Yesterday, we interviewed Shubnum Khan about her book, Onion Tears. Today, we have a preview of her book, which has been shortlisted for the Penguin Prize for African Writing.
Khadeejah knew a great deal about husbands.
In her many years of moving around the country she had come across a number of them. There were:
1.) The good ones who rubbed your back when you vomited. And tried to fry eggs on Sunday mornings.
2.) The mean ones who slammed your fingers in doors. Or pinched your thighs (and claimed it was a joke).
3.) The loving ones who rubbed coconut oil in your hair. And bought a sleek slab of chocolate to hide under your pillow every night.
4.) The domineering ones who walked ahead of you with long, quick strides. Who slept on high, firm pillows.
5.) The very bad ones who came home when the night was deep. And left you with a broken heart (and nose).
6.) The sad ones who didn’t know how to smile. Too oblivious or drenched in self-pity to care about someone else.
7.) And the indifferent ones who forgot you were standing next to them. Until you pulled at their sleeve, and they turned to look down at you in surprise.
Oh yes, Khadeejah Bibi Ballim knew them all.
Take Roxanne’s husband, Jerome, for instance. The couple had been married for five years and had lived next door to Khadeejah and Haroon during their time in Kliptown. They never fought. They never raised their voices. Khadeejah would watch from behind the curtain of her sitting room window as Roxanne planted a loving kiss on Jerome’s cheek before he rushed off to work. He never even once turned to look back at her as she stood and watched him leave. A husband like him did not appreciate a loving wife.
The loving ones were not hard to locate. Peeping from behind curtains was unnecessary as this type of husband announces himself to the world. In Bronkhorstspruit everyone in the flats could hear Hajji Goolam singing phool thum hai beja hai at the top of his voice for his wife Fawzia. And every few minutes they would hear her shy laugh, “Sshh, everyone will hear you.”
Khadeejah knew especially about the hurtful husbands. In her opinion these men were born bad. Like bad seeds. It had nothing to do with being spoiled by mothers or money. These men were damaged right from the beginning. Maybe the sperm got in the wrong way or maybe the egg wasn’t right. Whatever it was these men were born with a bad heart. Damaged. Khadeejah held the belief that if you looked at a baby in the right way you could tell if it was rotten. The Way it cried or moved its mouth. There was a tell-tale shriek at the back of the cry. A pout to the lips. And a greediness in the way the child suckled. She never told the mothers anything, of course.
She just didn’t offer to hold the child.
She learnt a lot about bad husbands from her own marriage. But also from when she and Haroon had lived in the Laudium flats. They had only been married for three years. In those shabby flats everyone’s business was everyone else’s and someone was always having a squabble with someone else. It was a loud place with people yelling, cats yowling and toilets flushing. There was one particularly noisy couple living above Khadeejah. They were newly married. The story went that the girl had insisted on living on their own and not with her mother-in-law. Shortly later the girl had given birth to a baby. When the boy returned from work their voices were always raised. It would continue late into the night as Khadeejah lay in bed staring into the dark. After a few months she began to hear thumps and shouts. In her kitchen, Khadeejah would stop stirring her haleem and look up at the ceiling with her spoon hovering over the pot.
Sometimes there were dull thumps, sometimes they were loud. The girl would curse, scream and cry. She would threaten to go home. He would taunt her. The baby cried along with them. Khadeejah begged Haroon to intercede but he just kept turning the pages of the sport section in his paper. His eyes said it was none of their business. One particularly loud night, Khadeejah had heard the front gate slam as the boy stalked out of his flat. Khadeejah didn’t know why she did it. Haroon had told her not to interfere, but the girl was sobbing and Haroon was in bed. Khadeejah walked up the stairs into the girl’s flat. She found her sitting in a crumpled heap on the kitchen floor. The girl had looked up surprised.
“Men,” Khadeejah had started while pulling out a pot from the cupboard, “are dom. We women, we learn this quickly.”
The girl had simply sat and stared at her.
“But even if these men are very stupid, we are still stuck with them, neh?” she said while digging in the cupboard through glass bottles before she finally pulled out a big bottle of moong dhal. She filled a silver dish with water from the kitchen tap and soaked the lentils in it. “We are stuck with them, because what can we do? We never went to school, well, at least I didn’t finish. I didn’t study after that. Abba got me married in two-twos.” She snapped her fingers. “We never learnt how to do much besides cook. So we stuck with them.” She lowered her voice for a second. “Even the rubbish ones. Now give me two onions please.”
The bruised girl un-crumpled herself, got to her feet and passed Khadeejah the onions from a rack behind the kitchen door.
“We stuck with these men,” Khadeejah repeated, as she began peeling the onions. “We stuck with them, maar they are stupid. And even though we haven’t learnt anything like them, we are also clever. Neh? Chop one big tomato there,” Khadeejah said while reaching for a bottle of haldi she had spotted on a shelf. “A man’s head is in his stomach. It is in his phetoo. Where?”
The girl, with a tomato in her hand, pointed uncertainly to her stomach.
“Good, you learning fast-fast. You have dhana jeera and ginger-garlic?”
“I think so.”
“You must always have in your house. And always, always grind your own. You’ll save that aloo husband of yours some money, and it’s much cleaner! Garlic is cheap at Randerees down the road. He usually has fresh vegetables for a good price maar sometimes he can cheat you, especially with hisdoodi. You must always poke it to check if it’s fresh. If it’s hard it’s not good. Samje?”
Khadeejah poured oil into the pot and added the sliced onions.
“Tsk, Tsk. You must always keep your oil container clean. Don’t let the oil drip down the sides like this. Tsk! And remember, ghee is better. It might be bit more expensive, but it makes the food taste acha.” She raised her voice over the loud simmer as the onions hit the oil. “Ja, I was saying his heart is in his stomach. An Indian man especially. God made them that Way. Some men have their hearts in their head, some down there,” and she waved her spoon at the girl’s lower regions. “But the Indian man has it in his stomach. Now I will tell you something.” She motioned for the girl to come close to her. “Look at my husband eh? He’s not great saint. He shouts me and he fights, but we not so bad, neh? He doesn’t bish-bash me so much, neh? He can, I’m sure he wants to. But why doesn’t he?” She lowered her voice. “I cook good food.” She looked up with a confirming nod and stirred the onions. “It’s true. You see men like ours, they think all that wives are there for is to make babies and fry aloo paratha. You can’t get divorced eh? Your parents won’t let you. And you have child to worry about. What you will do for money? This stupid men with their big brains give us our money. So…” She took the chopped tomatoes from the girl and put them into the pot and then added haldi and chilli powder to the onion mix. “You can try to make it better for you. A man with a full phetoo cannot hit you. Remember that. A heavy stomach makes the hand tired.” She turned to look at the girl. “Cook! Give him his food on time. I know you don’t give him on time – I hear it. If you want to take him away from his mother, at least know how to cook. And if this – this,” she gestured to the girl’s state, “doesn’t cut down, then learn something quickly. Learn to sew, to sell samoosas, to do something! Learn to make money and go. Jau. It is not worth it then,” she said and then looked up at the girl. “Arre. Come now, stop crying. Let’s see if you can finish making this moong by yourself.”
As she watched the girl add the lentils to the simmering onions she sighed, “We must make the sacrifices, neh? Always the woman must make it. Otherwise no one will end up making the sacrifice and we will all end up killing each other.”
For the next few months Khadeejah visited the girl and supervised her cooking. She always had some tip or advice to give.
“More chillies. That pumpkin is not nice. Wash your dishes first! Too much pudhina. Rinse your rice three times. Fry that longer, your husband will spit it out if you give him like that.”
The fighting did subside and the couple seemed happier. The girl was eternally grateful to Khadeejah. A few months later they moved out of the flats and Khadeejah didn’t see her again until years later when they met at a supermarket. The girl (who was now a woman) had opened her own catering company and had divorced her husband a long time ago. The girl had hugged her and sobbed in the middle of the fish aisle. And Khadeejah had awkwardly patted her back.
So, yes, Khadeejah Bibi Ballim knew a lot about husbands.