Halima is thin, well built with a sharp tongue. At first it was difficult for me to figure out her mindset every time she spoke. I would wonder was she complaining or was that her general tone? Then I realized that it was a habit. A habit of sounding like she was at war and the only weapon she had was her voice. She had a war ravaged voice while she sang praises for the houselady, or complained about too many clothes and utensils to be washed and dried.
On few days her daughter Aphreen, all of 17 would sometimes accompany her. She would wash the few utensils while her mother mopped the floor. On such days my mother would offer them tea and biscuits. And Halima would open up to her in between her tea sips.
That she is 45. Once widowed and saddled with three kids. Two daughters and a son she is married again to a man she met when she first worked at a construction site as a laborer when she first arrived in Bombay from Bangladesh. Her eldest daughter is married and now lives in Dhaka (Dacca) the capital of the erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh.
The younger daughter who stays with her was married off last year but the husband is now absconding. The youngest son works in Dhaka too. Found a job only recently.
For a house help or maid Halima wears good clothes. Good quality cotton salwaar suits. Well cut, embroidered sometimes and complimenting her 'at-45-and-mother-of three-yet-envious' figure. Hair always up in a top-knot and big flower shaped clips on them. Sometimes the clip adorned with false yet bright shining diamantes and stones.
She says its difficult being a Bangladeshi woman and surviving in this city alone. Without the requisite working permits. Bribes and 'haftas' exchange hands for their safe keep and anonymity in this megapolis. Her current husband, Maqbool is younger than her but takes care of her and is concerned about her kids. He is a Bangladeshi too.
He visits his folks and family twice a year. Everything that she needs to be aware of she knows. Then married him. It is a mutually benificial allaince.
Sometimes her husband calls on her mobile phone and Halima yacks back with the same at-war tone in high pitched sharp 'Bangla'.
By her looks I know Halima must be getting a lot of 'undue' attention. First in the construction site she began working, now in the households she goes to do chores everyday.
She is the perfect realization of a lot of middle class middle aged men's 'maiden' fantasy.
I dare not ask her, her stories of survival and compromise. But I must confess I am curious. I know she is the treasurer of many stories.
Rabiya counts days to the half yearly festive times. A day counted off at sun down. She sells fish at the main Chittagong market. Her catch coming from the river Kôrnophuli every morning. Every evening she rubs her hand with ash and runs her palms on the smoke of lobaan to get rid of the fish stench. The ritual is done with much fervour when the festive time nears.
She has two kids. A son a and daughter who go to the local school and help her sell the fish in the market sometimes. Her husband works far. Very far. In India. Where there is more scope and more money than what Dhaka or its Taka can offer. Afterall, since he has started working in Bombai he has promised to get her a Dhakai Jamdani saree someday soon. A first in her life.
Her two kids Mirvaiz and Irshat pass there days as many others their age in the Chittagong shanties behind the station. They await their festivities when their Aabba comes during Eid. With money and presents. When their mother cooks good chilli spiced gravies of beef and vegetables. They miss their father. But its worth the slightly better life that they now lead.
Rabiya knows her husband Maqbool is a good man and loves his family a lot. That nothing can threaten her position in his life even if he is far away. He showers her with gifts and love when he comes. Twice a year for fifteen days. Covering a long arduous journey from Bambai to Kolkata. Then a rickety bus ride from Kolkata to Dhaka. Then further to Chittagong. He says it takes more than 4 days for the one way journey alone.
So what if he is just a man. At times their religion permits a man to address his weakness as long as he can keep everyone involved happy.
And so Maqbool does keep everyone happy.
When each one knows the presence of the other in another city.
From Halima to Rabiya.
From Chittagong to Bombay.