Fayes T Kantawala stared down a neighbour

Lahore has been gripped with a wave of flu-ey illness, nay, a plague, that hit me like a virus-dipped boxing glove. Its lurking, insidious form was revealed to me in various stages, a presence always implied but never declared. It began with a slight tickle in the throat, unusual but not unheard of in January. I read in a witch’s handbook many years ago that if ever you feel the tickling preview of a head cold, the best thing to do is put three drops of Oil of Oregano on your tongue, wait until the burning sensation that accompanies it subsides and your body will handle the rest.

Although raised on a stew of medical remedies ranging from spells to homeopathic lore, I must impress upon even the most skeptical of you how well Oil of Oregano actually works. It fries all the nasty feelings away, and it is not surprising that it was used as an antibacterial/antiviral cure-all as far back as the Greeks. I felt fine for two days, but the cold returned in my nose, then my chest, then my head. Each time it departed as quickly as it had arrived. A sort of deconstructed post-modern illness, it showed only one symptom a day before retreating completely. We went through this dance, my cubist plague and I, for two weeks, ebbing and flowing past each other like skaters on ice until one day, just when I thought the worst was behind me, I got destroyed. Extravagantly.

When the cold strikes

Every symptom ganged up to take me down and this is the sorry, congested state that saw me confined to my home for a week. Whenever I feel truly ill, I find it useful to act like a character in the last third of a Dickens novel, coughing blood into a stained white handkerchief as I dictate my will to a group of hopeful orphans. Reveling in one’s illness is, I think, the quickest way to get out of it. But it took a while, and to whittle away the hours I would read and watch Netflix. My bedroom window is close to the next-door house. Turns out the last tenants moved away because, as my cook insists, they believed the neighbourhood to be haunted by spirits. I try not to take that as a judgment on me personally, but I was glad to be rid of them, until recently.

During my extended Victorian convalescence, I realised that every day at 11:30 a.m. like clockwork I began to hear screams. These were wild, guttural shrieks, the kind you think an animal makes when it has been caught in a bear trap. First I thought I was hallucinating (one of the only upsides of a fever) and it took me a full two days to realise that not only were the screams human, but that they were the daily ritual of the new mistress of the house next door, a woman aptly named Sanjeeda. If you listened hard enough eventually the cackles could be decoded into a series of expletives, each more venomous than the last. A little domestic spying revealed that the people who work in her house aren’t very fond of her. My cook Zia-ul-Haq’s grasp of gossip is as scary as his name, and so I believe him when he tells me she’s gone through 9 maids in the last six months.

Oil of oregano - traditional cold remedy

To avoid her shouting, I went to my rooftop to lie in the sun one morning. As I inhaled the fresh, grey air of Lahore I felt a strange peace, shattered moments later when the mistress burst out onto the balcony next door, dragging a sobbing young maid by her earlobe.

“Look at the state of these clothes!” she screamed as she thwacked the girl on her head. “Look at them!”

They hadn’t noticed I was lurking mere feet away from them. There is always a moment of hesitation when it comes to interfering in other people’s affairs. I have often resented my nosy neighbours’ intrusions into my personal space, asking questions about how much my new gate costs or similar. For the most part I think the world would be a better place if people minded their own business, but ignoring obvious abuse is not minding your own business, it’s a form of cowardice. Plus, I had a lot of pent-up frustration at the world in general and this woman in particular – and now seemed as good a time as any to unleash it.

I cleared my throat to let her know I was watching, but she kept on shouting and hitting. After three tries I just shouted, “Oye, OYE! Begum! Do you see me?”

Her face froze as she followed my voice.

“Very good,” I continued once we had made eye contact. “Hi. I’m the neighbour next door. Would you mind not hitting her?”


“Neighbour. Stop hitting her,” I repeated helpfully.

Suddenly her eyes flashed red. “Who the hell do you think you are? Spying on our house! I’m going to call my husband!”

I stood up, walked to the edge of my roof and leaned over.

“Good,” I began. “Perhaps he could explain to me what the hell is wrong with you.”

“How dare-” she began.

“There hasn’t been a single morning, not a bloody one, where I haven’t had to hear your shouting rattling off my walls. And now, while mid-tan, you burst out in broad daylight and start beating a young girl over clothes? Screw your clothes. How dare you?” I had been speaking in Urdu to her, but halfway through I switched to English and held up my phone. “I’ve made videos of you beating her. If I see you do this, or hear your shitty little voice shouting through my window ever again, believe me when I say I’ll turn them into the police and make sure you’re charged with battery.” Her arm let go of the girl reflexively.

“I’m sick to death,” I continued, because you never stop a good monologue unless you’re done. “And when I’m not sick I am tired. I am sick and tired. And I would like nothing – nothing – more than to make your life a living ******* hell. Do I make myself clear?”

She looked like she was going to explode but instead turned back inside wordlessly. The girl was still standing there, and I found myself wondering if I had made the situation worse for her. Of course I bluffed about the recordings, but for what it’s worth I haven’t heard any screaming since, nor seen them on the balcony. Neither has her husband contacted me.

But much like my willful flue, I believe this is only the beginning of a new adversarial dance. And I am ready Sanjeeda. I am all kinds of ready.

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