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Biryani Diplomacy


The corner of my eye caught a glimpse of Fatima Bibi’s flowing gray duppata, her son followed her, keeping a methodical distance. I chuckled leisurely; obviously Fatima Bibi was on one of her secret missions, I'm sure.

When I met Fatima late in 1996, she was introduced to me by a Russian woman in my apartment building in New York, Fatima Bibi was in her late 50’s and had a head full of gray hair, as if weathered by a salt storm, she looked weary and aged, had a round fair, attractive face, beautiful sad eyes, she wore a head dress and spoke decent English. It so happened that Fatima was looking for a job and I needed a baby sitter. I was nearing 9th month and needed some help to get by myself, she was amicable and pleasant and did most of the job to her efficiency.

Fatima Bibi had this magic on her fingertips, when she turned in to a chef, she turned over delicious, colorful melee of Mughalai (Mughal dynasty ruled India sometimes ago) menu, and I found my fetish in her Biryani and Baingan ka salan, (a kind of Indian dish made out of eggplant) her Biryani always turned out crisp. Richly layered in exotic spices and vaguely laced by kesar, the rice dish soon was a favorite in our friend’s circle; every one thought Fatima’s Biryani had celestial qualities; soon her name became synonymous with Biryani and Baigan ka salan.

Fatima's family consisted of her husband who was a stout, self-centered little old man with an aeronautical diploma in engineering from London, her son and an independent daughter who was like a nettle in the eyes of her aging parents. Fatima got married to Karim Khan In Pakistan and they had lived in Pakistan there onwards. They had a good life and a palatial house where Fatima Bibi supposed to have raised her pigeons and colorful parrots on the terrace.

Some days Fatima came with her son who was in his 20’s, who she said was suffering from a rare kind of mental deficit, his IQ had languished at some level and his mental aptitude did not grow any further than a 10 yrs old.

Despite of our differences in religion, eventually, Fatima Bibi became a proxy to our close relatives in India.

Fatima reminded me of Pakistan and Partition and all that had transpired between the two countries, her family had found political asylum in USA, Fatima would weave her stories of Pakistan with tainted memories...”that night we were ambushed by the pathans. They were tall and fair, very strong. Allah...they beat up my husband and tied me to the furniture”. The fear and terror etched on her face terrorized my imagination, I am sure whatever happened wasn’t very pleasant to remember.

It seems that her husband was suspected to be a party worker from the Awami league which had just won elections in Pakistan and Pathans who are the Muslims from the region were against any such attempts of usurping power by the Indian Muslims (mojahirs) hence came down heavily on anyone they thought was a Mojahir.

So Fatima Bibi had many melancholies besides her poverty and old age, she had aged partly by Mr. Karim Khan who always touted his diploma from Ford Company, Britain and his glorious employment history with the Pakistani Airline; poor chap had not come to terms with his undocumented situation in USA and wouldn’t budge after much cajoling from Fatima to find a menial job to give them some breathing space. As much as her spouse and her ailing son irritated her...she had ventured out to find jobs herself and had landed one in my house.

That was Fatima Bibi chugging the burden of her son and husband and raising a girl who was brash and unmarketable in the marriage department. Fatima Bibi always thought about marrying her daughter, she would often complain…” ladki bahut tej hai..jabbi dekho Maggie noodles kahti rehthi hai..meri koi bath sunthi hi nahi…patha nahi…

(This girl is a brat, she always eats “Maggie “ brand noodles and doesn’t listen to anything I say, I don’t know what to do)

Whenever we advertise for her wedding we find taxi drivers and altu faltu (useless) uneducated men asking for her hand. I am looking in (marriage portal), but if they are well to do, they demand dowry…” Fatima would draw a longish sigh at the end of this conversation. I would often find a social commentary on matrimonial market in our tête-à-tête, what were the prerequisites, what’s in demand, etcetc...just like you switch on stock market bulletin on CNN. Fatima’s eyes followed her daughter everywhere like a hawk, it seemed that she woke up to few nightmarish dreams about her daughter eloping with the next bald guy in town.

“Western influence, you see, I don’t allow her to act like a white kid and have boy friends”- Fatima would say.

Fatima not only wanted to get her daughter married she also wanted a job for her son…

Her son never stuck to one job even if it was a messenger’s, he had this peculiar habit of mimicking the Indian film heroes and had a vast vocabulary for his inane imagination. He would often make the boss work while he sang to his imaginary heroines- that resulted in his honorable exit from the jobs on many occasions. … Sadly all his bosses were stoical desi (Indian) grocery shop owners who hardly had time for remix (fusion of Indian film songs and western music).

So such was the situation Fatima Bibi was in, it was like she was the only sane piece of ornament in their whole khandaan (family) as her respectable husband often confessed to us in one of his rare moments of vulnerability almost akin to the fallen King of Iraq.

As much as we took pity on her whole family we tried bribing our friends with her Biryani, her daughter found a temporary job from one of the benefactors who loved Fatima Bibi’s biryani. Fatima now realized her skill, and our love for her Biryani.

After couple of months of working with me I let Fatima Bibi go, she gladly accepted the fact that I couldn’t afford her longer and moved on, but whenever her husband or her son needed a job or was out of job she would send an emissary with a bowl full of her luscious biryani as a kickback and as soon as we saw the biryani we would go weak on our knees and her wishes would be granted.

Fatima obviously couldn’t work anymore, her health was deteriorating as well as her eyesight, and her husband had taken up a job as a security guard. Like all parents Fatima wanted her son to marry and settle down, but husband who was a “king” would never help her in these diplomacies, he hardly made friends and lived in an era when he owned lands and fancy cars in Pakistan, for him time had frozen. Fatima was Proud of him, but she also found him impractical to have held on to a vague inheritance of accolades of some bygone era; she had realized the power of networking and marketing. Hence most of the time I saw Fatima carrying Biryani to the entire Indian neighborhood in search of a better future for her son and them selves…

Trin …Trin… the phone rings…I am rudely awakened from my afternoon siesta


- Beti (daughter)… Fatima Bibi…’s voice beckons like a dose of kapi. (Coffee)

- haa maaji boliye kaisi hai  aap?”(Yeah tell me mother, how are you)

My mind is already weaving the biryani magic; I get suspended in a compulsive desire disorder…

- Beta ...Meri beti ki shaadi hogayi, maaf karna. I couldn’t invite you “(my daughter got married, forgive me)

*“Koi bath nahi maaji, kaun hai ladka?”(That is okay, who is the groom)
“ Shaadi .com mai milgaya, achha hai, he takes care of my daughter …hamara Hydrabaad ka hi hai”(we met him through, very nice chap, he is from my native place in India)

Readers I for got to tell you that Fatima Bibi was born and raised in Hyderabad and has a great love for that city. (Hyderabad is a south Indian city)

“ Accha hua maji, kya bath hai”(very good, what have you been doing?) Again I am slyly coaxing her
“ Kuch nahi beti.mere Bete ko kahi naukri dilado bas…” (Nothing much, I am looking for a job for my son)
“ kyon kya huva iska naukari ko?”(Why what happened to his previous job?)
“ *O sala boss isko nikaaldiya na beti, I am sending “shaan”(name of her son) to talk to you, he is bringing Biryani” (*that nincompoop boss of his, fired him)
 “ When”, before I heard her voice….

 The bell chimes …and I drop the phone and rush to the Door…grinning like a wild monkey.

Summer 2006
Issue# 18
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