Beena, Houston, March 19, 2003.

Beena’s friend Salma was throwing a housewarming party on a quiet cul-de-sac of a gated community in Katy. Besides Beena, six families and one bachelor had been invited. Earlier in the day, Salma had swung by Beena’s apartment in the city and driven her back to Katy for the party with the singular purpose of introducing her to their friend Khaled, who had just moved to Houston with a lucrative job. She had dressed Beena in an embroidered, blue handloom-silk sari and hung a heavy pendant necklace around her neck. She had lined her large eyes with thick kohl and mascara, contoured her long, narrow face, and painted her wide mouth to a smooth, scarlet lustre. Salma herself was dressed in a sequined, heavy silk sari a shade of onion pink. Her small, piquant face was heavily made up to a thick, smooth finish, and her bob-cut hair had been sprayed and glued in place.

Following the custom at these parties, the men sat separately in the formal living room at the front of the house, while half a dozen women, adorned in embroidered silk saris and matching blouses, stood glittering under the bright lights of the kitchen. When Beena said hello, a few of the women looked back at her with hard eyes, probably because she had rebuffed their invitations in the past. She stood to one side observing them, struck by the sameness of their makeup and by their squealed greetings and busy activity – slicing tomatoes and cucumber for a salad, setting out metal serving spoons, and preparing the percolator for tea after dinner. In all her graduate student years in Houston, Beena had stayed away from this crowd. She had too much work to attend parties, and no car to drive to the suburbs where the Bangladeshi engineers lived, forty minutes to an hour outside the city. Also, she didn’t have money to buy the expensive gifts people hauled in the front door at these parties.

Salma’s husband Ronny entered the kitchen shouting. “Salma! Where are the appetisers? The men are starving!” There was a feigned note of tyranny in his voice, but he was smiling and the eyes that met Beena’s shone with a wicked humour.

Beena liked him. He was a relaxed person with a frank, round face. He was dressed in brand-name clothes, a blue-and-white checked dress shirt with the Ralph Lauren Polo logo and wool grey trousers, and he reeked of cologne.

Salma turned from the oven, her hands deep in silicone gloves. She had been bent low, watching the large aluminium-foil pans in which she was warming the dishes she had cooked throughout the week. Her hair was plastered to her forehead in the heat.

“Khaled!” she shrieked, coming forward, grinning at the man who stood behind her husband, her pin-black eyes dilated with pleasure.

“Why are you acting so surprised? Didn’t I tell you Khaled was coming?” Ronny said peevishly. “He only moved to Houston three weeks ago. Right, Khaled?”

“I’m so happy to see you, friend!” Salma cried.

“Thank you for inviting me. I was pining away in my hotel room,” a thick voice answered.

Looking up, Beena saw a tall man with a chiselled face and a head of thick, tightly curled hair.

Salma pulled Beena toward her. “Khaled, this is my school friend Beena, our teacher’s daughter. You remember Nasir Uddin Sir.”

“Kemon achhen? How are you?” Khaled asked, smiling.

Beena nodded stiffly. He looked like he was about to speak further when another man dragged him away.

Left alone, the women redoubled their activity.

“We have to get the appetiser ready. The men left without food. How embarrassing! Salma Apu, is the chotpoti warm yet?” Shona received the tray of chotpoti from Salma and placed it on top of a dish warmer. A young housewife and skilled homemaker, she was considered a great asset at these parties. Picking up a kitchen lighter, she started to light the candles under the dish warmers arrayed on the counter. “How did you cook so much food, Salma Apu?”

“I did a little bit every day after returning from the office.” Salma pushed the beef back in the oven, saying that the foil was still cold to the touch. “What can I say? I have been under so much stress at work. I’m keeping a low profile at the office since all this business with WMDs. They keep asking me my opinion about Iraq, as if South Asia and Middle East are the same place!”

“I know, Apu! Bulbul has been saying the same thing. What a nuisance! Now they think all Muslims are bad.” Shona wrinkled her thin, powdered nose to express her dismay.

Beena listened to them with a sudden intensity. Her jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed. As the threat of a US invasion in Iraq had intensified over the past month, she had been perusing the online newspapers anxiously. “I grew up in Iraq,” she said, moving closer. “These cabinets are so nice, Salma Apu!” Shona exclaimed. “Is the countertop made of granite?”

“Yes. We had the cabinets and countertops upgraded from what the builder gave us,” Salma said.

“I keep asking Bulbul to remodel our kitchen, but he won’t listen to me.” Shona pouted. “How much did it cost you, Apu? Which company did you hire to do the work?”

“Oh, we have a great guy,” Salma said.

“Apu, please give me his number!”

“I will.” Salma turned to Beena.

“I’ll have to give you his number too, Beena. You will need it soon enough.” She burst into laughter at her own joke.

“Is there something we don’t know?” another woman asked.

As if to avert the other woman’s curiosity, Salma said, “Our work is done here. The men can come and get the appetiser. Who wants a tour of the house?” She threw her shoulders back and placed her hands on her hips, looking archly at the group.

“Give us a tour, Apu!” the women cried.

Beena followed the women engaged in their favourite activity, taking the measure of a house. Salma explained that the builder had built only ten such Mediterranean-style homes in their subdivision, modelled after wealthy neighbourhoods in California and Florida, with stucco columns and arches, terracotta-tile roofs, curved parapets, and white stucco walls laced with wisteria vines. Inside, there were all the features desirable in the new Houston homes. A grand entryway with a marble floor and high ceiling led to a curved staircase with a decorative balustrade. Salma showed off the new furniture she had bought to complement the expanded space: new leather sofas in the family room, floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with entertainment devices, and shiny satin curtains hanging from the tall windows of every room.

The men had been reclining on two white couches, hands clasped over paunches, when the women entered.

“Guys, the appetiser is ready,” Salma announced.

The men stirred and rose to their feet. In their mid-thirties, they had acquired the same polished, round faces and they wore the same brand-name clothes from upscale department stores. From long association, Beena had gathered that the engineers only associated with other engineers. They were fond of saying that they were the crème de la crème of their country. Out of the lakhs of students who passed the higher secondary exam in Bangladesh every year, only five thousand qualified to take the admission test at the engineering university, and out of those applicants, only 600 were admitted as students. After graduating, they had gained admission in various master’s degree programs in the US. And immediately after completing their graduate degrees, they had been snatched up by companies eager to hire them at mouth-watering salaries.

Excerpted with permission from The Children of This Madness, Gemini Wahhaj, 7.13 Books.