23. the hasbi cafe

The canteen auntie and I like to play a game where every day she asks, “When your husband coming?” and every day I laugh. She has taken to performing daily inventories of my body without asking, pinching cheeks, measuring the gap between my chin and throat, counting the pleats on my sari to see if I’ve added one.

She arranges pulverized herbs into the palms of her daughter, Haseena, and pours careful calderas of sambar into mounds of rice, packs them in plastic, ties them tight with string cut from her teeth. She leaves these like gifts tucked into my schoolbags every day at noon; some days “when I look too thin,” she slips chicken curry inside. I eat it in gulping fingerfuls in the hallway to my lunch table so the other teachers don’t know my special treatment. Once I pawed through my rice too slowly and was afraid they saw my fishbone secrets.

“She asked God about you today,” Haseena tells me as I help her count spoonfuls of biryani masala into rice. I try to pay them back like this, with stories, with golden Jaipur earrings, photographs of far away Michigan. From the next room, Auntie turns to her daughter from the threadbare prayer mat. Gazing at me with onyx eyes, she speaks rapidly in Urdu. “Pudiyaadhu,” I tell her, my hand teetering, “I don’t understand.”

Auntie pushes herself from the ground to stand behind us, and repeats herself. Haseena turns to me, “She says, will you still remember us in ten years time?”

I press her worn hands between my own, hold them warm against my forehead, and pray she doesn’t see the tears threatening to fall.
What gift can I give her but silence?

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