but she had refused, even rather haughtily. Jamal, though, had barely sensed the haughtiness. She could imagine him now, fussing around his house, possibly trying to find some “Goan” songs for her on YouTube just because she had once told him that she had loved to listen to Konkani songs as a child. Or he could be spreading a cleaner bedsheet on his mattress with some scented candles burning alongside it…The pressure cooker whistle went on again, and a few seconds later there was a knock on her door. It was Arul asking her if she would like to have some brinjal sambhar and rice. She almost opened her mouth to say no, but then realised Arul had said brinjal sambhar, which she really liked, especially with that dollop of ghee Arul put on top of her hot rice. There was still time left to drop Jamal a message and tell him that she could not make it after all. But the thought of the time after she would be done eating the rice and the sambhar hovered in front of her eyes. Arul and she had nothing in common, and all the topics of their conversations were exhausted, courtesy all the nights they had spent inside the house. She opened the door and told Arul that she was going out to meet a friend and might possibly stay overnight. Arul stared at her for a couple of seconds longer than needed before nodding and leaving her alone. Guneet, the girl she shared her room, with had gone back to India in one of the first set of Air India flights that arrived to pick up “stranded” Indians from the UK. Naomi had no idea what Guneet did for a living, but she suspected something glamorous given how glamorous Guneet was for the Southall street they lived on, with her gloriously streaked hair and her large earrings and extremely thin heels. But despite the exotic East meets West glamour, Guneet turned out to be a homesick Indian woman.
She wished she had this single-minded relationship with a country, any country. India, whose passport she held and whose identity would always be stamped on her face – even if not her name – had always been a set of years. First, the toddler years spent in Honawar that she remembered nothing of. Then the school days spent in a boarding school for “poor students” that included years with her sister and the rest without her. And then, finally, the years in Goa, the ones that she did not have a particular fondness for but still looked back on from time to time, for this was the period when she finally had a home to call her own, even if it was a one-bedroom house that she shared with her mother and three siblings. It was at that house that she finally saw her mother’s face gradually loosening itself out of the knots that always made it up. It was there that she really enjoyed the taste of a hot roti. And it was the place where she finally gained her independence, her first job, and the second one which eventually led her to Dubai.
She’d met Joao at the second job where he had come by to book air tickets for his sister and her husband. “Their honeymoon tickets,” he had told her with a wink that did not disturb her at all. When he made the payment for the ticket, he asked for her phone number, which she found she could easily give him. The first few months were so lovely, their memory now caused her a physical pain, a sharp sting that rose through her heart and shot up right to the top of her head. Joao now had an Instagram page that he regularly updated with flashy pictures from his gig as a DJ in Goa/Mangalore, pictures he took of his three boys, all clearly looking like a different version of him, and some pictures with his wife and mother. A perfect man!
Arul was not in the living room, so she could have quietly snuck out. But Naomi knocked on her door nonetheless and told her she was leaving. Once on the streets, Naomi tried to muster her happiness. There were more people like her around, enjoying their freedom, pretending to show how the open air had changed their lives, as if that was all that was needed to turn the lockdown into a distant reality. A little girl out with her mother smiled at her. She smiled back at the girl. But just then the child’s mother caught her smiling and along with her daughter, pulled far away from Naomi. Naomi was offended, but she then remembered, the child had smiled at her through her transparent mask and her mother had a proper mask on. Naomi on the other hand had forgotten her mask. She imagined the horror of her situation. Dressed in clothes that were a little too revealing for the chilly evening, with no mask on her face and no gloves on her hand. What else was she expecting?
She fought the urge to turn back and pick a mask from her house or at least to stop by at one of the nearby shops. Instead, as if celebrating her defiance, she continued to walk along, unmindful of the occasional stares in her direction.
By the time she got to Jamal’s place, her fingers were stinging with cold. Jamal opened the door for her, clearly smiling and clearly alone. She rubbed her palms together and, with the force of a habit they both shared, took off her sandals right at the door. Jamal’s house looked different. She had been there before with the rest of her restaurant staff, and even though she had a perfectly pleasant evening that day, Jamal’s clear attention towards her had left her inexplicably uncomfortable. Since most of the staff, who were all from some part or other of South Asia, knew who Shah Rukh Khan was, Jamal had played Kabhi Khushi kabhi gham on his newly purchased resale 50-inch TV. And all the time he had told her she looked so much better than the younger actress in that movie, which had oddly left her flattered.
Now Jamal was trying to draw her attention to a little spread on a table in the room. She indulged him and looked at it. There was a bottle of wine, which looked like something far more expensive than what she would have attributed to the currency in Jamal’s wallet. She was oddly touched. Next to it were two brand new wine glasses and next to the glasses were two more glass bowls, one filled with nuts and one filled with chocolate-dipped strawberries.
“Do you like it, Naumee?” Jamal was asking her now, his face pitiful with anticipation.
She nodded, not having the heart to disappoint him, as she let herself sit on the “special” chair Jamal set down for her next to the table.
“I was worried you will not come,” Jamal said, now sitting down next to her.
She said nothing, distracted by the chocolate-dipped strawberries. As if reading her mind, Jamal offered her one. She thought he would dare to bring the strawberry right up to her mouth…but the strawberry respectfully stayed a couple of inches away from it. She picked it up from Jamal’s hand and, looking straight at him, took a bite it from it. It was unexpectedly tasty. In no time, she had chewed on the whole thing and then picked up another one. Jamal smiled, clearly pleased with himself.
“There are more, Naumee, if you finish these. I made them for you,” Jamal said with a wide grin.
“They are tasty, very tasty. Did you make the chocolate, too?” Naomi said with a smile of her own. The sweetness of the chocolate mixed with the tangy sweetness of the strawberries had lightened her mood like it hadn’t been in years. Oh, she would finish every single one of them.
“Of course, I did. What do you think?” Jamal said, sounding slightly offended.
“I was only joking. Of course, I know you made the chocolate, too,” and with that she extended the last strawberry towards him and then even surprising her own self, brushed it against his lips which instantly parted and swallowed the strawberry along with a couple of her fingers. She flinched at that sudden contact and pulled her hand away.
“I am sorry.” Jamal was standing now, his voice defiant but his fingers fidgeting like they had overstepped their limits. “I am sorry,” he said again and looked down at her, like a petulant child waiting to be forgiven by his mummy.
“It’s okay,” she said at last, and realised she possibly meant it because she was fully aware of what she was signalling to him. Jamal had acted on his cue, and she had her turn to act on hers. But she did not want to leave the warmth of the chair she was sitting on, or leave the leftover strawberries, or leave Jamal himself…The thought of going back to her house was as appealing as going anywhere else in that mask-infested city without her own mask on.
Suddenly she felt both defeated and indignant.
She looked up. “It’s okay,” she said again, looking straight into Jamal’s brownish eyes that now glowed in the light of the only lamp in his room.
Jamal’s bed was uncomfortable, but more than that it was the smell that bothered her. It was clear Jamal was well prepared and had laid out freshly laundered covers for the bed and pillows. But beneath the fabric softener-laden covers, Naomi could smell the stench that probably no fabric softener would ever take away. As Jamal acted on her, occasionally indulging himself with light nibbles that were almost pleasurable to her, too, she found herself scrunching her nose and opening her mouth to breathe in through it.
Jamal fell asleep almost instantly afterwards, his head half on her outstretched arm. But the smell did not let her sleep. So she imagined Jamal’s dreams for that night. Or probably this one night he’d have no dreams, just the sound sleep of contentment…She was then mildly surprised at her own arrogance. Who did she think she was? An immigrant like millions of others around her, not even one of those white collar “software engineers,” but a restaurant worker who was now struggling to make ends meet, and who even on her best days had never matched up to those IT employees with their laptops and their software. Only men like Jamal would desire her 28-year-old, slightly pudgy in the middle body. But then Jamal did not merely desire her. For some inexplicable reason he “loved” her, wanted to marry her, and as he must have thought it to be, very graciously told her that she did not have to convert to Islam if she did not want to. They could continue to follow their own religions even after marriage. He had it all planned out, and now after finally getting to celebrate his “first night,” there was no doubt in her mind that in Jamal’s head she was already his wife. “So, what if I am from Bangladesh and you are from India. We are all the same people,” he had told her just when she let herself be led to his bed. “I love you, Naumee. You are very nice,” he had said, and she had then let him kiss her.
People often told her she was nice, but deep down she was certain it was only a pretence. Every time she helped people or at least thought she helped people, she did it because she liked the gratitude that a favour generated. Like the time she babysat – fully free of cost – her customer’s twins every two weeks as the customer, a single mother, “went out on a date”; or the times she brought groceries for the middle-aged and diabetic Gujarati couple living in one of the rooms on the first floor of her house. There was no doubt how important these little chores were to her benefactors, and their wholehearted gratitude lent her life more purpose than she let on. So why then was her selfishness any worse than the selfishness of any other person she had known?
“Naumee, aren’t you asleep yet.” Jamal’s head was off her shoulder, and he was peering into her face. She could have pretended to sleep, but her eyes were still open. She did not want to talk. She did not want to tell him she was disgusted, not so much by him as by her own self.
“Naumee, are you not comfortable? Shall I get you something? A thicker blanket?” Jamal was half sitting now. She still did not look at him, but she could feel his gaze on her face, even stronger, even concerned probably.
“Marry her,” she said, finally turning slightly to look at him. “Marry her,” she repeated.
“Marry who? What?”
“The girl your mother asked you to marry.”
“What? What are you saying? You know I will only marry you. I love you, Naumee.”
“But I don’t love you and you don’t love me either. You would not love me if you knew anything about me and you know nothing about me.”
Once she’d said it out loud, she realised how true it was.
Jamal was fully awake now. She could hear his breathing so clearly, for the first time in many days, she was scared.
And as if Jamal had sensed her fear, he was pinning her down now.
“Then why did you sleep with me, you whore,” he said softly, the word whore sounding uncomfortable coming out of his mouth. He had once told her how some of his friends back when they were teenagers had visited “whores” in Sonagachi, but he never accompanied them. And now he had slept with one himself, for that was what she had turned herself into. How else could she tell him why she had decided to visit him and then why she had slept with him when she could just as well not have done either?
“Because I am a whore,” she said looking straight at his face, even if the darkness did not give away any expressions that might have been on it.
Jamal let her go suddenly, like she was a soiled version of the Naomi that he was in love with. He got off the bed and then disappeared. Naomi wanted to feel sorry for him, but she also wanted to sleep, which she did. She slept very well, probably better than she had in years.
The lockdowns were back again. They said the new strain of virus is way more dangerous purely because of how fast it can spread. Naomi is almost out of her savings, but her boss has agreed to help her with rent money. She knows she will be charged in some way for this favour, but she doesn’t care. Her mother is very worried about her, but Naomi tells her there is nothing to worry about. Her mother asks her to pray. Naomi wishes she could pray. But her heart was probably not very pure because she is unable to do anything remotely like praying. It was her mother who often told her and her siblings that God will not allow prayer for those children whose hearts are not pure. All she had to do then was purify her heart, pump out the grime, the grease, the disappointments, the uncertainties, and she would be just as she was as a baby. Pure and with a pure heart.