Jahanara stood sentry outside a place she had never visited. A place she had never had reason enough to visit. A bank. In her browned hands that were no stranger to fire, a piece of paper burned like cinders. It was a piece of paper she had never had reason enough to hold. A cheque. Signed in her name: Jahanara Begum.
Jahanara cast a glance at the now sweat-drenched cheque: Jahanara Begum, it said. She could not read it—could not spell—but she had to have faith. Illiteracy is never an impediment in the counting of money, though. Jahanara could spell out the amount very well: 15,000,000. Fifteen lakhs.
After her brother’s death, she had paid many rickshaws a hefty sum to drive her thence, had taken many a leave from work at Myra baji’s. And every time had been told the same thing: Bibi, you cannot go inside.
“But… I have a cheque,” she’d stammer.
“Haha,” they’d say, “suuuure. Where’d you steal this from?”
The guards who turned her away and denied her entry were not much different: their hands, too were browned. They also could not spell. They, too, had never been much inside a bank, despite working right outside. They felt, straight away, in Jahanara, a kinship. And they knew their kind had no business inside a bank.
Jahanara looked at them now, in their dirty blue uniforms outside a clean white building. They held the door open for the bank’s distinguished patrons and salaamed these folk. Nobody ever salaamed back. They hadn’t salaamed Jahanara when she had first tried to walk into the bank.
She had observed the goings-on from across the street. Slipperless children; unremarkable young women; tired young men went about with arms extended, fishing for a few rupees. Outside the bank, cashflow was unregulated and sporadic—there was no need for cheque and balance.
It was from there that Jahanara had watched. She could not get to her money, sure, but nobody could stop her from watching the building wherein it was housed. So she watched. She watched shiny cars pull up at its lofty gates. She watched the car doors open and the emergence of perfect, glossy, flawless feet—one after the other. She noticed what those feet were enshrined in: usually a kind of flat chappal, peep toes, in dull off whites or browns. She turned her nose up at the women who these feet carried: on their legs, trousers that ended an inch or two above their ankles; their shirts loose and lightly colored, often with no patterns on them. She noticed their fluidly flowing, open hair, atop which a pair of large sunglasses were perched. She scoffed at their lack of bangle-wearing and the laughable insignificant size of their purses. Jahanara had never understood this about the rich: why were they so averse to color and clank?
These women walked a fearless walk. They did not, like Jahanara had done, strut and fret before the guards. They strode with purpose. Straight into the bank. They sometimes had their phones hooked to the sides of their faces, and they were always saying things like yeah yeah, riiiight, yeah no, NOOO, o yeah, right right. They always spoke in English. Jahanara knew some English. She had heard Myra baji talk to the children: Beta, Rufus is not a kutta, beta, he is a doggy. Say doggy… Yeeesss, that’s right. Doggy, not kutta. Kutta is a bad word, and you aren’t a bad boy, are you?
Then Myra baji had had a word with Jahanara, forbidding her from using the word kutta at home.
“But baji,” Jahanara had protested, “Roofass is a kutta.”
“No,” baji had said sternly, “please only use the word doggy.”
“What does doggy mean, baji?”
“It means… kutta.”
Jahanara watched a stray kutta—doggy—cross the road. The stray kutta’s intrepidity and indifference stood against a fashionable woman’s pet doggy. “Ewwww,” the woman wailed when she saw the kutta, and the guard came trotting to shoo the beast away.
The kutta found refuge at Jahanara’s feet—neat feet, polished with some alien ointment, bestride in open chappals. Cream in color. The kutta sniffed and eyed Jahanara in confusion.
Jahanara stepped away and distanced her high-trousered, loose-qameezed, open-haired, sunglass-toting figure from the kutta. She said a small prayer thanking God Myra baji was not built much differently from her. Although on her part it was more starvation than personal trainers.
From a miniscule purse Jahanara whipped out a phone, and paraded right up to the bank’s doors.
“Yeah yeah,” she said, looking ahead but not at anyone in particular, “right. Yeah. No no. yeah. Right right.” The guards threw a cursory glance at her as they opened the doors.
“Salam mam,” they said.
Jahanara did not respond. She was in. She had triumphed.
“Good morning, ma’am,” a banker said, “can I help you?”
She didn’t understand a word. So she handed him the cheque, saying “yeah, yeah.”
The banker examined the cheque, click-clicked on a computer, took some time, and said,
“Right. You’re good to go. Just fill up this form.”
He was beaming at her the way no tie-decorated, pinstripe-shirted man had done, and his hands held a pen and a stack of papers.
Jahanara smiled back, said right. She leaned against a glass wall. Through the glass she could see the kutta: stray, starved, and strange. It looked so out of place there, on bank premises. some kinds of glass, she found herself theorizing, could not be broken. You could look at and look through, but you could not shatter them—even if they opened for you and salaamed you on the way in. This was one of those, this glass wall.
But wait—why was the kutta dressed in hitched trousers and a loose qameez, with sunglasses stationed atop its head?
Jahanara took a moment to realize it was no glass wall.
It was a mirror.