Me and my Help Issues

It’s been two months now since I’ve had a new person coming in to clean everyday. Her name is Nazish.

She is tall and thin and her default expression is gloomy, if not dour. She has long hair that she ties in a bun and droopy, hangdog eyes.

She wears a black burqa with shiny floral embroidery down the front, which she takes off when she enters the house and gets to work, spending a minute buttoning it on and wrapping her head carefully before leaving to walk back home.  She doesn’t live very far from our place. Since she is new, and young, and perhaps because Huz works at home, she moves about discreetly, with her dupatta perched on her head and wrapped around her shoulders.

There is something very collected and composed about her, very unlike Zahooran, our previous maid.  If you have been following my blog, you’ll know a lot about Zahooran and her talkative, annoying, yet endearing personality, and all my other colourful help-related issues.

Nazish doesn’t talk very much, despite my efforts at trying to draw her out. Her speech is soft to the point of being almost inaudible, and I must strain to catch the gist of what she says.

She had one or two talkative days when her story spilled out as she mopped the floor and I folded laundry, and I learned that she is married, her husband repairs old TV’s but is lazy about work, they have two daughters (who she wants to try and send to school scraping together as much as she can save) and they live in the downstairs portion of a two storey house, the total indoor space of which is about as big as one of our bedrooms. Her husband also parks his motorbike next to the double mattress on which they all sleep. There is a reason for this, but I’m afraid I can’t remember it.

Her husband is the youngest amongst his siblings so he gets the short end of the stick. Nazish thinks he is often taken advantage of and is forced to be the family gofer. He resents this, so has developed a devil-may-care attitude towards his family, which only has the effect of reducing his influence further. This affects Nazish, since she ends up not receiving monetary gifts from in-laws on special occasions, and various other slights.

I employed Nazish with the understanding that she would come to work by 9 or 10 in the morning so she could wrap up by 12 or 1 and leave. By the end of a week, I realized that Nazish was fairly good at her work, but she was not very disciplined when it came to timings. When questioned, she’d mumble something sheepishly about sleeping late at night, or the kids being unwell, or her husband waking up late and needing breakfast before she could leave her house.

I decided it didn’t matter if she came a little late, though I did always ask for reasons when she started coming in at 11, and then 12. Her excuses seemed legitimate, so I didn’t really mind. Anyways, I’m just grateful to have help at all, and that she is good and trustwothy.

All is well. But I find myself feeling a bit put off lately. I find myself increasingly missing Zahooran, despite my relief at finding a good replacement after she left.

I miss the warmth of Zahooran’s greetings as she came into the house at 8:30 every day, a simple cotton dupatta covering her head that she’d drape on a chair before getting down to work. She had adopted Huz as her brother and had grown to be unabashed in his presence, yakking with him as easily as she would with me, sharing anecdotes from her past or little everyday troubles. Most of her work wardrobe consisted of hand-me-downs.

I miss her system of working, annoyingly disorganized though it sometimes was, but she made the floors shine, and the taps and windows gleam, so it was easy to forgive her. I would tell her to do something a certain way and she would oblige with enthusiasm, breaking into embarrassed laughter if she felt that she was not doing something right.

I miss the implicit kinship with which she cleaned the house like she owned it. After five years, I sensed that she valued me as an employer and that she liked working at our place.

I feel Zahooran’s absence more keenly as I open the door for Nazish and greet her, only to receive a stiff, awkward half-smile in return. I am beginning to get the feeling that if I don’t acknowledge her first, she will not acknowledge me at all. All she wants are instructions, not small talk. She is perhaps too awkward to understand that a little banter goes a long way…but my cheerful attempted overtures fall flat. I get the feeling that she is too miserable to be endearing.

This makes me uneasy in her presence. She came to work at 1:30 day before yesterday, and when I asked her why she came so very late, she didn’t reply, she just continued washing dishes sheepishly. I asked her if she was alright, if her daughters were well, if there was a problem at home, but she just muttered that she’d come early from now on. Her behaviour caused me some irritation. But then I had my irritated moments with Zahooran too.

Zahooran had a lot more things going wrong in her life that had the potential to break her spirit. Her husband refused to work, and she was pretty much on her own, raising an adopted son as best as she could. She brought him with her as she came over for the last time, walking over to the dining table chair slowly and sitting down with an air of a person carrying a terrible weight on her petite shoulders. She looked so upset that it took her some time to speak, as if she was suppressing tears.

Uncertainty shrouded her ill face as she broke the news that she was forced to leave Karachi and go back to her own town. All I could think as I listened to her was, how would I ever get by without her?

She finished talking, I hugged her thin frame, controlled my own tears and gave her some money to see her through the next month or so. She would leave the next day with no idea if she would come back. She left work quite a few times over the last 5 years, but she always assured me that she’d return. And she always did. And I never replaced her, because I didn’t want a replacement. I think I was loyal to her too.

It’s been a little over two months since then, and my world didn’t fall apart as I had imagined. I spoke to Zahooran on the phone a month ago. She wondered if I had found a new maid and I told her I had but of course, she wasn’t as good at her job as Zahooran had been, and she sounded relieved, and a tad smug to hear it. She sends me prayers and the good wishes of her whole family. Apparently they are all very fond of Huz and Amu and I, though we have never met, but Zahooran often talks about us to them, as people who looked after her well.

So I miss Zahooran as I wonder if Nazish will let down her hair. Maybe she just needs a little time. But what if this is how she will always be? Will I be able to exorcize Zahooran’s loud, jarring but lovable spirit and adapt to Nazish’s quiet, creepy yet dignified one?

Only time will tell I suppose. Let’s see.

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21 thoughts on “Me and my Help Issues

  1. satsumaart December 5, 2013 / 2:14 pm

    Lovely, Munira — the story of a potential relationship starting, with all the feelings of uncertainty (especially the uncertainty of whether this is even a relationship you want). I haven’t hired a housekeeper before, but I feel I can relate to what you describe!

    • Munira December 5, 2013 / 5:27 pm

      You know, with Zahooran around I used to wish I had a nice, quiet unobtrusive maid 😐 Now I’ve got one, and though I appreciate the fact that she keeps her distance, I wouldn’t mind a little camaraderie. Does it have to be a trade-off I wonder? Maybe I should just count my blessings 🙂

  2. Heather December 5, 2013 / 3:45 pm

    Tony, who absolutely despises housework, has often talked of hiring someone. I am far too cheap to pay someone to do something we are easily capable of, and really I am very picky about doing things my way. Also, I imagine us hiring help who turns out to be quiet and awkward. Also, it seems to be a thing over here to hire a maid, and then do all the cleaning before she comes so that she doesn’t judge 😉
    Hoping for all of you that Nazish gets it together on the timing front, and loosens up some on the interpersonal front!

    • Munira December 5, 2013 / 5:38 pm

      I know exactly what you mean, girlfriend! I enjoy doing housework ONCE IN A WHILE, but would go mad if I had to do it everyday, and our house gets pretty dirty everyday (dusty world I tell you) so hiring help is very very important. I’m glad Nazish got the hang of things quickly, but there are a few things I need to point out….and I hate doing that. Makes me feel like such an ’employer’ 😛

  3. crazygoangirl December 5, 2013 / 3:52 pm

    Aah! And just yesterday weren’t we saying how change is the only constant?! Personally, I don’t talk much to my maid at all. It’s just the way I am – not that I’m being deliberately snobbish, just that I like to keep my distance and not get drawn into their dramas. I’ve done that before and had bad experiences, so now I keep aloof.

    Something (probably my gut!) tells me, Nazish is a story waiting to be told. I’m sure when that happens you’ll be ready!

    • Munira December 5, 2013 / 5:48 pm

      I like change! And I am well disposed enough to Nazish. I appreciate the distance she wedges between us (as you might remember, Zahooran had no sense of personal space) but the fact that she doesn’t greet me with a smile and eye contact really bothers me somehow. I like good manners! 😛
      I do understand what you mean about staying aloof and keeping away from being drawn into dramas though. Let’s see how our relationship develops 🙂 *makes note to self about not being overly sensitive*

      • crazygoangirl December 6, 2013 / 7:57 am

        Yeah…my maid here is a diminutive slip of a girl Sultana with two daughters & a husband that has abandoned her. It isn’t a unique story really – most of them come from similar backgrounds. But she does give me a smile when I let her in every morning.

        I wonder what she would say if you asked Nazish right out why she smiled so little? Direct I know but might jolt her out of her torpor!

        • Munira December 6, 2013 / 8:01 am

          Well, whadyouknow, she smiled and said ‘assalamalekum’ today! Maybe she sensed I was troubled and complained on my blog? 😛 There seems to be hope yet.

          • crazygoangirl December 6, 2013 / 8:42 am

            See?! There’s always hope! Maybe she was going through a rough time at home? I hope she keeps smiling 😊

  4. indiajones December 7, 2013 / 5:40 pm

    All this may seem strange to folk in the West, but not in our sub-continent, where the experience you narrate is familiar to thousands of families. Even though, as Bernard Shaw said, in a master and servant relationship, it is the master who is the more dependent of the two.
    I would like to relate a story related to me by my the-then boss when I worked for a leading gulf-based airline in Trivandrum, Kerala, in 1998. My boss’s wife, and several top society ladies of her association, decided to go the the slums on a daily basis early morning, and clean up the houses and surroundings, to set a personal example of hygiene and cleanliness. After two weeks of the routine, they felt they had done enough. But then the slum ladies felt lost, they promptly went to the houses of the society ladies, and told them, please don’t stop what you are doing, we need you to come daily to our houses to clean-up.

    • Munira December 10, 2013 / 11:13 am

      What a coincidence that you mentioned Trivandrum! I’m reading Arvind Adiga’s ‘Between the Assassinations’ these days and the story revolves around Kittur, which I believe isn’t far away.
      And what a funny ironic story you narrate! Indeed, housework must not be taken lightly…it is drudgery and repetitive at that, but be done it must…..unless we stop caring about it altogether and accept messes 🙂

  5. Kathryn McCullough December 9, 2013 / 1:33 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that Zahooran’s gone—and that your new maid is a bit distant. Maybe that will change with time. We don’t have a maid here in Ecuador–though most expats do. I got along with our house-keeper in Haiti, but I don’t like having a stranger around all of the time. I know they eventually become less new, but I prefer to just do the cleaning myself. Hope your new maid begins coming on time.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    • Munira December 10, 2013 / 11:21 am

      The older I get, the less invested I feel in housework. It is important for my house to be clean for sure, but I’d rather pay someone to do jobs that get tiring if they are required to be done daily. That’s the good thing about hiring help…you have time to do other things…like laundry and cooking. Life is a lot of work, isn’t it? *sigh*

  6. berlioz1935 December 10, 2013 / 12:49 am

    What a great slice of your and the life of the people who come into your home to work. Thank you for sharing and allowing us, strange people in the West, to have a closer look. I have never been an employer of anyone and have no idea about the dynamics of employer / employee relationships. We are like Kathryn McCullough and do all house work ourselves. Thanks goodness, we are not that fussy, otherwise there would be no time left for the internet and international communications.

    • Munira December 10, 2013 / 11:24 am

      Haha, you’re further away in the East than I Peter! 🙂 But I know what you mean of course. Hats off to you for managing it all on your own! I think it is very important to not be fussy….there is so much more to life than housework!

  7. auntyuta December 10, 2013 / 1:56 am

    Lovely to see you writing again, Munira. 🙂
    Berlioz (Peter) wrote to you: “We are like Kathryn McCullough and do all house work ourselves. Thanks goodness, we are not that fussy . . . ”
    I must say to this, I’d sometimes like the cleaning done a little bit more thoroughly. But we do not seem to have the time and the energy for this since we are 78-79 year olds. I had recently a carpal tunnel release operation. This required Peter to do a lot more work for me and around the house than what he would usually do. I am glad that I am pretty much back to normal by now! 🙂
    Do your parents get any help in the house, Munira?
    I remember my grandmother in Lodz used to have two young Polish girls helping her. But she was still cooking beautiful meals for a large extended family when she was well into her seventies. 🙂

    • Munira December 10, 2013 / 11:37 am

      So good to hear that you’re feeling better now Aunty Uta, I had meant to ask you about your operation, after seeing a picture of you in a sling, but then it slipped my mind. Some time ago I had injured my wrist and the bones in my hand while doing some heavy lifting and gardening work and someone had suggested I might have carpal tunnel. It went away with some rest, as I eased up on housework a bit. 🙂
      To answer your question, my parents have not had regular help in the house for quite a few years and they refuse to get any as they are increasingly non-fussy about cleanliness around the house! They manage okay, with one of us four daughters going over to help out once in a while. My mother was never too meticulous anyway, always preferring creative work over housework 🙂 Both my parents enjoy their freedom and privacy in their house without anyone coming in to disturb the peace, and if this means that things will not be as clean, so be it!

      • auntyuta December 11, 2013 / 12:55 am

        I meant to say sisters (plural)!

  8. auntyuta December 11, 2013 / 12:53 am

    It’s good to hear, Munira, that your parents manage all right on their own and that you and your sister can sometimes help out. Peter does for instance all the window cleaning. We do have an awful lot of windows! Not that I dislike windows, but it is a terrific amount of work for Peter to do all of it on his own. He tends to delay doing this job for as long as possible. Sometimes I wish he would agree that we employ someone to do this job for us. The same applies to gardening!

    Some of our children are going to stay with us over Christmas. However that does not mean extra work for Peter and me for they always do their share of housework while they are staying with us. It’s always great to have some family staying with us for a few days! 🙂

  9. Kathy December 15, 2013 / 11:48 pm

    I enjoyed reading this story, Munira. Have never had a housekeeper, so don’t know about that, but this reminds me about one of my workmates. She is very reserved and won’t say hello unless I do first. Yet, every once in a while, she breaks through her reserve and chatters. During those times she shines. I would like to see the shine more often.

    • Munira October 12, 2014 / 8:53 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading the story Kathy, would you believe things between Nazish and I haven’t changed at all? I have grown to accept it now as one of those things that cannot be changed. I consider her as my workmate though, except she gets paid! 😛

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