Shabnam can feel her empty stomach twist and heave. She hugs the jar of eggs and looks fondly at the pale, tea-coloured eggs. Agitated, she walks over to the gate of the large, white house. “Baji, baji, gand hai?” she shouts in her hunger-sharpened voice and reaches up for the doorbell.Afghan refugee girl

Sunday morning.

The houses and their inmates in the lane are quiet, lulled by the final days of fasting and feasting and last night’s rain.  It’s the end of Ramzan[1] and the householders are asleep, after sehri[2] and fajr[3] prayers. Shabnam and her little sister stir when their parents get up for sehri but go back to sleep.  Now the girls awaken, cold and hungry in the still dark morning. They lie next to each other, their scant, warm bodies shivering under the quilt. They know they’ll be no rotis left for them. Shabnam knows there’ll be no food until later, until her Baba, who has to go out and look for work every day, if he finds work, he’ll return with something her mother can cook for iftaar. A whole day’s guesswork stretches between now and iftaar, between hunger and a full meal.

Shabnam nudges her little sister and together they creep out of the room. They squint at the tandoor[4] in the just-breaking day, the tandoor that lies cold after it was lit to cook last night’s rotis. Their uncles and their wives and children are asleep in the other two rooms. The girls rub their hands on their bare arms and slip on their slippers. There’s no water in the bucket, so they can’t wash. Shabnam picks up the plastic jar with the eggs her hens have laid on the roof. Unwashed, the sisters stroll down the lane towards the large houses.

It’s luxuriously quiet, the quiet of a Sunday morning, when people don’t have to go to work or kids to school, and all can sleep in. Shabnam thinks of coziness and warmth under a thick quilt. She thinks of the heavy quilts of children who don’t have to get up and go out looking for food. On the way to the bajis’s house, she sees a man trying to start his car and scurries past him. Would he stare, would he scold, would he curse at her and her sister? A rooster crows from the garbage dump. A curled up street dog growls.  A child coughs, then starts to cry. The swish of a servant’s broom from one of the houses blends with the clanging of a bucket. Suddenly two boys on bicycles whoosh past them, laughing and teasing.  ‘Rascals!’ Shabnam curses them silently. ‘If they come again, I’ll pick up a stone and smash their faces.’

She makes and unmakes a fist with her free hand as the boys go snickering past. She yanks her little sister’s arm. The boys almost rammed their bicycles into her and almost toppled her jar of eggs.

‘Salaam Baji,’ Shabnam greets a woman who hurriedly walks past her. Two little girls are following the woman. They are begging her for something they want for Eid in a whiny voice that Shabnam  can never use with her mother. The girls and the woman live one of the houses in the lane. The woman keeps on walking ahead, not paying heed to her whining daughters.

Shabnam and her sister reach the closed gate of the white house. Shabnam knocks and calls out. “Baji[5], baji, gand[6] hai?”

There’s no answer. She knocks again. The large white house remains mute. She bangs its high green gate and calls out urgently. “Baji, Baji, gand hai?”

Shabnam and her sister flop down in the middle of the lane. The shy winter sun is casting its slanting rays on the cold ground. They gather pebbles and stones and start playing, prepared to wait.

Two hens cluck fussily and sift and scratch in the dirt. Shabnam flings little pebbles to scare them away. Her sister grins and says, ‘hoosh, hoosh.’

Shabnam can feel her empty stomach twist and heave. She hugs the jar of eggs and looks fondly at the pale, tea-coloured eggs. Agitated, she walks over to the gate of the large, white house. “Baji, baji, gand hai?” she shouts in her hunger-sharpened voice and reaches up for the doorbell.

Finally, a pretty young woman, some years older than Shabnam emerges from the house. Her pretty face is tousled by sleep and her uncombed hair peeps out from her dupatta.

“Don’t you know you shouldn’t ring the bell so early? It’s Sunday. And it’s Ramzaan! People are trying to sleep,” she says irritably.

“We were waiting a long time, baji,’ Shabnam says meekly.  ‘Do you need eggs? My hens laid them yesterday. And we can take out your gand.”

The pretty girl disappears into the house. She returns, holding two plastic dustbins. One is large and green and laden with vegetable and fruit peelings. The other is stuffed with paper and plastic wrappings.

‘I’ll take three eggs. Mother will pay you later. She’s asleep now.”

‘No! Take all six,’ Shabnam pleads. ‘They’re fresh. You can pay me later,’ she says, forcefully thrusting the jar with the fresh, frail eggs into the baji’s hands.

Shabnam carries out the heavier dustbin and gives the lighter one to her sister. The thought of food makes them skittish. They scamper down the lane to the garbage dump at the corner where they saw the rooster. Her sister tries to keep up with her, but her feet keep slipping out of her too-small slippers. Shabnam empties out her dustbin, and doesn’t mind the smells that meet her nostrils. Two goats are searching for scraps to eat. Shabnam calls out to them playfully. ‘Here, here, bhai jaan[7], your breakfast is here!’ and darts back to the house with the emptied dustbin.

The baji opens the gate just a crack and says, ‘They have to be rinsed,’ puckering her nose.

‘Give us some water then,’ Shabnam says in disappointment.

‘Get it from the bucket!’

Shabnam enters the courtyard and walks to the toilet in the corner. The cold water in the bucket stings her hands and turns them red.

‘Take them outside. Don’t pour out the dirty water into the toilet drain like you did the last time,’ Baji’s voice crackles.

Shabnam and her sister carry out the bins and pour out the cloudy water into the open drain running alongside the lane. The Baji takes the bins and disappears into the house.

Shabnam waits vacantly. She swallows to moisten the dryness in her mouth.

The Baji returns with two rotis and a few pakoras, leftovers from yesterday’s iftaar[8], and hands Shabnam the empty egg jar.

Shabnam dries her raw hands on her kameez[9], and receives the food. The gate shuts on them and Shabnam and her little sister are left standing in the narrow lane.

“Do you want the pakoras or the roti?” Shabnam asks, tucking the empty egg jar in the nook of her arm, and staring contemplatively at the roti and pakoras.

“Both.”

‘No! You have to choose!’

‘You keep the roti[10]. Give me the pakoras,’ her sister says greedily.

Shabnam wanted the pakoras, but she doesn’t know why she slides the pakoras into her sister’s outstretched hand. Her fingers close over the dryness and roughness of the rotis and she imagines dipping them in a glass of hot, sweet tea.

One pakora[11] falls into the dirt. Her sister bends down to grab it, and wiping it on her kameez, swallows it. Shabnam scolds her. ‘You can’t eat in the street! It’s Ramzaan. They’ll say bad things about us. Can’t you wait?’

She’s not sure if she’s ten or twelve but she knows the sorts of things people say about them. The people of this town used to call them those Afghanis[12] and they still call them that. She knows it’s not proper to eat in the street during Ramzaan. Even if you’re very hungry and thinking about nothing but food.

Whenever she tries to ask how old she is, her mother waves her hands impatiently from the dough she’s kneading, and says ‘Maybe you’re ten or maybe twelve, Allah knows.’ All Shabnam knows about her birth is she was born in a tent. Just like her little sister and twin brothers. She had watched her mother writhe and moan. She kept peeping in from the gaps in the tent’s flap. They lived in a camp near Peshawar then. She knew she shouldn’t have watched but all she did see was the bent-over, broad back of the midwife.

‘Allah has sent you two brothers,’ her mother whispered in soft moans when she went into the tent later. ‘Allah is most kind,’ her mother said, pointing to the two new red faces, swaddled in rags. That was the only time she heard her mother speak so weakly.

The peeping in had made her much wiser, and quieter, and even fiercer than her mother. After the brothers came, whenever she went up to the roof to collect eggs from her hens, she never asked her mother to fry them for her. She would sell them down the lane instead, and bring home the money for her mother. She puzzled over the frequent absence of food in her home;   she watched the tandoor that remained unlit on days Baba didn’t find work. On days when he didn’t bring flour and vegetables, she wanted to run away to some faraway place. She felt sure the devil was responsible for their hunger. She had seen him grin evilly, sitting atop their cold tandoor.

originally published in the Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

=============================================================================

Glossary:

[1] The Muslim month of fasting

[2] meal eaten before sunrise, signaling the beginning of the day long fast.

[3] Fajr prayers—first of the five daily prayers of Muslims.

[4] Tandoor–Clay oven used for baking naan or leavened flatbread.

[5] Baji—Older sister, also used as a respectful term for addressing an older woman

[6] Gand–garbage

[7] Bhai jaan—term of endearment for an older brother.

[8] Iftaar—meal eaten at sundown to break the fast

[9] Kameez—knee-length tunic, part of traditional attire worn by men and women, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also other parts of South Asia.

[10] Roti—unleavened flatbread.

[11] Pakora—spicy fritters made with chick-pea flour.

[12] Afghanis—general term used for refugees from Afghanistan who are living in Pakistan.

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