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.