"Yes, that is so," said Razia. "It is the worst thing, for any woman."
"And at sixteen floors up, if you decide to jump, then there's the end to it." Mrs. Islam extracted a handkerchief and wiped away a little sweat from her hairline. Just looking at her made Nazneen feel unbearably hot.
"There's no chance of ending up a vegetable, if you jump from that high," agreed Razia. She accepted a cup from Nazneen and held it in her man-size hands. She wore black lace-up shoes, wide and thick-soled. It was the sari that looked strange on her. "But of course it was an accident. Why say otherwise?"
"A terrible accident," said Mrs. Islam. "But everyone is whispering behind the husband's back."
Nazneen sipped her tea. It was ten past five and all she had done was chop two onions. She had not heard about the accident. Chanu had mentioned nothing. She wanted to know who this woman was who had died so terribly. She formed some questions in her mind, phrased and rephrased them.
"It is a shame," said Razia. She smiled at Nazneen. Nazneen thought Razia did not look as though she really thought so. When she smiled she looked deeply amused, although her mouth turned up only slightly to indicate pity rather than laughter. She had a long nose and narrow eyes that always looked at you from an angle, never straight on, so that she seemed perpetually to be evaluating if not mocking you.
Mrs. Islam made a noise signaling that it was, indeed, a shame. She took a fresh handkerchief and blew her nose. After a decent interval she said, "Did you hear about Jorina?"
"I hear this and that," said Razia, as if no news about Jorina could possibly interest her.
"And what do you say to it?"
"That depends," said Razia, looking down her nose at her tea, "on what particular thing you mean."
"I don't tell anything that isn't known already. You can hardly keep it a secret when you begin going out to work."
Nazneen saw that Razia looked up sharply. Razia did not know the things that Mrs. Islam knew. Mrs. Islam knew everything about everybody. She had been in London for nearly thirty years, and if you were a Bangladeshi here, what could you keep secret from her? Mrs. Islam was the first person who called on Nazneen, in those first few days when her head was still spinning and the days were all dreams and real life came to her only at night, when she slept. Mrs. Islam was deemed by Chanu to be "respectable." Not many people were "respectable" enough to call or be called upon. "You see," said Chanu when he explained this for the first time, "most of our people here are Sylhetis. They all stick together because they come from the same district. They know each other from the villages, and they come to Tower Hamlets and they think they are back in the village. Most of them have jumped ship. That's how they come. They have menial jobs on the ship, doing donkey work, or they stow away like little rats in the hold." He cleared his throat and spoke to the back of the room so that Nazneen turned her head to see who it was he was addressing. "And when they jump ship and scuttle over here, then in a sense they are home again. And you see, to a white person, we are all the same: dirty little monkeys all in the same monkey clan. But these people are peasants. Uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded. Without ambition." He sat back and stroked his belly. "I don't look down on them, but what can you do? If a man has only ever driven a rickshaw and never in his life held a book in his hand, then what can you expect from him?"
Nazneen wondered about Mrs. Islam. If she knew everybody's business then she must mix with everybody, peasant or not. And still she was respectable.
"Going out to work?" Razia said to Mrs. Islam. "What has happened to Jorina's husband?"
"Nothing has happened to Jorina's husband," said Mrs. Islam. Nazneen admired the way the words left her mouth, like bullets. It was too late now to ask about the woman who fell from the sixteenth floor.
From Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Copyright Monica Ali 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
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