Despite its calm exterior, its temperature was actually steadily rising. Within no time, it was steaming, sputtering, spilling out with a vicious rage at a hurried pace. But Bano rushed there in time. Switching the flame off, she picked the milk pot up from the stove and placed it on the cool marble surface nearby, covering it with a muslin cloth. 

She went back to the bedroom, which in fact was the only room of this humble house, apart from a small kitchen and a passage that she passed off as the living area. She sat in front of the small mirror standing crooked on the chipped, rustic mantel. The reflection that stared back at her was the face of a forty-five-year-old woman. Although, she was not a month over thirty-five. Her sunken eyes were as black as the hair that hung loose, damp, down to her waist. Above those eyes, were a pair of furrowed eyebrows, knotted in distrust and doubt. A large gold nose pin shone on her hooked, sharp nose. This was the only piece of jewellery adorning her blotchy face. A strong jawline, lips, perpetually pursed in a straight line that had forgotten to curve into a smile, sat heavily above a thick, double chin. Her papery, camel coloured skin, looked like a crumpled piece of cloth in need of ironing, quite like the shalwaar kameez on her slim build. “Ghaleeza Bano,” (disgusting Bano) her cousins would call after her as a child, a twist on her real name, Gazala Bano. She was well aware of her hideous appearance and made no effort to conceal her hatched-faced features. She was an only child of her parents, who both passed away in a road accident when she was eight, leaving her with an ailing aunt who also did not survive long. But she had inherited this wreck of a roof over her head from her aunt, along with the rent money from a factory, within the city. She had been living here alone, unmarried, in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, for the last twenty-seven years. 

Bano ran her bony fingers through her hair, untangling them while maintaining a steady gaze in the mirror. That’s when the doorbell rang. Bano shuddered. This house hadn’t heard the sound of a doorbell in years. She knew no one and no one wanted to know her. She hardly ever stepped out. Who could it be now? While these thoughts collided with each other in the confined space of her brain, the doorbell rang once again. She got up, taking small, hesitant steps towards the door. She peered through the peephole, squinting and straining her eyes. She could see no one on the other side. Cautiously, she opened the door, poking her head out. There stood a woman, also of about thirty-five, dressed in a pale pink chicken kadhai embroidered shalwar kameez with the dupatta covering her head. Her soft, creamy skin and dimpled, cherubic face gleamed of good health. Her cheeks and lips held a hint of rose coloured tint. Her radiant smile revealed a set of perfectly shaped, ivory teeth. 

“Asalamwalaikum. My name is Mehrun Baig. I have just moved in next door. Can I come in if you don’t mind?” It was a hot summer afternoon and yet this woman was not sweating. She, in fact, appeared flawless, breezy, oozing with confidence and contentment. 

Bano held the door open without saying a word and the woman walked in. 

“I am sorry to have disturbed you. I was just very lonely. I thought I will pop over to my neighbour’s house and convey my salams.”

Bano was still reeling from the shock of having a visitor. She could not remember the last time she had a guest over. She straightened her dress, suddenly feeling conscious. 

“Okay,” she mouthed with great difficulty. 

“What’s your name, Baji?”

“Gazala Bano.”

“That’s such a beautiful name, Baji!”

Mehrun’s face lit up once again, the brightness of her smile spreading like ripples in water, across her childlike face. 

Bano could not help but smile back. It took her some time to stretch her parched lips to form a smile but with a great deal of effort, she finally managed to pull it off. 

It was nearly dusk by the time Mehrun left that day. The two women exchanged stories of their childhood, youth, family life. By the time she left, Bano already felt attached to this woman, and began yearning for her presence, as though she was her long lost sister. She began waiting for the next day to arrive so that Mehrun could come back. The two women became close friends and spent most of their days together. One day, Mehrun suggested they go shopping. She wanted to purchase a dozen bangles in different colours. Bano looked down at her bare, weathered arms. She had never bought bangles for herself. She had always wanted to but had never dared to decorate her unworthy body. That day, Bano stepped down, outside her house, on to the streets and returned home with a dozen green, glass bangles. That night she went to bed with a happy heart. Her tobacco coloured, blocky, blunt teeth revealed themselves as she broke into an impromptu smile. She had a beautiful friend, a woman who liked her just the way she was and willingly kept her company. That year of 1993 turned out to be the most glorious time of Bano’s life. 

On October 9th, 1993, Bilal Ansari, the young twenty-year-old son of Mehmood Ansari, tenant of the factory given on rent by Bano’s late aunt, came over and called Bano’s name out from outside her gate as he did, once a month. Mehrun was massaging Bano’s hair with warm coconut oil. 

“I will go see who it is,” announced Mehrun.

“Oh! no, no. I will open the gate. It’s Bilal, here to pay the rent. In all this time that we have known each other, today for the first time, he has come over at the same time as you are here.”

“Haha! Yes, Baji.”

Bano swung open the door and instead of a deep frown, she had a gracious smile set on her face, something which surprised Bilal. After collecting the rent, she even invited the young boy inside for a glass of water. That’s when Bano introduced Bilal to Mehrun. Bilal appeared confused. He did not know what to say. He conveyed his salaams and asked to leave. The two women bade him goodbye as the boy made his way out. 

Bilal couldn’t meet his father till the end of the day. 

“Bilal, you managed to hand over the rent to Bano?”

“Jee Abbu. But something really, really strange happened today.”

“What? What happened?”

“Abbu, I went over to Bano Khala’s place to pay the rent. She smiled at me and called me in for a glass of water.”

“What’s so strange about that? Yes, she doesn’t smile often because she has no reason to. She is a sad woman. Anyway, I am glad she smiled at last!”

“No, Abbu. That’s not the thing. After calling me in, she introduced me to a friend, Mehrun Baig.”

“And…what happened then?”

“Abbu, there was no one around. Bano Khala was pointing at thin air and talking to God knows who…it was so scary. I ran out as fast as I could. I think she has completely lost her mind.”

Mehmood Ansari said something but his voice was drowned in the noise emanating from the television set that his daughter had switched on…. “Today, we will talk about Schizophrenia – a mental disorder that results in withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion….”

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