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from the January 2018 issue

The Nanny

During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Kazakh university student in Moscow takes up work as a nanny to support herself in this excerpt from a novel by Aigul Kemelbayeva.


In September of my last year at the university, political reforms transformed the whole world. I did not immediately understand the problem, sudden as it was. The seventy-year-old fortress of the Soviet Union cracked. Each of its fifteen wings collapsed, and this resulted unavoidably in economic crisis. 

It was becoming quite clear to me that I had never been taught to step outside my beloved literature and look at the real world. Now the real lessons were beginning. At first I was too startled to really grasp it. In a cruel trick, a money order arrived at the dormitory, my student heart rejoiced, and I rushed to the post office to cash it. In the palm of a post office employee that weighty sum evaporated into thin air. ‘‘This transfer is unauthorized,” she said. “We no longer hand out money from Kazakhstan. It will all be sent back.” Her words sounded like a court sentence. What nonsense was this? Thinking that she must be joking, I showed her the piece of paper and my passport again. How could they send back such a large amount of money that had been sent personally to me? It was ridiculous! What right did she have to deny me the money that belonged to me? But soon it was very clear that this situation had nothing to do with the post office clerk. 

What was to be done? Who was to blame? Terrible, rebellious queries stuck in my throat and started sucking my blood like a leech. You can’t survive in a megalopolis with no money. That blatant reality grew stronger every day. Soon after, the same cursed post office denied me 30,000 rubles sent by telegram, then 90,000 rubles transferred conventionally, and then, in the middle of November, 50,000 rubles that my mother sent, hoping her third attempt would finally work be successful. All the paperwork for those transfers was written out in my name. The proverb was proving true: Even if it rains cloth, a slave won’t get a piece big enough for an insole. 

Suddenly I felt like a character from Kafka. Society had adopted an anti-Utopian model, and its slogan was: no more transfers from Kazakhstan to Russia. I found out later that Kazakhstan had left the ruble zone. Kazakhstan was a foreign country now, and it was going to print its own currency, the national tenge. Maybe it had already started! Apparently the world’s bureaucrats, sitting in their offices, had decided that the student community should die of hunger. All I could do was ask God to give me patience, sabyr. For the first time I was cornered. I couldn’t look at life with the traditional Kazakh view. The technological age regulates social relations with its robotic fingers, and it does not give a damn about your naturally noble spirit.


There is always a way out of any crisis, so really, there is no use despairing, getting eaten up by worry. And patience is gold, of course. Lilya from the translation department was already working as a nanny, but while she worked she hadn’t touched her thesis, and now time was pressing her hard. She could no longer do the job every day and needed a partner to take turns with her. 

Close to February, Lilya took me to the apartment where she worked, so I could get my first glimpse of the new era. The whole metro ride there, I felt sorry for myself, astonished by my situation, feeling like my head was suddenly locked in a halter, that there was no way I could break loose. But I also knew that if the owners of that apartment saw me as a stranger and would not hire me, then I would continue starving, destroy my health, and have that burden for the rest of my life. I was stuck: if I pulled one way, my bull would die, and if I pulled the other, my cart would break. The idea of being enslaved by strangers in the long days of winter was depressing. But, as they say, in three days a person can get used to anything, even the grave, so I had to hope for the best.

When Lilya rang the doorbell, my heart was in my mouth. A pale young woman with a long bob opened the door. Her face seemed so familiar—she was a Kazakh, and her name was Jamal. But that did not make me happy to have come. Lilya had told me the woman of the house was not pretty. That meant Lilya’s understanding of beauty was wildly inaccurate. This woman was a little over thirty, with a straight nose, hazel eyes, and beautiful eyebrows. Her body was petite. But she looked tired. She was wrapped in a long blue gown with white stripes that went down to her feet, as if she were cold. Lilya must have told them she was bringing me, because she greeted us indifferently and cheerlessly, gesturing that she had a headache. 

Just then a little girl jumped out from behind her like a kid goat. Her eyes were shining and her carefree childhood was smiling cheerfully on her face. “Rita, turn off the TV. Haven’t you finished watching your cartoons?” said the mother to the daughter. “Go and do your English, your father will quiz you tonight.” She said a few words to Lilya about some household chores and then went back to sit at her computer in the bedroom. 

Lilya had already told me everything she knew about this family. Nine-year-old Rita’s father was a Russian and her mother was a Kazakh. The mother worked as an economist at a big commercial firm. She was a close friend of a Tatar acquaintance of Lilya’s, which is how Lilya originally found the job. Lilya did not know what sort of firm it was, and she didn’t care. Rita’s mixed blood does not show at all. Her eyes are green, her skin is white, and her hair is not totally blond, but sort of brownish blond. She looks more like a Balt than a Slav. It seemed safe to predict that she will be a pretty girl when she grows up. When she caught sight of me, a new nanny, she lingered around in that manner peculiar to children, and we talked a little to get acquainted.

That day, it was my job to clean the room where Jamal was sitting. Even though it was not a pleasant feeling, I soaked a dustcloth in a bucket of water and started wiping up dust. Finishing quickly and escaping became the most pleasant thing I could imagine. While dusting around Jamal, I tried not to look at her, because the unhappy, annoyed mood of the young woman staring at the computer was easy to sense. But just then I was having a hard time paying attention to other things: I was obsessed with myself. I could almost hear a voice judging me. “This is what you get for your overweening desire for the pen, your punishment for listening to your passion and choosing writing,” that voice crowed. “Creativity cannot be innocent. So don’t be so surprised at being punished! You deserve it! You should not have been so vain, so ambitious!” 

But the haughty look of this woman, using me as slave labor here in this modern time, made me angry. “Damn you, you bourgeois fool! One day I will be a world-renowned writer!” I thought to myself. But I knew that was the whimpering puppy of powerlessness talking, and a more kingly soul would be more forgiving. 

“A writer needs all sorts of material from life, and this incomparable experience is yours!” some hypocritical inner voice told me, suddenly sounding as excited as if it had found seven hares underground. What can I say? I was experiencing mixed feelings—pity and sorrow for myself, joy at having found a way to make money, shame and surprise at having my leisure stolen from me. In the meantime, it seemed unspeakably odd and humiliating to be crawling around on all fours, up and down, now with a wet cloth, now with a dry cloth. 

In two hours we made that two-room Moscow apartment shine like a mirror. We had scrubbed every tile in the bathroom, and the clean sheets and Rita’s freshly laundered clothes were hanging on a rope over the balcony. We had ironed the laundry that was already dry. Why do people refer to such cleanliness as “German”? Is cleanliness the attribute of just a single nation? The world could really use the cleanliness of the nomads. When those chores were done, Lilya and I started taking care of lunch in the kitchen. We warmed up some borscht we found in the fridge, and Lilya, apparently right at home, put butter, bread, cheese, and jam on the table. That must have been the first time in fifteen days that I had decent food. After the meal, I remembered what my grandmother used to say: God creates every person with his own share in the world. But feeding myself in someone else’s kitchen still bothered me. 

When Jamal’s husband opened the door and walked in, we were drinking tea. Lilya quickly jumped up and took two of the three bags that he was holding. 

 “Hello,” he greeted us softly. He was a friendly man about the same age as his wife. He was tall and had typically Russian features. Compared to his wife’s slimness and fragility, he was much healthier and showed no traces of tiredness.

“Papa! Did you bring the movies?” shouted his daughter from the other room.

“Yes, Rita. Here, come and get them.”

Rita rushed in and immediately read the titles. They were Walt Disney cartoons. What else but Tom and Jerry could interest a nine-year-old girl? Then she ordered her father, who was just taking off his jacket, to turn on the video player.

“You will not watch more than forty minutes,” warned her father. 

Lilya was still putting away the groceries he had brought home. It was obvious that he chose only the best fruit. The rich color of the oranges, the size of the green apples, big as bowls, the peels on the bananas—everything indicated deliciousness. Clearly, all the fruit was for Rita.

After lunch, Jamal let us go early. Still wrapped in her fleece robe, as if all her young energy had been sapped by her computer monitor, or as if she simply never got enough sleep, her face sad and suffering, she handed 5000 rubles to each of us. 

“Girls, I was supposed to spend 5000 per day for a maid,” she told us wearily. “Today I’m paying 10,000 rubles. From now on, I’ll need you to come one at a time.”

“Thank you,” we said. I was glad, but my voice sounded a little embarrassed.

 No doubt she was obeying her Kazakh nature when she accepted the extra expense that day. 

I won’t lie—those bluish banknotes made me feel dizzy. For months, all sources of cash, except for my student stipend, had been blocked. And I’m wasteful by nature, because there is nothing more humiliating than counting change. Right after high school, I won a literary contest and my story was published. I received a big award and decent royalties. But I wasted that money, spending it frivolously. A big portion of my award was distributed among relatives by my mother as suinshi, and the rest was spent on the feast we gave to celebrate. I spent the royalties myself, buying expensive clothes for my sister, who was about to be married. I could have saved that money and bought a small apartment on the outskirts of Almaty. But I’ve never been able to see into the future. 

I wondered if I should be worried about the unseemly way in which I was now earning money. It was the first time in my life that I had to take a job as an actual laborer, cleaning someone’s floor and washing their dishes. But the texture of that blue banknote seemed to have the magical power to heal the wounds in my soul, and erase all my whining and complaining before it poisoned me. Sabyr nested in my heart like a swallow. Sabyr would carry me to my goal. 


The translator would like to acknowledge Zaure Batayeva's generous advice regarding this translation.


Excerpted from The Nanny © Aigul Kemelbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.

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