The residents of Khalid Apartments sum up Bina in a phrase—“a maid.” Bina has a one-year housemaid visa stamped on page nine of her Indian passport. Her Indian sponsors are Mr. and Mrs. Kapoor. She lives in the “maid’s room,” windowless walls without built-in closets, in apartment 2109 on the twenty-first floor. From the green-glass closed balcony, Bina sees the pink and white flamingoes by the creek, swaddled date palms, rubber hoses snaking through trimmed flower beds, one of the palaces of the royal family, and Emirates Towers, the tallest building in Dubai, the top of which looks like two ships passing.
In the evenings, after the call for prayer is announced over the loudspeakers from an adjacent mosque, Bina sits on the bench in the play area on the fourth floor, while Mrs. Kapoor does an elegant butterfly stroke across the kidney-shaped pool in her Made in USA bikini that Bina will later rinse and hang out to dry. Mr. Kapoor, after his day at Kanoo Enterprise, plays tennis with Mr. Bird, and the Kapoor children, dressed in Marks and Spencer and BHS casuals, suck on popsicles and skitter around a play area that has a plastic toy house, swings, and slides.
“The Kapoors’ maid,” the residents say, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, not the jacket-laptop-Clark-shoe morning wear, barely acknowledging her presence.
Facts notwithstanding, it must be said that Bina is more than a maid. She lived before that, died before that, loved before that.
Bina belongs to a family of two sisters and one brother. Her family lives in Agra. Her father worked at a street-side sweet shop. Sometimes he would bring mouth-watering sweetmeats and savories wrapped in newspaper tied with thin string. Bina’s favorite sweet was white gourd soaked in sugar syrup, called petha, for which Agra is famous.
Bina loved the trips to the sweet shop where Father worked. The large skillets crackling with hot oil, steel ladles that sifted out orange jallebis and dropped them gently into an aluminum vessel filled with colorless syrup; the film songs that blared from the transistor; discolored cement walls plastered with pictures of gods and goddesses. The shop also sold savories: deep-fried kachoris and gram flour vermicelli, dal muuth. The plump owner, Mr. Agarwaal, generously gave Bina leftovers from the previous day’s sweets.
Bina liked to watch Father as he worked. His long fingers, soiled with sweat and dirt, dark against the yellow, saffron, and red sweets—squares, rectangles, full-moons and half-moons. Father would carefully pack the sweets into half-kilo and one-kilo boxes of “Madhuri Sweets and Savories,” “Just Luscious,” “Your happiness is our sweet concern.”
Mr. Agarwaal was a great Madhuri Dixit fan. He had seen Hum Aapke Hain Kaun sixteen times. He had a huge poster of the actress on the front window of Madhuri Sweets, fed the poster laddus, rubbed dense balls of cooked chickpea flour and ghee against glossy paper-lips, and had a free sweet party on her birthday.
Father talked to Bina when there were no customers. Bina barely saw him at home. He would eat at one of the street-side restaurants, dhabas, where the food was hot and delicious despite the apparently unhygienic kitchen, stray dogs, and scavenging black pigs, and follow it with a late-night movie at one of the many cinema houses in Agra. Father was fortunate enough to escape into the magic of the celluloid screen while Mother nursed, cleaned, cooked, grumbled, raged, and cried.
Bina helped Mother at home. She was the Choti Ma, Small Mother, of her two younger siblings. She would bathe, feed, and rock them to sleep. Ever since she could remember, she’d swept and mopped floors and washed dishes at neighborhood homes. In addition, she made extra money as a street-side vendor. Bina, thin and straggly, dressed in a faded salwar kamez, walked the bustling streets and sold a long green vegetable, kakadi, and slices of fresh coconut to the swarming tourists dressed in half-pants little longer than her knickers, with blotches of red like ripe lychees on skin as pale as the inside of the kakadis she sold. They’d come to Agra to cross a red sandstone channel and rows of cypress trees, Persian gardens and stone-paved raised pathways, copper pipes and lotus ponds—to see the marble domes, cupolas, and minarets of the Taj Mahal.
Bina was the eldest, Brother the youngest: Mother’s final triumph after a series of pregnancies, miscarriages, and stillbirths. After her evening bath, Mother lit the brass lamp and recited the verse from the Vedas, “Let a female child be born somewhere else; here, let a male child be born.” The family traveled to the tomb of the Sufi saint Salim Chisti in Fatepur Sikri built in 1570, forty kilometers away from Agra, where Emperor Akbar came for the blessing of a son. Bina loved the trips that broke the routine: the bumpy hot bus rides, the restaurant food, the festive air that surrounded this city of ruins, the men who sat on sheets spread out on the floor playing the harmonium and the tabla, the snake charmers with their coir containers and amber earrings, the rows of stores selling sweets and flowers. At the tomb of Salim Chisti, her parents tied threads in the crevices of a finely wrought screen and asked for a son; but their prayers were answered only after a long wait. A wait laden with Father’s threats and Mother’s bitterness.
Bina hated the outbursts that shook her home of sun-baked mud and thatched roof. Those nights, she would draw the sheet over her head and vow she would never marry, but she knew that she must. After all, girls were born to be given away—they were outsiders from birth. All the years of cooking and cleaning would come to fruition when she, like Mother, became a wife. But marrying daughters was a terrible burden for parents to bear. The marriage feast cost thousands of rupees. And dowry, even though the government declared it illegal, continued.
“Even to get a cow dung seller, one has to give eight sovereigns,” Mother said to Kasthuri, the wizened midwife, as they stood by the open sewer with their cotton saris tucked into their waists.
Kasthuri turned her cataract eyes towards a crescent moon and a setting sun. More than twenty years ago, her husband left her for another woman; Kasthuri bore the shame of that. She wrapped a string of wilted jasmine around Bina’s wrist, tucked her ration card under the band she wore around her forehead to keep back her frizzy hair (Kasthuri did not wear a sari blouse), and turned to leave. “When the price of gold goes up, the value of daughters go down. A woman without a man is an object of pity and contempt.”
Actually, Bina had three sisters. The last came before Brother. It is said that it is darkest before dawn, and Third Sister was the darkest and Brother the dawn.
After Third Sister was born, Mother’s stitches got infected and the bleeding didn’t stop. She got constipated and dreaded squatting over the mud floor urinal; her hemorrhoids, like a bunch of grapes, had to be shoved back in after each push. Mother watched the earthworms and distracted herself as they slithered on the wet floor, or stared at the clothes strung lopsided on a plastic cord. But despite the discomforts endured in the urinal, it was also Mother’s place of rest. When she was locked in, it was Bina who tended to her sisters’ needs.
Mother’s breasts were hard and painful in the weeks after the delivery. Strands of nerves pierced the point of her nipples. But she refused to see a doctor in a white coat, she wouldn’t let a stranger examine her. Father was sick of Mother’s litany of complaints. Feverish and tearful, Mother removed her blouse, wrapped her sari around her chest and tried other homemade remedies like massaging ghee on her fissured nipples. But Mother nursed Third Sister even though Father told her not to feed Baby so frequently. She felt like a cow with a bleeding udder that was always milked. Tugged and milked.
So Mother didn’t bond with Third Sister as she had with the others. Baby sucked in her milk, laced with blood, like lassi flavored with sherbet.
One evening, Father let Third Sister fall onto the rope bed, charpoy, as if she was a five-kilo rice bag. “If you’d given me 300 rupees, I could’ve done the sex test when the doctor with the van came,” Mother said.
Mother held the sides of the degchi with the edges of her sari and drained the water from the rice. Father said, “We need only one girl to light the lamp and we already have three. An abortion costs 7000 rupees. I couldn’t have paid for that.”
“Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa Amma has a cradle scheme. I saw it on TV in Mrs. Sharma’s house. I saw men driving bicycles with big posters of Amma and flags.” Mother served Father a plate of rice and poured him a glass of lassi flavored with black salt and cumin, the kind Father liked. “The Prime Minister has a scheme for daughters. The government will send the child to school, present a gold ring, give dowry money on her twentieth birthday.”
“Too much paperwork,” Father said, gesturing for a refill of rice and potato curry (now there would be less for Mother to eat). “The officers take bribes. There’ll be no money left. It’s always rich people, sister fuckers, who get fat. Even if we’d done the abortion, the doctors in the mobile vans know politicians. We’d be in jail, not them.”
Some nights were worse for Mother than her days. Those were the nights Father grabbed at Mother with his long nails that smelt of onions and garlic. Mother was worried that the marbles would drop out. Despite the blood, Father pushed it in. In the morning, as Mother sat by the open window and picked stones from the plump-grain ration rice, she said that one must learn to desire one’s husband. Bina must pray that she would be the mother of sons. Or else, she would be a failure. Her husband might leave her.
Mother had to try again: pregnancies annual like monsoon rains.
Third Sister brought them bad luck.
The tourist season was over with the monsoons. Father’s job was terminated. Mr. Agarwaal was not selling as much as he usually did and had to cut corners. Perhaps he didn’t trust Father and guessed at the bundles of stolen sweets and savories.
Father had to work as a cycle rickshaw man and it was a difficult, backbreaking job. He had less money for the cinema. The meals in the dhaaba became more infrequent. Wet and cold, he dragged his rickshaw through the flooded streets. Father became more irritable. He coughed and spat out thick sputum; he felt tired and angry.
Sometimes Mother wished him dead. Wished her daughters dead. Wished them all dead.
Father suggested it after his visit to the Doctor.
“You have tuberculosis,” the Doctor at the government hospital told Father. The power had gone and the hospital generator kicked on only in the operation theater.
“You need medication. There’s nothing to be unduly concerned about.”
The Doctor wiped the sweat off with a handkerchief, scribbled into a dusty file of tea and sweat spattered pages. “Nearly one in every five has tuberculosis.”
Father sat hunched at the edge of the seat, his head lowered—it was not respectful to look up and ask too many questions. The heat didn’t affect him; Father was not used to the luxuries of electricity.
“If discovered at an early stage, it’s curable.” The Doctor examined Father with his fingertips, smiled at him, and Father felt happy. When Father went to the pharmacy the Nice-Looking Man in a clean white coat didn’t look up when he asked how many times a day he should take the medication; the X-ray Man didn’t reply when Father asked when he should come to collect the results.
Third Sister brought them bad luck, Father thought, as he stood in the crowded bus and clutched the overhead bar. He watched the men in shiny new suits in bright Maruthis, the women in heavy silk saris who perched like peacocks by their side: one silk sari, one car would feed his family for months, years. Mother fuckers. Children of pigs.
A child peed on the floor, and urine trickled towards Father’s feet. Breeding, breeding—a country of surplus and waste. But Mother could not have a tubectomy. They had to try again. Without a male heir, what would happen to the family name? Who would look after them in their old age? A family of daughters, of women. That was a shame, deeper than being poor, a shame that made Father less than a man.
It was a half moon night. Around the moon was a rim of red. They could see each others’ silhouettes.
“Pesticides, fertilizer, sedatives, alcohol are dangerous,” Father brushed his teeth with a neem stick, a towel strung across his thin chest. “The police could dig…it up, find evidence.”
“What about unhulled rice?” Mother dipped the mug into a bucket and poured water into Father’s cupped hands. “Juice of oleander with castor oil.” The water was cold and made Father shiver.
“Maybe after this we’ll get a boy.” Father wiped his face and gave the towel to Mother to hang on the clothesline. “It’ll be like a sacrifice.”
That morning, Bina gave Third Sister a bath and a full bowl of semolina porridge. Mother looked as if she didn’t want Bina to give Baby that much, but said nothing.
Bina hugged Third Sister and smothered her with kisses as Father dipped a towel into the bucket filled with cold water and wrung it gently. Third Sister—tawny eyes and hair soft as satin in a torn red dress—smiled a toothless beautiful smile and tugged at Bina’s sleeve as if she didn’t want her to leave. “I love you till the sky. I’ll come back soon,” Bina promised.
Third Sister whimpered when Father wrapped the soaking towel around her. She cried into the cloth, stained with sweat and dirt, as Father pushed it into her mouth, eyes, and nose. Third Sister wailed as Mother sat stooped in the kitchen, rolled out round rotis by the kerosene stove, wiped the sweat off from her face with the edge of her sari, her breasts full with milk that would soon dry up; as Bina washed Third Sister’s nappies under the common basti pipe and spread them out to dry on the bushes—daffodils in an Indian District. Third Sister wept as Father pressed his hands down hard, as Mother placed the rotis on a steel plate for lunch, and Bina played lagdi with her friends near the basti water pipe and thought of Third Sister at home.
That night, Mother handed Father a vest that smelt of starch and sun. She said, “It is better to die than to live a life like mine.” Father kept the medical certificate that read “PNEUMONIA” in the drawer with all their other valuables—money, fixed deposit certificate, and Mother’s wedding jewelry—pulled the sheet over his head and slept.
When Brother was born, Mother was relieved. Now there would be no more pregnancies and Father was happy. But despite Brother, a late dawn, it was not the same at home. Something had changed. Father rarely reached out for Mother’s healed breasts and that worried her now. Why didn’t he want her? Would he take another woman? But then again, would she get his disease if he touched her?
Bina ate very little after Third Sister died. Her hair crawled with lice and her breath stank. Mother asked her to wash her hair with kerosene. Father sent her out of the hut when the women from The Maternal and Child Health Organization parked their two-wheelers under the neem tree by the dirt road. Father talked to the women very nicely. Mother gave them full glasses of special cardamom tea. They were the same two women Bina had seen when Pallavi’s Mother delivered Fourth Sister two months ago. The men in the basti came with axes, laughed, leered at the women.
“If you murder the baby, we’ll dig her up and hand you over to the police. Are you women or pigs? Or bitches?” the Maternal Child Health Women yelled at the basti people clustered around Pallavi’s hut and drove away on their two-wheelers, the dust rising and covering their faces.
That evening, Kasthuri, the midwife, came out of the mud hut with Pallavi’s paternal grandmother. They said Pallavi’s Fourth Sister was stillborn. The men helped bury Blue Baby in the field. They rolled a big stone over her. Pallavi’s Mother couldn’t stop wailing. Bina could hear her from next door. Two days later, a Policeman came to Pallavi’s house. He went away when Pallavi’s Father gave him money.
Bina hated Mother less after Taj Mahotsav, a ten-day fair held close to the Taj. There were camel and elephant rides, stalls with leather shoes and bags, replicas of the Taj in real marble, or fake marble, sandalwood and rosewood curios, brass and stone carved images of the gods and goddesses, dances and music from the films.
At the fair, Mother and Bina saw a play. The Actors and Actresses came with drums and flags. They were not handsome like Salman or beautiful like Madhuri, but they acted well. In the play, a daughter lit Father’s funeral pyre, not the son. The audience clapped their hands, danced, shouted the words as the Actors said their parts. Some of them had seen the play so many times that they knew the lines by heart.
An Actress with a Small Pox Face said: “It is not just poor people who commit infanticide and feticide. It is the Kallars of Usilampatti. Rich people also. Panchayat leaders. Brahmins. Even the Sikhs in Canada. After Independence, 45 million girl children have been killed. One million each year. We are worse than Hitler. Every two hours there is a dowry death. In-laws ask for more. Now it’s TVs, refrigerators, scooters. The women are doused with kerosene. A ‘kitchen fire,’ the husband and in-laws say and go scot-free. The tourist guides call the Taj Mahal, ‘India’s rich tribute to womanhood,’ but in this city atrocities against women continue.”
At the end of the play, the Actors asked them to come forward—to promise that they would not take dowry, not murder girl babies, and send their children to school, instead of making them work or marrying them off.
Kasthuri, the midwife, didn’t agree with what the Actors were saying. In the law books, in the Manu, she told the bystanders, child marriage is acceptable. It is written that a man thirty years can marry a virgin of twelve. In the holy Vedas it is written, “I reject a female child when born and take up a male.”
Bina wanted to go to the front when Small Pox Face invited them to. But Mother held her hand tight. Her best friend Pallavi, married to Thirty-year old Husband (maybe Forty), ran onto the stage. Pallavi was Second Wife. Pallavi’s First Husband’s First Wife was dead. His children were bigger than Pallavi. Pallavi was wearing a purple silk kamez with silver zari, purple sandals, and gold kadas on each arm. “Fair skin and big eyes. See her hair reaches her buttocks! Lucky girl. That’s how she got a rich man,” Mother said.
That night, Mother put her head on Bina’s lap and cried. Bina felt sad. But she knew that she must leave Father and Mother. Bina knew this the afternoon Third Sister pushed her paper boat forward until she could see it no more.
Bina was good at making toys with all kinds of paper—brown paper, newspaper, and notebook paper. She could make planes. She was the best at making “chip chop” with a square of white paper. She folded the paper, triangles into triangles. She wrote numbers and names of colors inside the flaps. She put her fingers in the triangle pockets and opened them in and out. Faster and faster.
That afternoon, Bina made the smallest paper boat that she could make. It was a red paper boat. She took it to the sewer that ran through the field in which Father buried Third Sister’s ashes and bones (Father did not want the police digging Third Sister’s body up again).
The water of the sewer was black and smelt like fish, eggs, shit, onions. It smelt like the blood cloth Mother washed and used again after Third Sister was born. The stuffed-in underwear cloth. (Mother didn’t usually wear underwear. She only wore them on the blood days.)
The branches of the trees touched the water. Bina didn’t know where the sewer ended. She knew that it went a long way from where she sat.
Bina set her boat on the water. There was very little wind. She fixed her eyes on the boat. Bina thought of Third Sister wrapped up in a cloth market bag. Bina thought of Third Sister’s dancing eyes, of her hand that closed tightly around Bina’s thumb, of her smile when Bina gave her an extra share of mashed banana, cooked wheat or rice. She thought of Third Sister not here now. Not in the leftover years. Third Sister playing hopscotch, jumping high, her long legs folded against her hips, above a skipping rope. Third Sister huddled close to Bina under the torn sheet on the charpoy, listening to her stories about Manu who saved his goat from the holy men in the temple, of the kite that flew from India to China. Third Sister alive, something in Bina’s heart—full. Third sister who loved Bina, would always love Bina, would help her live. By being alive.
Bina thought of Prince Shahjahan and Arjumand Banu. The Prince first saw his future bride hawking silk and glass beads in the Meena Bazaar. When she died he was so sad that he made a For-ever building of stone. But how many Shahjahans were there? Would anyone love Bina like that? All Bina was sure of was herself and of the life that she did not want to lead. She had to be strong alone.
Bina’s boat tipped down, but moved forward, beyond cows sitting on their stomachs, tails flicking, chewing cud, branches and leaves in water, children playing cricket, crows scavenging on garbage, dogs sleeping in the white sun.
Pallavi’s First Sister paid money to an “Agent” for a Housemaid Visa in Muscat, or was it Dubai? Twenty thousand rupees. She had to work days and nights for that. That was a lot of money. Now First Sister lived in a big cool comfortable house with the Sahib and Memsahib, and ate food that was mouthwatering and in plenty like a wedding feast. She was paid a grand salary—as much as four thousand rupees a month. Bina would set money aside. She would find a way to help her younger sisters. One day, Third Sister said, her skin touching Bina’s, her breath on her face, her heart beating fast, Bina would leave the city of marble, sail across the Arabian Sea, to the city of gold.