Authors: Lesley Jorgensen
A Matter of Marriage
(Previously published as
Cat & Fiddle
“A big-hearted, clamorous comedy of East-meets-WestÂ .Â .Â . This jet-fueled melodrama crashes from one unprecedented crisis to the next, taking in desperate family secrets, betrayals, misunderstandings, walled-up mysteries, and delicious coincidence.”
âThe Sydney Herald
“Occasionally you love a book so much that it's difficult to close the door on its world. [
A Matter of Marriage
]âwith its warm, evocative, and hysterically funny storyâis such a book. A whiff of
Pride and Prejudice
is brilliantly mixed in with colorful layers of Indian culture.”
âGood Reading Magazine
“This is a big, fat, satisfying read, which will appeal to fans of books featuring intricate plots, family webs, rollicking love stories, multiculturalism (particularly with a subcontinental theme), and clashes between tradition and modernity, religion and culture. I adored this sprawling, funny novel. This is highly recommended late-summer reading.”
Bookseller & Publisher
“Lesley JÃ¸rgensen explores [her characters'] lives with exquisite sensitivity and delicious ironyÂ .Â .Â . [Her] benevolent storytellingÂ .Â .Â . has a whimsical surface on which the most commonplace happenings are greeted with something like wonderÂ .Â .Â . A remarkable accomplishment.”
âThe Saturday Age
“JÃ¸rgensen steps so adroitly in and out of the heads of these wonderful characters that it's as if she's at your shoulder, the perfect traveling companion on the novel's journey: chatty, warm, compassionate, and funny. An exuberant debut, bubbling with energy and insight.”
âCate Kennedy, author of
Like a House on Fire
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A MATTER OF MARRIAGE
Copyright Â© 2013 by Lesley JÃ¸rgensen
“Readers Guide” copyright 2014 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14748-5
An application to register this book for cataloging has been submitted to the Library of Congress.
Originally published by Scribe Publications Pty Ltd as
Cat & Fiddle
Berkley trade paperback edition / December 2014
Cover design by Danielle Abbiate.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
To my parents, Margaret and Allan JÃ¸rgensen, for the moral and practical support without which this book would still be an unfinished manuscript. With love and thanks.
A Matter of Marriage
OW CAN A
good wife and loving mother end up with not one but three unmarriageable children? Mrs. Begum rocked back on her heels on the sitting-room floor, in the middle of a patch of late-afternoon sunshine and with the comfortable sound of Dr. Choudhury's newspaper behind her, and chewed contemplatively on the wad of paan tucked into her cheek. She patted the photos spread out on the carpet. How handsome-clever they were. At least she could say that, for all the pain they had given her mother's heart. They could not have grown so beautiful for nothing.
She picked up a photo of Tariq, in his robes on graduation day, and sighed with pleasure. Like a young Shah Rukh Khan he was, so proud and handsome, despite that dirty beard. Tall and light-skinned like his father, but her own face, not his father's,
. And book-clever like Dr. Choudhury but without being a fool in the world.
Except for that fundamental business. Dressing like a village elder and talking that way too. “No smoking,” he had said to his father. “It's a drug, against the Qur'an, as bad as alcohol.” His own father.
“How about honor your father and mother then, boy?” Dr. Choudhury had said. Not that the boy knew the first thing about that, going off to South Africa almost two years ago now. Not a visit for all of that time. What had they come to UK for, if not for him, and then he leaves them to go somewhere else. No wonder she had a hole in her heart.
Ten months you carry them in your womb, then they turn around and stab you in your heart. A mother's lot, yes, she understood that, but why did he have to abandon them? What did it say about the love in their family, that it could not hold him close, stop him from flying away from them all as if they had died?
Mrs. Begum sat back on her haunches and sucked noisily on the paan, feeling the betel nut's relaxing buzz start to run through her blood. Yes, she knew all about pain, from her own children. She stroked the line of light in the photo that followed Tariq's perfect, straight nose, just like her own. What a lucky boy, not to have his father's nose. Or sticky-out ears like Prince Charles. The Queen had done the best she could for Charles, the first time. Just a pity she had not managed Diana a bit more. Of course a motherless girl neglected by her husband was going to go off the railwaysâshe could have told the Queen that. Warned her.
She looked up, toward the sitting-room window where, even from the floor, Bourne Abbey could be seen, balancing its bulk on the hilltop opposite. As big as Masjid al-Haram that one, and twice as much trouble, taking them away from their little house in Oxford and the Bangla community there. Though, given the curse that this family was under, probably a good thing that there was no community here.
Mrs. Begum turned to the other photo of Tariq and gave a heavy sigh. This was one of Mrs. Guri's nephew Hakeem's artistic efforts, with Tariq a few years younger, clean-shaven and much less stern, wearing his best deep-blue
with the silver embroidery and looking dreamily past the photographer. That was his first year away at Oxford, before he became so angry about Dr. Choudhury's occasional pipe and Rohimun's blue-jeans.
Mrs. Begum, still squatting on the carpet, put Tariq aside and turned to the pile of eligible matches in front of her, each with its studio photo attached. Everyone now gave out these fancy ceevees, just like Hakeem had said: age, height, favorite Bollywood heroes. And the boys too: favorite sports, good jobs, what car they drove. Inky, ponky, pooÂ .Â .Â . how does one choose? All nice girls and boys, all looking the same.
Soon Tariq would be back at last from those godless South Africans. What better time, when he would be feeling the first full rush of family love, to talk quietly one night of future plans, just mother and son. To say, how nice-nice it would be to see him happy and settled, now that she was beginning to feel her age. And then she would get up to make chai, leaving the photos and ceevees of all these pretty girls on the table. What man could resist a peek? Planting the seed, that was the important thing.
And Shunduri, her baby, look how stylish she had become, what a modern girl with her good bank job and studying still at the polytechnic. Surely she would be finished soon. And then a good boy for her, someone to keep her busy with lots of babies and a nice house. Not too near: it must be visits for a week or a month, not this next-door-just-a-cup-of-tea business.
Mrs. Begum picked up Shunduri's photos, a whole bundle: each time a different sari, different jewelry. No smiles, chin as high as the sky, eyes half closed, breasts thrust forward. What had Hakeem been thinking of? Only one or two of them were suitable for a marriage ceevee. It was all her father's fault. Calling her Shunduri, Beauty, was asking for trouble, and Dr. Choudhury should have known better.
Mrs. Begum selected the photo of Shunduri that most closely approximated maidenly modesty and thrust it up and behind her. It smacked into Dr. Choudhury's wall of newspaper, and she felt his knees jump.
“What a beautiful daughter, nah?” Dr. Choudhury hurrumphed, and Mrs. Begum felt the photo pushed back into her hand. She thrust it up again. “
An irritated cough. “Yes, yes.”
She could hear the newspaper being put aside now, so she swiftly retracted Shunduri's photo and picked up one of Tariq's. “What a handsome boy. A
Silence. An annoyed-but-listening silence.
She held up one of the prospective brides' photos next to the photo of Tariq. “Mrs. Guri, you know, Hakeem's auntie just here yesterday, said this girl very homely, does not go out. A good family.”
“Why are they wanting to send their daughter to South Africa then?”
She huffed sharply and turned to face her husband. “Tariq is coming home any day now. Any day.”
“Any day, any day for months now.”
“He called, two-days-ago-now. He said soon.”
Dr. Choudhury leaned toward her and tapped Shunduri's photo with one long finger. “And what is the community going to think of this number-one silly girl? Maybe she thinks if she looks like a Bollywood actress she will get a hero in Mumbai.” He snorted at his own humor and sat back, reaching for the newspaper.
Mrs. Begum's quick retortâ“How could you say this of your own daughter?”âwas lost as her paan was swallowed prematurely. By the time she had finished hawking, Dr. Choudhury's newspaper was held firmly in place, in a manner designed to resist further photographic incursions.
Well then. She turned her back on him once more and pulled out a manila envelope from underneath the other photos. She gently slid its contents partway into her palm, trying to ignore the burning lump that the paan was becoming, just below her breastbone. More eight-by-ten glossies, these of a pretty young woman, short and slight, with long rippling dark hair, but no Bollywood poses here.
Her Rohimun, Munni, her first daughter, Tariq's favorite sister, the other knife in her mother's heart. Half smiling, half frowning, her
crooked and her fingers hooked into her bracelets as if she was trying to pull them off. As she probably had been. Mrs. Begum blinked tears and pressed her lips together. Look at Munni's nails: broken and dirty as if she'd been planting rice in the paddies, not studying at that expensive royal college. Fine arts indeed. More like dirty arts: stinky oil paints that ruined good clothes, got in her hair and made her smell like Mrs. Darby's port-and-stilton.
And what did that oh-so-so-big Royal College of Arts scholarship get Rohimun in the end? Her face in the papers like some pub-girl, laughing with men. Ruined for marriage, lost to her family, a blight on Shunduri's prospects and maybe even Tariq's. The pain in Mrs. Begum's diaphragm climbed higher, and she burped quietly. She must put less lime powder in her paan.
There was a faint rustle behind her, and she sat perfectly still with Rohimun's photos fanned out in her hand. The little room with its briar rose wallpaper, Taj Mahal clock and peacock fan fell silent. Nothing was said, but she knew that he had seen, and that nothing would be said.
After a short while, Mrs. Begum slid Rohimun's photos back into their envelope and wiped her face with a corner of her sari. She bundled up Tariq, Shunduri and all the eligibles' ceevees and stood up briskly. No more spilt milk, as Mrs. Darby would say. Time to make a curry of what remains. She would talk again to Dr. Choudhury.
When the ceevees were back on her recipe shelf nice-and-tidy, Mrs. Begum loaded up the pandan tray, her pride and joy, real silver, so heavy, nah? With its eight (eight! No one had as many!) matching silver bowls, brimming with their separate loads of fresh betel leaves, cumin seeds, aromatic cloves, dried tobacco leaves, pink perfumed sugar balls, acrid lime powder with its own lid and silver spoon, finely chopped betel nuts and, last but not least, the whole betel nuts, with the deadly little betel knife lying alongside.
With arms at full stretch, she hauled it from kitchen to sitting room, laid it on the tiny, twisty-legged occasional table next to her husband's chair, and only then saw the photos of Rohimun on the floor, tipped out of their envelope. Dr. Choudhury was turned away from them, his shoulders drawn up and his fingers plucking at trouser corduroy as he stared unblinking at the wallpaper. Mrs. Begum thought suddenly of her uncle the tailor who had been so thin when he died, and drew close to her husband's chair.
“I have made
.” His favorite. “And dahl.”
He was silent, and she drew closer. She could see the top of his head: the white hair that ran straight back from his forehead was overlain by a few longer strands that crossed from left to right, and some of these had been displaced, exposing small squares and rectangles of scalp. Mrs. Begum's right hand crept out and started to order them and then her left hand came as well, to smooth down. Dr. Choudhury did not appear to notice, but after a while he withdrew his gaze from the wall and picked up the latest
sari catalogue. His shoulders relaxed, his head tilted back to rest against a chair wing and he looked up from the pages.
Her hands moved to adjust her bracelets. “I will make you a hot salad too.”
The phone shrilled, and Mrs. Begum was in the hall before her husband had even managed to uncross his legs. At the telephone table, she stopped, took a breath and re-tucked the front pleats of her sari. It might be the Women's Institute. But then Dr. Choudhury arrived in the hall, and she snatched up the handpiece. This call was not going to be answered like some fresh-out-of-the-village type, waiting for the caller to speak.
“Windsorr Cott-hage.” She paused. Mrs. Darby didn't know everything. “
, Amma. Amma, I'm so tired like you wouldn't believe. And the weather in London's bin so stinking hot, yaah?”
“Amma, what's happenin' wiv Affa, big sister? Have you heard from her? She was in the papers again! She was at some
, yaahÂ .Â .Â .”
“What are you eating? When are you coming to visit your father?”
“Nah, Amma, the
. Have you seen dem?”
“Papers-papers. What does your mother want with papers, when no one visits us as they should? We are getting old on our own while you are a Londoni modern girl.”
“Amma, I'm busy here like you wouldn't believe: the bank, yaahÂ .Â .Â .”
Mrs. Begum saw her husband reaching out to take the receiver and sidestepped to the right, still holding the phone. He followed, but in doing so was left square in front of the hall mirror and seemed to become distracted. She thought quickly, her desire to see her youngest child at war with her need to protect Rohimun from Shunduri's loose tongue. Surely she could manage both.
“Aah, Baby, so much has been happening here. Too much is happening to this familyÂ .Â .Â .”
“What? Amma, what's happenin'? Amma!”
“Your father is a wreckÂ .Â .Â . What will the community be sayingÂ .Â .Â .” Mrs. Begum ended her disjointed hints with a convincing sniff and passed the receiver to her husband. Shunduri would not be able to resist coming down now, her mouth wide open like a little bird, for family drama, tears and shoutings, especially if it was Rohimun who was in trouble.
Dr. Choudhury grasped the phone and spoke absently to the mirror. “AahÂ .Â .Â . BabyÂ .Â .Â . yesÂ .Â .Â .” He slid his thumb between tie and shirtfront and slowly stroked his fingers down the length of the tie. “How are your studies?”
Mrs. Begum watched him closely, fairly certain that he would say nothing that would make Shunduri stay put in London. She hurried off to the kitchen, his voice echoing behind her.
“No, your mother may have. I only take
The TimesÂ .Â .Â .
comments, the ones that Mrs. Begum hadn't repeated to her husband, came back to her now. They had been made without preliminaries as Mrs. Guri sat in Mrs. Begum's kitchen yesterday, with as much eyelid-drooping and table-pointing as if she had been asked for her matchmaking advice.
“Oh, Mrs. Begum, your daughter Shunduri, she is so
, nah, I wonder she has time for her studies.”
Mrs. Begum had smiled and wrapped another paan leaf, with consternation in her heart. “Yes, yes, a very busy girl, a good girl, the bankÂ .Â .Â .” Mrs. Guri had leaned forward, close enough for Mrs. Begum to smell the thick smear of Vicks under her nose. “Oh, Mrs. Begum, I
she is a good girl. A
girl. ButÂ .Â .Â .”
Trouble follows beauty
. Mrs. Begum finished the saying in her head, smiled and thought how Vicks would be of no help to Mrs. Guri if she was kicked in her fat face. What had she seen or heard to be giving such a warning?
“Have you thought, has your husband thoughtÂ .Â .Â . There are so many good families looking for their sons now.” Mrs. Guri waited.
“We are not an old-fashioned family to be rushing her before she has finished her studies.”
“Such a lovely girl. So many friends. Do you know her friends?”
Mrs. Begum sat up a little straighter. “She is coming down this weekend.”
Mrs. Guri nodded, her cheeks jiggling a little. “That is as it should be. You are a very lucky mother to have her come to you at this timeÂ .Â .Â .”
Before it is too late
. Mrs. Begum knew exactly what she meant, but smiled at the old gossip as airily as she could over the tightening in her stomach.
Mrs. Guri glanced at the clock and swallowed the last of her chai with finality. Selecting a paan, she tucked it into a corner of her cheek and dipped into her Harrods bag for a touch more Vicks before announcing she must go as Ahmed would be back now.
Mrs. Begum walked the fat, matchmaking, troublemaking cockroach to the door with fear in her bowels. If Mrs. Guri, knowing everyone in Brick Lane, in Tower Hamlets, was telling her this, what was it she knew? Or, rather, who? One last effort must be made, despite her anger.
“In LondonÂ .Â .Â . is everyoneÂ .Â .Â . your daughters and their families well?”
Mrs. Guri slowed but was not so silly as to give a triumphant smile. “All well.”
” Both women spoke at the same time, and they smiled as they walked outside and down the garden path. Across the road, Mrs. Guri's son-in-law Ahmed was crouching by his car, rather forlornly wiping at a crumpled bumper with some paper towels.
They were almost at the gate now, and Mrs. Begum was growing desperate. She did not have Mrs. Guri's London connections and her knowledge of the families and of reputations and rumors. She put her hand on Mrs. Guri's upper arm, and her fingers sank in as if it was Mrs. Darby's chocolate mousse.
“Perhaps you could let people know, that Shunduri is readyÂ .Â .Â .”
Mrs. Guri, visibly gratified, stopped at the gate and rested against the post. She was waiting for more. Ahmed straightened when he saw them, then went back to trying to smooth the dent.
Mrs. Begum clasped her hands together. “IÂ .Â .Â . a mother always worriesÂ .Â .Â . and London is so far awayÂ .Â .Â . You know all the best families.”
Mrs. Guri looked back at the house, and Mrs. Begum turned to look with her, at the
brass plate that she had put up only this morning: just the right size, not too big, not too small, and with that veneer of hastily acquired verdigris, so hurtful to her house-proud instincts, but on a sharp-eyed walk through the village, apparently so necessary for the proper country look. She cursed country-look in her thoughts as she followed Mrs. Guri's eyes. Why did country-look have to be so different to town-look? Why this need for falling-down and dirty?
Nothing was said. Mrs. Begum again swallowed her pride. “Please.”
Mrs. Guri nodded in gracious acknowledgement. “Mrs. Begum, you should never worry, you have good children.” She paused, then spoke again, in a lower voice. “Niece Indra, you know, my niece, Hakeem's sister that married the doctor? She saw one night, Shunduri talking to a boy in his car. But it was dark, so easy to make mistakesÂ .Â .Â .”
“Aah, yes,” said Mrs. Begum bitterly. “So easy.”
Mrs. Guri took a reviving sniff. “We all have these problems. These modern children, they think they must have everythingÂ .Â .Â . that they deserve happiness. What can you do?”
“Aaah,” they both said.
Mrs. Guri's own eldest daughterâfour children and two broken noses in three years and now on indefinite
, family-visit, with her parentsâwas before them both, and Mrs. Begum's anger faded. What could any of them do for their children's happiness and safety, except pray?
Mrs. Guri touched Mrs. Begum's shoulder and said with genuine kindness, “We will do our best to find her a good husband.”
.” Both women had spoken together again, this time with no animosity.
Mrs. Guri rested one hand on her stomach. “They are only safe in your womb, nah? Then your sorrows start.” She brought one plump hand up to her face, pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut, as if trying to recall. “He is a businessman, I thinkÂ .Â .Â . Phones and cameras.”
Tears sprang to Mrs. Begum's eyes. She had no pride left now, none at all. “Can you ask? Find out the important things?”
Mrs. Guri nodded heavily. “Yes, yes,” and pushed her bulk off the gatepost. It did not spring back.
Likewise, the mood of the two women, as they walked together across the roadway to Ahmed's car, was unusually subdued. The current of strong emotions, genuine feelings, that flowed between them was not a comfortable thing, and so it was with some relief that Mrs. Begum, nodding and smiling, accepted her friend's parting shot (an offer of Brasso for Windsor Cottage's name plate) to resume the usual community hostilities.
in the kitchen and remembering every word of that visit, was aware that it would be a month, maybe more, before Mrs. Guri could return with news, and so much could happen in a month. If Mrs. Guri was telling her about one time, that meant many times, enough gossip to get her big bottom into Ahmed's car for a two-hour drive to give her this sorrow and receive the satisfaction of Mrs. Begum begging for her matchmaking help. Images of Mrs. Begum's own hasty marriage flashed before her eyes, and she gave a little moan. Baby. Shunduri must be brought back home before it was too late.
Phones. Businessman-businessman. Every
, yob, in the community was a
. All it meant was that there was no job and no family occupation, no restaurant or shop for them to attach themselves to. That they were boys alone and liable to go off into any direction. And Shunduri. She thumped the rice saucepan down hard on the stove and blue flames bellied.
So busy with bank
. Did Shunduri think her mother was born yesterday? This boy must be made to realize that Baby was not a girl without family.
And if he was halfway eligibleÂ .Â .Â . Mrs. Begum stirred the basmati vigorously. Rohimun's antics had ruined this family. If he was one
eligible, then pressure could,
, be brought to bear. Mrs. Guri had not acquired her reputation as a matchmaker through her sugarcane sweetness. Mrs. Begum had heard here in UK of
, the community councils of elders, being called, with the attendant beatings, to force love-match couples to wed, and of the girls who were getting too modern and were shipped off to Bangladesh to be married to traditional men who controlled their wives with traditional methods.
This phones-businessman, whoever he was, would be no match for the combined forces of Mrs. Guri and herself. The way things were going, Baby would be the only Choudhury daughter to marry within the community. And if this could be managed, the damage to the family's reputation caused by Rohimun would be partially repaired. Even if it meant a
, this would be done.
Look at Princess Margaret when she was young: what a mess cleaned up there with just a little pressure from her affa, her big sister the Queen. Not a first-rate marriage perhaps, but the royal family would have known not to expect first-rate after that fuss with a man who had been married before. She must speak again to her neighbor Mrs. Darby, with her knowledge of all things royal, about how it had been done.
As for RohimunÂ .Â .Â . Mrs. Begum abandoned the rice and began to chop onions, tears filling the corners of her eyes. Perhaps marriage was possible if it was outside the community. Dodi and Diana. Yes, Dodi and Diana: such a thing could be managed. She just needed to be more practical, more accepting than the Queen and Prince Philip had been. Yes, it was for her, Mrs. Begum, to learn from their mistakes and acknowledge that, for Rohimun, even a mixed marriage would be a blessing. Rohimun was like that poor foolish girl Diana in other ways too: she needed a marital anchor, otherwise she was likely to drift into dangerous waters. As indeed she had.
Mrs. Begum scraped the onions into a saucepan and threw in a pinch of the big rock-salt crystals that Tariq had persuaded her, years ago now, to use instead of the fine-ground salt that everyone so admired in Bangladesh. Sons were always less predictable: they had more choices, more freedom to get away from family influences. With his looks, she had expected love-trouble at university as a certainty, yet all Tariq's love then seemed to be for family and for Allah, peace be upon Him. And his precious art pictures. And it had turned out to be Tariq rather than her daughters who had been so sick for home at that time. Although of course he had been away in South Africa these last one-two years with no such yearning.
Twenty-seven was not too late for a man to marry in UK. Look at Prince Charles. Tariq just needed to be steered, no, nudged, very slightly, in the right direction. A nice homely girl. Someone to keep her mother-in-law company, be interested in the garden and the kitchen. Such a girl was considerably more likely to give her grandchildren than Rohimun or Shunduri. Tariq would be home soon, she could feel it in her stomach, ever since that phone call two days ago: the first since he'd left. Family was becoming more important to him.
And if there was a secret there, in the background, it could be managed. Camilla had not wrecked that royal marriage; it was Diana's loneliness and lack of family helpâMrs. Darby and Mrs. Begum both agreed on that. A second wife, or mistress as they called her in UK, could stabilize an unhappy marriage, give a difficult husband someone else to bother, give both women a break. It could even have its own harmonies, especially if one of the wives, for some reason, was barren.
Mrs. Begum bent over the hissing onions and sniffed. Something was missing.
. She took a generous teaspoonful of the golden turmeric powder, spice of weddings and all things fishy, and scattered it over the onion. Time to blend all the ingredients together now, and then wait, while the onions caramelized and the spices roasted, for the hidden flavors to reveal themselves.
ABY WAS LOOKING
good tonight. Shunduri stood back from the mirror and tossed her hair, tilted her head and affected to stare blankly as though at an admirer, conscious of length of leg and height of breast. She was never going to be one of those Asian girls who lost the plot as soon as they were married, getting fat and not doing their hair or nails; spending all their time watching Bollywood movies and filling their faces with samosas and pick 'n' mix. When she married, she was going to be like Posh Spice, getting thinner and younger and better dressed every year, handsome rich husband, a flash car of her own. Yaah.
Affa, big sister Rohimun, had been stacking on the weight and not even betrothed yet. And probably never, now that everyone knew she had a
boyfriend. Shunduri sniffed and tossed her hair again, watching its glossy swing under the bedroom light. Served Rohimun right, always criticizing her taste in clothes and friends, telling her she shouldn't read rubbish, dissing her London
and her Desi and Bollywood mags.
What you need is serious reading to improve your mind, Baby.
Shunduri held her hands out in front of her: baby-blue nails, tipped in silver glitter. Perfect. As they should beâshe'd only just finished doing them. She looked in the mirror again. Sass & Bide leggings in the same pale blue as her nails and a tight scarlet
, the blouse taken from her latest sari. Scarlet stilettos, and blue and silver toenails. Without taking her eyes from the mirror, she picked up the matching veil from the bed, tucked one corner into the top of her leggings, wrapped it once around her waist then draped it diagonally across her torso, pulling it tight across her breasts before pinning it on her shoulder.
Shunduri turned sideways to admire the five feet of veil that hung down her back and the neatness of her bum in the shiny pants, visible through the draped chiffon. Then she grabbed her hairbrush, tipped her head over and brushed her hair vigorously before straightening up and enveloping herself in a cloud of Silhouette extra-strong hold.
Why hadn't she gotten Mum's hair? It was so unfair being stuck with Dad's fine strands, though no one could say she hadn't made the most of them. Not that she'd ever wanted a great big rope of the stuff like Affa had: just a bit more thickness, so she could grow it to her shoulderblades and not have to use hot rollers every time she needed a bit of volume. Affa had the hair alright, but what a waste. All she did was wear it down in a tangled mess, no styling whatsoever, or plait it back like a village girl. Shunduri would never let herself go like that. It was just a matter of making an effort, not being lazy. No one likes a slob.
She stared in the mirror again. Her legs were looking even longer tonight in leggings and three-inch heels, not to mention what the balconette bra was doing to her bust. Nothing much in the waist department despite all her dieting, but her stomach was as flat as a board, unlike Rohimun's. Why she'd let herself go now, Shunduri couldn't understand. Just when she was getting herself into the papers too. If she'd played her cards right with that blue-blooded boyfriend of hers, she could have been London's first Desi It-girl.
Not that he was her type. She, Shunduri Choudhury, would never go out with a
, a Christian: she was a true Muslim girl. But despite that, she'd done her best for Rohimun when she'd turned up that time. No money in her purse, not even a change of clothes, and crying on her doorstep as if Shunduri was the big sister. She'd looked after her, gotten in takeaway and fed her, put sheets on the couch and found some clothes that fit her (no easy task). And then Shunduri had called Simon, just to let him know the score, that Rohimun had family who cared, yaah, and then, before you know it, they were back together again. Not that Rohimun'd ever thanked her.
Just went to show, Affa knew nothing about men. About relationships. If she wasn't careful, she'd lose Simon, and then who'd marry her? Shunduri stalked into the bathroom and found the tube of lip primer that she had bought earlier that day, unscrewed the cap and rolled it on the way the salesgirl had shown her. Something still wasn't right though. Mum was throwing out these hints, and Rohimun hadn't phoned since she'd left with Simon, ungrateful cow, and now she'd had her picture in the papers again.
Shunduri made smacking sounds with her lips and counted in her head to twenty to let the primer settle in, before applying lipstick in a vivid red. She clicked the lid back onto the lipstick and looked at her face in the mirror with complete satisfaction. That really finished her off. Yaah. Kareem was one lucky man.
DURI SWANNED INTO
the cafe, head high despite the butterflies in her stomach that always clustered at these moments, striding from her waist the way the modelling course had taught her, stopping herself from making any of those giveaway touches to hair, clothes or face that advertised self-doubt. They'd also told her to say
just before entering a room, to give the appearance of a natural smile, but Shunduri didn't follow this advice. It was more dignified not to smile, cooler. Look at Posh Spice.
Only problem was, walking in like this made it hard to look around for her posse. But no matter, they would find her. Shunduri leaned on an empty chair to pull at a stiletto strap, and the next minute Amina and Aisha were by her side with hugs and air kisses and “Baby!” and the usual gasps and compliments for her outfit.
Soon they were all lolling back in cafe chairs, facing the street for maximum exposure, and Shunduri rearranged her veil and swung her sleek, shiny bob a little, well pleased with the reactions. She was still showing her posse how to dress, and from the looks other tables and passersby were sneaking, they weren't the only ones.
Her cream-coffee, when it came, was in a deep red cup that contrasted beautifully with her nails, and even dear Amina and Aisha had decked themselves out in pastels, which made them fade into the pinkish walls of the cafe almost as much as she stood out. What good friends they were. Amina and Aisha oohed and aahed, telling Shunduri who was walking in the door and who was looking at them, and she half closed her eyes and took microscopic sips and pretended not to be interested.
Where was Kareem? She wanted him to come and see her like this: Queen of the Cafe, surrounded by admirers. She could just imagine what Affa would say, seeing her here.
. Why, her head was crowded out with thoughts and plans and schemes for the future. Most of them involving Kareem, her man, who made her look so good and treated her like the princess she was.
Look how well she was doing at the bank: always on time, never a day off, quicker on the keyboards and with the money than some of the women who'd been there years. Promoted onto the money transfer and currency exchange counter after only three months, already seen as the one to sort out difficulties and assist the manager with end-of-month problems. Self-possessed and decisive, her last review had said. Looking good in the uniform too. You had to think ahead in this life, think ahead all the time. She was the most go-getting girl she knew, and the most sensible, the most rational, leaving nothing to chance. She knew what she needed to succeed in life: a good job, good clothes and a man like herâambitious, successful, stylish.
Shunduri glanced at her besties, heads together and giggling over some text message. Where were they going to be in three years' time? Wherever they were pushed. Amina's parents were already looking for her: a good Hindu match. They wanted a nice accountant from the Punjab, but with Amina having dropped out of college without a degree, they were changing the bio data on her CV to read “traditional homely girl, loves children and cooking,” which was playing very risky, maybe ending up with a traditional man who would never let her out of the house and would want babies straight away. And what a shock he'd get. Nails longer than her smokes and wouldn't know what to do with a saucepan if it jumped out of her Louis Vuitton knockoff handbag and smacked her.
Aisha was no better: still hanging on by her toenails at the poly like Shunduri, doing one subject just to keep the accommodation going and to stop her mum and dad bringing her home. Being Christian, her parents were no help at all finding a husband, instead putting all the pressure on her to find herself a match and give them grandchildren. And where do you start? All the decent Asian Christians were in India, not here. And even if they weren't, Aisha's parents were so determined to integrate that they only spoke English at home, never met up with their neighbors at Diwali or Eid, knew no one. Aisha was already talking about putting her own ad on the Internet, was at her wits' end trying to find a husband who was Asian but would speak to her parents in English, was Christian but not a pub-man, street-cool but with a good job.
Shunduri knew she was the best-looking, the best-dressed, the standout in her crowdâand always had beenâbut that knowledge had started to pall. Mirrors, once her friends and able to be turned to at any time for a shot of confidence about her future, had become temperamental oracles that she only approached after careful preparation and proper lighting. Twenty-three. She wasn't some
career girl who only married in her thirties, if at all. Desi girls were seen as over the hill by twenty-four unless they were film stars or heiresses. She'd started to hate going to other girls' betrothals and weddings. It didn't matter, she'd discovered, if you could out-dress and out-dazzle the bride-to-be. You were still not the bride.
A black Golf cruised past. Was that Kareem through the tinted glass? She felt a surge of excitement, but the car continued on, and she affected boredom and recrossed her gleaming blue legs. At least Mum and Dad weren't putting the pressure on and lining up prospective grooms right, left and center. This was probably the last year she could swing it living in London, with her one subject due to finish soon. Working full-time at the bank on top of her college allowance, she'd been able to keep herself in Dolce & Gabbana and good Versace knockoffs. And surely Kareem would be giving her the word soon: he'd be a fool not to, with no real family here and money to burn. Girls like her didn't come along every day.
She remembered that day in the bank when Kareem had sauntered in, suited and smiling. She'd tilted her head back and looked at him, eye to eye, deadpan.
“How can I help you today, sir?”
He'd just continued grinning right back. “Nice day, innit?” he'd said, as if she had all the time in the world, was working in a takeaway and not on the international money transfer counter of the biggest bank in Britain. The bank that likes to say yes. She touched the company scarf at her neck, tied and angled perfectly, to make the point.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
He smiled on, looking her in the eyes and pushed a bundle of notes, one hundred and fifty pounds' worth, under the Perspex barrier. “For my family,” he said. “In Bangladesh. You from dere?”
“None of your business,” she said calmly, taking the money and counting it as rapidly as the machines, red nails flashing.
“Have you filled out the transfer form?”
“Nah. Bein' an ignorant Desi boy, I was hopin' you could help me wiv dat,” he said, and she knew even then that he was playing up his East End accent, playing the peasant for her.
She picked up a pen. “Name?”
“Kareem Guri. And you are Shunduri Choudhury, right there on your badge. I think my auntie knows yourâ”
“Full address, please.”
“I'm a Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets boy, of course. Can't you tell?”
,” she said, heavy on the sarcasm, using the ID he'd pushed under the grille to complete the form.
The transaction was over in a few minutes and she'd been expecting him to try to hang around, try to chat, but instead he'd said, “See you next Monday, Princess,” and left before she'd had a chance to ignore him.
Next thing she knew, she was running into him all the time: at the clubs and the big Brick Lane
for weddings and betrothals, and even on the street. They'd been together for six months now, but keeping it real quiet. Word was going to get around about the two of them, she knew it, and Kareem had been telling her that he loved her, she was the girl for him, but he didn't deserve her, no, he didn't, until he'd shown her what he could really do and pulled off a certain business deal first. For their future. Then he'd get Uncle and Auntie to speak to her parents, make some arrangements.
But it was June already, and Kareem was still planning the big business deal, still talking it up, and she wasÂ .Â .Â . well, she'd given him everything and she wasn't one to cry about it, but he had to come through now. He had to. How had she gotten herself into this position, where if Kareem were to fail her she would be ruined?
There was a flurry of oohs and aahs from the ever-reliable Amina and Aisha, and Shunduri looked out the cafe window to see a car stopped at the front and a figure emerging from the back of it, clad head to toe in a flowing Saudi-style
, as black as night. A man in the driver's seat, in an oversized American football jersey and several necklaces, was glaring at the cafe crowd. The woman approached the cafe door, and Amina gasped.
“It's Shilpi, it's Shilpi, innit!”
Aisha stood up to stare. “It's Shilpi. Oh my God!”
They tottered to the door to greet her, and within minutes half the cafe was clustered around her with
and Shilpi-is-that-yous, and Shunduri was left on her own, sitting at the table, her graceful slouch feeling a little stiff. No one was looking at her. She felt invisible. Shilpi, for it was her, was replying to the crowd in a muffled voice and waving one hand encased in a black satin glove, in a dignified sort of way. In fact she looked more dignified and more substantial than Shunduri had ever seen.