Sunday Brunch – By Mariya Khan
Laila hummed while spooning the butter chicken into the steel chafing dish. Drops of sauce splattered on her apron, the steam rising into her nostrils. The morning sun shone through the glass windows of the restaurant, streaming past the tables until it landed on Laila’s black hair. The framed photographs and children’s artworks that covered the mustard walls glittered in excitement. In an hour, Aloo Baba would be flooded with locals coming for the brunch buffet or putting in orders for freshly baked samosas.
Laila loved the restaurant’s boisterous customers. Nothing could truly replace the sounds of familiar voices chatting about stories from the week or back in India and Pakistan. Her father usually left the kitchen to sit and reminisce with the uncles and introduce himself to the new families sitting in the corner. Her mother, when not answering phone orders and yelling at the kitchen staff, gossiped with the aunties. Her older brother Waleed divided his time between refilling the chafing dishes and picking up plates smeared with sauces and covered with naan flakes. Laila mainly worked at the register. Her parents first assigned her to it when she turned fifteen, but now that she was twenty-three she had more duties, from keeping the place clean to making the samosas to helping with the catering. It was hard for Laila to imagine a life without the restaurant her family had owned for the past sixty years.
Laila placed little cards with the names of the foods by each chafing dish. Chaana Masala. Haleem. Chicken Biryani. Saag Gosh. Aloo Mutter. Butter Chicken. Onion Pakoras. Kabobs. Tandoori Naan. Even though most of the customers knew the order of the dishes, she used the cards for newcomers. They did not get them often, but when they did those customers quickly lost their newcomer status and blended into the fabric of life at Aloo Baba.
Clanking pots soon droned out the sound of Laila’s humming as she made her way to the kitchen. All around her staff rushed to finish the next dish for Laila to add to the buffet table and prep the filling for the samosas she would later stuff at the counter. Her mother stood in the corner, her elbows resting on the table as she squinted at the catering list for Mrs. Malik’s daughter’s wedding reception later that night.
“You really should get glasses, Ammi,” smiled Laila.
Mrs. Pasha scowled and waved her hand in the air. “I’m not going to be the only auntie with reading glasses. That doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Laila chuckled. “I’ll start filling the samosas soon. I just need to put out the last dish and sweep.”
“The Maliks want 100 samosas for tonight. Can you believe it?” Mrs. Pasha scoffed at the list. “I’d ask for 200 if I had a head count of 485 at your wedding. Everyone puts four on a plate. If your husband is sensible, he’ll order more than 200.”
Laila nabbed the aloo mutter and headed for the kitchen door. She knew that if she stayed long enough, then she’d hear for the billionth time that she had no time to wait, that Mrs. Malik’s daughter was twenty-five and too old to get married.
Mrs. Pasha frowned. “Where’s Waleed? That lazy boy still hasn’t set up the tables.”
Laila sighed, one foot out the door. “Remember, Ammi, he’s been at his LSAT study group since nine. He should be here soon.”
“He better be,” muttered Mrs. Pasha.
Laila quickly left the kitchen before her mother said anything else. She spooned the aloo mutter into its chafing dish, trying to push away her mother’s negative energy. Her Sunday wasn’t going to be ruined with her mother’s old-fashioned thoughts on weddings. Laila and her boyfriend Jonah had been together for a year, and her mother still talked about her potential wedding as if Jonah wasn’t a factor. Even though he had tried to charm her a couple times, Mrs. Pasha’s disparaging face never cracked into a smile.
The door bell tinkled and Laila glanced up at the entrance. Waleed strode in, his backpack haphazardly on his shoulder. Behind him followed Shanti, his girlfriend. Laila was surprised to see her. Waleed and Shanti, unknown to their parents, had only been dating for three months.
Laila raised her eyebrow. “You’re late, Waleed. Ammi’s already mad at you.”
“I still got time, Laila.” He stuffed his backpack underneath Laila’s samosa counter. “Look, it’s not even 11:30.”
“Tell Ammi that.” Waleed ignored Laila and went into the kitchen to grab what he needed for the tables. “Hey, Shanti. How did the study group go?”
Shanti shrugged. “Someday I’ll get a good score on that damned LSAT. But right now I just want one of your samosas.”
“Well, since Waleed is back I can start on them soon.” Waleed passed them by, giving Laila a small look before starting to lay out the silverware and glasses on the tables. “You’re staying for brunch, right?”
“Yeah, Waleed wouldn’t stop going on and going about the restaurant, so I made him bring me. And besides, we’re not going to cater from anywhere else for the wedding, so I wanted to taste as much as I could today.”
Laila paused from her migration to the supply closet. Waleed grimaced at them, but couldn’t stop to speak because he had to quickly move on to the next table.
“Waleed didn’t tell you?” blinked Shanti. “We’ve been engaged for a few days now.”
“No, he didn’t.” While she knew that he didn’t tell her everything about his life, she didn’t think he’d hide something like this from her. After all, she was the only one in the family who knew that Shanti even existed. Jonah and Laila had even gone on a double date with them.
“Oh, well, now you know.” Shanti joined Waleed at one of the tables. “You didn’t tell your parents about me yet?” she asked him.
“We’ll tell them today,” Waleed muttered, “after we finish with the tables here.”
Laila snatched the broom from the supply closet. Usually, Laila hummed while she worked and enjoyed hearing the slight clangs of pots in the kitchen and Waleed’s footsteps as he moved across the restaurant floor. However, this time she quietly swept, her eyes watching Waleed and Shanti. Even though he was supposed to be working quickly, he took his time to teach her the layout of the tables and whatever else she wanted to know about Aloo Baba. Laila had to admit, they already looked like a married couple.
She wondered if her mother’s hawk eyes also saw them from the kitchen. At least her mother was going to accept Shanti with open arms. Unlike Laila, Waleed could just waltz in with Shanti without facing any kind of disapproval from his parents over his hasty engagement. Her family came from the same region of the world as theirs with the same cultural traditions weighing on Shanti’s shoulders. On the other hand, Laila’s mother expected Laila to eventually abandon Jonah to marry someone from Pakistan or India, so she never took the time to fully accept him.
Laila looked up at the framed photographs on the wall. In one her grandparents, who had bought the restaurant with its peeling wallpaper and scratched tables, happily stood at the front of the building during its grand opening. Although it was black and white, Laila could picture the swirling colors on her grandmother’s sari. When Aloo Baba opened, her grandmother only cooked with two other kitchen staff, stirring massive pots of curries like she was in her home kitchen. Her grandfather ripped off the wallpaper and painted it a mustard color that Waleed had to repaint a few years ago. Not only did her grandfather take orders and serve, but he also spent half his time chatting with his customers, learning about their favorite dishes and little nuggets about their lives.
She smiled at the memory of her grandmother in their home kitchen. Although Laila was only eleven, her grandmother insisted that she learn how to cook. Laila had stood next to her grandmother’s chubby frame and curiously watched her with a knife in her hand. Laila could still smell the chaat masala and cumin mixing with sweat and staining her grandmother’s cotton sari. That day she was learning how to make a chicken dish with bell peppers. “Always remember, Beti, to put the onions in ice water ten minutes before you slice them,” she said. “That way, you don’t cry like Kareena Kapoor every time. And remember, you’re cutting thin slices. Half the size of your pinkie nails. Same with tomatoes.” Her grandmother normally cooked this dish in an hour, but with Laila’s help it took two hours. When it came to adding the salt and pepper and other spices, her grandmother sprinkled them in the bubbling pot. “Don’t worry about measuring your spices. Just taste it once it’s cooked. You’ll know exactly what you need if you have to add something. Don’t be afraid of the spices, Beti.” As they cooked more foods together, Laila’s grandmother had her smell and taste each of the spices, teaching her which flavors mixed best in certain dishes.
Laila’s father had been only a few years old when the photograph was taken, but he stood beside his parents with his boyish grin taking over his entire face. Like Waleed and Laila, her father had spent his free time after school and on the weekends at Aloo Baba. His parents groomed him to take over as soon as he graduated high school. It was her father who started the all-you-can-eat Sunday buffets, where for only $10.50 you could eat unlimited plates of Pakistani food surrounded by good company. He noticed the fun drawings kids scribbled on napkins with crayons and started adding them to the collection of photographs.
One day, Laila wanted to become the restaurant matriarch, running the restaurant with Jonah and her parents by her side. Laila could imagine herself jotting down phone orders and processing online orders, hurrying from the kitchen to the tables where she could join conversations and pour free mango lassi refills in kids’ glasses. She even imagined Jonah taking her place at the register by swiping credit cards and helping nervous children count their money. They could perhaps run the restaurant together, filling it with more love than her parents, and even her grandparents, did.
She hoped that her father didn’t go the traditional route and pass it down to his son and oldest child. Now that Waleed was marrying a Desi girl, his future as the restaurant’s owner was pretty much set. Waleed didn’t care about the restaurant like Laila did, though. He wanted to go to law school and work far from Maryland and the family restaurant. He only still worked here because his parents made him. If he ran the restaurant, he’d probably hire a manager and let this stranger take care of the restaurant with Laila. Laila would never do such a thing. Her parents and grandparents wouldn’t let someone outside the family handle important decisions on the restaurant, and Laila wanted to carry on that tradition.
Their father came out from his office, his tired eyes brightening up when he saw his two children in their usual positions. “There you are, Waleed! I could hear your Ammi complaining about you all the way from the office.” He noticed Shanti, who stood by Waleed. “Oh, hello! Welcome to Aloo Baba!”
“Papa, this is my friend Shanti from the LSAT group.” Laila hoped that their father noticed the nervousness in Waleed’s voice.
“Nice to meet you, Shanti! How’s the studying coming along? Waleed is studying so much for the exam that he’s barely here anymore.”
“Oh, it’s going okay, Mr. Pasha,” smiled Shanti. “I was starving, so I forced Waleed to bring me along for brunch. Last week he brought some samosas to study group, and I’ve been dying for more.”
Mr. Pasha laughed and took the broom from Laila’s hands. “Yes, please stay! Why don’t you help by lighting up the gas burners at the buffet table? Waleed needs to start helping Laila with the samosas.”
“Sure.” Shanti grabbed the lighter from Mr. Pasha’s hands and went to the buffet table. After Mr. Pasha put away the broom, he picked up the giant bowl of samosa filling from the kitchen. Laila put on gloves and took the bowl from his hands. Waleed returned the container for the table settings back in its place and joined Laila at the counter.
“I’ll come help you both once brunch is over, Beta,” Mr. Pasha smiled at them. “I’m sure we can finish Mrs. Malik’s samosas in no time.” He then left the three of them on the restaurant floor while he went to help his wife in the kitchen.
Normally Laila paid better attention to her movements. She’d concentrate on the two heaping spoonfuls of filling, slightly squishing the peas and tiny potato chunks before dipping her gloved finger in the water bowl and tracing the outline of the triangle dough. Right now she worked in the restaurant, but her mind drifted away to when she first made aloo samosas with Jonah in his kitchen. He insisted on learning how Laila made them, even though he often burnt half of the things he made her. Laila could still feel the foam kitchen mat as her toes danced to the Bollywood music blaring on the laptop. Jonah sang and reenacted the dance moves from the music videos as he prepared the filling per her instructions. She laughed at his wide eyes as she added all the spices to the bowl, teasingly promising to bring up his spice level at least seven notches. Now Jonah ate spicier food than her and even made samosas, as well as a couple of other dishes, himself.
Her fingers scurried along the edges of the dough as she sealed the samosas. Once she was in the groove, Laila could fill and seal almost fifty samosas before she needed a break. Waleed wasn’t as quick with his movements, but at least he was one of the few Desi men who could actually make samosas. Since he was older, he was actually the first one who learned from their grandmother how to properly fill and seal them. Laila quickly caught up and outshined him, but had yet to surpass her grandmother’s seasoned skills.
After Waleed pointed Shanti in the direction of the bathrooms, he glanced over at Laila, who was trying not to look at him as she continued working on the samosas. “You okay?”
Laila flashed him a glare and added her sealed samosa to the tray before starting another one. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Waleed sighed. “I was going to tell you tonight, but Shanti insisted on coming this morning so we could announce it together.” Laila silently squished the potato mixture a little flatter than normal, watching some peas split into mush. “At least you found out before Ammi and Abu, right?”
“It’s literally been three months, Waleed. You barely even know her.”
“So?” Waleed scoffed. “Just because you’ve been dating Jonah for a year doesn’t mean that I can’t have a three-month relationship.”
“You know it’s not the same, Waleed,” she murmured.
Waleed opened his mouth, but before he could respond, Shanti returned from the bathroom. Her elbows rested on the samosa counter as she chatted with them. “Man, we really have to jazz up that room, Waleed. I can just imagine it with some flowery wallpaper, can’t you? No one’s going to stay here if you have an ugly bathroom.”
Laila pursed her lips to prevent herself from making a snarky retort about the bathroom, her gloved fingers almost tearing a hole in the samosa dough.
“Are you almost done with the samosas? It’s almost noon and I’m getting really hungry.”
Waleed sighed, stood up, and pulled the gloves off his hands. “Yeah, I’m done for now. Laila’s going to finish the rest.”
Laila drew away from Waleed and Shanti and refocused her attention on her role at the samosa counter. She normally worked after the restaurant opened, but that only added to the experience. From her seat Laila had a view of the whole restaurant, and her position usually drew in curious customers. Sometimes kids peered through the glass divide and watched her work as though they were watching soft pretzels being made at the mall. Other times aunties would examine with a critical eye, pointing out how they’d make the samosas. Laila wished that Jonah could be one of those people who observed her from the other side of the glass, grinning at her in an attempt to make her fumble her movements. She had never brought Jonah into the family restaurant before. Perhaps someday they all could get to a point where she could. Perhaps Laila had to make that moment happen by herself.
A knock at the door forced Laila to look up. An auntie and uncle, along with their two kids, waved at the windows. Behind them stood another family squinting through the glass, waiting for Mr. Pasha to come open the door and invite them in.
“Aren’t they early?” Shanti loudly asked.
Waleed shook his head. “The Sharmas and Ahmeds always show up five minutes before opening,” he explained. “Papa doesn’t have to heart to tell them that we open at noon.”
Mr. Pasha suddenly reappeared and excitedly jogged to the door to unlock it. Soon the restaurant became a bustling hub as families situated their belongings at their tables and walked over to the buffet table, loudly conversing with each other as they filled their plates and sat in their seats. Waleed said hello to the arriving families and brought Shanti into the kitchen to introduce her to his mother. Laila remained at the samosa counter, sadly smiling at the Sunday brunch crowd at Aloo Baba.
Shanti came every Sunday for brunch at Aloo Baba. She sauntered into the restaurant with Waleed in the mornings for four months. Laila’s sweeping assignment was passed onto Shanti, who swept for ten minutes before chatting with Waleed or their mother. Ever since the engagement news passed onto her, Mrs. Pasha spent her free time planning the wedding with Shanti. Laila always kept herself from them at a careful distance while they giggled at floral arrangements or color schemes. When she worked at the samosa counter, she heard their laughter from the kitchen. It was a laughter that shunned her away, that chastised her because she had no plans on wedding a Desi boy.
Her father was already getting Waleed more involved in the restaurant. They sat together and went over the bills, processed invoices, and calculated daily earnings. Laila, who had never been in her father’s office, wasn’t invited to learn more about the restaurant’s financials. Out of all the things that made Aloo Baba tick, the money was the one she didn’t know about. When Laila first asked her father about learning a year ago, he said that she wasn’t ready. At this point, she felt like she was never going to be ready enough in her father’s eyes.
“You should tell him! No, you have to tell him!” Jonah insisted one night. His fingers glided up and down her back. An open pizza box was discarded on the floor, the television playing some sort of action movie they had sleepily turned the volume down on. “How is your dad going to know that you want the restaurant if you don’t say anything?”
Laila sighed and rubbed her cheek in his shirt. “But I shouldn’t have to tell him. Can’t he see that I care about it more than Waleed?”
“I guess he just needs a nudge,” Jonah smiled down at her. “Maybe your mom is pulling him in the wrong direction.”
“I swear to god, if they give Waleed the restaurant as a wedding present…”
Jonah chuckled. “Well, I guess that you only have a month to tell them the truth.”
Laila bit her lip. “Are you sure you still don’t want to crash the wedding? It wouldn’t be the same without you there.”
When Laila learned that Jonah wasn’t given an invitation to the wedding, she didn’t speak to her mother for five days. Waleed insisted that he wanted to invite Jonah, but their mother wouldn’t let him. Shanti didn’t even care, as long as she had her wedding.
“Nah, it’s okay. I think your mom would have a heart attack if she spent money on an extra plate. Or if there was a white person at the wedding.”
“You can share my plate,” Laila smiled at Jonah, “and besides, Waleed and Shanti will have their white friends there.”
Jonah brushed the strands of hair out of her eyes, his fingers massaging her head. “We’ll see, Laila.”
Laila knew that Jonah was holding back the hurt from the rejection that hadn’t wavered since they first started dating. They didn’t discuss it, but she had a feeling that her parents were the reason why Jonah hadn’t asked her to move in or marry yet. Her mother was the strongest opponent with her snide comments and outright disdain. Laila didn’t think her father paid much attention to Jonah’s presence in her life. He thought that Jonah was a nice guy, but didn’t consider that he’d be here to stay. She didn’t get it. Why did it matter that the person who loved their daughter wasn’t Desi? Wasn’t that not supposed to matter?
The next day, Laila couldn’t get their discussion out of her head. It was Sunday morning and she was at the samosa counter as usual. Waleed was setting up the tables on the restaurant floor, Shanti was filling the chafing dishes, and her parents were in the kitchen finalizing the wedding menu. The sounds that surrounded her somehow seemed eight times louder than normal. The thought of making the samosas suddenly felt daunting. Laila wanted nothing more than to crawl back into Jonah’s bed, away from the restaurant and her family.
The sound of the door bell startled Laila. Her stomach tightened at the sight of Jonah with a huge grin on his face. His plaid shirt was ironed and on top of his t-shirt, the shoes that Laila bought him for his birthday making their way across the restaurant floor. Waleed and Shanti stopped their work and stared at Jonah.
“Hey, Jonah! I didn’t know that you were stopping by!”
Jonah’s grin widened as he hugged Waleed. “Yeah, man, Laila left her necklace at my place, so I’m just giving it back. And I realized that I haven’t been to the restaurant yet, so I thought I’d stop by.”
“It’s nice to see you again, Jonah!” waved Shanti. “God, I haven’t seen you since Bocelli’s!”
“You too, Shanti.”
Jonah rested his arm on the top of the samosa counter’s glass barrier. Laila maintained her silent stare, carefully studying his face. The playful twinkle in his eyes told her not to worry, but she wasn’t as certain. It seemed like he planned to jumpstart their discussion from the night before into action. Laila wasn’t sure if she was ready to do that so soon.
Jonah pulled out her necklace from his pocket, dangling it in front of her face. It was an Eid gift from her Nani when Laila was thirteen. She had texted Jonah to say that she’d get it later tonight, but it looked like Jonah wanted to surprise her with it instead. The whale trinket gleamed in the restaurant lighting, the memory of her grandmother building up Jonah’s consolation.
Laila couldn’t help but smile as Jonah put the necklace back on her neck and kissed it. If her parents weren’t in the kitchen behind her, she would have rested her head on his shoulder. Instead, she squeezed his fingers.
“Should I slip out the front door or through the kitchen?”
Laila chuckled at his wiggling eyebrows and kissed his cheek. “Let’s go through the kitchen.”
Even though stress remained in her mind, Laila felt at ease with Jonah there. She could have eventually faced her parents on her own, but it helped to have Jonah soften her nerves. She took Jonah’s hand and brought him to the kitchen. Her parents were going over the orders they had already gotten for the week ahead. They looked up as soon as they heard the kitchen door swing open, and Mrs. Pasha’s face immediately fell into a frown.
“Oh, hello, Jonah. What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Pasha.”
Laila knew that Jonah’s charming smile wouldn’t work on her parents, but he still did it anyway. They each gave him a small smile back, her mother forcing it out more than her father.
“I was returning something to Delilah, so I thought I’d come say hi before I leave.”
“Oh, okay. It’s nice to see you, Jonah,” said Mr. Pasha. Laila couldn’t gauge her father’s sincerity, but it was better than her mother’s frown.
Jonah wasn’t sure what to do next, but Laila’s tight grip on his sleeve told him to stay. His hand rested on top of hers, gently holding onto her fingers in an attempt to get her to loosen her grip on his ironed sleeve.
“Before Jonah heads off to work,” Laila gulped, “I just want to tell you guys that –”
Laila could already see her mother’s shoulders tense up. She probably thought Laila was going to announce something that would give her a meltdown, like an engagement to Jonah.
“ – that I should run this restaurant, not Waleed.” Laila breathed deeply. “Waleed doesn’t care about it like I do and he’s not going to invest in it and make it better. And I think Nani would agree if she was here.”
Laila’s mother just pursed her lips in response, but Mr. Pasha smiled. “I know, Beta.”
From the corner of her eye, Laila could see Jonah’s excitement for her good news. She couldn’t contain her surprise and irritation. Why would her parents make her tell them her love for the restaurant if they knew? Why were they putting her under all that emotional stress for nothing? “You know?”
“Waleed will take care of some of the financials, but besides that, you’ll be in charge of everything else.” Mr. Pasha glanced at his wife and refocused on Laila and Jonah. “Your Ammi and I were waiting for your birthday, but we were going to sign some papers and transfer the ownership to you, even though we’ll still be working here.”
Laila retightened her grip on Jonah’s sleeve. She knew that if her grandmother was in charge, then she wouldn’t have handled it in this way. When Laila was in high school, her father told her that his mother announced it to him one day like he was being told his destiny. If her grandmother was still alive, then she would have been making small comments to Laila’s parents for years, hinting at it until they bestowed the restaurant to her. Laila even knew that her grandmother, despite her traditional ways and ambitions to ensure that Laila and Waleed memorized all the cultural and religious customs of her home country, would have loved Jonah. She didn’t quite know why her grandmother would have liked him more than her parents did. The feeling was just so strong that it felt like a fact in her mind.
“And Jonah is coming to the wedding,” Laila told her mother.
It slipped out of her mouth more defiantly than she expected, but Laila knew that if she never said it, she’d regret it for the rest of her life. Even if she wasn’t with Jonah anymore (which she couldn’t really see), she would still regret it. Her mother was not going to snatch that experience and Jonah’s chance from her.
Mrs. Pasha saw the sincerity and anger on Laila’s face and sighed. “Okay. I’ll add him to the list after brunch.”
Laila didn’t know if her mother had completely moved on her bitterness. This was a start, though. Perhaps her mother didn’t hate Jonah as much as Laila thought. Or perhaps she didn’t know what to do with Laila’s uncommonly loud boldness.
Waleed ran into the room, panting as he surveyed the crowd in the kitchen. “The Sharmas and Ahmeds are here already.”
“Right on time,” Mr. Pasha grinned. “Thank you, Beta. I better go welcome them in.”
Waleed left before his father finished answering him because he heard Shanti already opening the doors without anyone else there to greet the families. Her father hurriedly began to leave the kitchen. Before disappearing onto the restaurant floor, he turned to address Jonah.
“Do you want to stay to eat? Please stay. Maybe if you stay long enough, then Laila can teach you how to make samosas.”
Both Jonah and Laila smiled at each other. They didn’t feel like sharing that Jonah was already a pro at making samosas and would have no issues sitting behind the counter with Laila. One more surprise for Laila’s parents.
“Sure, Mr. Pasha.”
Laila’s mother stared at them for a minute then retreated to the office, away from the Sunday brunch crowd for the first time in years. Laila exhaled and brought Jonah out to meet the customers and the inviting dishes at the buffet table. Somehow, it felt like Jonah belonged in the restaurant, that he was one of the regular customers who came weekly for Sunday brunch. Laila already believed that this wasn’t Jonah’s first and last appearance at her Aloo Baba.
© Copyright 2020 Mariya Khan
Mariya Khan is a graduate of The George Washington University and Summer Institute at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her work received awards from the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and has appeared in the Summer Institute anthology Multitudes, 50 Word Stories, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Constellate Literary Journal (forthcoming), and Creative Kids. When she’s not working as an Editorial Assistant at National Geographic Books, she is trying new recipes and watching crime dramas.