My earliest memory of a burqa is of Majda. Black polyester, falling well below her knees, liberally drenched with rose attar, the black net veil of the burqa thrown back to reveal a youthful, sometimes angry face, brown eyes lined with thick kajal and dark red lipstick adding to a flamboyance, her burqa could never contain.
A cook in my nani’s house in Lucknow, where I grew up, Majda would walk the 2 km to our place from her house twice a day. From the first click of the high, brown, iron and tin gate of the house, sandal heels on the brown and maroon mosaic of the outer verandah, glass bangles through the small gallery and the inner verandah and courtyard to the kitchen at the back of the house, and if she realized that my grandparents were away, Majda complaining of the long walk, the low salary she was paid, the amount of work she had to do in a house always full of guests and the travails of her latest husband.
To say that Majda was a great cook is by far an overstatement. She was good, if she set her mind to it and rarely was it that meals were not served on time. But if she was in one of her moods, which was not very often, my nani took over. Majda ate in our house, in the kitchen. She watched television with us, usually sitting on the floor – the class- divide very clearly demarcated and adhered to by all but in my memory never causing ‘us’ any discomfort. Infact she almost lived in our house, and only went to sleep and change at her place – ‘quarter’ as she called her one room rented home in a government colony for Class IV employees nearby.
By the time I was a teenager, Majda had married three times and had had a daughter, Reshma, from her second husband. Her lack of consistency in men, bothered my nani a lot and she tried to instill ‘good values’ in the ‘misguided girl’. Majda was asked to join our deeni taleem class in the evening but she refused. Each time my nani asked Majda to join her for prayers, she made her excuses: sometimes it was her mahina, sometimes a street dog had brushed past and that her clothes were na paak, at other times she was busy – till my nani stopped interfering.
Majda had several admirers, who would flock to the kitchen window – that opened in the street behind our house. She would chat with the young men – often younger than her own late twenties and they would often pass on sweets for her young daughter. My grandmother never discovered why she spent hours in the kitchen even after the work was over, while my ever-vigilant aunt chose to ignore the reasons.
Majda worked in our house for six years.
One afternoon, her daughter was playing ‘bows and arrows’ in the verandah with a few boys from the neighbourhood – emulating the much-admired Arjun in the serialized version of the epic tale of Mahabharata. Reshma would hold a newspaper in front of her face, while one of the children would take aim and shoot arrows through the newspaper – the holes creating different shapes, alphabets and numbers. One of the arrows pierced the newspaper and hit her left eye. She was rushed to the hospital but the injury was deep and Reshma lost vision in the injured eye. To say that Majda was angry is to make an understatement. The boys parents were suitably apologetic, offered to take care of the girls education, upbringing etc etc but nothing would calm here. She kept saying “if it was your child instead of mine…”
Majda left soon after the incident and didn’t visit us for a few years. In the interim, she married again and moved to a different part of the city. Then one Eid, she turned up, Reshma in tow, kajal as dark and lipstick as bright as ever. She had stopped working by then and would usually stay at home. She seemed to have come to terms with the accident but I could sense a certain guilt in her for what she believed was neglecting her child. A guilt, she tried to mask by being over protective and extra careful with her daughter – smothering Reshma with maternal love she was unused to.
A couple of years after this visit, my nani died and Majda’s visits became fewer. Gradually, she faded away from the collective memory of our family as other cooks and domestic helps took over. She was hardly ever mentioned in the house. Perhaps it was a deliberate atempt to forget her and in the process the afternoon when her daughter lost an eye while playing in our verandah.