After the robbery of her father’s restaurant in Karachi, Nasreen, head cashier and watchwoman at the Newark Patel Bazaar, had no tolerance for thieves. She saw graffiti and cracked windows on the surrounding buildings and remained unfazed; she heard aunties whisper of break-ins and almost longed for the excitement of a confrontation. Mr. Patel had even left Nasreen a serrated kitchen knife beneath the register. Eight weeks into her job, she had yet to use it.
For now, there were milder crimes to deal with, like the snow-pea vandal. The past two days, Nasreen had discovered tens of dismembered snow peas and their peeled skins scattered across the yellowing tiles of the bazaar, snaking from the produce section all the way to the packaged halwas. What waste, she thought. And Mr. Patel had told her yesterday that if she didn’t catch the culprit today, the price for the peas would come straight out of her paycheck. I’ll make the little dog pay, Nasreen thought, holding her foam cup of chai to her lips, I’ll make the owl’s ass pay for every last pea.
Nasreen began working for Mr. Patel her second month in America and her third month a wife, after her husband had fallen down the stairs at his office building and broken both of his legs and his collarbone. He needed medications and surgery; and her father in Pakistan needed American money. So, Nasreen sprinkled salt into her kohl-caked eyes to streak her face with black tears. Carefully, she sloped her dupatta under her bosom. Prepared in this way, she ran to the Patel Bazaar and crumbled at the register. That was how she wheedled Mr. Patel into offering her a job.
Though it wasn’t nearly as exciting as working at her father’s restaurant in Karachi, there were some perks to her job in Newark. She could wear a salwar kamiz without attracting stares. She could pour herself masala chai from the urn at the back of the store whenever she pleased. She had Mr. Patel to talk to, for an hour every morning, before he left to manage his new bazaar downtown. She liked the way his huge mustache quivered when she spoke to him, the way his mouth splayed in nervous smile when he answered. In any case, Nasreen reminded herself, this was only a temporary job. When her husband recovered, he’d lease her a property by the Newark riverfront and she’d start a restaurant of her own.
When Mr. Patel left for the day, Nasreen handled the store alone, which the mischievous brown-skinned adolescents in the area caught wind of fast. Earlier today, for instance, she had caught a scrawny Tamil teen slipping a bottle of ThumsUp into his backpack before sauntering towards the door. Nasreen had snatched him by the elbow.
“You little dog!” She said in Urdu, shaking him till his brown eyes bulged. “I’ll call the police, I’ll call your father!”
The boy murmured back to her in English, too quick for her to catch. She felt his arm writhing under her fingers. But he was no match for twenty-three-year-old Nasreen, who had lifted tables and full kettles and 50-pound sacks of basmati up stairs in Karachi. Two months in America hadn’t yet made her weak. She shook the boy and yelled until he pulled the soda from his backpack and thrust it into her chest. Only then did she let him go. He trotted away down the curb, against the dense traffic, disappearing between brick buildings spray-painted with obscenities.
Remembering the ordeal, she smiled, wishing Mr. Patel, or her husband, or anyone really, had been there to see it. But now, to solve the mystery of the snow peas. There were the Gujurati nannies that split their groceries into two batches—the more expensive for their employers, the cheaper, bruised vegetables for their own families. Then, there were the executives themselves, who picked up frozen vegetables in their pressed suits, speaking posh English on the phone from the entrance to the register. When Nasreen thought about the executives, she remembered her restaurant. She too would dress in finery, but in the jeweled and embroidered colors of her home. She’d wear a stud on her sharp nose, and she’d curl her tamarind hair into tendrils. This was how her husband had seen Nasreen first, waiting tables for her father, a week before she discovered the restaurant pillaged.
Nasreen thought of those last weeks in Pakistan, remembered pulled wires and smoke, and her breath quickened. Her restaurant in Newark would not share the same fate. She would hire doormen at all hours and keep a pistol in her apron. She would install a fancy American security system and the police would arrive, if ever needed, within minutes.
More importantly, Nasreen would serve America’s finest lamb biryani—rice erect and glossy, meat slipping off the bones. She would hang textiles of the Karachi seaside on the wall, and on the door, in letters flourished enough to resemble Urdu, a sign would read Nasreen’s. It would make Americans lose their minds.
Suddenly from the back of the store came a crash, a whimper, and a torrential swoosh. Nasreen jolted upward to witness hundreds of snow peas, green beans and okra cascade to the ground, right at the feet of a girl, whose hands jumped from the falling vegetable boxes to her mouth.
“Areh baap!” Nasreen said in Urdu, rising from her seat, “Daughter of a bitch, what have you done?” She scrambled around the register and down the aisle, crushing the scattered vegetables. She grabbed the girl by her shoulders. “Look what you’ve done! What a mess!”
The girl could be no more than six or seven years old. Her huge eyelids twisted, her dimpled chin quivered.
“Who’s going to clean it up?” Nasreen demanded, “Who’ll even buy these now?”
The girl shook her head. “It wasn’t me!” she said. Her shoulders were bony, fragile beneath Nasreen’s clenching fingers, and cloudy tears rolled down her plump face.
Nasreen softened her grip. “Teek-hai,” Nasreen said, patting the girl’s arm in stiff strokes, “Ok, it’s okay, stop crying now,” she repeated until the child rubbed her eyes. And then, Nasreen saw them—green fibers curled over the girl’s tiny knuckles.
Nasreen grabbed the small hands and wrenched them open. Out fell a dozen shelled peas and a few of their tattered pods. “You thief!” she said, grabbing the girl once more by the shoulders. She shook and yelled and the girl wailed and wailed and at some point the door swung open and Nasreen heard the clicking patter of pumps racing over the tile, and the next thing she knew she was wrenched away from the girl and thrust backwards. Nasreen teetered and then fell into the pile of fallen vegetables.
“What the hell is going on here?” One of the Pakistani executives stood over her. She glared, her padded shoulders splayed open, her chin pointing forward. She wore a pantsuit, had a phone clipped to her belt.
“Madame, she made a mess,” Nasreen mumbled, “She ruined all these vegetables.”
“I leave her here for two minutes and find you beating her?”
Nasreen found her feet and brushed away the smashed vegetables, leaving green stains on her salwar. “Not beating, madame.” She kept her eyes on the ground, feeling her face flush with heat and shame.
“I could call the police for this. You could lose everything you have,” said the executive.
Nasreen trembled, thinking about her restaurant. “No gee. Please. I’m sorry,” she whispered.
For an excruciating few moments, the three stood in silence. And then, mother and daughter turned towards the exit.
“You’re lucky I’m not so cruel,” said the executive.
Nasreen dug her nails into her arms. So close, she had been so close, if only she had controlled her anger the peas would be paid for, the mess taken care of—what were a couple vegetable boxes to a powerful executive, anyway? But now Mr. Patel would make her pay for these herself. A few hundred dollars at least—almost a full week’s pay—enough to cover a course of her husband’s medication. And then what? Her husband would be in casts for months yet, and then there would be a surgery, and until it was all over and paid for, here Nasreen would stay—her days highlighted by confrontations with children and cups of weak masala chai. Nasreen felt the tops of her feet sting and brushed away a trail of ants, who had discovered the edible disarray. Her restaurant had never seemed so pale, so ineffably far out of reach.
She picked up a snow pea and held it level with her eyes. The peas bulged within their shell, stretching the membrane. She grabbed the top of the pod with both pointer fingers and both thumbs and pried it open, splitting it along the natural seam, feeling the fibers give and tear, watching the peas roll out one by one onto her lap. Nasreen took another snow pea from the ground and peeled it open, and then another, and then a whole handful. She grabbed a crisp green bean and snapped it into ten small pieces, and then she took an okra and ripped off the stem, squeezing the plump seeds and viscous juice. She shredded until her salwar camiz caked from bosom to knees with dirt and gutted vegetables, and the floor all around covered with seeds and skins and peas—hundreds and hundreds of peas. Every legume she ripped planted in her the desire to destroy ten more. She walked over to the aisle of snacks—spicy mixtures of puffed rice and roasted peanuts, curlicues of fried chickpea batter—and ripped them from the shelves. She threw them onto the floor, against the wall, watched them explode on contact. It was only when a bag of wheat flour failed to rupture that Nasreen stopped, panting and drenched in sweat, to survey the damage.
This was how she and her father had found their restaurant that morning three months ago in Karachi—vegetables and meat thrown from the fridge and pulverized, the fridge itself strewn with cracked eggs and upset masala mixtures. Then, Nasreen had not understood what could compel a gang of thieves not only to steal almost four crore’s worth of cash and appliances, but to destroy beyond repair—to crack windows and pry tiles from the floor, to rip the dishwasher from the wall but leave the dishwasher untouched—to unscrew lightbulbs and smash them over the lounge chairs. Damage for the sake of damaging. But now, standing in the middle of her own chaos, Nasreen’s fingers tingled. She felt like laughing. For the first time in months, Nasreen felt completely in control.
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