It was in the car that we had our first conversation. Our first real conversation, that is, discounting myriad times she had asked me to fetch this or carry that. I was taking her to a pharmacy to pick up medicine, and she said, “What is it like, Nabi, your village? What is it called again?”
“Shadbagh, Bibi Sahib.”
“Shadbagh, yes. What is it like? Tell me.”
“There isn’t much to say, Bibi Sahib. It is a village like any other.”
“Oh, surely there is some distinguishing thing.”
I stayed calm in my appearance, but I was frantic inside, desperate to retrieve something, some clever oddity, that might be of interest to her, that might amuse her. It was no use. What could a man like me, a villager, a small man with a small life, possibly have to say that would capture the fancy of a woman like her?
“The grapes are excellent,” I said, and no sooner had I uttered the words than I wished to slap my own face. Grapes?
“Are they,” she said flatly.
“Very sweet indeed.”
I was dying a thousand deaths inside. I felt moisture beginning to form under my arms.
“There is one particular grape,” I said from a suddenly dry mouth. “They say it grows only in Shadbagh. It is very brittle, you see, very fragile. If you try to grow it in any other place, even the next village over, it will wither and die. It will perish. It dies of sadness, people in Shadbagh say, but, of course, that is not true. It’s a matter of soil and water. But that is what they say, Bibi Sahib. Sadness.”
“That’s really lovely, Nabi.”
I chanced a quick glance at the rearview mirror and saw that she was looking out her window, but I also found, to my great relief, the corners of her mouth curled up just so, in a shadow of a smile. Heartened now, I heard myself say, “May I tell you another story, Bibi Sahib?”
“By all means.” The lighter clicked, and smoke drifted toward me from the backseat.
“Well, we have a mullah in Shadbagh. All villages have a mullah, of course. Ours is named Mullah Shekib, and he is full of stories. How many he knows, I could not tell you. But one thing he always told us was this: that if you look at any Muslim’s palms, no matter where in the world, you will see something quite astonishing. They all have the same lines. Meaning what? Meaning that the lines on a Muslim’s left hand make the Arabic number eighty-one, and the ones on the right the number eighteen. Subtract eighteen from eighty-one and what do you get? You get sixty-three. The Prophet’s age when he died, peace be upon him.”
I heard a low chuckle from the backseat.
“Now, one day a traveler was passing through, and, of course, he sat with Mullah Shekib for a meal that evening, as is custom. The traveler heard this story and he thought about it, and then he said, ‘But, Mullah Sahib, with all due respect, I met a Jew once and I swear his palms bore the very same lines. How do you explain it?’ And Mullah said, ‘Then the Jew was a Muslim at heart.’ ”
Her sudden outburst of laughter bewitched me for the rest of the day. It was as though it—God forgive me for this blasphemy—had descended down on me from Heaven itself, the garden of the righteous, as the book says, where rivers flow beneath, and perpetual are the fruits and the shade therein.
Understand that it wasn’t merely her beauty, Mr. Markos, that had me so spellbound, though that alone might have been enough. I had never in my life encountered a young woman like Nila. Everything she did—the way she spoke, the way she walked, dressed, smiled—was a novelty to me. Nila pushed against every single notion I had ever had of how a woman was to behave, a trait that I knew met with the stout disapproval of people like Zahid—and surely Saboor too, and every man in my village, and all the women—but to me it only added to her already enormous allure and mystery.
And so her laughter still rang in my ears as I went about my work that day, and later, when the other workers came over for tea, I grinned and muted their cackles with the sweet tinkle of her laughter, and I prided myself on knowing that my clever story had given her a bit of reprieve from the discontent of her marriage. She was an extraordinary woman, and I went to bed that night feeling like I was perhaps more than ordinary myself. This was the effect she had on me.
Soon, we were conversing daily, Nila and I, usually in the late morning when she sat sipping coffee on the veranda. I would saunter over under the pretense of some task or other and there I was, leaning against a shovel, or tending to a cup of green tea, speaking to her. I felt privileged that she had chosen me. I was not the only servant, after all; I have already mentioned that unscrupulous toad Zahid, and there was a jowly-faced Hazara woman who came twice a week to wash laundry. But it was me she turned to. I was the only one, I believed, including her own husband, with whom her loneliness lifted. She usually did most of the talking, which suited me well; I was happy enough to be the vessel into which she poured her stories. She told me, for instance, of a hunting trip to Jalalabad she had taken with her father and how she had been haunted for weeks by nightmares of dead deer with glassy eyes. She said she had gone with her mother to France when she was a child, before the Second World War. To get there, she had taken both a train and a ship. She described to me how she had felt the jostling of the train wheels in her ribs. And she remembered well the curtains that hung from hooks and the separated compartments, and the rhythmic puff and hiss of the steam engine. She told me of the six weeks she had spent the year before in India with her father when she had been very ill.
Now and then, when she turned to tap ash into a saucer, I stole a quick glance at the red polish on her toenails, at the gold-tinged sheen of her shaved calves, the high arch of her foot, and always at her full, perfectly shaped br**sts. There were men walking this earth, I marveled, who had touched those br**sts and kissed them as they had made love to her. What was left to do in life once you had done that? Where did a man go next once he’d stood at the world’s summit? It was only with a great act of will that I would snap my eyes back to a safe spot when she turned to face me.
As she grew more comfortable, she registered with me, during these morning chats, complaints about Mr. Wahdati. She said, one day, that she found him aloof and often arrogant.
“He has been most generous to me,” I said.
She flapped one hand dismissively. “Please, Nabi. You don’t have to do that.”
Politely, I turned my gaze downward. What she said was not entirely untrue. Mr. Wahdati did have, for instance, a habit of correcting my manner of speech with an air of superiority that could be interpreted, perhaps not wrongly, as arrogance. Sometimes I entered the room, placed a platter of sweets before him, refreshed his tea, wiped his crumbs off the table, and he would no more acknowledge me than he would a fly crawling up the screen door, shrinking me into insignificance without even lifting his eyes. In the end, though, this made for a minor quibble, given that I knew people living in the same neighborhood—people I had worked for—who beat their servants with sticks and belts.
“He has no sense of fun or adventure,” she said, listlessly stirring her coffee. “Suleiman is a brooding old man trapped in a younger man’s body.”
I was a little startled by her offhand candor. “It is true that Mr. Wahdati is uniquely comfortable with solitude,” I said, opting for cautious diplomacy.
“Maybe he should live with his mother. What do you think, Nabi? They make a good match, I tell you.”
Mr. Wahdati’s mother was a heavy, rather pompous woman who lived in another part of town, with the obligatory team of servants and her two beloved dogs. These dogs she doted on and treated not as equals to her servants but as superiors, and by several ranks at that. They were small, hairless, hideous creatures, easily startled, full of anxiety, and prone to a most grating high-pitched bark. I despised them, for no sooner would I enter the house than they would hop on my legs and foolishly try to climb them.
It was clear to me that every time I took Nila and Mr. Wahdati to the old woman’s house, the air in the backseat would be heavy with tension, and I would know from the pained furrow on Nila’s brow that they had quarreled. I remember that when my parents fought, they did not stop until a clear victor had been declared. It was their way of sealing off unpleasantness, to caulk it with a verdict, keep it from leaking into the normalcy of the next day. Not so with the Wahdatis. Their fights didn’t so much end as dissipate, like a drop of ink in a bowl of water, with a residual taint that lingered.
It did not take an act of intellectual acrobatics to surmise that the old woman had not approved of the union and that Nila knew it.
As we carried on with these conversations, Nila and I, one question about her bubbled up again and again in my head. Why had she married Mr. Wahdati? I lacked the courage to ask. Such trespass of propriety was beyond me by nature. I could only infer that for some people, particularly women, marriage—even an unhappy one such as this—is an escape from even greater unhappiness.
One day, in the fall of 1950, Nila summoned me.
“I want you to take me to Shadbagh,” she said. She said she wanted to meet my family, see where I came from. She said I had served her meals and chauffeured her around Kabul for a year now and she knew scarcely a thing about me. Her request confounded me, to say the least, as it was unusual for someone of her standing to ask to be taken some distance to meet the family of a servant. I was also, in equal measure, buoyed that Nila had taken such keen interest in me and apprehensive, for I anticipated my discomfort—and, yes, my shame—when I showed her the poverty into which I had been born.
We set off on an overcast morning. She wore high heels and a peach sleeveless dress, but I didn’t deem it my place to advise her otherwise. On the way, she asked questions about the village, the people I knew, my sister and Saboor, their children.
“Tell me their names.”
“Well,” I said, “there is Abdullah, who is nearly nine. His birth mother died last year, so he is my sister Parwana’s stepson. His sister, Pari, is almost two. Parwana gave birth to a baby boy this past winter—Omar, his name was—but he died when he was two weeks old.”
“Winter, Bibi Sahib. It descends on these villages and takes a random child or two every year. You can only hope it will bypass your home.”
“God,” she muttered.
“On a happier note,” I said, “my sister is expecting again.”
At the village, we were greeted by the usual throng of barefoot children rushing the car, though once Nila emerged from the backseat the children grew quiet and pulled back, perhaps out of fear that she may chide them. But Nila displayed great patience and kindness. She knelt down and smiled, spoke to each of them, shook their hands, stroked their grubby cheeks, tousled their unwashed hair. To my embarrassment, people were gathering for a view of her. There was Baitullah, a childhood friend of mine, looking on from the edge of a roof, squatting with his brothers like a line of crows, all of them chewing naswar tobacco. And there was his father, Mullah Shekib himself, and three white-bearded men sitting in the shade of a wall, listlessly fingering their prayer beads, their ageless eyes fixed on Nila and her bare arms with a look of displeasure.
I introduced Nila to Saboor, and we made our way to his and Parwana’s small mud house trailed by a mob of onlookers. At the door, Nila insisted on taking off her shoes, though Saboor told her it was not necessary. When we entered the room, I saw Parwana sitting in a corner in silence, shriveled up into a stiff ball. She greeted Nila in a voice hardly above a whisper.
Saboor flicked his eyebrows at Abdullah. “Bring some tea, boy.”
“Oh no, please,” Nila said, taking a seat on the floor beside Parwana. “It’s not necessary.” But Abdullah had already disappeared into the adjoining room, which I knew served both as kitchen and sleeping quarters for him and Pari. A cloudy plastic sheet nailed to the threshold separated it from the room where we had all gathered. I sat, toying with the car keys, wishing I had had the chance to warn my sister of the visit, give her time to clean up a bit. The cracked mud walls were black with soot, the ripped mattress beneath Nila layered with dust, the lone window in the room flyspecked.