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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Flooded!

You’d think I’d have more serious things on my mind than what to do with my hair. As if Pakistan isn’t going through a worse disaster than the 2005 tsunami and the Kashmir and Haiti earthquakes all put together. As if millions of people haven’t been displaced, rendered homeless, and left to the mercy of nature….and the government.

Muzaffargarh

The thing is, we’re staggered by the scale of this new devastation, now that the truth has hit home, and we’re at a loss and feeling puny. Disbelief has been replaced by despair, a feeling acutely compounded by the mis-actions of our president. Much has been said about his jaunt abroad, Cheshire cat grin in place. I for one, am dumbfounded by his speeches and his behaviour. His bereavement over Benazir has always seemed disingenuous, and so now does his concern for the well-being of his countrymen. He is a liar and a joker. Perhaps a clever joker. After all, he has amassed wealth that has not even been assessed. It infuriates me that he owns a chateau in Normandy. He should be made to sell it, and all his other homes, and use the money to help the people of his country.

As if that’ll happen.

Anyways, there seem to be a lot of organisations working towards getting relief supplies across to the flood affectees. Huz and I donated some money to my neighbour, who was collecting along with a bunch of friends, though I felt it wasn’t enough, we definitely need to do more, and surely enough, more independent groups are presenting themselves as trustworthy avenues for getting help across directly to the affected. The trouble is, it is the month of Ramazan, when communal dues and zakat must be given, not to mention help those of the poor in direct connection to us….like my maid Zahooran. So there’s only so much that can go around. Rising inflation has hit us all, but especially the poor, who struggle to make ends meet as it is, and I know Zahooran waits all year for this time when she can count on me being more generous than usual.

But after reading the papers today, another horrifying scenario is rearing its head. Famine.

They’re saying prices of fresh produce are going to go through the roof, as supply starts dwindling. And of course it will…..huge swathes of standing crops and farmland have been inundated.

Zahooran tells me worriedly, that even after the water recedes, the land will be waterlogged and rendered useless for a long time. It will be uncultivable and she knows this because her family back home does ‘khaiti bari’ in Riyasat Bahawalpur. And I cannot even begin to comprehend how the farmers and their families are going to deal with something like this, let alone us city people who depend on the rural people to provide us with what they grow. What the f*** are we going to do??

For now I intend to gather together another carton of rations to donate to the flood relief effort organised by KGS middle school. It seems some of the staff is going to go along with the donated goods in a big truck and distribute the food and medicines themselves, which is just great. But at the end of the day, I know I’ll be sleeping in a dry comfy bed, and my heart goes out to those millions of people for whom even the basics of human living are now an unimaginable luxury…

If prayers would work I’d pray, but I think what is called for now is extreme generosity. To hell with donor fatigue. We can’t just sit around and feel horrified and helpless. We have to help as much as we can! And we have to keep helping relentlessly.

the displaced.