Nasreen threw herself on the floor and yelled, “What made you leave?” “How will I feed my children?”
Someone in the crowd murmured, “Allah ki jo marzi,” consoling Nasreen while offering her water. It was a sultry February afternoon. While men were busy with funeral preparations, women were seated in a cramped room.
Everyone had left after the funeral except Kareem, a distant relative. Nasreen, in her black salwar kameez, sat on the floor of the chawl room, which included a kitchen and a bathroom. Nasreen was a short and stocky woman with a round face. “What will I do now?” she repeated, sobbing.
“I’m leaving Nasreen,” Kareem said softly. She replied with a nod of her head. Nasreen refused to eat the food her neighbour had brought her. “Beta, you have three children to look after. You must eat,” the neighbour said, rubbing her back. Nasreen began crying uncontrollably and hugged the lady tightly.
Salim, Nasreen’s husband, spent his meagre earnings on alcohol. His drinking habits frequently resulted in fights. When he began throwing up nonstop one day, they discovered his liver had failed. Nasreen knew his end was near.
The aroma of incense filled the room. Nasreen was staring at the picture hung on the wall when her daughter complained, “I’m hungry, ammi.” Nasreen replied, “Tell Khala to give you something.” Her daughter dashed to the neighbour’s house.
Nasreen sat near the window after the children had gone to school. Someone was drying clothes on the railing. Loud Hindi film music played in the background. Nasreen noticed a dabbawalla on a bicycle carrying metal tiffins. She imagined someone devouring the meal. Nasreen realised she hadn’t cooked a decent meal for her children in days.
She dragged herself out of bed and started cleaning. There was dust and cobwebs everywhere. The unwashed clothes were strewn about. The children were doing their bit, but she realised the house needed her attention. Nasreen scrubbed and cleaned the floor. While cleaning the floor, she discovered utensils she had accumulated over the years, including large kadhai and pans.
Nasreen loved to cook. She enjoyed seeing people’s delight as they ate the delicacies she prepared. She helped with the cooking at weddings and other special occasions for neighbours. Sometimes, she prepared extra tiffins for her husband’s colleagues at the office.
She took a deep breath and sat on the bed after cleaning when Kareem’s phone flashed. She hadn’t seen Kareem in several weeks. But, she lacked the energy to pick up the phone.
She checked the kitchen basket and found some potatoes. For lunch, she made aloo ki sabzi garnished with coriander leaves she borrowed from her neighbour. The aroma of spices and ginger filled the chawl. “Wah! “You’re cooking, Nasreen aapa,” her neighbour yelled, inhaling the aroma.
She had once expressed an interest in taking cooking orders to Salim. He was vehemently opposed to the offer, stating, “Women from our families don’t work outside.” Besides, I’m there to look after you.” It made Nasreen angry and depressed.
She decided to prepare a proper meal in the evening. The grocery dabbas were all empty. “I must go to the banya’s shop and get some groceries,” she whispered. This was the first time she had left the chawl since Salim’s death. Before leaving, she changed into a new salwar kameez and checked herself in the mirror. She looked leaner and pale.
The bazaar was crowded with vendors on either side of the narrow street. “Salaam chacha!” she greeted a vegetable seller. She bought dals, salt and spices for the house. She inhaled the fragrance of whole spices she used to make biryani and curries. Her mutton biryani was popular in the chawl. “Nasreen bibi, you must clear the bills soon,” the baniya said, reluctantly giving the groceries on credit.
“Salim, you have abandoned us in poverty,” she mumbled, tears streaming down her cheeks. Nasreen had a sleepless night. She kept thinking of ways to get herself out of poverty.
She opened her steel trunk after the kids had gone to school and threw everything on the floor. There were bedsheets, shimmery sarees, and blankets from her wedding trousseau. She discovered a last gold bangle she had saved for her daughter’s wedding. She had pawned the rest of the jewellery for Salim’s treatment.
She sat on her bed with the gold bangle in her hand. Nasreen wiped her tears and picked her phone to make a call. She then took out all of the large utensils and scrubbed them thoroughly.
There was a knock at the door. It was Kareem. Nasreen retrieved her last piece of jewelry—a bangle—from a trunk. After making him a cup of chai, she handed the bangle to Kareem, asking him to sell it. “This is enough to fulfill my dream and fill the bellies of my children,” she mumbled. She admired the gleaming utensils she had cleaned earlier, neatly stacked in the chawl room.
She stitched herself a cooking apron out of an old kurta the next morning. She put on the red-colored apron and admired herself in the mirror. “Mashallah! chef Nasreen,” she murmured.
Kareem returned the next evening with a crisp twenty-thousand bundle of notes, which he handed to Nasreen. “Shukriya!” she collected the money, thanking Kareem.
“Rehman, come here. I need some help,” she told her son excitedly. They both dashed to the wholesale bazaar the next morning with a shopping list in hand. She bought a large packet of whole masalas this time, along with other groceries. They carried heavy bags of groceries back home.
With a dream in her eyes, she sat on the floor, grounding the whole spices in a big mortar and pestle. She fried the delicate okra pieces in mustard oil and seasoned the dal with red chili powder and jeera. She filled each of the twenty tiffins one by one. Nasreen proudly stared at the tiffins, when the delivery boy came to collect them.
Minakshi is a researcher and author based in Gurgaon. She has a PhD degree in Social Medicine and Community Health. Her pieces have been published in the Deccan Herald, The Telegraph, Live Wire, Devex, and Asia Democracy Chronicles. Pratham Books published her non-fiction picture book for children. She is currently writing her debut non-fiction book for HarperCollins, India.