And he wobbled off to market on his bicycle with a big woven basket strapped on the back, riding so slowly that he could almost have walked there faster, pedaling with his knees pointed out.
But that had ended soon enough. Why are cooks always vicious? She knew that at lunchtime today she would go silently into the kitchen and begin making the chapattis, that Hassan would be standing at the stove, banging lids, ignoring her. She hadn’t done anything, she had told the slut sweepress who was always hanging around the kitchen to fuck off somewhere else, and he exploded. Hassan ruled the hot filthy kitchen. He made food both for the master’s table and for all the servants, more than a dozen of them. For days on end the servants’ food would be inedible—keeping with Hassan’s policy of collective punishment. Once, when the accounts manager had quite mildly commented on Hassan’s reckless padding of the bills, they had eaten nothing but watery lentils for more than a week, until the manager backed down. “Well, I’ve got to cut corners somewhere,” Hassan kept saying, shaking his grizzled head. Anyway, Saleema knew that he was through with her, would sweeten up and try to fuck her now and then, out of cruelty as much as anything else, to show he could—but the easy days were over, now she had no one to protect her. In this household a man who had served ten years counted as a new servant. Hassan had been there over fifty, Rafik, the master’s valet, the same. Even the nameless junior gardener had been there four or five. With less than a month’s service Saleema counted for nothing. Nor did she have patronage. She had been hired on approval, to serve the master’s eldest daughter, Begum Kamila, who lived in New York, and who that spring had come to stay with her father. Haughty and proud, Kamila allowed no intimacies.
Saleema next angled for one of the drivers—forlorn hope!—a large man with a drooping mustache who didn’t ever speak to her. The two drivers shared quarters, a room next to the cool dark garage where two aging Mercedes stood, rarely driven, because the old man rarely went out. Day and night the drivers kept up a revolving card game, with the blades from a nearby slum, the fast set. She would linger past the door of the room where they sprawled on a raft of beds. At night they sometimes drank beer, hiding the bottles on the floor.
As she walked past their room a second time on a breezy spring morning, one of the men in the room whistled.
“Go to hell,” she said.
That made it worse.
“Give us some of that black mango. It’s a new variety!”
“No, it’s smooth like ice cream, I swear to God my tongue is melting.”
“You can wipe your dipstick after checking the oil!”
One of them pretended to be defending her. “How dare you say that!”
She went into the latrine, holding back her tears. She didn’t even have a place to herself for that, she shared the same toilet as the men. The dark room stank, there were cockroaches in the corners. She closed the wooden door of the stall behind her, pushed her face and arms against the flaking whitewashed wall, and began softly to cry.
“What is it, girl?”
Someone must have been in the shower, next to the toilet. Usually she called before entering.
“Who the hell is that?”
“Stay in there, my clothes are on the wall. I’m just finished.”
She recognized the voice of Rafik, the valet.
“You can go to hell too. I’m done with you fuckheads.”
“That’s all right, quiet down, I’m just leaving.” His thin arm reached to take the clothes hanging from a nail pounded into the wall behind the door. She heard him dress and go out, pulling the door shut gently.
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