Shahnaz deposited her bag in her bedroom and joined her mother in the lounge for tea. It was a balmy Friday evening and the start of the weekend. She picked up an aaloo samosa*, her favourite kind, and began to slowly, pleasurably bite into its crispy outer layer to get to its spice-laden heart. She closed her eyes each time she bit into the hot crunchy pastry. Her evening cup of tea accompanied by the savoury snack fresh out of the samosa wala’s pan of bubbling hot oil was by far one of her favourite daily indulgences; the other one being a hot shower no matter what the season outside was. Both rituals marked the end of her workday and the beginning of a long evening that she would spend partly with her mother and partly in her room, floating between the two as she willed.
The four or five hours before bedtime did not have any preset form or structure, their very fluidity and spontaniety refreshing and restoring her. She finished her samosa and eyed another. Every once in a while, when her tastebuds still tingled with post-samosa pleasure, their savoury receptor cells not quite gratified, she would reach for another. She never had more than two, superstitious about the plus-two extravagance slyly wreaking havoc in her arteries and rendering forever her beloved samosa into the realms of pastries non grata. Her mother urged her to have another, she always did. Both women wore their bulk easily and becomingly.
Shahnaz lived with her mother in a two bedroom apartment in Clifton. The two had lived in the same flat for the last fifteen years. In fact Shahnaz was only seven when they had moved from Islamabad to Karachi. It had been an arduous and exhausting move, undertaken against the wishes of Mahjabeen’s brothers and indeed the whole extended family. After all, how would a newly widowed woman cope on her own in a strange city they had questioned, affronted and appalled. Karachi for the rest of the citizenry, might as well have been another nation state altogether with its remote proximity to everywhere else in the country, and its distinct melting pot of cultures. But Mahjabeen had been adamant, her steadfastness in most part aided by her best friend who lived in Karachi and who had masterminded the entire abscondement from the life that was being diligently prepared for her by her family.
She would have in the wake of her widowhood, been expected to live with her older brother, his wife and their four children. Aside of the fact that her brother, Qasim Jan was the embodiment of unflagging aloofness, he was also a man of a painfully conservative bent. He had already arranged the betrothal of his only daughter; she was five at the time. Mahjabeen herself had spent ten wonderful years with a husband who had been kind, generous and forward looking. He had encouraged her to do her bachelors and then her masters in Geography. After graduation, she picked up the silver thread of Initiative that was so devotedly woven into the fabric of their homestead by her husband, and of her own volition enrolled in a teachers training program. She had managed all this with Shahnaz as a baby and then a toddler. Asfand had enabled her in ways that practically and profoundly went much beyond just his approval as the head of their little family. He had changed, fed and played with their little daughter when Mahjabeen had board exams to prepare for; seamlessly, graciously for weeks upon weeks, shouldering chores that usually lay in the domain of her responsibilities. She sometimes secretly wondered if in fact her life with Asfand was too good to be true; whether the universe itself held them in the blessed hollow of its hands. She would then recite a prayer to ward off ill omens and evil eyes; her unfailing devoutness was her offering to the Divine to always keep her family together.
And then one day just like that, her little world came crashing down around her. Asfand slipped away, his life snuffed out in a split second on the motorway. She was left with seven year old Shahnaz, but also a spirit that was dogged and determined. When her best friend and the principal of a leading school in Karachi offered her a job, she forged the rest of the exit for herself. Within a month, she was in a completely new city, a new environment and a new home.
Shahnaz had been an introverted little girl and had struggled with accepting her suddenly fatherless existence, coupled as that reality was with the unfamiliarity of their new home. She had mourned her father in the innocent, raw manner of a child, crying herself to sleep for weeks afterwards. But the newness of fresh starts, when one does embark on them, is oftentimes a healing elixir in itself. And so, Shahnaz and Mahjabeen had slowly, a day at a time, emerged from their cocoon of painful memories that over the years, lost their piercing sting, becoming softer for both of them to recall and to share.
These last fifteen years in their adopted city had been blessed in other ways too; bestowing an ungrudging share of triumphs and joyfulness on mother and daughter. Mahjabeen was now heading the junior section at Tasneem’s school and Shahnaz, now 22 had just started working at a bank.
Life at Mall Court was generally neighbourly. Most of the residents knew one another, coming together in good times and in bad. The two women had attended six weddings and six funerals in the last decade and a half. The fact that the communal joys and sorrows were even keeled somehow didn’t take away from the overall sense of contentment and gratefulness. Maybe it was this very spirit of community that insulated the residents from the harshness of their individual tragedies. And so, life for the mother and the daughter had been as good as they could have hoped for.
Both women loved their food. The oilier and the richer, the better. While Mahjabeen could cook almost the entire spectrum of local cuisine (the deliberate exceptions being paya* and mutton Kunna*), Shahnaz was a gourmet maker of desserts. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the multi layered tiramisu to the minced beef samosas that promised the most stellar crunch, she could masterfully muster them all. Shahnaz had in fact made reasonable amounts of pocket money from the sale of her baked goods over the last few years. Most of her customers were the Mall Court residents, rallying together as always to support one of their own, and in no small part, to also indulge their insatiable South Asian appetites for fresh-off-the-pan, sweet, rich dessert.
* Aaloo Samosa: Aaloo: Potato in Urdu. Samosa: A fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, including ingredients such as spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.
* Paya: The main ingredients of the dish are the trotters (or hoof of a cow, goat, buffalo or sheep) cooked with various spices.
* Kunna: The term means clay pot in Punjabi. Originating from the Chiniot district in the state of Punjab Pakistan, Kunna is a heavy meat dish that is made with several spices and tender mutton.