Yellow Marigolds

“Two kothu parottas parcelled Mariam!” Kokila yelled from across the kitchen. Mariam was wrapping it up in banana leaves, paper and thread when the customer stood in front of her cooking station glaring at her. She looked up at him and her hands began shaking, tiny beads of sweat appeared on her forehead and she worked faster. She handed the parcel over to him with the small chutney packets. The man gave her an angry look and took the package.

“You don’t think my family sent him right?” she asked Kokila. “He didn’t want a non-vegetarian person cooking his vegetarian food that’s all”. “Oh….it’s fine, I was just worried he knew who I was,” Mariam said with a sigh of relief. “It’s not fine, he’s not as pious as he looks, it’s all an act,” Kokila told her as she wrote down the supplies list.

The scorching Chennai heat in the south of India, was over for the day and the sea breeze hit her at 9 p.m when Mariam was finished with her work at the tiffin centre. Tamil Nadu runs on tiffin and the work never stopped at their tiny tiffin eatery. “Should I stay and help you close up?” she asked Kokila. “No, I want to check the accounts before closing up, you go home” Kokila reassured her adjusting her parrot green cotton blouse that was drenched in sweat.

Later that night Mariam was back in her PG that she shared with 2 other women whom she had grown fond of. They ignored her initially due to her aversion to talking about herself but with time and over many dinners of leftovers from the tiffin centre that she brought them, they accepted her. They watched Tamil movies together on Sundays and shared their lipsticks.

One night, many months after her escape, she asked her roommate to help her stalk her family on Facebook. “Again? You are stalking your family more than I am stalking my ex-boyfriend” her roommate told her as she painted her nails bright pink.

Her uncle had an open Facebook profile where he was constantly updating unnecessary information. They had all met in her uncle’s house for Eid. Her husband was dressed in a white sherwani and his wife in a pretty pink salwar suit. All her cousins looked happy. She wanted to get a better look at the baby, “look for Ulfat Ahmed, she would have posted these pictures as well” Mariam told her roommate. And there he was, in Ulfat Ahmed’s profile picture. She had locked her profile, not her profile picture. The boy was a cheeky-looking baby with dimpled cheeks and kohl-rimmed eyes. “Who is this baby?” her roommate asked her. “That’s a story for another day, let’s see some more pictures from your ex-boyfriend’s wedding?”

That night she dreamt of her journey. It was in vivid detail and almost felt like she was reliving it again.

Mariam was dressed in red and gold at her wedding. She remembered her mother feeding her kheer lifting her veil gently. It was the early days as a bride in her next memory, she was making Double ka Meetha, her husband’s favourite sweet, she waited eagerly for him to come home from the store to watch their first movie together. She was older in the next one at their 3rd wedding anniversary when Zakir, her husband had taken her to the clothing store to select a saree of her choice. “I like the green on you,” he told her. She liked the yellow better but she selected the green one anyway.

Her memories took her back to the doctor’s visits. She had visited many small clinics in Tirunelveli, their small but prosperous town. She prayed 5 times a day asking Allah for the one thing Zakir wanted the most, their children. It took her to the moment she was serving her husband dinner one night in their 5th year of marriage when Zakir told her he no longer believed she could conceive and that he wanted to marry again. “It’s for the sake of children, we could all be one family together”.

She was now at Zakir’s wedding, her parents, in-laws and cousins were all present. They all looked happy and gave Mariam a bangle as a gift from Ulfat, the new bride’s side. The men and women sat separately, she used this opportunity to sit by the bride’s side. She had never seen the new bride as Zakir and the rest of the family had chosen her. She remembered trying to peer through Ulfat’s veil to get a glimpse. “You are very beautiful yourself Mariam,” a young Ulfat whispered to her.

Her memories had now shifted to her celebrating their first Eid together, the 3 of them in their small 2 bedroom house in which Mariam slept in the living room while Zakir’s parents had 1 bedroom and Zakir and Ulfat had the other.

Zakir had decided to celebrate together before they left for their uncle’s house where it was a family tradition for everyone to meet for dinner. Mariam had prepared Ulfat’s favourite Vazhaipu Vadai made from banana flowers and Zakir’s favourite mutton Thakkadi which was special to their small town. It was an iconic Tamil Muslim delicacy in which tender pieces of meat are cooked with plump dumplings, to create a thick mutton gravy, Mariam was an expert at it.

After the evening meal together, Zakir announced that Ulfat was pregnant. Mariam was overcome with emotion, she hugged Ulfat and blessed her. “Ulfat does not need to go to her mother’s house now, you can take care of her” Zakir stated. Ulfat did not look happy listening to this and tried to resist when Zakir told her that his parents and Mariam were more people than necessary to look after 1 pregnant woman.

Her memories moved to a heavily pregnant Ulfat getting her legs pressed. Ulfat’s legs tended to swell and needed constant massages. Mariam spent all her days tending to Ulfat’s care and taking care of the house. Her father-in-law asked her for some buttermilk just as she was going to bed. “My stomach feels uneasy after eating at Nasreen’s wedding, the kheema was not made well” he announced. A wedding Mariam could not attend as Ulfat did not want to be home alone at this advanced stage in her pregnancy.

She was now at her brother’s wedding, wearing a new pink silk saree that she had borrowed from her mother. She had requested Zakir for a new one but with the arrival of the new baby and his father now retired, the budget had become tight. She had yellow marigolds in her hair and bright red henna on her hands. She greeted the ladies and asked them to drink Thumbs Up to cool down. “How is Ulfat? How much longer till the delivery?” they asked her. “She’s doing well, just another month left” she answered them smiling. She kept hoping someone would take notice of her saree.

The wedding had just ended when Zakir announced they were leaving. “We need to stay for the post-wedding functions and I need to help out. There’s a new member at my parent’s house now” she complained. Her parents and Zakir had decided that Ulfat along with Zakir’s elderly parents needed care. She didn’t get to meet her new sister-in-law.

Her memories flashed through her days of constant cooking to keep up with the changing needs of the household. She often went to the flower market to buy flowers for herself and to chat with her friend Leela, the flower seller. “So, how is this new life now?” Leela asked picking out the best ones for her. “I thought Allah wanted this for me but maybe he doesn’t want this for me,” Mariam told her as she looked at the fresh tuberoses. “You’re like one of these flowers that I sell, fresh and pretty for a few days…discarded when they wither,” Leela told her as she fanned herself with the edge of her faded lavender saree.

Ulfat ate dinner first due to her pregnancy followed by Zakir’s parents, Zakir ate next due to the wedding season, his tailoring shop was always crowded during this time and Mariam ate last. She looked into the dishes to find them empty. They had forgotten she had to eat after them. She drank some warm milk and went to bed.

Her last memories took her to the night she decided to run away. She could see herself packing everything she owned in a small bag. She had stolen some money from Zakir’s wallet earlier that night. She was depending on Kokila, her college friend who had a small tiffin centre in Chennai. She moved there after her marriage and now had to support her family through the revenue from the tiffin centre after her husband’s demise.

“Please, I just need a job. You remember how well I used to cook right?” she begged Kokila. Kokila and Mariam had been college friends until Mariam had to get married and drop out of college. Kokila stayed in touch with her until she finished college and then moved away to Chennai. It took a lot of persuading until Kokila agreed. She did not want to be in a situation where the police came looking for Mariam and found her at her tiffin centre which was her only source of income. But Kokila felt terrible for the situation Mariam was put in and knew what it felt like to be desperate for help.

Mariam watched herself in the dream, as she sneaked out of the house in the dead of night and took an auto to the bus stand. The auto driver looked suspiciously at the lady in the burkha carrying a black bag at 1 a.m. She kept praying to Allah to help her reach Chennai without anyone noticing her. At 2 a.m the bus arrived, she had already waited for several minutes evaluating her decision. Mariam decided she didn’t dare to go through with it and walked back to the auto that brought her to the bus stand. The bus driver was shutting the door when she changed her mind and sprinted to the bus, it was the type of courage she never knew she had that helped her have a last-minute change of heart.

Her prayers had been answered. She arrived in Chennai the next day at noon and went straight to Kokila’s tiffin centre. Masala dosa was the first meal she ate as an escaped woman. “First find yourself a hostel or a PG and then come back tomorrow for work. I will ask one of the boys here to take you around. Don’t mention anything about your past, it’s not going to help you get accommodation.” Kokila told her as she was pouring water for Mariam, who was exhausted and scared.

On many nights she had vivid dreams. It became a mish-mash of memories with no timeline. It took her back and forth to days in her childhood with her parents taking her to the beach and back to the days in the tiffin centre where she was afraid every customer who looked at her was sent by her family to find her. There were dreams of the days in which she went to college and shared a street-side meal with Kokila and back to her journey on the bus to Chennai which she almost didn’t take.

Mariam woke up with a jolt. It was 6 a.m on a Tuesday and she had to be at work by 7 a.m and start cleaning the kitchen before setting up. She borrowed her roommate’s phone and dialled her mother’s number for the first time in 1 year. Her mother’s sleepy voice answered. “It’s me, Mariam, Ammi”. Her mother’s voice changed instantly and she heard her waking her father. Her father snatched the phone and spoke to her. “You decided to call us now? After 1 year?! Don’t call here again!” her father yelled. “Forgive me Abbu, I wanted to have my own life not live in someone else’s life and just watch as it went by” she pleaded with him. “You have humiliated our family, your brother was newly married when you ran away and Ulfat was days away from her delivery. The entire town was laughing at us!” her father responded angrily. “Did Zakir complain at the police station? Did he look for me?” she asked. “Police station?! The auto driver told us a few days later that he dropped you at the bus stand. A married woman like you, travelling alone in an auto and then on the bus in the middle of the night! Zakir did not look and neither did we. We did not know that you were capable of being so malicious!” her father said disconnecting the call.

A few minutes later her mother called, “Whose phone is this?” she asked. “It’s my roommate’s phone, I stay in a hostel with other women”. Mariam responded. “Are you alright? Do you have money?” her mother asked her. “Yes, I am working as a cook now, I manage” she responded as tears slipped down her cheeks. “I understand why you did it, I don’t support it, I would never have done it but, I understand” her mother whispered. “You live a different life now, I hope Allah is watching over you in this journey,” her mother said weeping as quietly as she could. “He is watching over me, I am not part of someone else’s story, now, I have my own story” she reassured her mother. “Khudā Hāfiz Ammi” Mariam said ending the conversation.

Mariam was making coconut chutney the next day when she had the time to reflect on her conversation with her parents. Nobody had looked for her, Zakir didn’t even try. She had hoped that Zakir looking for her was a way of him showing that he still cared for her and wanted her in his life. But her role in their lives had ended, she was the withered flower that had now been discarded. She wiped away tears that were rolling down her cheeks, emotions that she had suppressed over the past 1 year afraid and yet hopeful that her family was looking for her. She sat down pretending to look for spices and allowed herself to cry and let go of the guilt and shame she had been carrying for so long. She stood up a few moments later and continued working on the coconut chutney.

A month later, on her way to work Mariam stopped at the flower market, she bought yellow marigolds. “This is going to look lovely with my salwar today,” she told the flower seller. “It looks super, the roses would look even better, buy those as well,” said the seller looking to make a quick sale. Mariam pinned the flowers to the back of her bun, she had her own story now and wanted to look the part.


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