Seven to None – By Rhea Dhanbhoora

They can’t book the baug because they’re a mixed family and the husband hasn’t had his Navjote, but their eight-year-old wants to be like the other children in the colony, so they decide to have a ceremony on the terrace instead. She’s more interested in gifts than prayers, she says, twirling desperately in her polka dot dress, and insists on cream-coloured lace attire and flower braids for her big day. The husband hopes the traditional dinner afterwards won’t disappoint. The wife hopes she can convince the priests at the Agiary to perform the ceremony for a mixed faith family, and that everyone shows up for her little girl, even those who don’t think the family belongs in the flat. The flat for one her mother left in her will for this family of three, so they could stop looking at the hole-in-the-wall houses they couldn’t afford in the crumbling buildings they didn’t want to live in outside the big red gates.

The ceremony is a success. The priest doesn’t protest, neither do the neighbours. The stage is littered with lilies as children play and adults wait for the bar to open. Dinner is served after the rum and salty wafers, seven-courses on banana leaves spread out on rented wooden tables. The wife hand-makes the personal printed menus on cream paper, tied with the lilac ribbons that also hold the slippery satin covers together to hide paint-splatters on the plastic chairs. Occasionally, one of the elaborate wreaths swinging over the makeshift canopy on the terrace drops a stray flower into the votives by the place settings.

Lagan Nu Achar, Sarya & Topli Paneer

The wife has forgotten to order the rotli, but she has time to sneak an order in. The husband believes she’s done this to cause him undue stress. His hands are on her neck after their argument, one thumb pressing down lightly, then lifting up — teasing the threat she often wishes he would go through with. He folds her into a quick embrace when they hear their daughter shuffling into the room in her cream lace dress.

Everyone thinks the caterer has made the softest cottage cheese, and the best apricot and date pickle. The daughter sneaks into the kitchen with her friend in the silver slingbacks for more sariawafers, wiping oily hands on her new dress, the straps of her sudrah proudly sticking out of the scalloped neck. The husband’s hands hover airily over the nape of his wife’s neck, his fingers lightly tracing frizzy strands of hair that have fallen down from a hurried bun as he utters a polite Jamva Chalo Ji to her side of the family.

Sali Jardaloo Chicken

The husband is not happy with his wife’s poultry selection, even though a week ago he was craving the potato sticks and apricot in the sweet and sour chicken gravy that his wife hates. His foot finds hers under the table as they discuss it at lunch. He knows it’s heavy enough to crush her little toe; he’s done it before. The daughter practices her prayers for the event.

The husband’s foot reaches for his wife’s under the table, looking for a little entertainment that the row of diners sitting across can see clearly. The chicken gravy is too sweet and she prefers farchas, but she eats it so her daughter doesn’t think parts of dinner are optional.

Patra ni macchi

A week before the ceremony, the wife is tired of talking about the menu but her daughter wants to know whether there will be two types of fish. No, we can’t afford two types of fish, she doesn’t tell her. The husband says he can’t keep giving the wife money to spoil the child. She wants to dip into her savings to give her daughter the two types of fish but her husband has used the money on another Rolex. What’s hers is his, and what’s his, is his also.

Everyone compliments the husband’s new watch. The steamed fish with the grass green spices is a big hit too. The husband gives his daughter a crisp note to spend at the toy stall he told his wife she shouldn’t have wasted money organising for the children.

Salli Boti

Someone tells her that loneliness is an illusion the month she starts poring over menus alone. It was unfair to think she is lonely because she is lucky enough to find a good man. I’m tired, I forgot, she says when her husband asks why the mutton has the same potato stick gravy as the chicken, but he knocks a lunchtime peg of rum off the table in disagreement. Her daughter wants to know if daddy is angry. It was an accident, the wife tells her.

There are no leftovers for the crowd-pleaser mutton course. The daughter scoops the Salli Boti up excitedly because her friends are pleased with the selection too. The husband sets his extra-large peg of rum down gently as he takes credit for the clever addition to the menu.

Lilu Lasan Akuri

None of the guests will be vegetarian, so the wife puts eggs instead of lady fingers on the menu for people who don’t want to eat the fish. The husband thinks she should have cut the course out — the egg is terrible anyway. Money doesn’t grow on trees, he says. He puts another bottle of alcohol on her credit card because his money is for more important things like school fees and new shirts to replace all those she’s ruined. He squeezes her hand a little too hard when she asks him to pass her the salt at lunch.

The caterer is complimented for adding garlic and spring onions to the scrambled egg mix served to all the guests, even those who have had the fish. The husband has seconds after a friend says it’s the best egg he’s had at a Navjote. He squeezes his wife’s hand gently as he passes the salt across their daughter’s head, and tells guests that dinner is a success because they’ve spent months going over the menu together. Lucky girl, the wife’s family nods with approval as he pours another peg. “Tandarosti,” they say raising their glasses to his health.

Mutton pulao daal
There’s too much mutton on the menu and this dish would be better with some fried potatoes, the husband says as they dig into some of the rice and spicy lentil gravy for a quick lunch before the wife rushes off to pick up the priest. Their daughter loves mutton, but he doesn’t think she should be eating so much of it. It’s too spicy, so he spits a mouthful of it out on the table in protest. The daughter laughs and follows suit, wondering why her mother seems sad that they’re joking around, especially on such a good day. The wife spends the ten minutes she’s saved to iron her sari for the evening cleaning up the mess instead.

No one notices the wrinkles on the pleats of her sari as she tucks them out of sight in a demure double-cross under the white tablecloths on the rented wooden tables. There’s no beating the tender mutton in this rice, the guests say, politely refraining from mentioning the missing potatoes. The husband busies himself in conversation with a fellow diner about the perfect spice balance in the lentil gravy. Her daughter rudely lifts her elbows up on the table in protest when the suited-up servers offer her some: she’s had enough at lunch.

Lagan nu custard

The wife is relieved dessert is not a source of contention. The husband loves the sickly sweet condensed milk, egg and sugar custard, though the daughter would have preferred cake. His shirt is not as crisp and white as he likes, so he spills red wine on the white lace tablecloth his wife was going to use at the ceremony. But he’s in a good mood, so he doesn’t shout about the mess. She rushes out to find a plastic replacement, so she doesn’t have time to blow dry her hair after arranging her daughter’s in a pretty flower-filled braid.

Guests at the dessert table try to guess whether there’s nutmeg in the custard, the children are disappointed there’s no cake. This shirt is his favourite white shirt, the husband boasts as he drapes his dinner jacket over a lilac-bowed chair and rolls up his sleeves to dig into a third helping of sickly sweet custard. What a pity they haven’t put out a real white lace tablecloth, the neighbours say. There’s been a beverage related accident, they’re told. The wife tucks a frizzy strand of hair into the headscarf of her badly draped, wrinkled sari as people file out. Her daughter waves her friend in the silver slingbacks off, happy she finally has her own ceremony to discuss on the playground.

The daughter clutches the garlands she’s pulled down from the canopies with both hands, tucking her braids behind her ears before snuffing out the flames in the votives one by one. She’s happy she can finally wear a sudrah and kusti like the other children in the colony. The wife busies herself with the cleaning because the husband doesn’t want to pay the hired help extra to clear up after the guests have left. The husband would like to turn in, so the wife gathers up the presents and envelopes filled with money in a hurry. He doesn’t think the satin cloth on the chairs was draped well enough. She’s lucky no one noticed that the silver threads running through the handmade rose and lily garlands were uneven. She should have hired a professional if she couldn’t handle things herself. The daughter sits with a pile of presents in the living room as the husband rummages through envelopes filled with money that will go into his bank account instead of in a new one for the little girl. At least they’ve made up some of the money the wife wasted on the elaborate, unnecessary dinner with all the wrong dishes. The wife folds her crumpled sari in silence. A mass of orange flags flicker under the streetlights in the distance as she brushes out the knots in her hair she couldn’t get to before the Navjote began.

The engraved ses from the ceremony lies forgotten on the rented wooden tables that will be taken away in the morning. He will blame her for letting those who, like him, are not part of the faith, touch the holy fruit, raw rice and rose water he left sitting out on the German-silver platter.

***

Rhea Dhanbhoora  has spent most her life writing poetry, stories, and essays. In 2003 she published a book of poems title Poetry Through Time. She holds an English degree from the University of London, where she worked as a Reporter and Feature Writer in Bombay.

Rhea focuses on telling stories of women, specifically in the Zoroastrian/Parsi community. She is currently pursuing my MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence, in New York, and she is also the Fiction Editor at Lumina Journal. You can learn more about Rhea at her website, https://www.rheadhanbhoora.com/

Seven to None was first published in Issue 15 of Apeiron Review.



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