A short story, written and illustrated by Amira Umar.
The three Balchins sisters shared a bedroom, an attached bathroom and a live-in Nanny called Rani. Lilly was the youngest, and then Alice. The arrangement wasn’t stifling for them because they were still young; the pangs of puberty hadn’t halted their self-esteem yet. Penny, on the other hand, was the oldest at sixteen.
Rani understood that Penny enjoyed lounging in the bath. It was the only time she didn’t feel she needed to share; not her clothes, her books or her emotions. In the bathroom, the water was hers first.
Night came, and Penny was nowhere to be found in the large house. Rani thundered on the locked door.
“Penny!” Lilly shouted, she needed the toilet. When Penny opened the door with a towel wrapped around her body, the soap suds still twinkled on her skin like small stars. Lilly skidded under her arm and plopped her fat, already naked, bottom onto the toilet with relief.
“Lilly!” Rani chastised, pushing Penny out from the door frame and closing the door for Lilly. Rani then gathered Penny’s gown and gave it to her.
Alice was laying on her bed, doodling on scrap paper. “You ought not to stay in there so long,” Alice looked at her sister accusingly.
“And why not?” Penny snapped, pulling on her nightdress.
“Grandmother Sybil says-”
“Oh!” Penny groaned. The time in the bathroom hadn’t done any favours for her temper.
Alice took another deep breath and continued, “Grandmother Sybil said in her letters that there are devils in the toilets that like to watch girls bathe, and if you’re in there too long they’ll try to... to... touch you.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Ta but stand naked in front of a boy and he’ll try to touch you too.” “I’ll tell her tomorrow. She’s coming you know.”
Penny’s eyes widened, “Do you think she’ll come with father? Or maybe she’ll bring clothes and tea?”
“We have tea,” Alice muttered, brows furrowing.
“It’s not the same tea here Alice,” Penny growled.
Lilly emerged from the toilet, naked, not yet dried off from her bath and smiling like a small sumo wrestler who’d won her first match. Her belly was plump and her limbs jiggled as she began to jump. Alice and Penny smiled at their youngest sister who hurled her round body like a cannonball as she ran around their room giggling. Rani rushed after her, caught her and gave the wailing child kisses on her stomach and her cheek.
When they were settled, Lilly in her own gown and Alice and Penny less aggravated, each girl said their goodnights and blew out their candles.
“I wish for health; for Rani, for my sisters, for Mother and father, for my family, and me,” Alice prayed into the flame, before killing the flickering candle.
“Sleep,” and Penny extinguished her flame.
“I wish for birthday cake!” Lilly chirped proudly. Rani chuckled from the mat she slept on by the entrance of the toilet.
“But Lilly,” Alice interjected, halting Lilly just before exhaling her largest inhale to blow out a candle. “It’s no one’s birthday.”
“Fine,” Lilly pouted, “just regular cake I suppose.” And then blew out her candles and snuggled into her pillows.
Rani sat on a low chair next to Lilly, spoon-feeding her porridge when Mrs. Balchins burst through the doors. It was clear from the curls that stuck up and her silken robe that she had just awoken.
“Rani!” she squealed in a voice almost as high as her five-year-olds. She stomped into the dining room. “The ingredients for dinner tonight! Take the girls with you. Be quick, be quick, be quick!”
Penny scowled, staying stuck in her chair with her arms crossed as her sisters scrambled to get ready for their day out. Rani walked behind Penny and watched the other two girls fuss about the location of their shoes with their mother. Mrs. Balchins face twisted as Lilly tried to explain where she’d discarded them. Rani placed her palms on Penny’s shoulders and gave her a small rub.
“Can you bring back those pink flowers?” Penny whispered, looking up at Rani. Rani nodded and bid her farewell for the morning.
Lilly bounced as they walked all through Amritsar. The heat was slowly rising, but it was early enough in the day. If they were good and fast, they could avoid a heat stroke. They arrived at the riverbank, opposite the golden temple. Rani greeted her friends at the market, going to each stall to select produce. Alice held a list of everything their mother could want for dinner. She had it split into three columns; the ingredients in cursive English, and then in Punjabi and then scrawled Sanskrit.
Chicken ... Maṭarī ... ਮਟਰੀ
Garlic ... Lasana ... ਲਸਣ
Butter ... Makhana ... ਮਖਣ
She took care pronouncing each ingredient in perfected Punjabi. Not once looking to Rani for any help on the matter. The amusement of the merchants earned her a handful more than she’d asked for; more paprika, oil, and nuts. One man especially enjoyed her presence and so gave her flowers he had no intention of selling. Lady Slippers for her pocket, Jasmine to adorn Lilly’s hair and a Lotus as a present for Penny.
“Aiyo, it is almost temple time,” his voice was teasing, “Are you two going to pray today?”
“We pray at home,” Lilly said proudly from Rani’s arms.
“But look,” he pointed at the floating golden temple behind. The prized jewel of Amritsar winked in the sun’s glare. “You pray there tomorrow. Many people coming
but I find you and I give you another flower.” He held up another set of three, Lady slippers, Jasmine and a Lotus with a wrinkled petal.
Rani appeased the girls by promising to come back tomorrow.
Unable to afford embarrassment on the return of Mr. Balchins and his visiting mother, Mrs. Balchins had the parlour and dining room busy with houseboys, commandeered by fifteen-year-old Dalraj. When Rani returned from the morning’s hunt, she sent the two girls up for an afternoon slumber and found the mistress of the house shouting orders from the kitchen.
“The furniture’s from Harrods,” she cried. “Harrods. You understand Dalraj? Tell them!”
Dalraj took the liberty of translating for her, he told them that Harrods was “A posh place to get away from my fat husband and drink perfume.” He added some profanities that made the other boys hiss chuckles and Rani narrow her eyes at him. He gave her a toothy smile and went to work with the others. The boys polished and repainted the dining table, the cheap metal trimming winked like gold.
If the parlour was a temple then Rani discovered the kitchen had become the scene of a terrible science experiment as she walked in with the morning’s shopping.
Mrs. Balchins, Rani decided, was never more bad-natured than when she was making a curry. She grabbed the bags from Rani’s hands and assembled the ingredients onto the table, demanding that Rani should not help her.
Whilst she was not for manual housework herself, Mrs. Balchins was very good at roughly cutting all vegetables, meats, and humans down to size. She discarded whole ginger roots, tender with abuse, into a pot of thick, brown, neither-solid-nor-liquid substance. Turmeric stained the floors a bright yellow. Rani watched the powder fly with abandon as Mrs. Balchins added more and more into that pot of hers.
Garam masala powder, coriander leaves and cumin pods soon littered the countertops. The pot would breathe out a peculiar smell, the paste inside heaving out a bubble that would burst with a smoke figure escaping. The smell wafted through the kitchen and out the open door. Rani heard small hisses of laughter. She found four boys giggling, like rats behind a bin, in the corner.
“Does she think that she is cooking?” one whispered to another boy.
“Even your smelly mother does better,” his friend replied. His gaze met Ranis.
Rani stormed over, but before she could smack their heads, they’d scurried off, skipping over the potted plants and howling at their own mischief. She called after them: “Stupid skinny dogs, get back to work before you’re whipped.” Then she shut the door so they couldn’t come back.
“What did you just say?” Mrs. Balchins asked. She whipped around to look at
“No, no, what did those boys say? and what did you say? Tell me, Rani.”
Rani peered over into the thick bubbling pot. Pink chicken floated to the top to greet her before sinking back down, lost amidst onions and a thick paste.
“The smell,” Rani explained, “It is... different.”
The spark in Mrs. Balchins eyes died faster than the garlic pieces she had blackened in her pot. She sank onto the chair in the corner of the kitchen. A characteristic pout sprung to her face, a pout Mrs. Balchins' youngest child had inherited.
Rani spoke, “Mrs. Balchins, it is my job.”
“Jane, Rani, I’ve told you before. Jane. My mother in law isn’t here yet.” She gave a weak laugh; tears formed and stuck to her skin.
Rani went over to the pot, picked it up by its scalding handles and placed it by the exit door. Not even the dogs would feed on that tonight.
The cleaning, rearranging, cutting, frying, seasoning, washing, rinsing, boiling and chopping happened with a velocity that intrigued Jane. She stood up, dazed, beside Rani and began to chop the peeled potatoes, first in halves, then in quarters. She placed them into a bowl. Then she started again.
“This evening. That awful woman is coming this evening,” she sniffed, continuing to chop, “and she doesn’t like me, not one bit. When I was engaged to William, I forgot to pick the right fork – oh, in England it’s such a silly thing Rani.”
She’d stopped chopping now, and Rani picked up where she left off. “They do it in France, too, William says. You have to know how to eat right and dress right and play the bloody piano. I couldn’t do any of those things. Sit with your mother in law and her friends every bloody Tuesday and you weren’t even allowed to speak, whilst your husband goes off punting with his friends from Oxford. And your children, what do they do? Learn how to dress and play the piano and identify spoons.”
After some silence, Jane enquired. “How old were you, when you learned...?” she nodded to the new pot.
“Ten, maybe eleven,” Rani spoke as she continued to sweep away the mess Jane had made earlier. “My husband’s mother was a tyrant too.” Jane peered over the new curry which glistened a beautiful oil-red. Rani told her to go rest, shooing her out of the kitchen as she finished the cleaning and the cooking.
The evening came. The lights were exceedingly bright. The cinnamon and cloves that had been burned down into incense, invited in the car that drove into the courtyard. The three Balchins sisters stood in a line, their hair tied in identical braids and their respective pink, yellow and white dresses pressed neatly. Lilly couldn’t stop fidgeting with the hem.
“Lilly, Grandmother Sybil’ll see you.” Alice hissed, back straight as the car rolled through.
In front of the girls, Rani stood next to Jane and watched her gnaw on her bottom lip and shift from foot to foot like a child who needed the toilet. Rani gave Jane a small reassuring smile, then held her hand for a quick squeeze of the fingers. She released just as Mr. Balchins opened his passenger door, nodding to the driver.
He wore his uniform. His hair had been cut to hide the flecks of grey that had begun to grow, and his soft gaze had disappeared from the year he’d been away. Rani felt the trembling of the girls beside her, Penny’s excitement burst first. She ran to her father’s arms and held him tight.
Abruptly, he pushed her off and his eyes met Jane’s, before returning to the car to unlock his mother’s side of the door.
“Welcome to Amritsar, Mam,” Jane said in her best hostess voice.
“A fine house, Janette,” Sybil’s eyebrow raised as she looked at the glowing white mansion. She stumbled out of the car, with a bejewelled walking stick. She walked past Jane’s open arms to take a further examination of the girls.
Grandmother Sybil took care to look at Penny before embracing her, “Oh my, you have grown.”
Penny held onto her grandmother’s embrace, “Welcome grandmother.” They detached from one another and held hands.
“We must have words,” Sybil said, her cheeks raising in a smile, and then continued to Alice. Alice did not receive a hug but an examination.
She looked over to Mr. Balchins and said, “Thank god she’s getting prettier.”
Sybil entered the house with the driver following behind her, luggage in tow. Mr. Balchins trailed behind her.
“Father?” Alice looked at her mother. Jane nodded and pressed her hand on Alice’s back as they walked back into the house. Rani scooped up Lilly and held onto Penny’s hand.
After showing the driver where to put the luggage, Rani served him rice on a plate, there wasn’t much save for some chicken and sauce. No potatoes or vegetables. She dished an extra plate for Dalraj who sat with the driver in the back garden out of the kitchen door.
The dining room table had been arranged, a plate of rice, curry and naan by each seat, accompanied by a glass of wine. When Rani returned to the dining room with napkins the family sat arranged at the table. Jane and William sat facing each other, then Penny and Alice. Sybil sat at the head of the table, Lilly with a flower in her hair, sat on her lap.
“Lilliputian is going to be Liligargantiuan,” Sybil chuckled, poking the girl’s tummy. “All the rage now is to be thin as a whistle. Flapper girls in Germany - really giving the devil something.”
Rani stood beside the seated Sybil and held out her hand for Lilly who clambered down. Lilly held on to Rani’s hand and the pair went to sit in the corner of the room. Rani fed Lilly naan dipped in sauce and pieces of boneless chicken by hand.
“Oh darling,” Sybil sighed, gripping Penny’s hand. “Tell your mother you must come back with me. We can stroll through Kensington Gardens, brush up on your piano; be a real member of a real society.”
“Oh grandmother,” Penny sighed, her eyes glistening. The adventures of London. A two-woman act. Rani could see the pantomime playing in Penny’s mind.
“Amelia Winnicott’s son is fresh from Cambridge. He might need a dinner companion.” Sybil winked at the blushing girl.
“She’s too young,” Jane interjected.
“Oh Janette, I am teasing you know. A young lady does, however, need a guide,” Sybil gibed, taking a sip from her wine glass. “Your sister, Janette, what’s her name? Agatha?”
“Should have married a better man.”
“He does have a lot of money mother,” William challenged.
“His people often do. I say, keep the separation.” Sybil’s eyes flickered to Rani and she quickly averted her gaze to the plate of food in front of her. Rani could see that Sybil had no intention of eating it.
Lilly began coughing, her face went red from the food. Alice quickly ran over to Rani with a glass of water for her.
“Spices?” Jane hypothesised, looking to Rani to confirm. Rani nodded and held the water for Lilly to drink.
“Janette you really ought to take control of your kitchen. The help never knows what’s good for you. Health is paramount. William pass the wine,” She took a great gulp of the remaining red liquid in her glass and thrust her son the duty of filling it again.
After gulping down a glass, Lilly recovered with a running nose. “Ta,” Alice said as she took back the glass.
“Ta?” Sybil glowered at Alice as she shrank back into her chair. “You say thank you, young lady. William, imagine if she said that at dinner in front of the Viceroy? You know I’ve had audience with King George and never once did Ta escape me.” Alice mumbled an apology. After a few ticks of silence, as the others ate, Jane began “and how was London dea-”
“A good roast,” Sybil interrupted, her voice just happening to be louder. She nudged her plate away from her.
“Do you have one on Sunday?” she directed it to Alice. Alice mumbled no.
“My mother told our housemaid how to make one, and I told mine. Every woman should be able to provide a roast dinner for her family. Traditions can’t die.” She looked at Rani this time, then went back to talking. “What about your prayers? Is there a church nearby?” The girls played with the food on their plates unable to answer.
Lilly broke the uncomfortable silence, “We pray!” she yelped from the corner of the room. “We’re going pray at the temple tomorrow. ’Member, Rani, ’member we’re going to the temple?”
“Re-member, Lilly,” Penny corrected.
“He said I get flowers if we go. ’Member Alice?”
“Who said?” William inquired.
“The market man,” Alice answered.
“You went to the market?” Sybil’s eyes narrowed, she swung them over to Jane.
“You let them go to the market? Is it not enough that they have a native Nanny? Everyone here playing Brave New World,” she scoffed.
Jane swallowed her spit and got up from the table. She mumbled an excuse before going into the hallway. Rani followed after and watched the mother of three girls heave heavy breaths with a hand on her chest. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes stayed focused on one tile. Rani counted with her.
“Rani, leave tonight.” Jane’s voice carried no weight. “It is best you wait until she leaves. We will send Dalraj for you.”
Watch this space for more work by the wonderful Amira Umar.
Words and images: Amira Umar
Editor: Amber Patterson