Dec 07, 2023
Dec 07, 2023
Continued from “Vivekananda Knew What He Was Talking About”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 32
Inside a closet
Through certain personal circumstances, I couldn’t marry my husband in Afghanistan, so once I had accepted his proposal we agreed to marry in Paris.
We got married at the civil registry. Pierre, my husband, needed to do a great deal of paperwork on my behalf. It was possible to arrange for the necessary permission very quickly because Pierre now worked for the French Development Agency and had several contacts within the government.
And so my married life began within days of arriving in France.
My life in Paris with Pierre was a disappointment to say the least.
I couldn’t speak the language and many of the French people I met were unable to speak English. I was mistaken for Spanish on several occasions on account of my complexion. There were even some local people – such as the checkout assistant at the supermarket nearest to our home in the Rue Pascal – who seemed reluctant to speak in English.
‘You speak Spanish?’ she said to me, when I placed my purchases of bread, eggs and frozen meat on the counter.
‘’Ow about Italian?’ she tried hopefully.
I shook my head.
‘Okay, then I guess we ’ave no choice. Engleesh then.’ She sounded disgruntled.
* * *
Pierre would go to his office in the morning, and I would be left alone at home without anyone to talk to. I occupied myself with cleaning, dusting and trying to learn French recipes. I really wanted to find a job, but Pierre explained that I would need to master some basic French first. I bought a French–English dictionary, but of course it didn’t help me with French grammar, and in any case I had no idea how to pronounce the written words. French isn’t written the way you speak it, unlike Dari, where you can tell from the spelling how the words should be pronounced.
When Pierre announced that his mother was going to come and live with us for three months I was really pleased. Being used to living in large families in Afghanistan, I missed the company of other people in the apartment. Finally, I thought, I would have someone to talk to. But, as things turned out, his mother was not very happy with me.
She called me into her room one morning, and showed me the dress which I had washed and ironed for her the previous day. Her expression was one of complaint, but try as I might I couldn’t see any stain or crumple. The washing and ironing were perfect as always. My mother always praised it.
‘What’s the problem?’ I questioned her.
‘Ziss is not ze way ’ow to wash clothes,’ she explained sadly. ‘Zey don’t smell good, certainly, and zey are all coming back damaged. I don’t think I can stay ’ere. Certainly.’
Humpf, I said to myself, all this fuss. Was there something wrong with the way my clothes smelled? And if she was so concerned why didn’t she just wash them herself. I wasn’t her cleaning lady. Anyhow, to please her, I started to wash her clothes separately, wasting water, electricity and detergent in the process, but she remained suspicious. To remove her doubts, which she didn’t voice but which somehow emanated from her, I started to tell her when I was about to wash her clothes, and get her to come over to satisfy her that I was physically washing her clothes separately and not using the inexpensive washing powder that I found in the supermarket, but the one with the special scent that she supplied me with.
And then I found out it wasn’t even that expensive. She could have just told me, right from the beginning, that she preferred a certain scent of washing powder!
Delphine too did not approve of the high fat content in the meals prepared by me. This surprised me because the French themselves use so much butter, olive oil and cream in their food. But then Pierre’s mother was not a typical Frenchwoman. It’s true that I do like a bit of extra oil in the food, it adds to the taste, but I would have reduced the amount, but no, she overreacted once again as she had done with the clothes. She insisted we eat cold salads or sandwiches for lunch most of the time, long loaves called baguettes, with cheese or dried meat, and some fruit on the side. In Afghanistan we are used to eating proper hot meals for both lunch and dinner, so it wasn’t easy for me. I hear the French used to be like us before, but now many have changed their eating habits, especially in the big cities, just like Delphine – despite her being an older person.
‘Shall I prepare a nice hot Afghan-style meal?’ I asked her one day. ‘I’ll put in less oil.’
‘I could make a hot meal, I said.’
Delphine was silent for a moment. I could see she was still wary of my cooking.
‘Ah, yes,’ she said finally. ‘An ’ot meal. Leave it to me. Certainly.’
And around lunchtime she took out of the fridge a packet containing a ready-to-eat meal that she had purchased from the supermarket. She heated up something called a quiche in the microwave for five minutes and took it out to serve. That quiche was so disgusting, it was an effort for me to hold it down. After that experience, I didn’t dare suggest preparing a hot meal for lunch again. Salads and French baguettes were far better, even though I still didn’t think any of them constituted a proper meal.
Some days the three of us ate out, Pierre, his mother and me. There was a great deal of choice over where we could eat. I started to enjoy French food because of those dinners, but they were extremely expensive. Some of the meals we ate were so expensive that on the same money a dozen families in my village would have been able to eat well for a month.
Delphine was dismayed that Pierre had chosen me as a wife, for a number of reasons. Of course she would have preferred a French girl. That’s natural. She had this view – I learnt this from Pierre – that I was not feminine enough in my ways. That really outraged me in the beginning, for unlike her I didn’t smoke or drink – she could finish off a bottle of wine faster than Pierre – but after some time I understood why she thought the way she did.
Clothes, perfume and makeup: these were feminine essentials that were lacking in me. To her, I was like a plain village woman who used just basic soap and shampoo, and the odd bottle of perfume given as a present by Pierre. But her dressing table was covered with more than a hundred large and small bottles of all kinds of lotions, perfumes, oils and Allah alone knows what else.
But really, the biggest problem between us was the communication problem. Her English was quite poor, she couldn’t finish three sentences without using the word ‘certainly’, but, if her English was poor, my French didn’t go much beyond Bonjour and Bonsoir.
Everything changed one day when she announced that her boyfriend was coming for dinner. Delphine was a widow, Pierre’s father having died a decade previously. But she had, so I gathered gradually from bits and pieces that Pierre told me about his parents’ married life, not mourned the loss of her husband for long, and had had a string of boyfriends ever since. Mostly Frenchmen, since she didn’t regard other nationalities very highly, particularly Americans. However, her new boyfriend was an American called Brian.
‘How did you meet him?’ I asked.
‘At one of ze parties, you know, my friends ’eld last time I was in Paris,’ she said. ‘Brian is very different, certainly, from the typical American. We ’ave been in contact since on the telephone and, you know, through email. Chatting. ’E is a professor who teaches at ze American University in Paris. I like Brian very much. Certainly.’
‘Have you thought of living together?’ I said. Even though little time had elapsed since my arrival in France, by now I was getting used to this different society and its strange rules. It no longer shocked me so much that men and women here often lived together without being married.
‘Oh, yes, but we want to give it more time.’ She wrung her hands in embarrassment. ‘You see, we do both like each other, and . . . and there is a possibility we may do that, certainly.’
Her expression lightened, as she realised from my question that she had a daughter-in-law in whom she could confide and who would not judge her harshly, despite the more traditional society I came from.
‘Brian is going to have a short winter ’oliday very soon and we are soon going to New York together, to get to know each other better. Certainly.’
Delphine was clearly keen to make a good impression at the dinner. Classic French cuisine was the very least we could offer him. I discovered to my surprise that Delphine knew how to cook, but she was just so inefficient that she took the entire day to cook a few French dishes, which turned out quite well in the end. She allowed me only an hour in the kitchen to cook an Afghan dish. I made some zamarod pulao, what Pierre called the ‘emerald pulao’ because it has spinach korma mixed in before the baking.
Dinner was a success. Brian kept complementing the pulao, which he said reminded him of the Middle Eastern food he had sampled while teaching at the American University in Cairo, his previous assignment. He took care to praise Delphine’s cooking as well, so as not to cause any friction between us.
The conversation took place in a mixture of English and French, since Delphine couldn’t understand English very well, and my French was very poor. Brian was impressed with my command of English.
‘Get her to teach you some English, my dear,’ he advised her, during the dessert course. ‘If you agree to come with me to New York to meet my family, it will be an asset. Especially with my kids.’
‘We ’ave already started doing this, Brian,’ lied Delphine, giving me a slow wink out of his range of vision.
‘You’ve robbed Afghanistan of one of its most precious treasures,’ the professor joked with Pierre. ‘This young woman, your wife. The way she thinks and communicates, she deserves to be a minister in the government.’
I knew very well that I was ill equipped for any position of responsibility. I had only worked with Droits Sans Frontieres and that too for not very long. But I was grateful to Brian for his kind words and for rehabilitating and re-establishing me in my own new family.
* * *
My problems with Delphine disappeared towards the end of that dinner. She started to give me lessons in French and I began to teach her English in the daytime when Pierre was at the office.
Pierre’s attitude towards me also improved. Under his mother’s influence he had begun to regard me as someone who didn’t fully deserve him. Did I mention that? No? Yes, he had changed completely, and I have to say this had made me very sad. I was alone in a foreign land and for a man to be so easily influenced by his mother . . . Anyway, now his former attentiveness revived, and I forgave him. Now, every few days he would come home with a dress, some underwear or perfume that he – or his mother – thought would suit me.
Continued to "I’m Coming For You"
More by : Rajesh Talwar