Friday, June 29, 2012

We Called Her Ruby

The last time I met Ruby Baaji was the night before I was about to fly out to the US for university. It was August 1999, and I had recently turned 18. She was married by then, the mother of 2 young children - a baby girl and a boy - and she gave me a present that I kept for a long time. A pouch full of makeup brushes. A blue, yellow, and green pouch. The brushes inside had pale white handles. It was a rather grown-up present for me from a person who symbolised my childhood. Our relationship had always been that way. I had no elder sisters, and she had been to me what I think one is like. I still remember her giggling in that tinkly laugh of hers as she handed me the present. Ruby Baaji used to laugh everytime she felt like it. Her eyes would grow small, and she'd slightly lean back and hunch as she laughed from head to toe. I'd felt slightly embarassed and self-conscious about the make-up pouch. It meant that she was looking at me as if I were a young lady and not a gender-free school kid (we still had those in those days). I had not been ready for that. Our relationship had been changing as the both of us were growing into our 20s and the things that can mean, and this was another new thing for me.

Ruby baaji died in a car accident a few months later in early 2000. I was in my second semester at university in the US at the time. That's around the time I bought my first lipstick. A dark brown one. Browns were in in those days. Ruby Baaji had been about to move to Canada with her husband and children but had decided to accompany her family and her in-laws for a quick umrah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. They had all been returning to Muscat by road when one of the tires of the car had exploded. Ruby Baaji had been flung out of the fast-moving car with her little daughter who had been sitting in her lap. I was told that they had both been found lying by the road outside, her little daughter unhurt, still shielded by her mother's body. But Ruby Baaji had already passed away from internal injuries. She was eventually buried in a cemetery somewhere near Riyadh. That was 12 years ago. Was it really? I think Ruby Baaji was 8 years older than me. She was born on May 1st; I remember because I had made a big deal about it being the same as Labour Day. I had had a 365-days storybook - one story or poem for every day of the year - and I had made her read the story that was listed under her birthday. It was about a caterpillar that felt ugly and wanted to be beautiful until it went to sleep and woke up a beautiful butterfly. It was crowned the May Queen by all the insects, the most beautiful of them all. The moral of the story was that some people may not be born beautiful but they can grow beautiful.

Ruby Baaji had once cut out butterflies for me from a pretty writing pad she owned. She had put them in an envelope for me to take home. It was on one of those evenings when my parents would drop me off at her house because they had a serious grown-up event to go to. I spent many days like that with her. Ruby Baaji was very popular with the younger kids she knew, myself very much included. We were all in primary or middle school and she was in high school. We all used to bounce around her at parties or whenever we stayed over at her place. And Ruby Baaji used to talk to us like we were the most interesting little people ever. She used to laugh with us all the time.

I guess you could say that Ruby Baaji was one of those soft, feminine kinds of girl, the sort that wears red on Valentine's Day and likes babies. She was thin, not too tall, and wore glasses (contact lenses weren't common in those days, I only got mine in high school). She had pale skin, the kind that grows yellower the lighter it gets. She had a long smooth face and long delicate limbs. I remember her feet, they were very beautiful. Long delicate light-looking feet with very clean skin. Sometimes I look at my feet, and when they're in their best shape, they almost look like hers.

Ruby Baaji was very talkative, and she used to laugh a lot. Her voice was husky but not raspy, you could call it a girly breathy. I, like all the other little girls, used to follow her around like a tail. Our mothers used to shop together a lot, and I have a memory of Ruby Baaji and I sitting together on the dirty worn-out carpet that covered some wooden steps in that store and her singing the title song from 'Chandni' to me. "Khaali haath nahin aate, khaali haath nahin aate..." she tinkled in her sweet voice. I think we were sitting next to a wall with a poster of Sridevi's, possibly in one of her signature tight chiffon saris from that time. I have since stopped by that store a number of times or just simply walked by, and every single time I can see Ruby Baaji and I sitting on that dirty carpet and singing songs from that old Hindi (the word 'Bollywood' hadn't been invented then) movie. The Sridevi poster has long since gone, but they always do.



Sometime after a spate of Salman Khan starrers had been released in the early 90s that I noticed that Ruby Baaji used to talk about him all the time. I remember one dinner party where she was explaining to us clueless younger girls that Salman Khan's character was more noble than Sanjay Dutt's character in 'Saajan' because he had decided to sacrifice his true love. Everytime I now see that old Salman Khan - thinner, swifter, a better actor - from 'Saajan', 'Pathar ke Phool', 'Maine Pyaar Kiya', I think of Ruby Baaji at that table in that restaurant I don't remember.

Ruby Baaji left Muscat for university in India, and I began to see less of her. I remember the first time she returned on a holiday; I'd visited her at her home with my mother, but I'd been nervous and awkward. So had she. We'd had less to talk about. We'd become more formal, and she was getting along better with our moms. Something had changed between us. I guess we didn't have as many things in common anymore, and I'd only met her after a long time. I had brought my Arabic test paper from school with me to show her the way I used to show her every small thing before; I'd aced the test, and I had wanted to tell her that, but it somehow felt stupid and unimportant when I did. I told her about how I was angry with my parents for not letting me visit my Jain best friend's house just because in India the Ayodhya Masjid had been demolished by a right-wing Hindu mob. I must've been in 6th grade then. Eleven years old. I told her that it made no sense. I didn't think she agreed, but she didn't say anything. I think I stopped talking to her too much after that, it all felt too awkward. And I just felt ridiculous, I don't know why. But it was alright.

And the years sped by. I discovered boys and menstruation and my own movie star crush (Shahrukh Khan, right after 'Baazigar') that lasted me well into high school. Ruby Baaji entered her 20s, got married into a family we also knew in Muscat, and had kids. I only saw her at grown-up parties where I had to wear grown-up clothes and behave myself. My hair was longer, and I had learned how to wear liquid eyeliner. Ruby Baaji looked like light, like she was truly made of light. She was young, newly married, and always laughing. She looked wonderful and glowy and dressed so beautifully. I remember running into her at a party when I was in high school. She wore a gharara, I can't remember what colour, but she looked like light. I was shy and only spoke to her formally, but she was still very friendly. I didn't know how to behave with her - like the 10-year-old I used to be or the chirpy 17-year-old I thought I was supposed to be. But she was still very full of life. And happy. I think she was the type of person that has a clean heart. Everyone doted on her. All the aunties and uncles and even the young ones. She'd grown up around all of us. Even her two little children would call her Ruby because that's what they heard everyone around them call her. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby. She once sent me a card that I think I still have with me somewhere. It had two ducklings, one blue and one pink, cosying up together on the front. The card read 'I like it when you're nice...' on the outside and '...but I love it when you're naughty!' on the inside. It was adorable. It was only many years later that I realised that at that point, when I had just finished high school, that neither she nor I had realised in our innocence that it was not a card that was meant for friends.

Her real name was actually Masarrat. I remembered her very strongly yesterday because of a glowy young wife I saw in a Pakistani drama the other day. She had long hair like Ruby Baaji's and was very light-skinned. She wore a white gharara that made her glow. She had very little make-up on because she didn't need any, she glowed without it. I've been meaning to write about Ruby Baaji for such a long time. I'm 31 now, she would've been almost 40. After Ruby Baaji died, her mother found an old friendship band in her belongings that I had made for her as a kid. Did she really die 12 years ago? I can still hear, see her giving me that make-up bag.

4 comments:

Brandi Dawn Henderson said...

This is really beautiful, Khadija. I love the detail about wearing red on Valentine's Day and loving babies.

Khadija Ejaz said...

Thank you, Brandi. :)

Shaz Originals said...

Khadija...you her feel so alive.. I mis her so much as well...it was so long ago.. but still hurts and feels so untimely....

Priyanka S said...


I just read this today- felt so moved after reading the portrait. So alive, so vibrant, so - there...and yet not:( Incredibly touching...