She was Zu’hra, an immensely jovial lady with tiny sparkling eyes and the longest hair I had ever seen. It took me some time to recognize her, since she never wore the abaya inside the factory premises. She would pop in just before the afternoon prayers to get cardamom tea and was what she called a ‘tea freak’. She often ruffled my hair to express gratitude, a gesture that has ever since irked me. Generally quite like our English teacher Ms Nuyyer — genial and benevolent — Zu’hra was quite talkative, even childlike at times, filling in quite well for both my teacher and my school-friends.
“Why do you drape the dupatta on your head when the azan is recited?” I asked her once.
“So, my tresses don’t distract the worshippers, huh! Why do you have this silly hairstyle?” She ruffled my hair again.
“Tell me!” I insisted.
“Ugh! It’s in… respect, for the azan.”
“But the azan only calls us to pray. When Mr Kaazmi rings the bell for the assembly, we simply have to be present there, not cover our heads as we carry on playing in the sports hall.”
“Our school’s headmaster.”
“Haha,” she put her hand on her open mouth, “but you do tuck your shirt in and adjust your tie when he passes by, don’t you?”
“But God is everywhere, isn’t He?”
“So is this mind of yours, ugh!”
Father was increasingly unavailable at his ‘shope’ now. He came just around the time Yousuf improvised the mosque, and left along with the imam.
In the days that followed, I noticed that some people descended the stairs with hasty, clumsy clonks — heedlessly plonking their shoes before lurching towards the praying area, colliding into one thing or another. However, if the congregation were prostrate, all their enthusiasm and frenzy would, as it were, drain at the very sight. Most of them would start fiddling with their cuffs, twiddling their hair, checking their phones, or casting wandering glances around. Some would just take a chair and dawdle about. Only when the imam stood up from the bow did they join the prayers. Once a tall and bulky gentleman (whose name I have now forgotten) — a regular member of the praying fraternity — rushed towards the centre of the room with his beard dripping with ablution water, and found that the roll call for the last iteration had passed. Oddly, he just took a seat alongside some female teammates of his, who were having lunch, and tattled about the hot weather and the dysfunctional air conditioning for a good half an hour.
I asked Zu’hra. She said she had no idea, as women did not form congregations for praying. Finally, I asked Father, who clarified with unsolicited fervour that once the first bow was completed for a particular iteration (‘rakat’, he said), the person joining the prayer thereafter had to repeat that iteration at the end, even if he made that second bow.
“But, Father,” I said, not facing him, “is it a sin to bow in that half missed iteration?”
“No, no! Not a sin.”
“So, why not let it be a way to bow to Allah one extra time?”
“Heh. It is just… um—”
“Pointless?” I blurted out.
“Be silent, Taaju! You’re getting much spoilt.”
It made sense: it was pretty much like how Rummeez used to skip the class for which he had missed the roll call. I termed these people the ‘attendencists’.
Father was increasingly unavailable at his ‘shope’ now. He came just around the time Yousuf improvised the mosque, and left along with the imam. He had now started constantly wearing a skullcap that he called ‘taqiyah’. Some senior officer from the Administration came a few times to enquire about Father but he was absent every time. Finally, he asked if I had a rate-list. I nodded and handed over the list with augmented prices to him. He squinted slightly and asked me why we did not obtain the retail price if we bought the supplies what he called ‘wholesale’.
“This is what ub’ba ji gave to me,” I said.
He smiled and tousled my hair, making me regret my response.
 An Urdu name derived from Farsi, meaning Venus.  A round, tight-fitting cap, worn while praying or as a symbol of religiosity.  Father [followed by an Urdu/Punjabi suffix denoting respect].