March 28, 2018KR OnlineFiction

The Effect of Heat on Poor People

Saba was beginning to think that Kamil was a belligerent man. When she’d married him, she’d known that there wasn’t going to be a honeymoon because his financial circumstances didn’t permit extravagances, but she wished they could put some neutral space between them. They had each taken three days off from work after the wedding, and in the hours and weekends that they had to spend together, they discovered they had precious little in common. After the forced post-wedding holiday, they gratefully fell back into their jobs. Saba was a receptionist in an office building, and Kamil was a reporter for an English newspaper. Because they had seen their parents, uncles and aunts, and older cousins make the best of bad relationships, they stumbled along clumsily.

Saba couldn’t understand how Kamil could sound angry even about things that excited him. One Saturday afternoon in June, when the hot, dry wind called the loo blew into the city of Karachi, he grabbed Saba’s hand and tugged her down the four flights of stairs in their building, past orange, paan-stained corners and candy wrappers and sticky black dirt, onto the pavement. He told her to look up and see the whiteness of the sky and the utter absence of clouds. Saba nodded in an absentminded way; she had left their dinner on the stove and didn’t want it to get burned.

She made an inventory in her head of everything that made her cringe: the cushions on the sofas that had been flattened a long time ago, and the mattress on the bed which had stains that she avoided looking at when changing the two bedsheets she covered it with. The floor under her feet felt gritty even after she swept and mopped it. It was always warm inside their apartment. The fans on the ceilings moved slowly, and when she asked Kamil about them, he said there was something wrong with the wiring, waving a hand vaguely as if the answer lay somewhere over his right shoulder. It became hotter as the days went by, and when Saba cooked in the narrow kitchen she felt fetidness rising in small waves from the dark space between the stove and the counter. Once, after an argument with Kamil, she cut her finger when moving a piece of ginger against the jagged teeth of a grater. She put her hand in the bowl, squeezed out the blood, and mixed the food with the specks of red. It was some comfort seeing him eat it distractedly, the way he ate almost every meal.

Every morning, she entered her office full of gratitude for the air conditioning and went to the bathroom to gently wipe the sweat off her upper lip and to reapply her lipstick. On her soft chair behind the shiny counter, she sometimes felt bad about Kamil. He was one of those who had to work outdoors and swelter in the quiet, raspy warmth of the wind. She imagined his going around the city on his motorcycle on assignments, sweating under the helmet, interviewing pedestrians and protestors, penciling down statistics in a small notebook that he held in his browned, veined hands. When he had to stay out past dinner, Saba was happier because she didn’t know how to speak to him for longer than five minutes. His conversation was in the format of opinions, and she assumed it was that way because he was always sending in articles to his newspaper. When he talked, he leaned forward as if to drive his points home with his spittle. If ever she had to identify his body, she knew she would have to look for a mole under his left brow. She could not call him a bad husband, even after he once grabbed her arms in exasperation because she had refused to counter his opinion with one of her own. He let go of her with a jerk and called her “mild,” as if it were a swear word.

• •

Kamil told Saba about a new assignment he had gotten from his editor: he had to write an article about the effect of heat on poor people. He looked determined and important, as if the weather were a criminal and he had to expose it. Sometimes he shared with Saba the results of his research, speaking professorially. He related incidents from his memory and from scrawls in his little notebook. He told her that in the slum areas the heat had solidified the air into a sulfurous yellow and that a charity group had funded vans to be turned into ambulances that stopped wherever they saw clumps of flies because almost always there was a body underneath. He swore and slapped the table for emphasis, and sometimes he gritted his teeth when he spoke.

Once, after dinner, he threw a newspaper into her lap. “Read that,” he said with a grimace, and paced the floor with the air of a person who had been grievously injured.

Saba dutifully read the sordid piece of news: in a narrow alley, an old man had been found wheezing. Rescuers discovered that he had been unable to ask for something to quench his thirst because the sun had dried up all the water in his body, even his spit. Saba folded the newspaper and made sure that her face showed that she, too, had a heart for the dying downtrodden. In fact, she really thought that when there was no electricity the two of them could be good subjects for Kamil’s research. She didn’t say that out loud, though.

Over dinner, tearing his bread with angry flicks of his wrists, he complained about the city’s lack of preparation for the heat wave and the idiocy of the population. He asked Saba if she felt it, too, and for a moment she was puzzled—did he mean the idiocy or the heat? But wisely she just said yes. He hovered around her when she washed the dishes, not letting her use more than a trickle of water from the tap, telling her how three people had been found dead in a small, unpainted house, apparently strangled by the heat and the resulting thirst. He also reduced his bathing to once a week because he said more than that was a crime. That annoyed Saba because she had to lie next to him every night. Even with her back turned to him she could smell him. She had to wait for him to fall asleep before she went to the bathroom to clean herself, soaking a towel with water and wiping the soap off her body. Her hair was the hardest to clean because it was thick and curly. Sometimes it took her thirty minutes to get all the shampoo out. When their electricity started going out for eight hours and opening the windows only brought in more suffocating air, Saba started testing her limits, and his: she shut doors and cupboards with angry bangs and let water gush out of taps at full strength. That drove Kamil wild, and he pulled his hair and called her names.

One evening he stalked into the kitchen where she was washing a teaspoon under a small waterfall and wrested it from her soapy hands. She shouted that he smelled like garbage, and he hit her on her face. Right away, he looked horrified at what he had done. He stammered that he was terribly sorry, that it was the heat, or all those thirsty people clutching their throats as they died one by one by the sides of roads he went on every day. Saba stayed quiet, scrutinizing the event that had just happened, like a scientist in a lab coat peering quizzically into an unidentified object. She did not feel angry at Kamil, and she recognized that that was a curious thing. Instead, she imagined severing her nerve endings with tiny scissors and shutting off her pores, sealing herself in. A little later, Kamil tried to show her that he loved her, or was committed to her, or to the idea of marriage, or something. She wasn’t sure what. But she let him apologize to her in their small, hot bedroom with no windows until, exhausted, he fell asleep.

Early the next morning, Saba woke up from the humidity. Her pillow was damp with sweat. She put her hands on her stomach and, through the thin cotton that covered it, knew that the division of her pale cells had begun. She made up her mind that she was not going to share this bit of clairvoyance with anyone, not even her husband, whose child was forming away inside her. He lay on the other side of the bed, his shirt sticking to his front and his face covered with stubble that seemed to grow in hours. Saba did not feel like reaching out and smoothing away the hair from his forehead. Instead, she turned her thoughts inward, to the filling and emptying of her lungs and the tiny lub-dub of her heart pulsing out from her wrist. She swung her legs off the bed and got dressed to go to work. There was gravity and deliberation in her movements, as if this secret child was filling her with grace. In the mirror, her face appeared to be unlined, pale and beautiful. She looked at the large, purpling bruise, found two plasters, and stuck them on her forehead.

• •

For the first few weeks Saba’s arms and face and fingers did not show signs of internal changes. In the lobby of her office building, behind the reception counter, she patted her stomach. When she wasn’t answering calls and directing visitors, she whispered memos to the baby. She described to it the clothes on the women who stood in front of elevators to go to higher floors for more complicated jobs. If someone wore a more daring eyeshadow than was usual for her, Saba told the baby. She always spoke admiringly about these women. They had smooth foreheads; there didn’t seem to be any bruises hidden there, though of course she couldn’t tell unless she touched their faces. She balled up her fists to resist the urge to go up to them and find out, and let herself believe that these were complete women, beloved women.

“I think that blue suits her, oh, look at the print on the back,” she would softly say to the baby.

Then the elevator doors would open and take them all away from her.

At home, she ignored Kamil and read to the baby instructions from the backs of shampoo bottles and the list of side effects from packets of painkillers. She took care to eat her fruits, vegetables, and chicken. She wanted her child to be God-conscious, so she read to it from her Holy Book. Sometimes at her work during break, she read bits of news—not written by Kamil, but by others in other newspapers—about the rising temperature in the city. “Alarming! Record-breaking!” the newspapers said. Such stories gave her perspective, she found. She read a paragraph about a young man, who had been identified as Hamid, found face down on the mass of fat wires and gray pipes under the bonnet of his car. His face had to be unstuck from the machinery, and his mother had identified his body. It was too gruesome a story to read to her baby, so Saba folded the newspaper, hummed a tune to her stomach, and finished an entire bottle of water. She started checking how much she was sweating and moved as little as possible when she stood outside after work to catch a rickshaw for home. To keep the baby cool, she thought about snow and ice cubes and refused to look at the sky. The bruise on her forehead was fading slowly, though in certain lights she could trace its original outline.

One evening, Kamil held her chin in his fingers as if it were a grape, crushable and small, and turned her face toward his. Then he let go and lightly said, “There’s hardly a bruise there now.” He sounded pleased, like he did when his favorite shoe was mended.

This was how they settled back into their normal routines, just like they used to after other fights. Watching his mouth twist into shapes as he ranted, she mulled over the idea of telling him she was pregnant. Because she didn’t want to completely shock him, she started off by relating her own anecdotes from work, like when her paycheck had gone to the wrong person because of a misspelling, or a joke she’d heard at the water cooler. But Kamil puffed out his cheeks and let the air escape slowly as she spoke, and she realized that he did not have much patience for incidents that took place in air-conditioned interiors. So she withheld her big news from him. The baby inside her gave her the strength to apologize for her stories. Right away, Kamil forgave her. His voice flowed around her, blurring pleasantly, and she nodded and smiled, comforted that under her clothes, her secret was thriving and pushing out her skin. She spoke to the baby in her head, imagining the words going down her blood stream and into its umbilical cord.

In episodes, she told the baby all about how she and Kamil had gotten married. When she was twenty-six years old, her mother had become worried that her daughter was going to stay single forever. So she took her to see a baba, a discreet old sage, who was known to have cures for problems like infertility, singlehood, cheating spouses, and divorce. His house was very far away, somewhere among the shanties but better than most of them. A small child let them in. Saba couldn’t tell if the child was a boy or a girl, its hair was short and matted, and its eyes had been outlined with kohl. They followed its bare legs to a tree, under which sat the baba on a cushion. He asked Saba to lay her hand on the top of a small table, palm side up. He prodded it in a couple of spots, muttered, and once he rattled the fat, yellow beads around his neck, and once he pulled his tangled, gray beard, Saba became so caught up in the moment that when thunder crackled above their heads, she believed she was cured. Two weeks later, Kamil and his mother visited her house. They had seen her picture, given to them by a match-making lady, and had liked her face. Kamil was twenty-eight and had nice manners and a decent job. Saba’s mother raised her hands in speechless gratitude, and Saba and Kamil got married.

• •

In preparation for the baby, Saba started scrubbing the apartment clean. The corners were the hardest because each one she confronted had a peeling table standing there, with maybe an object on it that had stopped working, or piles of old telephone directories, or just plain dust. She gazed critically at a lamp with a faded blue shade and flipped through a directory to look up names for the baby, then swept everything into plastic bags. On a weekend, she stood back with her hands on her waist and surveyed the results. The heated light coming through the grimy, barred windows dimmed the effect of her hard work, but she was still pleased. She decided that one day she would paper that particular wall and that window. For some time at least, her child would be spared knowledge of the danger of agile intruders who could break into safe abodes, and the necessity of ugly bars. While she cleaned, Kamil worked in his corner of the living room, glancing at her with a frown every now and then.

Once he said, “You’re making too much noise.”

Saba wondered if this was what companionship was.

Sometimes when she saw him sitting over his papers and notes, feverishly writing away at his Very Important Piece, she wanted to tell him her secret. More specifically, she wanted to gloat at the look of shock on his face. Perhaps he would be astounded that he had undermined her for so long that he would sink to his knees and hit the floor with his forehead.

There was no doubt in her mind that the baby was growing fine, even though her stomach only looked flabby, not taut, when she stood sideways in front of the mirror. She tried to glean knowledge of the baby’s gender, but her sensitive fingers only told her that the naughty baby had crossed its legs, or had curled up tight, refusing to let its mother know. She made plans for educating the child after which he or she would grow up to earn some money, and the two of them would live in a nice little place by themselves. She imagined Kamil calling them to ask if he could visit them and she and her grown child looking at each other and laughing at the very idea.

• •

Kamil said his editor was getting worried about the article being printed in time. There had been news from the meteorological station about rain in the next few weeks. Also, Kamil said, while squeezing his forehead, the imams of the city’s mosques had started to pray for rain every Friday after afternoon prayers. A lot of times he came home then went out again, returning for a few hours between midnight and dawn.

“Wrapping up a few details,” he said to the notebook in front of him even though Saba hadn’t asked him.

She had decided she was not going to be curious about his movements. She chose, instead, to feel irritated, because she told herself that it was getting harder for her to rest now because her back ached. She discovered that the trick to falling asleep was not to start listening for the sounds of her husband closing the front door and his motorcycle rumbling down the street and the moon coming up and the moon going down and the motorcycle rumbling to a stop and the other side of the bed creaking.

• •

Kamil’s article was published, and one week later clouds crowded around and everyone in the city held their breath, and then it rained. Kamil, who had started to look like a dehydrated stick with glittering black eyes, turned shiny with the muggy air and with the congratulations he received on his fine work. He brought home samosas and held out a copy of the newspaper in front of Saba—he didn’t let her touch it because her hands were greasy from the food.

“It’s a feature piece,” he said proudly. “My best work, the editor says. I might even get an award for it, though he has asked me not to mention that in front of anybody yet.”

Saba made herself smile. She felt an urge to touch her forehead again and make a wincing face, but she wasn’t sure she could handle what would follow. What if Kamil got angry? What if he laughed about it? What if he couldn’t remember what he had done? And her old bruise wasn’t hurting her anymore, anyway. It hadn’t hurt for a long time, and so what if Kamil was going to receive an award for some humanitarian words? She held inside her far more than he was ever going to get to hold in his thick fingers.

For about nine days, it rained almost nonstop. Roads got flooded but people crossed them joyously, hitching up shalwar and pants. Umbrellas were optional. Schools were closed for a whole day to celebrate the end of the worst heat wave in forty years. Some of the poorer people still died because of electrocution. Kamil wrote a small piece on how they should have known better than to bathe in puddles where wires had fallen. He showed it to Saba, and late at night she used those pages to scrub the toilet.

His minor success seemed to have made him generous toward her. He asked her one night about her work, but she didn’t have any interesting details to relate, so she just told him that they had switched from blue sticky notes to green ones.

She was surprised when he came home one evening with a new handbag for her.

“You never get anything for yourself,” he said, gentle admonition in his voice.

She hung the bag from her mirror. She knew where it was from. It had swung from the post of the cart of the man who sold fake bags and shoes at the corner of their street. When she lay in bed, she saw its bright, golden clasp gleaming cheaply in the dim light. It reminded her that the building she lived in was old and a sickly shade of yellow, that most of the year the trees and shrubs outside hung dispirited and dusty, growing out of cracks in footpaths, and that no amount of rain could give them beauty. Maybe she and Kamil had never had a chance because of the street they lived on: narrow, dirty, trapping heat that poured from the sky in the day, releasing it in waves from the melting asphalt in the night. Even rainwater couldn’t flow down it gracefully: already there were plastic bags and pieces of food from vendors’ carts mixed in it.

She had seen handbags like that when she was small, in apartments like this one on streets like hers. Always, the women holding it wore bright maroon lipstick and clutched their men around the waist if on a motorcycle, or walked fast through marketplaces holding hands of little children who wore shirts with words on them like “sweet girl” or “cool guy.” Her mother  had been one of them herself and had had friends like these, and Saba used to visit them with her, wearing an ironed frock. When the women talked about their husbands who were tailors or butchers or electricians, they used pronouns because Saba was sitting with them. She understood anyway, listening to every word while pretending to be absorbed in eating the biscuits. The topics hardly ever changed: their men’s tempers, excesses, and taciturn ways.

Like everyone else, though, Saba had been sure she was going to have it different and better.

• •

The rain stopped, and the returning humidity was still a few days away. Kamil told Saba that he wanted to drop her to her work. He wouldn’t listen when she said that she could go on her own, so she agreed and got onto the motorcycle behind him. It was necessary that she put an arm around him, to have something to hold on to. They bumped along, and Saba sent reassuring messages to the baby in case the new sensations were worrying it. Puddles lay on the road like trick rugs. Kamil went around them whenever he could, a detail which Saba would remember later and which would make her think that he was a kind man. He was going slowly through a spot of shallow water when a van spun toward them. It roared, or screamed, Saba wasn’t sure. For some brief, wonderful seconds, she and Kamil flew through moisture and air. When she opened her eyes, she was on the road with Kamil, as if they were lying in bed, the gray of the sky above them. She pressed her stomach for company, but the baby didn’t talk to her, and she worried if it was upset at something she had said or done or eaten. There was a lump-like hardness inside her. She waited to understand if the pain she was feeling was real or imaginary, and then she decided that it was very real, not unlike the kind she used to get before and during her period, which of course hadn’t happened for a long time because her baby had been real just like this pain. When it subsided, the leaden weight inside her settled like sediment and filled her with a new kind of gravity, unlike the one she had experienced that morning when the baby was a dot.

And so, she did not feel sad about the loss of her child. The appropriate amount of grief will come later, she comforted herself. Her head and belly felt sodden, and she longed to get away from the mess. Vaguely, she wondered if Kamil, too, wanted to go away. She couldn’t turn her neck to see how he was doing. If only he had a pillow under his head, she thought. Did this concern of hers mean that she loved him? If she could move her hand, she’d have clutched her chest. What if the van hadn’t hit them? She would have missed out on loving her man. The close-call nature of it all filled her with exhilaration and delicious sorrow. Lying in the puddle, she squared her shoulders and decided that if she hadn’t taken care of Kamil before, she would do so now. A twinge of regret made its way to her mind at all the times she could have wiped Kamil’s brow or brought him a glass of water, or checked his work for mistakes, but hadn’t. But you couldn’t hurry things, she told herself. They happened only when all necessary conditions had been fulfilled. After all, each event existed merely as a result of a previous one. Before this love was the event of the baby, and before that was her marriage to Kamil, and the old baba she’d met with her mother, and her own parents’ existence. So really, it was almost impossible to tell what or who to blame or thank. She moved her hand until she found Kamil’s cold, still one, wrinkled with water, and she held on to it like a burr and waited for someone to find them.

Farah Ali
Farah Ali is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her stories have appeared in the Colorado Review (winner of the Nelligan Prize), the J Journal, Southern Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and others.