The Neighbourhood of Childhood:
Many summer nights we played in the square of green that we shared with our neighbours, the Shafiqs and the Chaudhrys.The dense trees around us enveloped us in theirraat-ki-raani smell, and we sought out noises made by crickets and frogs. We were careful not to step on the frogs, but attempted only to trap the jugnoos (fireflies) in empty matchboxes.The light emanating from the base of the jugnoos’ stomachs made their soft bodies glow neon.
The girl with me must have been Sabine, for at that time I was fond of the long haired girls in our neighbourhood. I would like to describe Sabine’s hair as being “long long” but the constructions “long long” and “dark dark” could give me away. The fragrance of the trees I cannot describe, for it existed only once and that too in memory.
We ran, playing with abandon, while our mothers and fathers were stationed in front of prime time TV (watching neelamghar literally translated as “sold house,” but closer in format to the show The Price Is Right). As per the custom of the city of our parents, they never worried about us being out at night. For our houses sat on balmy residential streets away from markets teeming with all kinds of people, where light bulbs glowed gold as restaurant chefs barbecued chicken with the clattering sound of bangles when the ladies from ice-cream parlours and juice bars of the area handed out styrofoam cups of these treats.
The possibility of sinister beings lurking in the shadows of the trees never entered our parents’ minds.
We expended our after dinner energy by running the length of the grass, trapping fireflies, releasing fireflies, and finally running all the way up to the roof of Sabine’s house. The roofs of my city became a popular hangout due to spring time celebrations where people hosted kite flying parties. Everybody attempted to out-do one another by flaunting the size of their kites and the sound quality of their stereo systems.
To get up to the roof of Sabine’s house, we entered through the veranda and made our way through the house proper where the three girls (Sabine’s sisters) lived. The girls lived amongst an accumulation of jewelled pillows with leftover bits of deep fried salty things in the crevices of the sofas. There were milky cups of half drunken tea, which were more beige than brown, and photo albums of them in dupattas, and the lingering smell of sleep on the living room fabrics (because their father often napped there).
Upon reaching the roof of the house, we looked down at the unbounded green with a sense of exhilaration, the air alive and whipping through our hair confirmed for us that we could never be contained.
The Neighbourhood of Balconies:
Much happened on balconies that could not happen elsewhere.
Acts of the amorous kind:
Neighbourhood boys circled the houses of the young women of the area, sometimes on motorbikes and sometimes in cars. They watched the girls in daylight, so they knew at least the general shape of their beloved as they viewed her from the street below. They offered up phone numbers scrawled on slips of paper, which were then balled up for buoyancy, as well as finely wrapped boxes of Quality Street (the brand of expensive chocolates: a reminder of our colonial past) by tossing them onto the balconies of the houses the girls lived in.
Acts of the non-amorous kind:
I was once coaxed into doing my neighbour’s math homework. We did our homework on the balcony so our mothers would not see us. Of what we knew of our mothers, they would never go on the balconies. Perhaps in their youth they had done so, when they had been girls.
The Neighbourhood where the Sex is at Stake:
As the years progressed, life began to change with the introduction of import.
On the new street we inhabited, I watched my curly-haired neighbour pace back and forth on her balcony. Boys circled her house at all hours.
I met this neighbour when I went over to borrow their telephone when ours was broken. I knew the model of her army father’s car and that her light skinned brothers (their mother was of Northern origin, her familial home bordering Afghanistan) were always ruddy cheeked looking as if they held perfect apples inside their cheeks.
Once, the neighbour was standing on her balcony with a friend. They had been measuring their waists. One of the waists came in at twenty-five inches. The glee on their faces led me to believe this was a sign of triumph.
When my mother and I went to the tailor’s, I saw the neighbour girl there. She gave the tailor very specific instructions on the depth of the neck of the dress, to the tightness of its waist and the length of its sleeves, or the lack thereof.
My mother is coming down the stairs dressed in a turquoise shalwarkameez. She wears a silver choker around her neck, and the curls are piled high on her head. She asks Khalid to wash her car so she can go out.
Khalid brings the hose from the back of the house (to the front of the house) to the driveway. He grumbles under his breath because it is the time between lunch and tea, where the other cooks are congregating across the street for a daily tête-à-tête. He cannot join the other cooks or join in their laughter now because he has to wash my mother’s car.
Khalid brings the hose all the way from the back of the house (to the front of the house) to the driveway. Once, maybe twice, the hose becomes entangled around the planters that are on either side of the driveway.
The one and only time I looked inside Khalid’s room, I noticed the walls plastered with images of television actresses and movie stars. The images were culled from the “women’s pages” of the newspaper. The bodies of the women were displayed against alternating backgrounds of orange and green, and because he had not cut out the images precisely, lines of accompanying script sometimes appeared around the heads of the women, near their feet, or poked out from behind their hips. The floor of his room was grey more or less, and because the room contained no carpeting and no shelving, it made me want to run away, which I did.
My mother stands in heels, dressed in a turquoise shalwarkameez. She wears a silver choker around her neck, and the curls are piled high on her head. The vines of the money plant scale over the wall of the driveway. In the back of the house, Ammaji begins to launder our clothes mixing the reds with the whites and yellows. The washing machine is stationed in the alley around the corner from the workers’ quarters. The clothes are stacked on the floor beside the washing machine, while some are in a round plastic tub. A bar of Guelph-made purple glycerine soap cannot enter this picture.
From the mouth of the hose, a gush of water arrives.
This might be when it happens.
The sound of the shot did not ring out of the neighbour’s home; otherwise we would have heard it. What we are told in the aftermath is that the curly-haired neighbour was elsewhere when her father decided he was going to shoot her. Therefore, the crime wasn’t committed next door.
Two neighbourhood girls went flower picking which they had been routinely doing for months. They walked by the sprawling houses on either side of the road. The houses with name plates boasted well-tended lawns that are decorated with succulent roses.
In their own words the girls said:
“We always went flower picking at the same time. It was . . . umm . . . after school, between lunch and tea. Maybe at five p.m. It was after school. We covered the streets close to our homes but not too close. Because . . . picking flowers that belonged to other people was like ringing their doorbells and running away, but more fun. We made bouquets with the flowers and took them to our own homes. Our favourites were blue flowers, and yellow flowers, sunflowers. Only spotting a bumblebee in a garden could have stopped us. And that’s what finally did it, it was the bumblebee spotted twice that stopped us.”
At the prayer service for the curly-haired neighbour, we saw her mother heave with grief. She moved with heavy emotion, as opposed to becoming limp with grief. The neighbour’s friend with the twenty-five inch waist was present also.
I have already described my own mother’s outfit. Khalid, the cook was in a pinkshalwarkameez. He washed the car using a hose, and added a red bucket to the scene. There was a splish-sploshing of water as he dunked a cleaning rag in and out of the bucket, there was the tuk-tuk of my mother’s heels, the sound of the azaan came from one corner of the city and from a different part of the city came the honking of cars and trucks. The trucks were painted with meticulous detail, as if handpicked by Orozco for this very scene