dinner.â Bandra took the morsel of roti, hardly bigger than her fingertip, and left the room.
She enlisted Gulshan. âFind out who sheâs talking to,â she said. âEarly in the morning, and in this heat. Maybe only to herself, but find out.â
It took her hardly a day. That evening she told Bandra, âA mouse.â
âIt lives with her. In her bed. In the straw.â
Bandra was baffled. She said, âWhat could she possibly have to say to a mouse?â
âShe says itâs her only friend.â
Bandra shook her head. It was disgusting, and besides, she should be sleeping, not staying up all night talking to a mouse. And what was that she was feeling? Envy? Over a mouse? It was ridiculous. She brushed the thought aside. It took her a few days but one evening she found the neighborhood cat, lured it into Laylaâs room when she went to bathe, and closed the door. She asked Layla for help in the kitchen when she returned. She kept her busy: cleaning the main hut, sweeping the courtyard, mending clothes. Then she suggested all the girls sleep in the sitting room. They stared at each other in disbelief. Bandra made it known that she preferred sleeping alone, and she always padlocked both doors leading from her quartersâthe door opening onto the street and the one to the courtyardâkeeping the keys to the padlocks tied to the pull string of her kurta bottom. But this evening she said, âItâs cooler in here,â and invited them to stay. She set out bowls of water at the open windows and courtyard door to cool the room further. When they woke in the morning the girls plodded back to their rooms, evenly, in a straight line. Bandra waited inside. She heard laughter, something Siddiqah had said, and then there was quiet. A cat darted past her. And then came the scream: the one she knew would come.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Bandra took a strange, disproportionate pleasure in imagining the mouseâs shredded body. Its slippery entrails, shining like the insides of fruit. Tiny tufts of white hair, strewn around the room like miniature clumps of mountain grass. She expected anger, rage, weeping, or perhaps even a greater stoicism from Layla, but instead, later in the morning, before the customers began to arrive, she emerged from her room and stood at the door.
âBandra-ma,â she said.
Bandra looked up, astonished. âWhat is it?â
âI need a pail and a rag, Bandra-ma.â
âOh? What happened?â
âNothing. I just want to clean the floor and the walls.â
âA cat got in last night. And you know how cats are.â
What was she playing at, Bandra wondered. And why was she being so sweet? She had never once, in the two years sheâd been here, called her Bandra-ma. And now ? She was suspicious, but she lent her the pail and rags and kept a close watch on her for the next few days. Nothing happened. She only grew sweeter. Day by day, week by week, until, one day, Bandra stopped watching her.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The months passed. Layla no longer confided in Gulshan. That, of course, was to be expected. Bandra realized that their friendship had been a source of information, and that sheâd lost a link that had been instrumental, but it had been worth it, she decided. Layla was tame. Still, other things, peculiar things, began to happen. Nothing alarming but just things that gave Bandra pause. The wooden hook, for example, the one in Laylaâs room meant to hold the menâs caftans, broke off.
âIt broke off?â Bandra asked. âHow?â
âI donât know, Bandra-ma,â Layla said. âIt just did.â
âThen where is it?â Bandra said, looking at the jagged stump that remained stuck in the wall.
âThe man took it.â
âHe took it? Why? â
Layla shrugged. âHow should I know,â she said.