The nights when the moon was full were the nights when Razia felt closest to Allah. She wondered sometimes if He, too, felt closest to her on those nights, but then she felt it was wrong to wonder such a thing, though she didn't know why. She also didn't know why the new cook hated her so much. But among all the not knowing there was this piece of knowing: that he did hate her.
However that had come to pass, she knew she wasn't to blame. She had given no cause for offense and in the beginning she was actually glad he was there because he replaced the cook who was a drug addict and always sneezed into the food. Razia's feelings about eating someone else's sneeze were strong, stronger even than her gratitude to the drugged cook - Kamal, his name was Kamal, - for always saving the biggest tomatoes for her.
When the new cook arrived he did not sneeze into the food. But he also did not save the biggest tomatoes for Razia. She determined right away that she would like him because it seemed too petty to hate a man for failing to give you the biggest tomatoes. When Razia decided something it was hard for her to undecide it so many months went by like this until the new cook was not the new cook any longer, he was merely the cook and he hated her.
Why should he hate her? some might ask. It is not a bad question unless a bad question is one which has no answer. It is obvious that he had nothing to fear from her and she never turned the burner on high so that his korma burned - so that eliminates the two most obvious possibilities.
The first time Razia thought of turning the burner on high was when the elder daughter of the family said to her mother, why do I need an Ayah now, at this age, when I am old enough for lipstick and even a little rouge. She did not, no would not, would not ever say, and why do I need a cook now? Razia knew this and the cook knew it too - so why did the daughter have to say it when he was listening?
But she said it and what is said is said. So the cook knew - and Razia knew he knew - that cooks are for always and ayahs are for children. That same day - or maybe not, maybe some days after but at any rate soon enough - the thing happened that made Razia undecide what she had earlier decided about liking the cook. The thing that happened was this: Razia was praying and the mother was calling. Razia was trying to pray faster but the mother was calling louder so Razia left the prayer unfinished and went to answer the call. First, though, she turned down one corner of the prayer mat because of the devil. When Razia came back to the prayer mat it was flat - not a wrinkle, not a tassel turned. There was no one in the house except the mother and Razia and the cook. It could only have been him, that hoarder of large tomatoes, who smoothened the mat and let the devil sit on it. The devil was not lazy and he was not tired. He did not sit in order to rest his knees, no he did not. He sat so that he could suck up the prayers from the mat before they went up to heaven. If Razia had only been praying for larger tomatoes that would have been one thing but she had been praying for her son's promotion and that was another thing entirely.
Her son was not promoted.
Razia told the devil's helpmate that her son was not promoted. He said, oh really, well, Allah's will, here have some keema. She took the keema and started to eat it, but then she stopped. There was another taste in there: not chilli, not cumin, not coriander, not clove, but something else. The elder daughter came into the kitchen and took a spoonful of keema straight out of the pan - she was wearing her new clothes which cost as much as Razia's son made in a month in his job without the promotion. Razia saw her put the keema into her mouth and thought of that taste - not cumin, not coriander, not clove, not chilli, but something else. Perhaps that something was poison.
A week later the moon was full. Razia blew prayers around the house, both outside and inside, and then twice around the bed of the younger daughter who didn't wear lipstick yet but one day would and soon.
There! She had done what she could do, though no one listened to her when she said that when the prisoner chopped onions he was not thinking of onions but of necks. Then she left the house because her unpromoted son was the one person who listened to her and said, you must come away with me now.
But the poison had started working already so Razia was sick when she got to her village. Her son took her to a hakim who took the money her son held out to him and said, this is black magic. The hakim was short and his teeth were bad but he had many Qurans. There are tall men who cannot say as much. Razia took a Quran from the hakim. At first she could not choose which one to take so he pointed to one and she took it. He said, open to the first page. She did. There is a name written here, the hakim said, gesturing to a page that was blank save for a sinewy string of letters, indecipherable to her. He read it out loud and asked, do you know the name? It had been many weeks since she had used the name even in her own mind and for a moment she didn't recognise it. But then she nodded twice, to show the first hadn't just been an involuntary jerk of her head. The hakim pointed to the mirrors along the walls and she followed the lazy gesture of his hand and saw the Poisoner's face everywhere, all around her, pressing against each surface of glass.
When she stopped screaming the hakim said, There, we have captured the one who did this to you. You are free.
Freedom was tiring. Razia went home and lay down in bed, as she always did at this time. It was just after one in the afternoon. He was serving food and They were eating food. It was good, so good, to have those twenty-odd minutes of rest in the daytime hours with no one saying iron, sew, clean, carry. She lay down in bed as she always did for those twenty-odd minutes; but now it could be twenty more - why not twenty after that?
Razia closed her eyes. She thought of Him in the kitchen with no one to watch him. She thought of Them at the dining table, their plates piled high. She stretched and smiled and imagined a taste. Not cumin not chilli not coriander not clove.
Previously published in the anthology 'As the World Changed,' edited by Muneeza Shamsie, and published in 2005 by Women Unlimited, Delhi. Reprinted by permission.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007