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  Shauna Singh Baldwin: Mr. Sweetly Indecent


Whole wheat flour and water. Not just any flour will do either, she thought. He is very particular about that. Choudhary Amir Singh would dine on simple fare, but the first chapatti must be made from the wheat of his own mills and it must come from the hands of the mother of his sons--Sardarni Sahib herself.

It seems warmer than usual, she thought, as her fingers moulded and formed the dough, knuckling into it, brown soft hands stippling it, readying it as she had made her sons ready. And for what, she thought. The elder a poet. Gentle and kind but no businessman. What would he make of the flour mill? Now the younger one, he's more worldly. Twenty-one years old and Choudhary Sahib had found no bride worthy of him--yet.

She made a ball of the dough...patting...patting...smoothing the wet, glistening gold-flecked ball. Now dig a small ball out of the large one. Cut it apart from the whole. Now shape it, roll it between the palms. She looked at the small ball cradled in her hand. At this stage, she could still return it to the large ball and no damage would be apparent. She could knead it back and it would blend again.

But this idea, who knows where it came from. This idea that her boy could go to Vilayat, to the white people's country, to learn from their gurus in their dark and cloudy cities--her youngest--and then return to Rawalpindi, and his people would know no difference. She shook her head. Hai toba!

It will be different in three years, she thought. Today Choudhary Amir Singh washes his hands after shake-hand with an Angrez, the collector with the brown topi and the red face. But Sarup is a friendly boy and he will have Angrez boys as friends and he will learn the shake-hand instead of our no-polluting palms-together Sat Sri Akal.

A little flour on the ball now. Just a dusting. Enough to swirl the ball between her thumbs and the first two fingers of her hands. Round and round, faster and faster, flatter and flatter, larger and larger, thinner and thinner.

He would look thinner after three years. She tried to imagine him. They would expect him to tie his beard, his long dark beard, up under his chin. She would be sure he had enough turbans to last two months on the boat and three years in Inglaand. Some silk ones--oh, the brightest colours--so the Angrez would know he came from a bold Sikh clan. But he would be thinner, with no woman to cook chapattis. Sardar Baldev Singh had been to London, and he had told her he had eaten only boiled food with not a single chilli all the time. Perhaps he said it as an excuse for his appetite on his return, but she'd noticed even quite high-up Angrez were thin. It must be their food. Sarup would never become used to that.

She rolled the chapatti with a rolling pin, picked it up and deftly slapped it from one palm to the other. Then whoosh--onto the tava over the coal fire. She steadied the tava with one hand, and, with a small rag in the other hand, rotated the chapatti till it was almost cooked.

But perhaps there were other customs he would get used to. He had already, she knew, bought an English book to read, now it was agreed he would be studying in Vilayat. She had seen it and it had an Englishwoman and a man in a black English suit on the outside. They were kissing, but Sarup told her it was a classic, like the story of Roop-Basant. He said all the English stories like "Roop-Basant" are written down, and in Imperial College, there were even people whose only study was to learn those stories. This one was called Thelma, he said. It was written by a woman called Marri Corrilli. Now how could this be, that a woman would write such a fat book. But maybe she was a poor woman who could not afford to get a munshi to write down her thoughts.

She took the chapatti off the tava. Quick, snatch the tava off the fire and replace it with the chapatti. She watched as the chapatti rose into a hot-air-filled dough balloon. Just at its peak she lifted it from the fire and set it on the ground on a steel thali to cool.

It was the thali that brought it to mind. Angrez don't use steel thalis. They use white plates. They don't use the chapatti, breaking off a small piece to scoop up their food. They use sharp forks and long knives--straight ones, not curved like our kirpans--to keep themselves distant from their food. He will have to learn that.

And as she rose from her haunches to pick up the thali and covered her head with her chunni in preparation for entering her husband's presence, she decided to talk with him about it. She moved to the doorway and stepped over the wooden threshold.

"Ay, Ji," she said. She would not bring him misfortune by using his name.

Choudhary Amir Singh looked up from the divan and cushions on the floor.

"You will need to buy chairs for this house when he returns," she said. "And we will need plates."

 
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    From English Lessons and Other Stories by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Copyright © 1996 by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of Goose Lane Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information contact gooselane@nb.aibn.com.

Photo credit © Jerry Bauer