The Vault

Crossing perceived boundaries

By Maria Amir

“We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

I suppose it is necessary to admit at this solemn stage that I was always an odd child.

Recently, I have been reading over my Little Mermaid Diary, dating back from when I was seven, and one particular entry caught my attention.

[quote]Summer, June 11, 1994

Dear Diary,

Today Sana, Kiran, Tania and I were playing truth or dare after school because our cars were late. I picked truth and they asked me who I had a crush on. I told them about Rehan and they laughed at me for over an hour. Then they told me that people couldn’t get crushes on servants and that it was very wrong.

I feel very ashamed. Mostly because I still think that Rehan is the kindest and handsomest boy in the world.


I remember that day quite vividly. It rests among those one-off memories from middle school that one carries around in their conscience as some poignant remnant of a life lesson. I never told anyone about Rehan again. And I am sorry to say that I still feel ‘ashamed’ about that first crush.

I don’t really believe in guardian angels, or angels …or guardians for that matter but I know that I have had one. His name was Faiz – Baba Faiz, to be precise – and he saved me from my life for nearly 7 years, as I struggled to retain my humanity in the face of an all-too-appealing numbness. He died when I was seventeen and the numbness returned full force after that; it set in and congealed.

Faiz was in his sixties, a pathaan and from ‘way up north’. The kind of north that one sees engraved in bonny pink skin, grey-blue eyes and an accent that can never, ever affect gender properly. He was the first person to ever call me ‘Maria Saab’ and he spent his time preparing secret meals for me; listening to my heavily fabricated accounts of the novels I was reading as he pottered around in the kitchen, pretending to appreciate my musical sensibilities as I forced him to listen to the Beatles, Dylan, ABBa and (I am ashamed to admit) on occasion, Ace of Base. He had the patience of a saint and never let me believe for a second that he wasn’t hanging on every word I said, even though most of those words happened to be in English.

I have never really understood the pretty little boxes people construct to keep the classes at bay and in their ‘proper’ place. Perhaps this was because I was always surrounded and serving with the serfs. They were my people in many ways because they humoured me. And no one ever humored me. Faiz was my ideal man really. He was beautiful, kind and brilliant and his being illiterate always struck me as a blight on society rather than on his person. I could never really hold it against him. I always figured that we were the cowards and that he needed to stay in the kitchen. Because if he could speak like us and sit with us then no one would bother giving us the time of day. There are some people that outshine everyone around them even when their goal is to fade in the backdrop, especially then. Faiz had a perverse tendency to remain, perpetually, in technicolor.

That’s kind of how I felt about Rehan too. That summer Faiz’s nephew from ‘way up north’ came to work near him. Rehan occasionally stayed with Faiz in our servant quarters after his work ended. He was fourteen and more beautiful than anyone I had ever seen. He was everything I wasn’t … fair, tall, brilliant at every single sport he took up, adept at calligraphy and sharp and incisive about asking all the questions that I was too terrified to contemplate. He adored reading and learning and I remember him asking my cousins and I to help him learn English in exchange for teaching us how to make Afghan jewellery, climb trees, improve our cricket and tame our dogs.

I remember spending a lot more time with Faiz in the kitchen that summer hoping to catch a glimpse of Rehan and finding any excuse to impress him with my English. I didn’t pass any chance to gloat about the only thing I had over him. A language he had never really had the chance to beat me at. It was a sad balancing of scales. Faiz always made it a point to stop our conversations just when I got the feeling he was beginning to laugh at my jokes.

I have never really experienced that thrill since. Of meeting someone I so desperately wanted, and somehow I never realized how ugly my first crush was outside of that kitchen, swing-set and that gate. But now I realise how ugly it must have seemed to people. Ugly enough that I pretended it didn’t exist.

As for Rehan, his face always remained locked, like a safety vault. A myriad of ideas and valuable expressions closed away so that people couldn’t see him. I remember trying my utmost to flirt with him and his polite dismissals aimed at reminding me of my place. A place ironically above him on the crush-o-meter, despite the fact that I hardly measured favourably in any light he cast me in.

When he left after two months, Rehan gave me a paazeb and a pair of jhumkis he and his brother had made, and I remember feeling for just a glimmer of a moment that he may have liked me too. I remember his departure being the first time I ever cried over a boy. It was an uncomfortable rite of passage for my first failed almost-romance, and I don’t really know who to blame for that one failure that set the pace for all future failings. I was reminded of it today completely by accident until I went searching for it in my Little Mermaid archives.

I had cut my finger on a blade in the kitchen and on my way to work I was still nursing enough self-pity to lead me to treat myself to garam cholay from a cart outside Raja Market. As I sucked on my finger prudishly, I noticed the sores and burns on the vendor’s hands. Blisters and boils  collected over years spent making channas for people like me for a farthing. The man smiled as he handed me a Rs20-pack and he had Faiz’s eyes and accent. Suddenly Faiz was there and he was still the most beautiful man in the world and I still didn’t understand why I was not allowed to say that out loud.

I found myself choking on the winter air and couldn’t swallow a single grain as I grappled once more with a problem my life’s been spent trying to skip around.

The real tragedy is knowing I’ll get over it.

 Maria Amir is Features Editor for the magazine.