Boslu set out on bicycle to get the items Maheja needed from the market. Laila had also handed him a twenty taka note with a request for six large, sweet bananas. Weaving in and out of pedestrian and rickshaw traffic, the young man thought about his wife. Would it be wise to tell his patron? This family was of the sort that would help him get her medicine. Some might sack a worker with an afflicted wife. The risk of secondary infection was considerable. He had heard somewhere of programs where you could get the medicine for free; maybe they could help him apply. On his salary he could not afford the drugs. Better tell them now than to wait until he started coughing.
The day would be hard. Bina was not yet up, but when she did rise, he would not have a moment’s peace. Now that the family was living in Uttara, his commute would be much shorter. He would be thankful for that if the move didn’t kill him.
Stepping down off his bicycle, Boslu pushed between marketers and down the broad steps into the concrete breezeway that was filled with produce and grain vendors. He squeezed a lever on his handlebar to sound a bell to help clear a path wide enough to push through. The market was crowded today with people who worked from Sunday to Friday. Saturday was the only day any of them had time to shop. Vendors were busy. Sometimes you could get a deal.
“Give you twelve taka for that bunch of bananas, brother,” he offered the man who stood beside the second stall.
“Are you kidding?” the man answered, “These bananas are from India. Can’t sell them for less than twenty.”
“If they’re from India, my brother, I’m a donkey’s ass,” Boslu said. “Give them to me for fifteen.”
“Can’t give them to you for less than twenty, brother. But I could give you these for twenty.” The vendor pointed to a full cluster of lush, sweet bananas.
“I’ll take them, Boslu shouted over the marketers who had pushed themselves between him and the produce stand. Then taking the bananas from the vendor in a sack, he carefully put them into his knapsack. Boslu knew he’d gotten a bargain. Laila had asked for six bananas, but he knew she could afford as many bananas as she wanted.
How was it that she was moving, but she still didn’t have her own kitchen? Twyla wandered into the small cooking room and sighed. It was a modern kitchen with counter-level stove, seventy’s-style Formica cabinets and a screen door that opened onto the driveway. Today she would wipe out the closets and storage spaces in her bedroom and start to find places for her belongings. She would also draft a letter to Nasreen’s school to see what was involved in a transfer to the branch that was closer to their new home. It was hard to maintain a steady flow of negative thoughts when you were surrounded by such a powerful sense of green. From where she stood in the kitchen doorway, she was one step above the carport. If she looked straight out, she could see a field of saturated rice paddy with a row of tin and bamboo houses just beyond. Ridges of mud separated parcels of earth that belonged to different farmers, and offered passage for barefoot residents carrying baskets and children.
The kitchen situation would work itself out. Maybe they could keep the cooking down to family-sized portions, and the staff would leave her equipment alone. Twyla studied the large bundle of sweet bananas on the counter that Boslu had brought her. She had only wanted six. What would Maheja say?
Fifteen large, sweet bananas sat on the counter in a yellow bunch. Since the household preferred the small, sour varieties, Maheja knew they must be Laila’s. Why had she bought so many? She pulled one off the bunch to send to Bapi who was spending thirty-six hours at a clinic for tests. They would be wasted. The woman looked around the modern kitchen and frowned. Why did they need a new house? Her eyes surveyed the green-marble Formica of the cabinets with distaste. Why did they need such new-fangled gadgetry? “More stuff just means more headache,” she said to DojaMa, as the old woman entered the room with Nadira on her hip. “Isn’t that right, FokirMa?” Maheja’s monologue continued, and though her faithful servant knew, intimately, what was on her patron’s mind, she listened intently. “Take Laila and her gadgets for instance. She brings plastic from America and it needs special care.” Maheja had instructed DojaMa to use the Brillo pad on it every day. Either of them would have been just as happy to feed the children from a simple tin cup or even to use the heavy crystal that sat in the cupboard next to the china.
“Give me tin walls,” she said, handing the old woman a large piece of blue plastic sheeting. “Give me mud walls. Give me anything close to the earth.” Together they stuffed, tied and fastened the wadded plastic so that it obstructed the view of the rice paddy and the small slum beyond it. “Simple. Uncomplicated. Unshining. Unsharp. Uncrisp. Unhard. Give me soft. Give me simple. I am a simple woman with simple needs.” With the plastic securely in place the women heaved mutual sighs of relief. With their privacy ensured, they were ready to settle into what now constituted their kitchen. There was no doubt that it would need some fixing up.
Seeing Boslu entering the gate, Maheja gathered together two pieces of bread and a large, sweet banana. “Laila, now, she’s a foreigner,” she said. As she handed the driver his lunch, Maheja examined the underside of a strip of counter to see if it could be lifted and removed. Noorjahan bustled through carrying a basket of kitchen utensils and lowered it into a corner. Deepa, shuffling in behind her with a full bucket of water, headed for the living room. To help the family get settled into their new house, the two women had traveled to Uttara for the day. “And Bina—they like the latest gadgetry,” Maheja explained to no one in particular, since all had heard the elocution countless times before. “But all this stuff, it’s pointless indulgence. And it costs too much.” Maheja followed DojaMa who carried a shouting Nadira to the living room and out the front door, where she had seen a mother cat grooming her kittens. “It has to be installed by special carpenters because it can easily be ruined.” Deepa rummaged through boxes in the kitchen floor and left after finding a butter knife and her mopping rag.
“These people who want the new way, Ma,” DojaMa said, “they are thinking only inches in front of their faces. They don’t realize what’s really important on this earth; that in one year or two—that in two years or three—the style changes and what you have is no good.” DojaMa’s rant tapered off slowly. She shared her patron’s love of the village, but preferred having as many shiny new things as she could get.
“But FokirMa, who does it feed?” Maheja said. “All this money that has gone to buying the shiny, the new-fangled? Who has it fed?”
“No one,” DojaMa answered. “They’re still hungry.”
“They’re still on the streets,” Maheja answered. “Unable to feed their children; to send their sons to school. These girls and their hard, new-world improvements.” She could feel the sun beginning to sink in the sky and the house was largely unpacked. Maheja headed for her room to do her ablutions.
“Each of you should take a banana for your hard work,” she said. “It’s better not to go home hungry.”
Two of the four bananas that remained on the counter beckoned to Bina’s baby boy, Khurum. Having no time to do her marketing, she sent the maidservant down to see what she could find.
“Good. Now they won’t be wasted, “Maheja sighed, as she gave the maidservant a nod and headed for her prayer rug.
“DojaMa? DojaMa!” Twyla called through the locked door. Would her voice carry to the servants’ quarters? It was Boslu’s job to unlock the door and open the gate in the morning, and by six thirty, the house was still locked up tighter than a tomb. Nothing stirred in the servant’s quarters. Twyla paced back toward her bedroom, passing her mother-in-law’s open door on the way. The woman was engaged in her morning ritual. Being careful not to be seen, she peered into her own bedroom and learned what she needed to know. Nadira was still soundly sleeping, next to her father. Nasreen slept in her own small bed in the third room. Maybe by the time she was finished with breakfast somebody would have opened the gate. Leaving before her children woke was a strategy Twyla had adopted after Nasreen’s school session ended for the summer. With Nasreen sleeping in, it made little sense for Twyla to wake them before leaving. She was expected at the office at eight.
Moving into the house at Uttara had not been as easy as she had expected. The bedrooms didn’t have rods for hanging clothes, so their clothes were piled on chairs and in corners around the house. Twyla had put out the word that she needed a carpenter who could build a shelf and install a bar under it for their clothes in the small enclosure just outside the bathroom.
Returning to the kitchen, Twyla remembered her bananas. Maybe she could just grab one as she headed out. Outside, Twyla could hear the rumble of the gate and noticed that the door had been unlocked. Her eyes searched the kitchen for the yellow bunch of sweet bananas.
DojaMa poked her head in the door. “Boslu’s not come,” she said, clicking her tongue. He would certainly hear from her, since she had to get up and do his job when she could have been sleeping.
“But where are my bananas?” Twyla called after her.
“They’re gone, Bhabi,” the old woman answered. Twyla could feel the heat rising in her face. What did she mean, gone?
“Nurmahol and her husband came for a visit last night, Bhabi. There wasn’t anything else in the house to feed them,” the old woman said, as she headed up the stairs to her room. It was clearly pointless to be angry with the old woman, Twyla reminded herself, though gritted teeth.
“Where are my bananas?” she asked her mother-in-law, who was just finishing her prayers.
“Don’t worry. We have bananas,” she said, and then she shuffled off to her bed, bent over with effort, and pulled out a basket where she kept the bananas she and Bapi ate—the small, sour variety with hairy, black seeds.
“But my bananas are gone?” Twyla said to drive her point home as she took a pair of small brown bananas for her breakfast. She didn’t care for the small, sour bananas and thought her mother-in-law bought them only to reduce consumption.
“Finished,” Maheja said without any apparent understanding of the mental turmoil that was plaguing her daughter-in-law. Satisfaction, perhaps, or maybe relief was what Twyla thought she saw. To the old woman it had been a careless purchase. She had spared Twyla the risk of waste.