Packaging Parathas

Fiction

Every morning, before school, Riyaz spent at least an hour packaging parathas. She had learned the process quickly, not long after moving to Toronto to live with her mother’s eldest sister. Wipe the kitchen table. Lay out newspaper pages. Take care to keep aside those with coupons for Masi or crosswords for herself. The papers were from tenants in the building who handed them over to her every evening when their energy to read had been exhausted by their daily activities and television seemed a less ambitious pursuit.

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The pages she collected were mostly from the Toronto Sun or the Star, and occasionally a Metro that had made it out of the confines of the TTC. Once a week her collection would be a bit heavier as everyone finished with the local community papers written in the Hindi and Urdu squiggles that she found incomprehensible. On the rare occasions when Aneel Uncle answered his door, he would give her his Globe and Mail, but mostly his wife would tell her that he left the paper at the office.

“No Globe and Mail today, Riyaz! Mr. Gilani has left his Globe and Mail at the office. He’s a lawyer, you know, an important man! He reads the Globe and Mail everyday . . . no Sun-fun, Star-shmar for him . . .”

In fact, Aneel Uncle was a retired paralegal and his current office was usually the library on the corner or sometimes the coffee shop in the plaza. But Riyaz knocked on their door anyway because she liked to peek in to see what Mrs. Gilani was cooking so she could report back to Masi.

“Juby Auntie was making samosas in the OVEN!”

“This lady . . . she will never learn! Who will eat samosas from the oven? That’s why even her husband likes to eat my cooking . . .”

  • • •

Only a few newspapers made it to the garbage chute without ever having touched a single paratha. They belonged to people who Masi said might report them to the building management, or even the immigration people. Riyaz figured out quickly that these were people who had come to Canada 
a long, long time ago. Some were white, which Riyaz had expected, but the others, perplexingly, had somehow managed to cross over the Us &Them barrier, which separated those who felt they belonged in Canada from those who did not.

“I laid the newspapers, Masi!”

While brushing her teeth, she would watch through the bathroom door as Masi rolled out the dough and semi-fried the parathas, her heavy-set frame filling the kitchen. Her hands worked both quickly and gently as she evenly spaced them onto the newspapers. By evening they would be collected and frozen, to be thawed and thrown onto a frypan as needed by those who no longer had the time to roll circle after circle out of flour, oil, turmeric, fenugreek and chilies.

She told them about her marks in school and her new friends, but not that she couldn’t bring her friends home, or that her report cards had to go to an auntie’s apartment in the building across the street.

Most of the orders came from people who lived outside Flemingdon Park—sometimes they were even 905 numbers. Riyaz liked to imagine that they 
all lived in big houses, with three-car garages and maybe a swimming pool, and spent their days brunching on Masi’s parathas with other 905-ers. But Aneel Uncle had many stories of couples like his son and daughter-in-law who worked endless days sandwiched by long commutes, only to return home with neither the time nor energy for paratha-making. Riyaz thought of it as the StandardofLiving-QualityofLife paradox: the achievement of one sometimes required the sacrifice of the other.

Wash face, back to kitchen table. Sip chai poured from a pot on the stove into a real china teacup. Check temperature of each paratha with palm of hand. Another sip.

  • • •

Riyaz had known that moving from Dar es Salaam to live with Masi in Toronto would be the beginning of a new life in a new country, but living in a seniors’ apartment building wasn’t quite the life of excitement and opportunity that friends who had left Dar before her had promised. She was always hiding; Masi said that if too many people found out that Riyaz was staying with her, they could both be kicked out of the building.

But it was important to get a good education her mother had said, and so when she arrived here as a visitor two summers ago, she had known that she probably wouldn’t be returning. She still missed her family and counted the days between their weekly phone calls, Masi dialing one week, and her Mum and Dad the other. She told them about her marks in school and her new friends, but not that she couldn’t bring her friends home, or that her report cards had to go to an auntie’s apartment in the building across the street. She knew that soon she would have to ask about what would happen next year; she wanted to apply to university in Canada, but tuition would be much more than her family or Masi could afford. She was avoiding asking the guidance counsellor for advice about loans, worried about what would happen if she knew that Riyaz wasn’t supposed to be in the country.

Check parathas again. When cool to touch, flip over. Count out cellophane bags. Sort cooled parathas into piles of five, unless some were unusually small, and then six. Place in bags, keeping broken bits to a minimum.

Sometimes the ladies would complain to her about the size of the parathas.

“These are smaller today! I will only give you two-fifty for a packet.”

“But there are six in those packets, Auntie, that’s why they are smaller—you can count them!”

And the lady would hand her nine dollars for three packets and rush out, not wanting to spend too much time in the flat, lest her clothes start to smell of the parathas that she sooner or later would try to pass off as her own.

“Masi, these are done!”

“So fast? How can it be? Did you make sure they are cool? No one will buy if the bag is wet inside . . .”

“They’re fine, Masi, bring more!”

  • • •

Throw out oily pages. Lay out new ones. Run behind curtain to find clothes for school. The bathroom had the only door in the flat—apart from the main door that opened out into the corridor. The remainder of the flat was separated by a curtain into a sleeping area with a double bed that she and Masi shared and a living space that contained both a plastic-covered sofa and a rectangular eating area denoted by a small rug. The wall-to-wall carpeting had been removed in the interest of easy clean-up and the floor was now covered in black-speckled white linoleum.

Rush back to new batch. Temperature check. Sip. Wait. Check again. Flip. Count bags. Sort. Wrap. Done.

“More, Masi!”

“Come and take from the pile!”

And, like this, before much of the world was awake, hundreds of parathas were cooled, sorted and packaged. Over just a few years, Masi’s paratha orders had increased from just thirty or forty to sometimes more than two hundred a day, even though there were more and more ladies selling them from home. Some were taking care of young children, others were unable to work elsewhere because they had no immigration papers, and still others were hoping to supplement their fixed incomes. These ladies, like Masi, used the money to pay for daily trips to mosques and temples, or taxis home from the grocery store so they wouldn’t have to walk or take the TTC. What they saved, they used to buy TVs and microwaves and presents for their grandchildren.

All this activity made the hallways in the building feel like marketplaces—each of the ladies was famous for a particular snack: either for being loyal to tradition—like Masi’s masala parathas—or adapting to new times and diets—like Noorbanu-bai’s samosas filled with chicken breast pieces instead of ground beef, and Kulsum Auntie’s single-fried rather than double-fried meat cutlets. Many families would drive in rain or snow down the Don Valley Parkway and do weekend rounds of three or four different apartments and buildings to get the best of all the snacks for the week to come.

There were other income-generating activities as well, and Bilkis Auntie’s was by far the most popular with ladies in the area. Riyaz was nervous when she first paid her a visit; she had been used to the salon in Dar es Salaam, where the endless gossip and laughter never failed to distract her from the pain of the hair being yanked from her legs. But salons were too expensive here, and it seemed that even the ladies who ordered parathas had their waxing done by someone like Bilkis Auntie. Her bed was stripped every morning, and each customer lay on towels with either their top or bottom halves exposed, flinching in time to the Velcro-like sound of the wax strips being removed. Riyaz had laughed when she noticed the photos of religious leaders that dotted the wall, amused that they were witness to the daily parade of half-naked ladies that passed them by.

Yes, it was fine for now, but Riyaz knew that come next year she would have to find a way to stay in the country. Her two years in Toronto would be a waste if she went home only to go to the University of Dar es Salaam. And no one had thought about what she would tell the authorities at the airport when they saw that she had overstayed her visa. She had asked Aneel Uncle about this once and he had laughed, “I doubt your packaging skills are going to be deemed essential to the Canadian economy anytime soon, Riyaz, so until the prime minister starts ordering parathas, we will have to think harder of what to do with you!”

When she told Masi, she had waved her spatula in the air, angrier than Riyaz had ever seen.

Masi had never been illegal—she had arrived twenty years ago with her husband, who had been an electrician. It was easier then, everyone said. He had died of a heart attack just before Riyaz arrived, when Masi had managed to secure her flat in the seniors’ building. Riyaz’s arrival had been very lucky for both of them. Masi hadn’t saved much, and was starting to feel very lonely when Riyaz had shown up. Moreover, Riyaz had turned out to be very good at paratha packaging, and Masi was planning to teach her how to make the dough and roll them out soon enough.

When the last batch of parathas was done, Riyaz would make her way 
to school, past the library and the Ontario Science Centre, where she had once had all of her hair stand on end as she touched a magic metal ball. Everyone had applauded and she felt like a star. There was nothing like that in Dar, she had thought. When she had told Aneel Uncle, he had laughed.

“Just wait Riyaz, everyone is eager to give a girl on a visitor’s visa their applause, but just see if you will be able to get a job!” She had tried to escape down the hall, but his next comment followed her through the door into the flat. “Another second class citizen in a first class country . . .”

Things had gotten better since then, especially now that she had met Faria, who had moved from Nairobi a few years before Riyaz had arrived. She had taken Riyaz under her wing at school and invited her to eat lunch with her group of friends. They shared and traded the food they brought from home and, if it was nice out, they ate on the lawn, talking about homework and boys and long-term plans. She didn’t think of her friends from Dar quite so much any more, but she missed their Sunday trips to Oyster Bay where they bought potato and cassava chips sliced and fried right there on the beach and served hot, drenched in tomato ketchup, chili and lemon. In Toronto, her weekly ritual was a walk to McDonald’s with her classmates after school, where they ordered cheeseburgers and as many fries as they had the money for. This had been her first meal out when she arrived, laden with expectation, but she had been disappointed with the tasteless burgers and rubbery chicken. Nonetheless, her friends ensured that it became a weekly staple in her diet, and she felt happy to finally belong, one of a swarm of students who gravitated there as classes ended.

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By the time she got home most of the parathas would be collected, and Masi would be cooking a ground beef curry with eggs or peas or potatoes, wiping her hands on her dress as she worked.

“What happened at school today, Riyaz?”

“Nothing, Masi—when will the kheema be ready?”

The smell of onion, garlic and garam masala made her mouth water, as she wiped down the kitchen table so she could lay out her books without staining them with bits of turmeric or splashes of oil that had gotten away. She was careful not to forget this ritual—she had been too embarrassed to hand in her first school assignment when she noticed in class that it was stained from the cutlets that had been lying on the table before she had started studying the previous night.

Sometimes she would tell Masi that she was going to study in the library, and when she got there, she would find Aneel Uncle sitting at a table surrounded by books and magazines. In exchange for one of Masi’s parathas, he would tell her about what he had been reading and what had happened in the news that day. He had been looking out for her since she arrived, always briefing her on everything he thought she needed to know, from the location of the best dollar stores to the intricacies of Canadian politics. Over the past few weeks the news had mentioned illegal immigrants more often than usual, and Aneel Uncle had been reluctantly filling her in on the government’s new plan for dealing with them. The last time she had met him, it had taken some persuading before he had told her about the other kids like her who had been rounded up in school and sent out of the country. It had scared her.

When she told Masi, she had waved her spatula in the air, angrier than Riyaz had ever seen.

“Who do they think they are—this Citizenship and Immigration Canada! You know why they are called that? Look at the spelling! See-eye-see!” she said angrily pointing to her eyeglasses. “They are watching everyone! We are all trying to have a good life, and they are trying to scare my Riyaz! C–I–C! See what it spells? Sick! They are sick, these people. Who will package their parathas if they kick you out? How will their precious workforce work twelve-hour days without our parathas? You tell me, Riyaz . . .” And then she went back to the kitchen to finish the kheema and it had turned out so spicy that Riyaz couldn’t finish her dinner.

  • • •

Yesterday, when Riyaz had arrived home, she found Masi sitting on the sofa, a worried look on her face. Masi never sat down unless it was in front of a Hindi serial—if she wasn’t cooking, then she was cleaning up, or doing laundry, or ironing, or something else that needed to be done.

“Masi? Are you okay?”

And Masi explained. She explained about a new shop that had opened close to the 905-ers. Where they sold parathas and cutlets and samosas 
at reasonable prices, and the quality was good, too. There had been talk about a shop like this opening for years now, and it seemed to have finally happened.

In the evening when Riyaz went to collect newspapers, she could feel the air thick with worry, the panic escaping in whispers through the cracks in the doors into the hall. Worried looks accompanied each “hello” as Riyaz completed her route, almost everyone shutting their doors quickly to get back to their conversations. Outside Noorbanu-bai’s door Riyaz only had to lean in a little bit to hear her anxiety.

“What will happen now, Malik? Every day I am selling hundred samosas—if even half of our orders go, we will have to start saving money. See-pee-pee will never be enough.”

“Arre . . . don’t start worrying until the orders drop—who can resist my wife’s famous samosas? No one, that’s who! Tell me, what happened when that Thorncliffe Plaza shop opened? Nothing, that’s what. How many customers did you lose? Not a single one . . .”

When Riyaz got home, she told Masi what she had overheard, hoping to reassure her. “Masi, maybe you don’t have to worry—Malik Uncle says the new shop won’t be a problem. That when the Thorncliffe Plaza shop opened everyone still had their orders . . .”

“He may be right, Riyaz, but already orders for tomorrow and the weekend are less than last week . . . what will we do if this new shop is really as good as they are saying? It will be so much closer for everyone to go there. How will we manage?”

“But not everyone lives in 905, Masi . . . don’t worry, we have lots of orders from close by—in the building even! They will still order our parathas, and maybe we can start making other things too . . .”

“I don’t know, Riyaz—We will have to wait to see . . .”

In the morning, things had already changed. Riyaz was at school early, because there had been fewer than a hundred parathas to pack, and she hadn’t felt like staying in the flat with no work to do. When she left, Masi had turned on the television and had the phone by her side, hoping that someone would call to place an order.

School passed by quickly and when she got home Masi was hanging up the phone.

“An order, Masi?”

“Only a very small order, Riyaz.”

“Oh. Didn’t you make kheema?”

“Not today. We have cutlets and parathas and yoghurt. It should be enough.”

In the evening when she went to collect the newspapers, the hushed panic had been replaced with nervous chatter as the ladies discussed the quality of the fare at the new shop. Each seemed to know someone who had tasted one of the new samosas, cutlets or parathas. Kulsum Auntie’s nephew reported that the samosas were “big and meaty,” while Noorbanu-bai’s niece called them “cute and tiny.” The parathas were called both “rich and buttery” and “light and flaky.” In the end, no one could be sure that the reports were reliable or what the impact would be on their own orders.

When Riyaz got to Aneel Uncle’s flat, she could see his grandchildren jumping on the sofa, and his son and daughter-in-law eating and laughing.

“Come in, Riyaz—it’s Azam’s birthday!”

She was happy to escape the anxious buzz in the hall, and put her newspapers down by the door. Samosas, cutlets, kababs and a big dish of chicken pilau lined the table, and there was a caramel pudding on the kitchen counter with a small card announcing “Happy 36th Birthday, Azam.” Juby Auntie had folded coloured napkins into triangles, and handed her one with a samosa.

The samosa was light and crispy, filled with spicy minced lamb, and 
her chin was soon covered with the lemon she had squeezed into it. She took another.

“Auntie, these are good! Did you make them in the oven?”

“Don’t be silly, Riyaz, Azam brought them from that wonderful new shop—did you hear? Such good food and so cheap! And not only samosas—Uncle says their parathas are too good! You should tell your Masi about it, Azam can bring for her to taste when he comes again . . .”

Riyaz held the half-eaten samosa in her hand, suddenly overcome. Already she had enjoyed one and a half samosas from the shop that she knew would change everything.

A plate of pilau and cutlets appeared in front of her. She accepted it half-heartedly, knowing that the longer she lingered, the more she could delay seeing Masi. She played with the children, talked to Azam about school, sang “Happy Birthday” and ate two pieces of cake. Eventually she could find no other reason to delay her return.

She picked up the newspapers that she had stacked by the door and left the warmth of the party, walking slowly down the hall, which somehow seemed cooler than it had earlier. She stopped outside her door, and listened to the muffled sound of the Hindi serial coming from the television inside the flat. Riyaz could picture Masi on their plastic-covered sofa with her feet up on the coffee table, waiting for her to come home so they could dial Dar es Salaam.


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