By Najma Yusufi
Yasmeen Begum divorced her first husband for the better prospect of the second. He died. She then married again. The third marriage was still going because he had a title and hadn’t let her kill him, yet. His title was something she had always craved. She became Mrs Khan of Hoti. My special training was at Yasmeen Begum’s it would cover all a servant girl should know.
On the second day of my instruction, I kneaded dough in the large kitchen at the back of the house, and I began to reflect on of my own journey. My mother had told me to go and work at the Durranis one day after I came back from school. I started the next day without questioning her. I was then sent as part of their daughter’s dowry when the family married her off. Maagul, the second daughter of the Durranis, had now sent me for special training to her friend’s house. I always seemed to be handed over from one to the other. Some servants like to speak about their feelings.
But I had to be silent. I always felt that if I ever broke that silence I would not be able to stop screaming.
Yasmeen Begum’s first marriage had left her with a scar across her wrist, the second had left her with a daughter. Twenty years into the third union she had failed to give her husband a child. She had been an airhostess; slim, tall and lacquered, speaking English with the fluency of privilege. Its was said that her own poor beginnings were buried under the gloss she had created. She always spoke of the places she had visited around the globe, and especially of London. When she spoke of the “Toilets ofLondon.” she’d say you’d go in and never want to come out. These toilet’s who have maid’s to attend to every person’s needs; offering the ladies a choice of fifteen to twenty different perfumes to put on. Small folded towels were used once then thrown away.
Combs were suspended in a blue cleaning liquid so the ladies could restyle their hair if needed. Some toilets even had hand creams from Paris. I massaged her legs; rocking back and forth, I’d knead her legs and listen to her tales. She expected high standards. Each corner of the house was a well-crafted vision of service. Fluffy towels, perfumes in the bathroom, soft expensive sheets from Egypt and intricately designed carpets from Syria that I cleaned with a special soft brush.
Leaning back on the silk covered chaise-longue, her cigarette holder perched delicately between Yasmeen Begum’s yellow lacquered fingertips. Once again I was unnoticed, as I dusted the mantelpiece near her.
‘Res, you know your foolish husband will always see her and God knows who else,’ said Mrs Khan.
‘I can’t say I know of anyone else. Do you?’ She replied.
‘Maybe that prostitute is famous for never letting her patrons off even if she has to offer her own daughter.’
‘Please don’t say that. The thought of it makes me sick.’
‘You need to learn, darling, that all men are dogs. Always sniffing after bitches.
Didn’t your mother teach you that when she gave you away?’ Res jammed a cigarette between her lips. Mrs Khan always claimed that her husband was too useless even for a prostitute.
‘Mr Khan of Hoti has a small penis and big hang-ups,’ she always said. As I walked into the room her emerald ring glistened as the light caught it at its best angle. Not seeing me, she shouted,
‘Bano, Bano, where are you? You miserable girl. I tell you, Res, Maagul gave me this servant Bano to break in; the only thing she’s broken is my patience. She’s totally useless. The Durranis have no standards these days, having every fool working for them.’
‘Jee Bibi,’ I said.
‘Not Bibi, you illiterate child. Call me Mrs Khan. Now go and lay the table for Sir, he’ll be home soon.’
Here the Hotis lived an even grander life than my Maagul Bibi’s. Every day six different dishes were made and the leftovers given to the dogs. Four cars stood in the driveway, all polished and ready to go if Mrs Khan so wished. Sometimes I went with her and the driver’s young son, Aftab, sat in the front but that was only when she was in a good mood. By now I had laid the table knives, forks and spoons all in the right places, a small salad, rice, chapatti, three meat dishes and two vegetable ones.
Mr Khan of Hoti walked in and sat down slowly, his eyes on my breasts.
‘Bano, where is the finger bowl?’
‘Finger bowl?’ He wiggled his fingers and I realised he wanted the silver bowl filled with rose water. After I brought it in he waved me to sit on the floor beside him. ‘Rub,he said pointing at his thigh.
As I rubbed his thigh, I could feel his gaze on my lips and breasts. It made me feel sad a man my father’s age could look at me in that way. Sweat sat on my forehead. I remembered my own mother. She would be boiling vegetables and my sister would be preparing a pickle to eat with the meal – anything to make it more edible
‘Come to my room after I’ve had my shower. Do you understand?’
‘Yes Mr Khan,’ I replied. Somehow I knew he didn’t just want me to press his legs this time. I had to do what I was told. I was chained. When I was at school I’d often see the dancing bears in the street. They always dragged their bodies around with a chain tied to their feet – I was a dancing bear.
Coming out of Mr Khan’s room that day, I understood that I was nothing and I meant nothing to the people I served. Somehow I wasn’t surprised by what he’d done to me. The other servant girls told me that that is what Khans do. I couldn’t cry. I cleaned the blood from my tights only to find more staining on my sheets the next morning. Two months later I was returned back to Maagul Bibi and started work, using my new skills. Three years after that, Maagul Bibi did what was expected of her; she married me off and I did what was expected of me – I kept silent.
Najma Yusufi is currently completing an MA at Cardiff University in Creative writing. She is working on her debut novel set in Peshawar around the Durranis, a Royal Afghan family.