‘Marry me Nuru,’ Jaffer said in his precise, measured tone, ‘and together we’ll build our future in this new independent Republic.’
He was standing opposite Nurbanu’s typewriter and she was sitting at her desk at the Chambers where she worked. She’d met him several months earlier when he’d come in to meet one of the lawyers and they’d struck up a friendship. Nuru had a Pitman’s Secretarial Diploma and a driver’s licence from the first Ladies Driving School in Nairobi. She felt with her natural beauty and qualifications she deserved the care of a man who would cherish her. Jaffer was a self-made, successful business man. He was short, dark and stocky and less educated than Nuru, but she accepted his proposal because he was someone who appreciated her; why else would he speak about her and Kenyan politics in the same sentence?
The night they returned to Nairobi from their honeymoon in Mombasa, Nuru lay next to Jaffer in their new double bed. He, in striped grey and white pyjamas and she, in a floral nightie. She touched his shoulder, his back was to her. ‘Jaffer?’
‘Good night Nuru,’ he said. ‘I’m meeting key officials in government tomorrow. I need my sleep.’ He switched off the bedside lamp, and pulled the bed clothes over his head.
Nuru thought of her new garden; the red hibiscus, pink bougainvillea and purple jacaranda were in full bloom. Tomorrow she’d lie under the jacaranda and look up at the sky through the leaves and branches. Unlimited possibilities lay ahead. She fell asleep listening to Jaffer’s snores, dreaming she was driving a white Morris around Nairobi. Her arm was resting on the open window, and she was wearing fashionable dark glasses and an elegant scarf.
Jaffer employed Maria and Jacob to help Nuru with the household chores and the garden. ‘I’d like to go back to working at Mr Seth’s Chambers,’ Nuru said, after a couple of days.
‘You can’t do that Nuru,’ Jaffer said, standing at the front door, his hand on the door knob. ‘People will say I can’t afford to take care of you.’
‘But Mr Seth’s ringing me today to confirm my start date.’
‘Then tell him I said the wives of prosperous men don’t work.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I’m late Nuru; there are important people waiting to see me.’
She proffered her cheek, but he ran down the steps, and drove off without a wave.
Nuru opened her wardrobe. She put on the clothes she used to wear to work; her court shoes, navy blue skirt and white blouse. She went from room to room feeling the different textures of the furniture; smooth, rough, coarse, and grainy. Jaffer had arranged for the fixtures to come before she’d moved in; beds, chairs, tables, stools, sofas and armchairs. Every bedroom had its own colour scheme; pink and green, lime and yellow, blue and grey. She, too, was an object chosen by him. She fitted into the design and layout. Their bedroom window overlooked the garden; trim hedges, an even lawn and bushes pruned into geometric shapes. Jacob was sweeping the fallen flowers from under the jacaranda.
‘Please let them be,’ she called out. ‘I like the purple carpet.’
‘No, Mama,’ Jacob said. ‘Bwana Kubwa, our master, doesn’t like anything out of its place.’
When Jaffer got home, Nuru was lying on the bed with a migraine. He took off his jacket and hung it on a chair. ‘Today I accomplished everything I intended ahead of time,’ he said, loosening his braces. ‘It’s all about proper management.’ He pulled off the metal shirt sleeve holders. ‘What about you, Nuru, what did you do today?’ he said, removing his tie.
‘You have a headache, Nuru, because you’re not organised.’ He took a stack of papers from his briefcase. ‘So, I’ve made a list-.’ He pointed to the first page. ‘Prepare Jaffer’s breakfast. Supervise Maria and Jacob. Take siesta. Make dinner. Talk to Jaffer. Sleep.’
‘I see,’ Nuru said, turning the page. .
‘10 carrots. 4 onions. 10 tomatoes. 4 loaves of sliced white bread. 1 chicken. 2 pieces tilapia fish. 6 cartons of milk. 7 apples. 14 eggs.’
‘What if we need other things?’
‘You’ll tell me, and I’ll prepare an additional list.’
‘How can you be sure we’ll need only fourteen eggs?’
‘I’ll have two every morning, and you won’t be eating any Nuru, because they give women health problems.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘This is your budget for the week,’ Jaffer said. ‘Two hundred shillings for vegetables, two hundred for fruit, two hundred for the bakers, two hundred for the butchers, two hundred for groceries.’
‘But these things don’t all cost the same.’
‘True, but you’ll bargain in the market. Every shilling counts.’
She looked at the next page. ‘A menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner?’
‘Yes. For breakfast on Mondays I’ll have an omelette, scrambled eggs on Tuesday, boiled on Wednesdays, poached on Thursdays, and fried on Fridays. At the weekend I’ll tell you the previous night for spontaneity.’ He took the papers from her and smoothed out the creases. Then he showed her a red binder with a neat label; Nuru’s Duties.
‘These are important reference documents,’ he said, arranging the contents inside. ‘Keep them safe.’ He put the file on the bureau. ‘Ring my mother and get the recipes of my favourite foods. Follow exactly what she says and put her instructions in the file. And here’s a calendar for you, too.’
‘What’s this for?’ she said.
‘On the days marked with a red cross you won’t be sleeping here with me, you’ll be in the pink and green room. I don’t like it when you’re unclean.’ He unhooked his braces, put them on the dresser, then sat down on the arm chair near the wardrobe. He pulled off his socks, rolled them in a ball and put them in the laundry basket. Then he took off his shirt, folded it neatly and placed it in the hamper. He removed his wallet from his trouser pocket and pulled out some notes. After counting, squaring and smoothing them down, he put them back. He undid his trousers, shook them out, doubled them and put them in the basket. ‘Nuru,’ he said, ‘make sure Maria irons my clothes properly.’
He came and stood near the bed, wearing only his shorts and a white, ribbed cotton vest, and smiled down at Nuru. He’d grown a belly in recent weeks, and his shoulders were beginning to curve. He’d have a stoop when he was older, and a big paunch, overhanging those skinny, hairless legs.
‘You’re a lucky woman, Nuru.’ He tucked his vest into his shorts and pulled them higher around his waist. ‘I’m always one step ahead.’
‘You’ve forgotten nothing,’ she said, getting out of bed. They were the same height, and she looked him straight in the eye. He was greying at the temples and his hairline was receding.
‘There’s one more rule,’ he said. ‘A final, important, unwritten one. It’s quite simple; I like the same thing no matter which day of the week.’ He pushed her gently, back onto the bed.
She imagined the mauve jacarandas falling on her; she’d heard it brought good luck.
Nuru turned the pages of the newspaper Jaffer had given her.
‘You can read The Daily Nation once a week,’ he said. ‘But treat it with respect; I have to return it to the office.’
Nuru studied the paper. ‘It says all voters should be registered. When can we do that?’
‘I’ll keep you informed,’ he said. ‘Please be gentler when you turn the pages, you’re bending the edges.’
‘There’s excitement about the elections, I’d like to vote.’
‘You don’t need to worry about it, Nuru,’ he said, taking the paper from her. ‘We’re one and the same, you and I.’
‘You can’t say that, we’re different people.’
‘Not anymore, you’re part of me.’
‘But it’s one person one vote.’
‘Never mind what it says; you’re my wife, we’re one unit.’ He folded the paper under his arm. ‘And I’ve been thinking, from now on, no more English.’
‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘Do you mean in Kenya?’
‘No, in this house. English is the language of our oppressors and we’re an independent nation now.’
‘What are we to speak then?’
‘Gujrati, and only that.
‘But I think in English.’
‘You can think in whatever language you like, Nuru. But you and I will speak in Gujrati. You’ll just have to get used to it.’
‘What purpose will that serve?’
‘Speaking in our mother tongue will make our bond stronger,’ he said. ‘And whenever I get some spare time I’ll teach you new Gujrati words. Our language is full of nuances; take the word ‘you’ for instance, it can be used respectfully or informally. So in future, always use the respectful version when addressing me.’
‘Could you buy me a car?’ Nuru said one evening while they were eating dinner. She’d spoken in English, Jaffer pretended not to hear and carried on eating. She put her driver’s licence on the table next to him. ‘I paid for the lessons myself,’ she said in Gujrati.
‘I’ll take you wherever you need to go.’ He mashed the rice, potatoes and curry on his plate with his fingers. ‘Nothing beats my mother’s cooking. You ought to learn from her.’
Nuru moved the rice around her plate with her fork. News Hour was on the radio. After a round up of the day’s events, the newscaster reminded listeners that Kenya would soon be having its first election as an independent nation.
‘KANU’s going to win,’ Jaffer said.
‘You can’t be so certain, opposition parties like KADU also have support.’
‘No, Mzee Jomo is not about to let any minority group challenge his party. We’re a one party state and Kenyatta has the ruling mandate. The elections are just a confirmation of his power.’ He swiped the edge of his plate with his chubby forefinger, and licked it. ‘Like me, Kenyatta believes in centralised authority to keep people in line.’
Nuru went to the kitchen and scraped her dinner into the bin.
‘Is that my mother’s cooking you’re wasting?’ Jaffer said, coming to stand next to her.
‘I’ve lost my appetite.’
‘You’re beginning to look thin Nuru, and people will say you’re unhappy. Make an effort to eat a little extra at every meal and if it’s my mother’s cooking, finish every grain.’ He belched. ‘Can you fetch me something for indigestion? I think I’ve overeaten.’
‘My friend, Dr Stockley, was giving these away because he’s returning to Britain,’ Jaffer said, placing several thick volumes and booklets on the coffee table; Radiant Health, Encyclopaedia of Diseases, Reader’s Digests and a book of Kenyan road maps. ‘He remembered meeting you at our wedding and you saying you enjoyed reading.’
‘Yes, I recall that conversation.’
‘I told him married life keeps you busy, and you don’t have time to read now, but he insisted. There are more in the car.’
Nuru went through the books and arranged them in piles dividing them by subject.
‘Don’t waste your time Nuru,’ Jaffer said, ‘just display them on the shelf according to height, that’s how they look best. And don’t leave them lying around the house.’
Aside from the ones relating to health, and Kenyan geography, there was a Bible and several novels. In the afternoons she’d spend a few hours reading and then she would lie under the muslin net draped over the bed and watch the ceiling fan whirring. Sometimes a mosquito landed on the mesh and scratched at the fabric trying to get in. She would watch it until it flew off, and feel suffocated.
Nuru watched Jaffer spoon the egg into his mouth and wipe the dribble from his lips.
‘This is a few seconds too soft, Nuru.’ The newscaster on the radio was talking about the elections. Jaffer turned it off. ‘You aren’t listening to me.’
‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘My eggs should be boiled for three minutes fifteen seconds.’
‘Who was at the Free Masons meeting last night?’
‘I’ve taken an oath so I can’t tell you. They’re men of my calibre and tastes.’
‘What are they saying about the elections?’ she said in English. Jaffer did not respond, so she repeated herself in Gujrati.
‘Nothing you’d understand, Nuru.’
‘I was up half the night waiting for you. Where were you?’
‘There are important new opportunities I’m exploring.’
‘What are they?’
‘For God’s sake Nuru, I wish you wouldn’t bother me with your questions, I know what I’m doing. And it’s high time you did too. No more English and make sure my eggs are done exactly right tomorrow. ’
Nuru found the newspaper Jaffer had forgotten to take to work lying on the kitchen counter. She turned to the Letters section, and copied down the PO Box Number at the bottom of the page.
To The Editor,
Daily Nation, Nairobi
27th March 1963
On the eve of Kenya’s first elections as an independent state, when women have an equal right to vote for the first time, it is important that women in the new Republic know their limits in Kenyan society. I wonder if the Daily Nation would be interested in publishing a guide on how they should behave.
If you think this is something that would appeal to your readership, I could send you a rule a week, to include recipes and home remedies for common ailments, such as indigestion, which afflict men. I am enclosing a sample for your consideration.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Mrs Nurbanu Muljiani
Women Know Your Place
- If your husband tells a witty story, be sure to laugh; his jokes are always funny. Be fragile and sweet, these qualities will make you delightful and desirable.
- Never question your husband; he knows best. Be quick to admit you know less than him. In your thoughts be plain and simple; let your natural sweetness shine through.
- Before your husband arrives home in the evening, make a hot or cool drink, arrange a comfortable pillow in his armchair and wipe the tables. Change your dress, apply lipstick and dab on perfume. Soothe him with your delicate demeanour.
- Allow your husband to talk first; what he has to say is much more important than anything you can offer. Listen attentively and reassure him with a pleasing voice.
- Never discuss politics with your husband; your foolish and dangerous thoughts will embarrass him and arouse his contempt. Appearing over- educated, and expressing opinions will lead to stress and premature aging.
- Mix one teaspoonful of Eno’s Fruit Salts in half a glass of water if your husband has acidity or heart burn. His overindulgence is a measure of your prowess as a cook.
When she’d finished writing, she put the letter and article in an envelope and asked Maria to take it to the post office.
The next morning Nuru was in the kitchen preparing Jaffer’s breakfast. The window looked out on to the garden, and she had a sudden longing to see unpruned bougainvillaea bushes in deep orange and red, and sprawling morning glory creepers in white and purple. She took the tray of eggs from the fridge, stood staring at it, then picked up an egg and rolled it from one palm to the other, feeling its smooth, curved surface. She broke it into a cup, then did the same with a second egg, and with a fork, whisked the yellow and white into a foam. Slowly, she raised the frothy mixture, tipped it into her mouth and swallowed. She wiped her lips with a tissue, went into the dining room and poured herself some tea.
‘Where are my poached eggs?’ Jaffer said, sitting down at the head of the table. ‘It’s Thursday.’ He tucked a starched napkin under his chin.
‘They slipped from my hands.’
He banged his fist on the table. ‘Don’t let it happen again.’
‘I’ll try not to,’ she said. ‘If you like I can use tomorrow’s eggs and prepare them for you right away.’
‘You’ll do no such thing,’ he said flinging off his napkin. ‘There are two eggs for each day, so leave it at that. Next time treat them with care; they’re very fragile.’
‘I’d like to meet my friends sometime,’ Nuru said at breakfast a few days later.
‘Friends?’ Jaffer said. He slathered his toast with butter.
‘Yes and my family. You’re always meeting yours.’
‘You don’t need them Nuru, they’ll only gossip about us. My friends are different, they discuss important issues.’
‘The future of our country.’
‘I’ve been thinking about that too.’
‘Kenya needs active citizens and I think the time is right for us to make our contribution.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ she said. ‘Today’s the day we’ll vote.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Nuru, I’m talking about having children.’ He left the room and came back with the calendar. ‘I’ll do my duty on the days marked with black stars, and at the end of the month we’ll tally the score, and record the number in the corner. That way we’ll monitor our progress.’ He sat down, putting the calendar next to her plate. ‘Now Nuru, where are my eggs?’
‘What about voting?’
‘You know how to ruin a man’s mood in the morning, don’t you, Nuru? If you have nothing of interest to say, don’t say it.’ He left the dining room, slamming the door behind him and she watched from the window as he drove off in his blue Anglia.
Maria came in to clear the table. ‘Where’s the nearest polling station, Maria?’
‘At the primary school in the market, Mama.’
Nuru walked with Maria to the market through the gullies of kiosks selling fruits and vegetables. A stray dog blocked their path, and Maria shooed it away. A goat stood grazing on a clump of dry grass and chickens scuttled around.
‘KANU special,’ a vendor called out holding up a bunch of blemished bananas.
‘Not today,’ Nuru said.
They stopped to watch an old woman with a khanga tied around her head, sitting on a low stool in front of a stove. She spooned boiled maize and beans from the pot onto a tin plate and served it to a man standing there.
‘Our great nation has space for only one party,’ he said in Kiswahili, taking the food from her. ‘And one man.’
‘You’re wrong,’ the woman said. ‘We need women in government, like Makumbi in Uganda and Lameck in Tanzania.’
‘Those are just rumours by wakorofi, troublemakers.’
‘I heard it on the radio.’
‘Don’t believe everything you hear; women should stick to gardening, cooking and bearing children; shamba,chakula na watoto. Leave the business of running the country to us men.’
‘It’s only a matter of time; one day the women of Maendeleo ya Wanawake will have power.’ The woman gathered up her things into her sisal basket, and swung it over her back. ‘A flag blows in the direction of the wind,’ she said. ‘And the winds of change have begun.’
The following day, Nuru was in the dining room pouring Jaffer’s tea. He came in and stood behind his chair. ‘Jam, butter, toast and tea,’ he said, enunciating each word. ‘But no eggs. What’s going on, Nuru?’
‘They were overcooked. I’ve thrown them in the bin.’
Jaffer thumped the back of the chair.
‘Maria,’ he yelled.
She appeared at the door.
‘You’re paid to help my wife in the kitchen. Can you explain this?’
‘Mimi sijui, Mzee,’ Maria said. ‘Me, I don’t know.’
‘I’m surrounded by ignorant and incompetent women.’
‘Mistakes happen sometimes,’ Nuru said.
‘Not in my house they don’t.’ He walked out of the room banging the door and Nuru helped Maria as she began clearing the table.
A few minutes later, Jaffer was back. ‘Nuru, Jacob’s just told me you went to the market yesterday. Why did you go? It wasn’t market day according to my schedule.’
‘Nuru,’ he shouted. ‘Stop your meddling. Our country’s politics are a delicate business. Don’t interfere, do you understand?’
That night after Jaffer got into bed, Nuru went around tucking the mosquito net under the mattress.
‘I don’t like being defied Nuru,’ he said from behind the mesh. ‘It doesn’t bode well for our future.’ He placed the Daily Nation on her pillow. ‘Even Kenyatta faces no opposition now because KADU has dissolved itself and merged with KANU.’
Nuru lifted the net on her side and settled down next to him. She turned the pages of the paper until she came to the advertisement for a Morris. ‘That’s the car I want, the two door model.’
‘Let me see that,’ he said. ‘More Mini-magic, what nonsense. You can’t even handle eggs without an accident, never mind a steering wheel.’
Nuru sat on the sofa reading one of Dr Stockley’s books. She looked up when Jaffer came in. ‘You’re home early?’
‘You’re the talk of the town, Nuru.’ Jaffer flung the newspaper down next to her.
She picked it up.
‘Picture my humiliation,’ he said, ‘when John mentioned his wife had been praising your column in The Daily Nation.’
‘I wanted it to be a surprise.’
‘It was a bombshell. I had no idea what he was talking about.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He congratulated me for being the perfect husband. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him I always did my best.’ He paused. ‘When I got back to the office I read your piece and I’ll tell you what really annoyed me.’
‘The title should be: ‘Know Your Place According to Jaffer.’
‘I’ll have a word with the Editor tomorrow,’ she said. ‘By the way, there’ll be no eggs for the rest of the week.’
‘Nuru, are my ears deceiving me?’
‘I was preparing the dinner,’ she said. ‘A recipe from your mother. I had to remove the eggs from the fridge to reach something behind them. And I’m afraid I dropped the entire tray.’