The New Woman in the Old Flat

by Shandana Minhas

THE PARSIS OWNED a lot of Karachi at Partition. They still owned a little of it.

‘You can’t have the wrong scavenger picking at your bones, Aneel bhai,’ Ms Zoreen told the estate agent. The white flesh of her bare arms wobbled as she giggled and raised one hand to scratch her frizzy grey hair. The pallu of her sari slipped from one shoulder to reveal a dimpled stomach.

She was a big commission. Vultures would fight over you, Madam, he wanted to tell her. He didn’t. An avian virus had decimated the vulture population that tended Karachi’s Towers of Silence. Ms Zorreen would fly in every two years to supervise the search for new tenants for the flats she owned, and his office would burn. The contemporary high-rises were contractor-built, contractor-owned and contractor-marketed. NO BROKERS, the advertisements warned. Estate agents could find no foothold in their marble glaze.

Ms Zoreen still did it the old way. He was lucky.

Birdsong from a banyan spiked the air as Ms Zoreen picked at a leisurely tea arrayed on a round cane table. They were sitting on the patio of a ground floor apartment in Clifton owned by a friend of hers. The only thing that had changed over the years was the boundary wall at the foot of the garden. It had started white and low, with fuchsia bougainvillea laying a friendly arm across it. It now loomed high enough to prevent the hordes riding on the tops of buses from glimpsing in, and anti-climbers had replaced the flowers. Aneel and Ms Zoreen could no longer see the people making their way to and from work, but they could hear them. A conductor and a passenger were having a conversation about the fare. It touched briefly on inflation, then escalated to mothers and sisters.

‘Tea?’ Ms Zoreen offered loudly.

He accepted a cup of tea and refused a slice of homemade apple pie. It was fresh and flaky. He was afraid he would drop crumbs, soil the file resting on his knees. He flinched when Ms Zoreen leaned across the table to reach for it. At their first meeting, two decades ago, they had sat side by side.

The file was thinner, thinner even than it had been on her last trip. People wanted luxury, now. They wanted granite floors and elevators and new fixtures. But why should I care how high the ceiling is? And what am I supposed to do with an original mosaic, eat off it? Tell the old lady to die so someone can build something better already, he didn’t tell her one potential had said. His own apartment would fit into the master bedroom of either of the apartments she owned. And he didn’t own it.

‘Only three, Aneel bhai?’

‘The market is down.’

‘Nonsense. New money. No taste. You shouldn’t lie to me Aneel bhai. I’m too old to believe anything.’

‘You will never be old, Madam.’

‘Flatterer!’

But the white flesh jiggled its approval.

‘Which one do you like?’

‘They are all corporate, as usual, Madam. So no tension about rent.’

‘That’s not what I asked you, Aneel bhai.’

‘The one at the bottom. I have only met the wife. She loved the place. She praised the light. She said they just don’t make them like this anymore. She reminded me of you, a little.’

‘Why? Too old and too fat to climb the stairs? How will she reach our little corner of heaven?’

Heavenly Apartments. That was the name of the ground-plus-two construction. Once quarters for the commissioned officers of the empire, now prime real estate between a shopping mall and a consulate. The buildings around it looked down on the scarred roof.

‘You are still fitter than me, Madam. She is youngish. Thirties. They have one little girl. The wife is a painter.’

‘Painter or artist?’

‘She paints pictures. Did I use the wrong word? See Madam, every time I meet you I learn something.’

‘When can I meet them?’

‘She said anytime that is convenient for you.’

‘Consideration is a good sign. Nobody has any manners anymore. Lets do it tomorrow. I want to meet this woman you say reminds you of me. You know I don’t rent to anyone I don’t like.’

He did.

‘It’s not just space you know. They have to fit each other. Like seashells, you know?’

He didn’t.

He also didn’t tell her the woman, Dilnaz, was Parsi. The Parsis didn’t like those who married outside the community. Nobody did.

‘THEY’LL FIT. THEY’LL get along,’ he told his wife that night. ‘Like calls to like.’ He waited for her to ask him what he meant but she didn’t. He realised she hadn’t asked him about his day the whole week.

Perhaps she was upset because he didn’t ask about hers.

‘What did you do today?’

‘What do you think I did?’ Her arms traced the tiny space around them and then came together. A sharp clap.

‘This will be a big commission, if they close the deal. One more, and we can put a down payment on a bigger place.’ She didn’t say anything to that either.

BUT ONLY THE husband came to the meeting. His wife had an exhibition coming up, he told Ms Zoreen, and he had insisted she prioritise her work. The old lady was charmed. The man was engaging and solicitous. He talked to her about the weather in Calgary, where she now lived, and his nostalgia for the streets of his childhood, close to where she had once lived. Everybody in Karachi had lived close to each other, once, before slums pushed them apart. Those above a certain age could still call roads by their Empire names. Elphinstone. Napier. The owner and the potential tenant recognised each other in their knowledge of St. Andrews Church as a navigational beacon and not a tourist curiosity. They had both gone to Gandhi Gardens when it was Gandhi Gardens and not the Karachi Zoo.

‘Every time I come home,’ she told Aneel later, ‘I cry to see how much has changed. With people like this sticking around, maybe one day it will change for the better.’

Aneel was happy she was happy. He was happy with his commission.

THEN THE WOMAN, Dilnaz, came alone to the apartment for the handover of the keys. Aneel said, to make conversation, that he hoped the man of the house wouldn’t be too busy to take over the supervision of the movers.

‘Didn’t he say we are separating and the place is only for me?’

He had not. In Aneel’s head, the lease broke.

She offered him sweet tea from the flask she had brought, pouring it into a Styrofoam cup and seating him on a box she assured him would not break.

‘He’ll still pay for it, of course. If you’re afraid the lady will cancel the lease, I’d be happy to talk to her about concerns she might have about my occupancy,’ she said. ‘She’s hasn’t left already, has she?’ One of the labourers carrying furniture up the stairs asked where the bathroom was and she pointed him to the one in the master bedroom.

‘But Madam, you make such a beautiful couple!’

To discuss business with one so confused about etiquette would be crude. And they did. The little girl she had brought when she came for the first viewing had been testimony to that. Like her mother, she was well formed and compact, with long, straight hair and an easy smile. Her father was tall and well dressed, with symmetrical features. He had a firm handshake and made eye contact. The enquiries Aneel had made revealed he was well thought of by his peers and underlings. The ladies in the office, in particular, had never had a bad word to say about him. Oh.

Had he married her for her money? Parsis always had money. That’s how they could afford to leave for the West.

On his way out, he thought of her alone under the high ceilings once the labourers were gone and the light retreated. A life in boxes she thought wouldn’t break. He went to the car he had borrowed from his boss for the appointment, while his motorbike was in the shop. He saw the flowers he had bought for his wife, a peace offering, on the front seat. He stepped up the stairs on tiptoe, left them at the doorstep to the newly taken flat, rang the bell and bolted.

The new world could be cruel to the old. It was the kind thing to do. His wife would understand.

He decided not to tell her.

EVERY CHAAND RAAT, before the three-day Eid holiday, the agents competed among themselves, hoping to poach. A text message to everyone on the client list was mandatory. Those with flash cash sent cards via courier. The biggest commissions merited a cake. Imtiaz had ten stacked on his desk and was yelling at the office boy to deliver them faster as Aneel agonised over the composition of his own SMS greeting. He thought about sending it to his wife for her input. She had a master’s degree in English literature from Karachi University. He could text her and joke that it was time to put it to use. He had encouraged her to, often. She could teach, or tutor at home. She had been offended. Had he married her to live off her?

He deleted his request. She might take it as a reminder of a happier time, before him. Increasingly, she seemed to regret accepting his proposal. She wished he were younger, she had told him the night before, then maybe he wouldn’t tire so easily. She wished he wouldn’t work so hard, she had added. She wished he worked harder, she had meant.

‘Still struggling with spelling?’ Imtiaz was at his shoulder.

‘No.’ He slipped his phone into his pocket.

‘Sorry. I wasn’t peeking. Here,’ Imtiaz slid a cake on to the desk, ‘my compliments to Mrs Aneel.’

To leave it on the desk would be to give offence. He couldn’t afford the luxury. On the way home he balanced the cake on the handlebars of his motorcycle. He thought about giving it to one of the street children, but it seemed a waste. They were feral. Their aggression didn’t deserve to be rewarded. The traffic congestion as people flooding the shops and the streets for bangles, finery, henna, shoes, flirting, spending, made him irritable. When a roadblock thrown up to stop men joyriding towards the sea and the luxury enclaves around it forced him into a detour, he considered gunning his engine and driving into the policeman. He took a minute by the side of the road to compose himself. It was a blessed time. He was a blessed man. He had a home, a wife, a job and transport of his own. He wasn’t dependent on the kindness of strangers. He realised he was close to Heavenly Apartments.

Aneel had meant to ask the chowkidar to deliver the cake to Mrs Dilnaz but the man’s reluctance made him take it up himself. He hoped she wasn’t having problems with the neighbours. It could happen, with women alone. People pointed fingers, tried to take advantage.

‘Nothing of the sort,’ she told him once he was settled with sweet tea on the dining table. ‘He’s just angry because he wasn’t doing his job right and I reported him and the building association head told him off.’

He wanted to tell her to be careful. Those men recently come down from the mountains still housed women in the caves of their minds. But it wasn’t his place. Children squealed in the corridor outside. ‘Somebody must have gotten a lot of Eidhi. And your little girl must be looking beautiful in her new clothes.’

‘I don’t know.’ She peered intently at her fingernails, started rooting under their tips. He could see they were clean. ‘The court has decided she will live with her father.’

He realised then that she hadn’t converted. The cake lay on the table between them. She had opened the box and brought a knife and plates and napkins. May Allah Bless You On This Auspicious Occasion, it said.

On the way out he stopped to talk to the chowkidar again. He thought he would let the watchman know, subtly, that the woman was under his protection too. But the man was brusque about power failures and noncommittal about whether the water was piped or still bought in tankers, and after he started making fun of the aged motorcycle, Aneel left without bringing it up.

FORTY DAYS LATER, the eve of the second Eid brought the annual staff barbecue. The agents gathered on the old man’s rooftop, around plastic chairs and tables, hands washed in the open sink at the corner, waiting to be served by the specialists he had hired for the night. Bakra Eid was the busiest time of the year for butchers and journeyman cooks. Everybody complimented the old man for his foresight in hiring them months before. He was in his seventies and threatening to retire. Foresight was habit for him. They had only to look at his journey from a small village in the interior to this palace at the edge of the suburbs of the city.

It was a ground-plus-three construction on the fringe of the most exclusive residential area in Karachi. The land had been the most expensive, and he had compensated for the size of the plot by greasing a few palms and building upwards in contravention of zoning laws. Everybody did it, in the fringes. They could look down at the blood and guts strewn along the bustling lane outside. Or across into the fronts of the shuttered shops in the commercial area. Or behind them into the securely guarded thickets of the rich, who had started outsourcing their slaughter to keep their roads clean. The old man had spent his life saving to build it, and the barbecue was the time every year he felt expansive enough to tell his employees they had what it took to do the same. They speculated about what it had been worth once and what it was worth now. At the head of the table, the old man crossed his hands across his paunch and closed his eyes.

From the wives’ table across the roof, one of the women called to her husband to check if their host was all right.

‘I’m fine,’ he said without opening his eyes. ‘I’m just preparing for my speech.’

They had all been expecting it. But his choice of successor was a shock. Aneel, loyal Aneel, was still silent when he kicked his bike off its stand half an hour later, still feeling like he had been drenched in cold water and stood in front of an air conditioner. He had become invisible to the others, as well. They were clustered around Imtiaz, standing by his second-hand Suzuki Alto parked right in front of the gate, as if he was now the boss of that gate too.

Even the women had made their knot close to him.

Aneel tried to attract his wife’s attention. But she was in the thick of it, throwing back her head to laugh at something one of the other women said, her crimson lips catching the flare of the halogen lamp and absorbing it. She wouldn’t see him. She couldn’t see him, alone down the road.

‘No hard feelings, Aneel bhai.’

He even moves like a snake, as he realised Imtiaz was standing by him.

‘Of course not. Congratulations.’

‘I just want you to know that you are my senior and I respect you very much and I hope I can learn from you.’

‘Of course. Of course. No problem.’

He waved to her, half-heartedly, maybe the latent schoolteacher in her would catch a raised arm. Her eyes slid across, ignored it.

Bhabi! Mrs Aneel!’ Her head turned at the sound of Imtiaz’s voice, and she scuttled obediently to them.

DILNAZ CALLED HIM the day they went back to work. Someone had broken the windshield of her car when it was parked in the compound and taken all her T-shirts from the laundry bag in the front seat. They had left her shalwar kameez. She was convinced it was the chowkidar. The compound was closed to outsiders and guarded by him. She had complained to the building association. They said she had no proof but she knew it was him. Could Aneel bhai put her in touch with the landlady, or speak to her on her behalf instead? She owned two of the flats in the building. Maybe her word would carry more weight.

She hated to ask, but he was a decent man. Decent people had to stand up for one another, didn’t they? Or all would be lost.

He listened, let her run till she was tired. That was when calm came and he waited till she found it. She was glad to hear he would drop by in the evening to discuss it in person. He was sliding his chair back to go get some water when Imtiaz dropped a packet on his desk.

‘I don’t want to interfere and I hope you won’t be offended, but I think this might help you.’

HE READ IT in the shade of the building at lunchtime, munching on a bun kabab from the cart vendor under the overhang where somebody looking out from the office on the mezzanine floor would not be able to see him. The Duties Of A Muslim Wife, it was titled.

There were guidelines for men, on what their wives owed them. And for women, on what they owed their men. Devotion. Pleasure. Loyalty. Obedience. Obedience was key. The world was changing, the writer said, it was a time of flux. Women were the homemakers and the home breakers. It was they who gave birth to warriors. They who raised them. They who had a duty to love them.

HE CLIMBED THE steps to the flat with heavy feet. What would he say to her? They spoke a different language. He took the pamphlet from under his arm, slid it under the door and pelted down the stairs.

On his way out of Heavenly Apartments, he stopped to wish the chowkidar Eid Mubarak. They embraced. One cheek, two, three, and parted friends.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.