- The Discarded
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[End Page 16]
bebe was sitting on the steps of the verandah cleaning her ears with a matchstick when she first saw Akram. He pushed open the front gate, then stopped to straighten his kameez. He was short, but he looked wiry and strong, like a length of rope. There was something plain about him, forthright, as he stood against the lines of traffic on Durand Road. He marched up the driveway, which curved round the shady garden, and when he stared up at the big house, at the tall red brick walls, at the columns guarding the house with their expansive girth, a certain satisfaction filled her.
“Ma-ji,” he smiled politely, but, to her surprise, he didn’t seem at all intimidated by the house behind her. “I have an appointment.” He was probably in his midtwenties but, like most men of his class, he looked much older. The clipped haircut gave away his military past, as did the carefully [End Page 17] trimmed black moustache that wriggled above his lips as he smiled. She folded her arms across her chest and looked away. He cleared his throat and spoke again, “Ma-ji, I have an appointment. Here. At eleven.”
“No, you don’t. You have an appointment in the kitchen. Round the back.” He nodded solemnly as though he approved of both the correction and the sourness of her tone. Then he smoothed down his dark hair, slicked back with oil, even though it was perfectly neat. He turned to face the road. The rust-colored Convent of Jesus and Mary School on the other side was just visible from the verandah, the line of endless arches along its cloisters disappearing into the distance, the crucifix on its roof reaching up toward the sky.
“It’s a good school. One of the best in Lahore,” she said. He didn’t say anything.
“Baji went there, and her daughter,” Bebe said pointedly, proudly. He nodded, threw her a tight smile and walked down the driveway. He disappeared round the corner where the cobbles dissolved into a muddy track that led to the quarters; a half-acre plot with six small homes standing on it, most of them just one room but some with two. If the big house had not impressed him, the scale of the servants’ quarters, the largest in the neighborhood, surely would.
But later, when Seema, the cook, walked him through the place, introducing him to the quarters’ residents, explaining some of his duties—buying groceries, collecting the washing from the dhobhi, preparing Sahib’s wardrobe, serving at table—Bebe noticed that although he listened attentively and was courteous enough, he looked singularly unimpressed. This job, his bored gaze suggested, would be little more than a time-pass till something better came along.
She didn’t pay him a great deal of attention. Many young men like him had come and gone in the years she had worked in the big house. And Akram represented the worst of them. An experienced batman, he probably believed he’d been serving his commissioned officer, his unit, the corps, but she knew that it was the officer’s Begum he actually served. And her children. His thin smile suggested he didn’t really believe he was a servant. The prospect of being one in their chaotic household would likely seem to him a waste of his talents. Although she guessed this was true, as only a smart man could survive lengthy service in an officer’s household, she knew it was also true he had only ever been a servant whether he liked it or not.
From the courtyard, she watched him unpack his case that first night as she combed her hair. He was to be her neighbor in the quarters. He carefully stuck a photograph on the wall by his bed. She couldn’t see well from where she sat but she guessed it was a picture of his children. They couldn’t be much more than babies. She remembered the feel of her daughter Nasreen’s [End Page 18] cheek against hers when...