“You’re late.” Dev, her boss, stated in a cold voice.
“Yes, I know, I was caught”
“And you haven’t even bothered to change into your uniform.”
“Why I choose to keep you employed, only God knows.” He glared at her.
Well, that was uncalled for, she thought. She bit back the urge to snap a retort and marched off to the tiny locker room allotted to the women workers.
How she hated people who cut her off. And Dev. Especially Dev. Him and his overrated regime of discipline in the kitchen. He was a plain old tyrant, she decided for the hundredth time, as she tied the last bow of her white apron, and slipped on a hairnet.
She sighed as she double-checked that no strands of hair were ‘out and about’, as Dev liked to put it. She didn’t want her head chopped off with his special filet knife – a trademark threat.
She went out into the kitchen, as they all called it, to put on a fresh pair of gloves. The powerful smell of raw meat immediately hit her, and she saw pork carcasses being hauled in.
Ah, freshly slaughtered, juicy meat. Her mind automatically thought of the tender pork chops only that kind of meat could deliver. And maybe some mint sauce with those chops, which could be marinated with thyme and –
“Put on some gloves, go out there and get the meat in. Now!”
She snapped out of her inconveniently-timed reverie as Dev barked at her. She stared at the man who knew what it was like to dream about something, day and night. Slightly dazed, she hurried outside, grabbed a fat carcass and hauled it onto her shoulder. She staggered back in with it, the men typically marvelling at her strength, and Dev giving her the contemptuous eye. She helped out with 2 more, and brought in the daily deliveries of poultry, instructions - as they were every morning – being snapped out for careful transfer from the back door to the gleaming counters. There could be no reason to tarnish the reputation of being the best butchery of the best grocery chain in the country.
Dev was so proud. They all were.
But not all of them dreamed of climbing up the hierarchy and becoming a head butcher.
She glanced around at the two other women in the kitchen, who appeared to worship the ground their boss walked on. What a couple of kiss-asses. She knew none of them understood her ambition, and she knew why; all of them shared their beginning in life.
How typical it was, she thought as she began slicing up chickens for salami, which would be picked up later for the popular sandwiches of the store’s bakery, where she had first applied for a job.
Lower middle class of family of six. Her mother had always disliked the use of protection, believing it went against God’s plans. A basic education for the four children, enough to get them jobs at an early age. In the end, they had no real choice – the boys would follow their father into the butcher’s profession, and the girls, their seamstress mother. But, as fate would have it, the rebellious gene in the family that had skipped two generations was now to be found in her.
Dev came up to supervise her work. One glance at the evenly cut slices and he knew there was nothing asking for a reprimand. He walked ahead, hatred filling the both of them, for different reasons.
He knew her grandfather, under whom his father had been apprenticed. Ali Chacha used to rear his own goats and hens, and his deep nurturing was reflected in their succulent meat. Folk would travel long distances to buy in large portions his expertly cut mutton chops and chicken fillet. People close to him would boast of having eaten his famous Dahi Mutton Biryani, whose recipe he jealously guarded. Ali Chacha, as he was known to everyone, was a generous man, and his employees would often take leftovers home. He had once insisted that Dev’s father take away a day old undelivered packet of chicken legs when Dev was ill. Dev always had a little boy’s memory of him as a tall and stout man, dressed in a long navy blue kurta and holding a big butcher’s knife in his left hand.
The knife that was placed there by Ali Chacha’s own father, who had fought his family to slaughter poultry animals rather than clean out their coops. Ali Chacha’s grandfather had meekly agreed after his son had threatened to leave home and try his luck outside. Back then, dreams were not a thing to tear families apart. Fear of losing his only child had forced him to accept the ambition that seemed to be the only asset handed down in the family.
Ali Chacha and his two sons were content with the life they lived because it was the only thing they knew. Everyone had their roles and their lines. So when the eldest daughter of the family decided to scrap her script, chaos ensued. Mother cried blasphemy, Father reiterated convention. After many crying and dramatic fights, everyone turned to Ali Chacha, now old, yet the strongest of them all. Let her have her way, was all he had famously said on the subject, much to his daughter-in-law’s chagrin.
He could see his father’s passion for ambition bubbling in his fierce little grand-daughter. He wasn’t going to let it die down.
Dev stole a glance at her as she finished her salami shift. He had a feeling that they were both thinkings of the same story, repeated in different tones, for different thoughts.
How he envied her. She had the one thing he didn’t – support.
Nobody came forward to take his side when he said he wanted to cook, not slaughter, animals for a living. There was no voice to shout down the poohs and pass directed his way when he dared to repeat his plan for his life. His father had dismissed it as a passing phase and paid no further attention. I cannot disrespect Ali Chacha by not passing on his knowledge, he’d said when Dev had tried to change his mind again. Who, if not his only son, would follow him into honoring the life given to him by his mentor?
How easy it is to trust, follow, yet conveniently ignore what doesn’t suit you, Dev thought with an anger that he knew would never die down, as he watched her get started on the pork meat. They were two people descended from the same love for a wise man, yet ending up with different consequences.
She could feel his frosty gaze upon her. As she looked up, Gauri voiced her mind. “Why does he always look at you?”
“I don’t know.”
Gauri sighed. “Lucky girl. He never pays me any attention. Do you know how hard I try? Yesterday, my salmon pieces were all perfect. But he…”
She looked at the gushing girl in disgust. A few hundred responses ran through her head, ranging from cuss words to overly sarcastic remarks. Was she the only one who came here to work and not wonder why a person of the opposite sex wasn’t looking at her?
“…I felt bad. I work so hard and he doesn’t even notice.” She decided to go with something simple.
“Maybe you should try harder.” She smirked inwardly
Gauri’s eyes widened, and her voice dropped. “Do you think so? Does he think so? Will it get him to notice me?”
“I don’t know, Gauri.” I don’t care, she added silently. “It was just a suggestion.” Why did this girl always get so serious?
“Why don’t we do this carcass together? You can tell me where I’m going wrong. Look, is my knife pointed the right way?”
She sighed in frustration. “This is will slow us down. You know we are one to each carcass. I can’t – “
“Please! We’ll be quick. Just observe my knife work and correct me.”
“Gauri, come on, the customers will be arriving. We can do this later!” Every passing second was bringing her closer to losing her badly-controlled temper.
“But I need to do – “
She’d missed seeing Dev striding towards them.
Two responses came at once, an incredulous “Excuse me?” and a flustered “S-sorry, sir!”
Dev completely ignored Gauri as she hurried back to her station red-faced.
“I said. Stop. Talking.”
Oh, so talking is banned in here too?”
“It will be if that’s all I see you doing.”
“Do you not work, Dev?” she snapped.
A sudden hush fell around the kitchen.
“What?” Dev said, momentarily taken aback.
“I said. Do you not work? Or is watching me your job?”
“How dare you – “
“How dare I? Let me see. Maybe it’s the way you’ve always belittled me ever since I came to work here!”
“Maybe if you actually worked, I wouldn’t have to!”
She paused for a moment. “So you really have bad eyesight, then.”
Dev was fuming. “How dare you speak to me like that?”
She took a step away from the counter. “You find faults with me all the time, Dev! If one salami slice is slightly thinner than the others, each one of them is bad. Sometimes my knife isn’t shiny enough. Sometimes my apron is too bloody. You have a problem even I breathe the same air as you do!” Her voice rose with every word, and she looked directly at him.
Dev was shaking. He couldn’t bear to admit to himself that she was right. Picking on her was his way of trying to break down his intense jealousy. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. This was one of those times. Glaring at her, he came a step closer.
“You walk in here, and expect the world at your feet, with everybody gushing around you. You walk in here and think that you’re doing everybody a favour by falling to their standard and chopping up meat like you know a thing about it. You come in here and you flaunt your legacy and expect everybody to be awed, and you think to yourself, what a bunch of fools.
Because somehow, you are the only one who is allowed to dream. Fools like us don’t want to do anything in life except wallow in blood and flesh, day in and day out. You’ve got the idea that your ambition automatically entitles you to a higher position.”
Voices softened, ladened with erupting anger. She glared back at him.
“Don’t blame me because you didn’t have it in you to fight for what you want.”
Dev’s voice dropped further. “You don’t know anything about what I want. You don’t – “
“And you’re still counting on my grandfather to get your father to change his mind, after all these years.”
Her words were salt on his unhealed wounds. He was suddenly aware of his staff’s eyes on him and the chill of the kitchen. The blood looked brighter; the meat smelled stronger.
“That arrogance of yours won’t get you anywhere.” His voice shook.
She shook her head. “You will always be an unhappy man, Dev Singh.”
She’d had enough. She made a move to walk away, when Dev took a step closer and replied, looking her in the eye. “You will fail, Asma.”
He’d pushed her to the breaking point.
She stormed off, leaving him seething. She grabbed her handbag from the locker room and made her way out of the back door, slamming it behind her.
She walked briskly down the narrow back road, his words reverberating in her head.
They were the same words that her mother had said to her.
She stopped when she came to the back door of the newly opened Starbucks café. She gazed inside at the big storage freezers. That was when she realized that she’d left in her bloodied uniform – and with her butcher’s knife. Neha, who had come outside to take her 5-minute cigarette break, took one look at her school friend and nodded to the staff washroom inside.
Having nodded back a thank you, she headed into the tiny cubicle and gazed at herself in the stained mirror. She took a deep breath and quickly changed into civilian clothes, which she’d stuffed into her oversized bag. She sprayed on some deodorant, rolled up her uniform into a ball, and went back outside. She smiled at Neha, grateful for the mind-reading skills that only existed between best friends.
She put her butcher’s apparel into a borrowed plastic bag and dumped it into a big dustbin in the alley. She was halfway up when Neha called to her.
She’d left the knife in the washroom sink.
“Don’t go around doing things like that,” Neha chuckled and rushed back.
She looked at the blade in her hand, her mind curiously blank. She then fished out her blue silk scarf – made by her mother - and wrapped it twice around the knife.
She thought about what to do next.
Her mind drifted to the money she’d withdrawn from the bank earlier that day, a part of the amount she had saved up the past months. She’d been wanting to treat herself to a Starbucks coffee, having heard the glorious stories from Neha.
No time like the present, she thought, as she walked up the alley and turned left onto the main road.
She pushed the glass door and stepped in. She was rarely awed; this was one of those moments. She took in the ambiance, which had a calming effect. She walked up to the big counter next to the display of baked goods and ordered a cappuccino. She’d been practicing the word; now she finally used it.
“What name shall I call out, Ma’am?”
She smiled. “Asma.”
A few minutes later, she was seated at a table next to the window, sipping delicious, hot coffee. She looked out at the passing cars and the fancy people inside it. She wondered if they dreamed too.
She knew she wasn’t wrong. She was just different, as her grandfather had simply put it. He’d made it sound so easy, working hard and achieving a dream. As if nothing else was taken into account. Not the oppositions, not the hurdles, not the blatant objections from the people whose support was supposed to be counted on.
She stared down into the coffee mug in her hands and realized that she didn’t care anymore. She’d turned her back, once and for all, on the oppression that had taken the faces of Dev and her mother.
Nothing would stop her. She wasn’t going to fail.
She sat in the Starbucks café, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The bloodstained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.