Joya was far from comfortable. The metallic desk-chair had gaping holes in its plastic upholstery. The sharp edges of these gaps protruded outwards and mischievously jabbed the unfortunate occupier. She had positioned herself on the brink, which had no tears, but the rusty metal frame pressed against her thigh coldly. The cup of tea that rattled against the matching saucer in her shaking hands had long gone cold. The drying bag of PG Tips poised delicately on the lip of the plate muffled the sound in parts.
She looked around the room once more, taking in the dampness that she had missed when she had arrived, too nervous to be aware of her surroundings. The first-floor beige bedroom of a Victorian terraced house spiced up by the aroma of curry from Brick Lane was not what she had pictured the solicitor’s office as when he had called her two days ago to schedule the appointment. Both the wallpaper and carpet had several tears, only to reveal more beige underneath. Her departed parents had played a cruel joke on Joya, returning her to a spitting image of her childhood room to settle their affairs. They had left the house to the rats when her father’s curry house had taken off and spawned more restaurants, but the room still haunted her dreams.
She jumped and almost dropped the china when the lawyer stormed into his office, shouting expletives in his native tongue into his mobile. He hung up mid-sentence at the sight of her, apologised for his tardiness and positioned himself behind the frail desk covered in papers and dusty old files. Pushing some of these off the table, he said in the voice she recognised from their telephone conversation, “Uncle and Aunty were good friends of my parents. Always there for us. Didn’t deserve what happened to them. I’m so sorry for your loss.” He busied himself with locating the right file. When he found it, he said, “Normally, this would be straightforward. But Anamika and Begum Nasreen don’t seem to want to resolve the matter.”
“My sisters don’t get along,” Joya said, and added as an afterthought, “That’s an understatement.” She surprised herself by speaking as though they were on familiar terms.
“See, that complicates things a lot,” he said, looking up from the file. He paused to think of a delicate way of phrasing what he wanted to say. Unable to come up with anything satisfactory, he opted for honesty. “I don’t wish to add to your pain, but I won’t be able to release your inheritance from the estate unless they come to an agreement.”
“We had to host two separate milads because the two of them can’t be in the same room, so it is more likely that we will go through a whole year without rain than them reaching an agreement,” she said. “My understanding is that Ammu and Abbu both left me the same thing?”
“That’s correct. They left you the house.”
“Then where’s the problem?”
“They have two separate wills that are contradictory to one another. Your father left his half of the business equally to your mother and your eldest sister Anamika, while Aunty left her half equally to Uncle and the middle daughter Begum Nasreen. They were dead on arrival at the scene of the accident, so we can’t determine which will takes precedence,” he said, failing to be sympathetic despite trying.
“Why can’t you just give Anamika and Nasreen half each?”
“Neither is willing to settle for anything less than 100%,” he sighed. He had been locked in negotiations with the two elder sisters, but his best efforts had been entirely fruitless. Every time it appeared as though his words were being heeded, each would remind him of her uncompromising stance. Joya knew this, as she knew that they had backed their unreasonable demands by feigning sound minds. Any fool would be forgiven for being convinced that it was all Begum Nasreen Piyal’s fault when listening to the empathic Anamika Layla, and vice versa.
Each had gone to great lengths to get Joya on her respective side, offering her a share of the spoils in return for being declared the victor. For her part, Joya indentured herself to the charade of mourning that their culture demanded of them to shy away from being swayed by either. She knew that the neutrality wouldn’t last forever, especially since both of her sisters had started campaigning for the support of the employees. Most of them had pledged allegiance to one or the other, and had started obeying the directives issued by the sister they were loyal to. This had resulted in chaos reigning supreme in the restaurants in the days since the passing of the parents, with rudderless staff running around frantically only for all their energy being expended to achieve a sum-total of nothing. Customers had exponentially dried up until there were none left. The curry business that had paid for her private education and mortgage-free London flat was teetering on the brink.
There was a part of her that was weary of it all. Listening to that timid voice, Joya asked the solicitor, “What if I forfeit my inheritance? Will that allow me to walk away?”
Her heart sank at the sight of him shaking his head. “You can’t forfeit what isn’t yours yet,” he said.
“What are my options then?”
“You could always throw your hat into the ring? Vie for autonomy along with the other two.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, perplexed.
“Look, business is suffering while your sisters bicker. The estate is entitled to equitable remedies to prevent this from happening if they keep turning a blind eye to reason,” he explained. “There is another option,” he said slyly.
“And that is…?”
“The only person making any money from this mess is me. I haven’t sent my invoices yet, but the longer the stalemate continues, the bigger my bank balance becomes. I could inflate the numbers tenfold, keep what I am owed and give the rest to you. We could siphon the entire value out of the estate and bankrupt it. I will get more than I’m supposed to, but you could argue that that’s a fair price for giving everything to you. A deserved bonus,” he said, flashing her his best smile. “Doubt they would be fighting if there was nothing left to fight over.”
Joya let out a laugh as she said, “You don’t know them very well then!” She placed the cup in the circle reserved for it on the saucer, and put it on the table casually, pretending to dismiss what had just been suggested. Her eyes, however, told a different story as they locked with his. The lawyer gave her a slight nod of acknowledgment. He quietly produced a pad and a pen from one of the drawers of the desk, and got to work in earnest.
Ikhtisad is a writer and an erstwhile lawyer. Follow him on Twitter: @ikhtisad