This was a story that I wrote after the Mumbai bomb blast and siege in the Taj in November 2008. I am reproducing it after the recent serial Bomb-ay blasts that took place. I have given a Glossary for readers to understand the ethnic food and words!
Fatima walked wearily up the street weighed down by the two heavy bags in her hands.
The wind whistled and blew sharp in the tunnelled street, making her shiver
with its iciness. She wanted to go to the bathroom very badly and found it difficult
to hold it. Her eyes watered with the cold and grief beating down rivulets of
grime and salt on her face. A simple, routine monthly phone call from her
brother Chottu was all about the death of her father.
Putting down her bags on the threshold of the doorway, she groped for the key in her
small clutch purse. Her eyes could not focus on the huge, old fashioned padlock
that hung on the latch. She dropped the bunch of keys, picked it up closed her
eyes, took a deep breath and yet a whimper burst from her throat and with
difficulty she finally fitted key into the lock. It seemed that the click sound
of the unlocking padlock echoed loudly around the mohalla. She thrust the doors open, picked up the bags and stepped in, turned around and hurriedly closed the doors as softly as she could. Yet the old doors creaked and clacked as they fell into their place. Fatima secured the tower bolt and slowly, slowly collapsed on the paving stones of the open courtyard. She wet herself as she could not control herself anymore and the grief just took over her body, her mind, her soul.
The paroxysm of sobs shook her and she uttered “Abba, Abba …” repeatedly and wept. It took her a while to regain her composure as if all the tears in her system had been spent in that one outburst. She slowly got up, heated up some water in the stove and had a bath, changed her clothes and then set about putting away the shopping. It was time to prepare the evening meal and she sat down to make the dough for the rotis. Kneading, bashing the dough, making it into a ball and then kneading it again and again in the brass platter gave her a mechanical focus. The thoughts chased around her like the whirligig of the dry leaves that were pushed and blown around by the sharp winter wind around the small courtyard.
“Ammi tell us more” was the demand from Salma.
“Yes Ammi tell us about your home” added Rehana.
Little Farida put her thumb into her mouth and watched her mother kneading the dough.
“Id was a grand festival in our house. Why, in the whole of our area, it was a
time of celebration and festivity. My mother shopped for days and sat at her
sewing machine making lovely outfits for the seven of us”.
“What for Mamu jaan too?” asked Salma.
“Yes for my sisters and three brothers….she made all our clothes”.
“Mmhmmm…” said Abbas who pretended not to be interested in the conversation as he wound the thread around the top and let it whirr on the paving stones of the
“We would break our fast and wait for Abba to come home. He always took the train
from VT at 7 and he would be home by 7.30. Then he would wash and change and
take us to the market. Oh those bright lights, the colourful serial lights
going wink, wink, wink, the food piled up in the stalls—the kebabs, the hot
puris and parathas, the pav bajhi and samosas…and of course the orange, crisp
jalebis and the little pots of Phirni that tasted like ….like…..”
“Go on Ammi” broke in Salma impatiently.
“And so many people on the streets, going here, going there…shopping for food, on the
pavement buying something or the other….The little pile of vegetables and the
chanawala with the little pot of coals keeping the peanuts and the garam chana
crisp and crunchy…. Byculla, Mohammed Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar full of life,
laughter, colour and joy”.
“What about studies Ammi?” Rehana asked.
“All of us would have finished our homework and be ready to go off with Abba”.
“So did you eat in the market everyday?” asked Rehana.
“No, no…we just went to enjoy, to watch, to see everything. Maybe we would snack on a samosa or a piece of kabab. But dinner was at home where my mother would keep our food ready.
“In the weekends she would make this wonderful biriyani. My Abba would get fresh
meat early in the morning. She would marinate it in sour curd and cumin, haldi
and ginger garlic paste. Then she would layer this huge dekchi—first the ghee
then browned onions, and then layers of meat, rice, vegetables, spices and
saffron diluted in milk and chopped fresh coriander and mint leaves. The
topping was fried nuts and raisins all placed under a lid that was sealed with
maida dough at the edges of the aluminium dekchi. The whole area would be
pervaded with the wonderful aromas of the dish when she opened the dum. She
would make little parcels of the rice and distribute it to the neighbours”.
“No mithai Ammi” asked Salma.
“Of course she would make Rot..that was something else. We would fight to beat the eggs and then she would add the sugar, semolina, milk and elaichi. We would hang
around the kitchen waiting for it to be baked and bargain to be the first to
plunge into its rich, moist sweetness. The sevaiyyan was special too—and I have
never been able to get that flavour in my cooking. I wish you children could
taste my Ammi’s cooking. ”
“Don’t worry Ammi. Our Ammi’s cooking is terrific!” claimed Rehana.
“When will you make that biriyani Ammi?” asked an ever hungry Abbas.
Fatima began to cut the vegetables for the dinner. Every few minutes the sobs ripped
through her body. She suddenly remembered the clothes hung out to dry on the
terrace and slowly climbed the stairs that was situated to one end of the
courtyard. Halfway up the stairs she heard knocking at the front door.
“Who is there?” she asked loudly.
“Ammi it is me Salma” was the reply.
Fatima ran down the steps, flung open the door and stuffed her dupatta into her mouth to stifle the sobs. Salma hugged her and bearing her mother’s weight guided her back into the house trying to keep control over the tears.
“What a way to die? I never thought that his second home as he called it, that VT
station would be his death place….Why did it have to happen like this? He was
looking forward to retiring…Allah! He worked so hard all his life…why like
this….why like this….?” Fatima wailed and wept.
Salma said, “What to do Ammi? He died with so many other people…all innocents….just because of a few madmen…heartless beasts”.
“Shhhshhhhh…” Fatima hurriedly stopped her. “Walls have ears…don’t say anything…it is our fate to lose your grandfather like this…..and we cannot even go there to be with my Ammi…to be with all of them….How unfortunate I am?” she wept inconsolably. “We did everything together…now I am left alone here with only you and your Abba to mourn with me”.
“Ammi you told us about Ramzan and Id time. What did you do other times of the year?” asked Salma.
“OH! Every Sunday we would go out somewhere—to the zoo, to Marine Drive and watch the waves hit the rocks or to Gateway. We loved to see the pigeons and to feed
them grain” said Fatima.
“Would you take grain from home?” asked Abbas.
“No no! Vendors with sacks of grain used to sit in the kabuttar khanas of Bhendi
Bazaar, Metro Cinema, Marine Drive and Gateway. We would buy a handful each—it would just cost a rupee and then throw it little by little to the pigeons”.
“How long was Marine Drive” asked Abbas.
“For our feet in those days it was very long. We would walk to Chowpatty and eat
Bhel Puri and kulfi. Then we would play in the sand and paddle in the waves,
walk to Opera House, take a bus and then come home to Byculla”.
The children kept quiet trying to place their mother in the surroundings that she
described. Their idea of the places she talked about came alive in the Hindi
movies that they saw and learned to wait for their mother’s running commentary,
“Look, look! That is Marine Drive….So many cars parked at Flora Fountain….This is Colaba Causeway. Look at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Doesn’t it look grand. My father used to take us to Bade Miyaan to eat his mouth watering kababs”.
“Who is Bade Miyaan Ammi?” asked Salma the interrogator.
“Oh! He is very famous in Bombay. His shop is on the pavement just near the Taj Mahal Hotel. He starts his business in the evenings and Abba used to say that crowds of people in big, big cars would come to him till late in the night to eat his kababs”.
“Would he set up his shop only during Ramzan” asked Salma.
“No Salmajaan…all through the year. I wonder whether he is there even now” Fatima wondered.
Salma asked her mother, “Did you drink anything after you came back from the market?”
Fatima shook her head and so Salma went to put a pan of water to make some tea. Fatima said, “Abba always went with Bhaijaans to the village for Bakrid. He and his whole family would meet up—my uncles and their sons, my brothers and Abba and give the sacrifice”.
“This year there was only Aslam Mamu to go with him, right? Why did they go so many
days before Id Ammi?”
“Chottu said that there was some land to be sold…that is why they decided to go ten days ahead of others…..and look what happened. How many times in his lifetime would he have used that station? How many times would he have caught a train to the village from that platform?”Fatima broke down weeping and wailing.
“Every year the boys would go with Abba to the village for Bakrid. Their uncles,
cousins and all the male members of the clan would meet in the village from Delhi, Agra, Poona and Bangalore. It was a big celebration and every branch would give the sacrifice—chickens, goats, cows—each according to his pocket. And then there would be feasting”.
“Why only the men Ammi” asked Salma.
“That is the story of our women Salma Aapa” was the sharp reply from Farida.
“Some of the women would also go. Abba would take one of us girls by turn every year”, was the conciliatory reply from Fatima.
“Hurrumph” said Farida scornfully. “Unless we girls are educated and learn to fight for our rights, this is how we will be treated”.
“Hai Allah! Where does this girl learn all this? What Am I going to do with her?”
“You can send me to college. I want to be a journalist. In your time you studied up
to your eighth. Salma Aapa made it to school final and Rehana Aapa has learnt
to use her talents as a designer. I want to do my graduation. Your son has
never been interested in studies. So let me at least study and support you all
“Chup…girls are only meant to take care of their own families”.
“So does that mean you are not family to me Ammi…what rubbish”.
“Look at Salma! Her attention is all on her husband’s family.”
“That doesn’t mean that she does not care for you. She comes here regularly” was the
sharp reply from Farida.
“How are we going to give this information to Farida…You know your father will not
even let me open my mouth about her…how will she know about Abba?” whimperedFatima.
“It is all over the news Ammi…she works for the paper. Everybody is watching TV,
all over the world and the images are being beamed again and again. The
horrible scenes of Mumbai are imprinted in everybody’s mind and memory. Of
course she would have got the news. There will be a list of the…. Dead” and
Salma’s voice faltered at the word and she too broke into tears.
“And Abbas……how will he know”
There was a knock at the door. Salma ran to open the door. It was her father. He
walked in without a word and washed himself just in time for the call of the
Muezzin. He unrolled his prayer mat and all three sat down to say the evening
After Salma helped her mother with the dinner preparation, she said, “It is time for
me to go Ammi. I wish that you could have gone home to be with your family in
this horrible time”.
“Hmmm…if wishes were horses then I could have sent your mother to visit her family and her beloved Bombay at least once in all these years…now she cannot ever see her
father…I have been a failure…never earned enough to support you all…Now your
grandfather has died a horrible death…we will never see him again” and her
father covered his face with his towel and wept.
Salma picked up a little tiffin of food that her mother had readied for her and
walked to the door while fastening the buttons of her black robe. As she opened
it she was surprised to see somebody at the door. He said, “Is Fatimabi here?”
“Yes” said Salma as she pulled her Chador over her face. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” he asked in return.
“I am her daughter, Salma. What do you want? Have you heard the news?”
“Yes I have heard the news. I am sorry….But he has reached the gates of heaven”.
“In this way? Shot down by bullets?” Salma asked angrily.
“He died for a cause”.
“Who is there?” asked her father and both her parents came out into the courtyard.
“I am here to give you something” said the stranger “from your son”.
He handed a brown paper packet to Salma, muttered “Allahu Akbar” and swiftly ran
out of the doorway, got on to a motorbike that had another man on the rider’s
seat and whizzed off through the narrow street and disappeared round the
corner. Not a soul looked out of their windows or doors. It was if this family
was the only one in that mohalla.
Salma gave the parcel to her father who opened it with shaking fingers. Out fell
bundles and bundles of notes with a note:
I am going to see your Bombay—Colaba, Marine Drive, VT Station,
Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Hotel.
I am sending your ticket money. Maybe now you will be able to see your Abba and Ammi and your sisters and brothers.
There was a low keening sound that rose in that courtyard and gradually merged with
the whistling, winter wind.
Chottu younger brother
Rotis flat, unleavened bread
Mamu maternal uncle
Jaan an endearment
VT Victoria Terminus, the suburban and cross country train in Mumbai
Kebabs savoury cakes
Puris and parathas varieties of unleavened Indian bread
Pav bajhi mixed vegetables served in a gravy and accompanied with local bread rolls
Samosas fried savoury parcels filled with meat or vegetables
Phirni milk and rice pudding set in little earthenware pots
Chanwala roadside vendor of split pea and peanuts
Garam chana hot, spicy split peas
Dekchi cooking vessel
Maida white flour
Dum Cooking food with a sealed dish on which live coals are placed
Sevaiyyan sweet dish made with vermicelli
Dupatta the upper scarf worn with salwar kameez—tunic and pants
Kabuttar khanas the area where pigeons roost or dovecotes
Bhel puri spicy, salad snack made with a melange of ingredients including puffed rice, hard crunchy puris potatoes and peanuts
Kulfi Indian ice cream
Bade Miyaan Elder gentleman
Aapa older sister
Khuda Haaffis God be with you