A weird turn of events

Of course Mini had to go. That was a foregone conclusion for Huz.

But for Amu and I, the story was far more complex and fraught with emotion to have such a neat ending.

With great half-heartedness, we started a campaign to find adopters for little Mini. But I was becoming more and more certain that Fuzzy’s presence in the house was no longer something I wanted to tolerate. I felt like I was done with him. Even Amu was indifferent by now. He was just a badly-behaved, spoilt-rotten cat, hell-bent on making sure I couldn’t have a pretty house. I found myself looking at him with a mixture of sadness, frustration, anger and despair. I began to neglect him and stopped brushing him, esp since he had begun to flinch and back away even from the thing he loved the most. I didn’t care that this was only a manifestation of his anxiety at Mini’s presence in the house and began to look for a shelter to give Fuzzy up to. I just didn’t want to handle his spraying and marking anymore. I even thought of abandoning him somewhere, immediately dismissing the idea even though urged by well-meaning but ultimately misguided parents and siblings to do just that.

The dissonance in my head over the cat conundrum was causing a great deal of just-under-the-surface stress, the kind that makes you broody and think dark existential thoughts. I was really tired of cleaning up cat pee on a daily basis, failing at administering antidepressant, failing at finding another home for Mini, failing at not loving her so it wouldn’t be difficult to give her away.

So it certainly didn’t help that Nazish had begun to come in later and later for work. Her expected time of arrival had gone from 12 to 2, and I was getting increasingly irritated by what had really begun to seem like her taking advantage of my good nature. I decided I would let her go too.

I told Huz and he looked at me like I was hysterical, sternly telling me to calm down. Nazish was a good maid, trustworthy and quiet to boot, so what if she always looked depressed and we barely communicated with each other? Firing her at a time when we needed help keeping the house pee-free and dust-free was the stupidest thing I could possibly do.

So of course, I proceeded to do two stupid things.

I wrote to the only animal shelter in Karachi to ask that if they would take Fuzzy, we would not only donate money on a regular basis, we would even provide a cage to keep him in.

And when I opened the door for Nazish to enter on Monday, (the day after Fuzzy and Mini’s poopy battle) I waited till she had begun to wash dishes before breaking the silence between us by saying she should start looking for other work as her schedule was no longer acceptable to me.

She took the news stoically, only asking if she should leave immediately or stay on till the end of the month. I was immediately regretful, as I felt I had somehow failed her by not understanding her problems and her reasons for coming late, failed her by making her feel so disposable. But all I said was there was no need to hurry, she could take her time finding another job. Then I left the kitchen and left her to mull over her immediate future as she continued washing dishes. Huz just shook his head and warned me that my imminent housework-related stress would only mean he would have two stressed creatures to contend with in the house, one human, one feline.

I avoided Nazish for an hour, but then she struck up a conversation as I chopped veggies, confessing sheepishly that she knew my anger was justified and that she really had troubled me greatly with her erratic timings and that she was willing to ask around and get me a replacement.

It was as if she had only to speak for me to soften. Of course I didn’t really want to fire her, I said. I liked her work and I trusted her and had no desire to go through the hassle of employing, training and getting used to the presence of another person in the house at all. Come to think of it, did it really even matter what time she came as long as the work got done? I told her how stressed I was about Fuzzy and Mini and how I was thinking of giving Fuzzy away as a solution to my problems.

Nazish looked at me and asked, “Kitne mein deingi? Main le jaoon usse?”

She had mentioned once or twice before how much her little daughter adored cats and how she loved playing with one that lived at her mother’s place, where she left both her daughters each day before coming to work at my place, as she couldn’t possibly leave them alone at home in an environment like the Colony where she lived, a dense settlement of mostly Pashtuns.

I looked back at her, incredulous. She actually thought I was selling Fuzzy! But my incredulity turned into hope…giving Fuzzy over to Nazish and her little daughters seemed so much better than giving him up to a shelter….

We started talking nitty gritties. All talk of firing Nazish had been banished, and I figured her sudden talkativeness and animation stemmed from nervousness at having come very close to losing a job she really depended on./

She reassured me that Fuzzy would be safe in her ‘store room’ and could romp in her courtyard if he liked, and that as long as I provided his kibbles, they would take care of him for us.

I bounced off to tell Huz what had just transpired. He looked at me and shook his head again, laughing at how rapidly the situation in our house managed to swing with such mercurial changeability, but completely approving of Nazish’s acquisition of the errant Fuzzy.

I set about packing his things, his bath towel, shampoo, food and water bowls, his brush…not allowing myself to feel the slightest tinge of wtf-am-I-doing.

It was decided that she would fetch her daughters from her mothers house and bring them back to my place, after which I would pack Fuzzy into his basket and drop them all home. I had never seen where she lived, in a year and a half of her working with us, and it seemed this was the day I would finally make the leap across the class barrier that divided me from Nazish’s world.

She sat down on the floor in my room, where I was brushing Fuzzy for the last time, feeling the first glimmers of sadness at what I was doing. It was late afternoon and the sun’s presence was waning as Nazish began to talk to me in a manner she had hitherto never done. I listened as she started telling me detailed stories about her life and her childhood and her complicated family dynamics, her husband, her marriage, her parents and siblings, her uncles and aunts and cousins, all caught up in traditions full of patriarchy and misogyny. I listened to her talk stoically about the difficulties she faced, the bad choices she had made or that had been made on her behalf and which she was now trapped in. She talked about her daughters birthday and how she danced with her uncle, the weddings that she loved to dress up for, the intrigues and scandals that were the fuel of their family get-togethers. She told me about all the places she had ever worked at, the kinships she had formed with men who never disrespected her, the employers who helped pay for her elder daughters schooling and rebuked her for getting back together with an uncaring, sometimes abusive husband. She had been engaged to him when she was little, but he had defied his betrothal to her by eloping with her erstwhile school friend, then divorcing her out of remorse at being ostracized by the family and marrying Nazish eventually. It was as if she had been propelled into self-disclosure by the faith I was displaying in her, by entrusting my pet to her.

We talked till it grew dark, me asking curious questions that she had no qualms about answering, and I confess I found myself fascinated, witnessing and undergoing a complete transformation in my perception of who Nazish was, not a mournful, depressed girl, but a thoughtful yet feisty individual with strong convictions and aspirations despite the challenges life was constantly throwing at her. But more of this in another post.

For now we finally got to meet her daughters, 9-yr old pretty Ailya, who shared her birthday with Amu, one of the reasons I felt Nazish was destined to work for me, and 3 yr-old pixie-faced Sidra, the future mistress of a fallen-from-grace Fuzzy. Little humans and cat were introduced to each other and I spent some time explaining the do’s and don’t’s of dealing with him.

Nazish and her daughters slid into the backseat while Amu cradled Fuzzy’s basket in front. I smiled uncertainly at her, she smiled uncertainly back, and then we were off to Nazish’s house in the heart of a slum we had never set foot in before.

(to be continued…)

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.

Song triggers

Stories of my annual October allergies have become old hat now, so I won’t say much about it except that it’s been a miserable week…or two. Flu rendered me more or less useless, so I wallowed in listlessness while it lasted. On top of all that, Zahooran decided to celebrate Eid back in her hometown and has been gone for…you guessed it…two weeks.

I have been mostly ‘sensible’ about the layers of dust and cat hair piling up, and only tackled the housework when things got too bad. Today was one of those days. Happily, I felt more energetic today, so it must mean I’m better now. A few puffs of my inhalers (I have two different kinds) before my morning mug of tea, and I’m good to go.

My days start late, since I am an owl, and today was no exception, but come hometime, I must drop whatever it is I have belatedly embarked upon and dash off to pick Amu from school.  Sometimes it gets a little crazy. Like today, I had been cleaning out my front balcony in a grubby tshirt and shorts, sweaty and a bit out of breath from all that dust, just 5 minutes before Amu had to be collected.

Jumping out of work clothes and into respectable outdoor attire is a challenge I rise to most admirably, I feel.

Huz had warned me about the main road next to the Mazaar being cordoned off for a couple of days for the Urs of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Every time this happens, all the traffic gets diverted to a parallel street, which in our case happens to be the one that passes right next to our main gate. Craziness.

I cranked up the volume as Prince wafted out of the radio and sang along to ‘When doves cry’ as a couple of pigeons flew up and out of my way, over the windshield.

…..’maybe I’m just like my mother….’

The song ended and the RJ mentioned that the song was from ‘Purple Rain’, which was released in ’84.

What was I doing in 1984….?

Well, I was 12 years old then and that time of my life can only be defined by where we lived.

It was a rented apartment in a complex meant for retired army officers, but for me and my sisters it was a bubble. We were completely self-contained there.

I would go to school in the morning in a van with a bunch of other kids and return in the afternoon, tired and hot and hungry. After the noise and the traffic on the roads and a commute interrupted by multiple stops, our huge compound felt quiet and peaceful, though I still had to climb three flights of stairs lugging a heavy bag.

My mother would have lunch ready and we would all eat together, except my father who would be at work. My eldest two sisters shared a room, while I shared with my younger sister/arch nemesis, Fatu. It was not easy. Those were the days when I simply hated her, and I’d fly into rages if she bugged me, which was pretty often. She was 7 years old then, and the boys in the compound had nicknamed her ‘aunty’. I have no idea why.

Eldest Sis was 19, and was engaged/romantically involved. On top of that, she was busy with her studies and I thought she was very brave and independent as she used public transport to get to and from college. She even knew how to drive and had been doing so for a couple of years, since my father firmly believed that his daughters should be bold and confident, like boys, and furthermore, not depend on him to go anywhere.

This was also the time when Eldest Sis began to beat her stammer.

Since she led such a full, busy life, Eldest Sis had the remarkable ability to fall asleep anywhere, even in seemingly uncomfortable places. She would cajole one of us to scratch her back as we watched tv in the family room while she sprawled on the floor on her tummy, or curled up with a cushion. She had long straight hair then, a figure to die for, and beautifully manicured hands. Pedicures were her particular hobby, and the rest of us watched her, fascinated, as she groomed herself.

She also paid me to iron her clothes sometimes, a few rupees perhaps, but in those days it would be enough to buy me an ice lolly or a packet of chips from the corner store.

Eldest Sis and Sax, the second after the Eldest, had always been thick as thieves since they were little. They share the most history, and remember the most about our collective past.

Sax was 16 then, had just begun college, and seemed to manage to have lots of fun.

Now that Eldest Sis was in a relationship, it also seemed that she was preoccupied, or on the phone, or out a lot. So even though they shared a room, Sax could not always count on Eldest Sis for company.

So it was that she began to notice my existence, and my status went up a notch. I was now old enough to have the honour of ‘hanging out’ with her, be a companion for a walk around the block, could be told secrets in confidence as well as be a worthy opponent for evening badminton matches under the streetlight.

It was also around this time that I began to have problems with my breathing as the winter months approached, and my father started to worry about my health…

(to be continued…)

There she goes again

After four missed calls (I never know where my cell phone is, esp on Sundays) or ‘mis-caals’ as the residents of Neelum Colony and the majority of rural city-dwellers (or urban village-dwellers) are wont to say, Zahooran turned up at my doorstep today, Tayyab in tow.

I was puzzled, today being a Sunday and an off day for her, when she can do her own laundry and spend the day as she pleases.

Something was up.

She took off her slippers by the door and bade Tayyab do the same, conscientious about not bringing the dirt from the filthy narrow alleyways  of the colony into my house.

She and Tayyab made their way over to the living room rug as I trailed behind, wondering what prompted this extracurricular visit, and asked her if all was well as they plonked themselves onto the floor. Zahooran evaded my eye and looked confused…. and a bit furtive.

‘Buss baji….ek masla ho gaya hai….,’ she began. There was a problem.

Last night she got a phone call from her husband telling her to come home (to Bahawalpur) as he wasn’t well. Apparently, he had an upset stomach and was dehydrated and needed a drip. Getting a ‘drip’ means serious business. It generally means one must be really quite sick, and it is appropriate for concerned relatives to congregate by the sick bed and look grave. And if you happen to be the wife of the sick person in question…? Well, obviously you must drop everything, take leave from your various work places, pack some clothes and travel 851 kilometres, tired and a bit sick from the road trip yourself, and tend to your husband’s sickly needs.

I sat on my chair and looked at her. She refused to meet my eye. It has only been four months since she came back from her hometown, after a visit that lasted three months, and I was forced to look for other help.

And now here she was, asking my opinion on what she should do. Of course I would say she should do what she thought best! I can’t very well tell her to forget her husband….that he’d have to get better by himself..?

Frankly, I really don’t see how the two of them can exist like this…she in Karachi, working her ass off to make ends meet and send Tayyab to school, he in Bahawalpur doing whatever it is that he does there, which according to Zahooran doesn’t amount to much.

Does she even love him? Does she even care?

I asked her if she thought it was feasible for her to just up and leave. People get sick all the time. Would she expect him to come and take care of her if she fell ill over here? Especially since he claims the Karachi air doesn’t suit him. What about the fact that she doesn’t LIKE being in Bahawalpur herself?

I realized she hadn’t really come to ask for my advice or opinion at all. In fact, she had come to inform me. And to collect her salary, with the assurance that she’d be back in a week. She had already made up her mind to go and had arranged to be at the bus stop at 4 o’clock in the afternoon (it was 1 when she dropped in.) And considering she had not mentioned anything about leaving yesterday, all this must have transpired overnight.

And I can’t help admiring her subtlety!

The funny thing is, I know there’s no way she’ll be back in a week, yet I don’t feel angry with her for running off just when the holidays end and school starts. I mean, I don’t feel angry for myself. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it makes me indignant for HER that she’s expected to go through all this inconvenience.

Yet, I’m aware that she herself probably doesn’t feel any resentment at all. If anything, she is just doing what she feels is right, what is expected of her as a good wife. What would people say otherwise?

As for me, let’s see how I feel a week from now, when she has not returned, the month of Ramadan will have well and truly set in, and I will not have the energy nor the desire to wash the dishes, vacuum the house, clean the bathrooms and dust the blasted furniture. 😛 And I can’t believe she left me with detailed instructions on how best to keep the bathroom taps looking shiny and the glass cubicle spot-free.

A transition…?

For those who are aware of my being maid-less for two months, there’s good news. I finally worked up the courage to ask the chowkidar to send me some maids needing extra work, something very convenient about living in an apartment complex, a place usually teeming with maids but which I didn’t avail of as it took me some time to mentally prepare myself for the invasion of a person other than Zahooran into my life and the inner precincts of my home. Either that or I’ve had it with doing all the work myself!

The first one that turned up at my doorstep was tightly wrapped in a black scarf and a svelte burqa and introduced herself as Shagufta. She worked at That Woman’s place… something that should have immediately disqualified her if I wasn’t desperate! She was young and giggly and seemed willing enough to take up the job offer, provided her ability to clean passed my exacting standards. 😛 That is, until she learnt about the existence of Fuzzy. Apparently, she’d had an ‘incident’ with a cat at someone’s house that caused her to break a considerable amount of crockery and ruin a carpet with spilt food, and that was enough to make her decide she wasn’t too keen on working in a house that housed a cat as well.

Farewell Shagufta.

Next was an older woman with a pathetically woeful expression on her face from whom in the course of a 10 minute conversation I learnt her name was Aisha, that she had five grown up daughters and a bit of debt that needed to be paid off. Her husband died after being electrocuted two years ago, and she was searching for work that would be close to her home (in Neelum Colony) which paid her a decent amount for a couple of hours of work a day, and didn’t exploit her. She had just had a tooth extracted, which added to her woebegone look, and she talked with a palm pressed against her cheek. I told her to come and work the next morning so I could assess her and gauge her level of annoyingness (as of course, ALL maids manage to grate on my nerves a bit, through perhaps no fault of their own, just an occupational hazard I suppose).

The same day, another maid showed up, a nymph-like pixie called Mumtaz. She heard through the chowkidar and Shagufta that I needed help so came to enquire. I have known Mumtaz since the early days of living here as she worked as a part-timer across the landing at a neighbour’s place as a laundry and dusting maid. She came to my rescue once when I had been abandoned by Shehnaz, Zahooran’s niece. Looking at her you can’t tell that she is a mother of four, but you can easily tell that she is far more knowledgeable about surviving in a rough city and wise beyond her years when it comes to the occult. Yes dear readers, she can detect the presence of evil spirits from a mile away and can easily interpret strange occurrences as signs from the supernatural world. But more on Mumtaz and her powers later. For now, suffice to say that she superceded the forlorn Aisha in my preference. Perhaps because Aisha didn’t turn up the next day like she was supposed to. Or maybe the mention of debt, a large brood and a dead husband meant potential for me getting sucked into a cycle of pity and sympathy that might be hard to extricate myself from a few months down the road, when she would have borrowed money and further increased her general indebtedness.

So Mumtaz it is, and I’m quite glad of it, as she has an unobtrusive presence in the house, does her work quickly and efficiently, and most importantly, saves me from my own ADD and OCD. The question is….do I keep her for the long run…or only until Zahooran comes back from the village as she professed she would? Do I stay loyal to Zahooran for her hard work and her honesty, or do I betray her for being an annoying cow…? I know she is worried about losing her job here for being away more than two months and I am completely justified in employing another maid without any obligations to her…..

Or am I…? Is there such a thing as fidelity to hired help?

Maid-less in Karachi and living to tell the tale.

Considering I’m a room-less nomad in my own house, as well as being a maid-less anomaly, I never thought I’d be sitting propped on pillows with a steaming mug of tea, in a corner of our workroom/home office, and actually feeling content, happy and cosy. With time to spare to write a new post.

What?! (I hear you exclaim) No maid??

Yes, dear readers. Zahooran, my erstwhile maid has absconded and I am left without a replacement in sight. And before you shake your head in wonder and despair at my plight, (hey! that rhymes!) allow me to explain the reason for my happiness and well-being, and also to elaborate on the reason for the existence of three platefuls of the yummiest lasagna ever in my tummy, even as my bathroom gets renovated and masons and plumbers traipse in and out all day. Which is why I’m a room-less nomad living out of a suitcase. Just kidding, there’s no suitcase.

It all transpired in December, when Zahooran tentatively broached the subject of going back to her village in Punjab. I was surprised, as I was under the impression that she liked being in Karachi, which represented a source of livelihood and a way to be independent, away from her religious, shrine-frequenting husband who worked as a hired labourer back home, where employment was scarce and life was difficult. She also spoke of querulous interfering relatives and family ties rife with gossip and slander, something she abhorred and was grateful to get away from.

She shared living quarters with her niece Shehnaz, who also happened to be her sister-in-law (married to her husband’s younger brother), and whose third child Zahooran had adopted as her own, being childless herself. Shehnaz had been married at the age of 14 to a man twice her age and by 22 had reproduced 4 times, had at least two abortions, and God knows how many miscarriages. I knew this because Shehnaz used to work for me before she had a gallbladder operation that rendered her unfit for strenuous work. It was she who brought along her aunt/sister-in-law Zahooran as a replacement, fresh from the village, ungroomed in her behaviour, and untrained in the art and delicacy of keeping a house clean without disturbing the ecosystem of the inhabitants.

The first day she came to work as an assistant to Shehnaz, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in her presence and wasn’t particularly pleased with her method of working, and so I told Shehnaz not to bring her back the next day. But Zahooran turned up again. And again. I realise now that she insinuated herself into the household by degrees and whatever protests I had remained muted until there was no way I could fire her without hurting her feelings. Her work improved with hints and gentle rebukes (I’m no tyrannical mistress) but I was happier staying out of her hair while she worked, and so did Huz and Amu. She had a way of moving furniture and rolling up rugs to sweep in such a way that we were forced to always be sidestepping or jumping over things in our little apartment, which made for a very edgy three hours, the duration of her cleaning spree.

Her job was simple. The first thing she did when she came was wash the dishes and clean up the kitchen. Then she proceeded to sweep the whole house, vacuuming carpets and rugs, after which she would clean the bathrooms and dust the furniture on alternate days, finishing up with mopping the un-carpeted areas of the house. As if this wasn’t enough, she walked over to another house down the road where she repeated the process, then probably bone-weary, walked back home to tend to her own washing, cleaning and cooking. She went to bed early after getting a solicitous massage by her son Tayyeb, whom she asked to walk on her back to relieve the stresses of being bent over most of the day. She loves her son dearly, and the primary goal in her life is to work hard and earn so she can educate him.

When I said Zahooran was ‘ungroomed’, I didn’t mean she was badly dressed or uncaring of personal hygiene. She wore clean clothes and didn’t have b.o. But she did have a few habits that completely grossed out our finer sensibilities, though I was more forgiving perhaps than Huz and Amu. Dust, for example, is an inevitable part of housework and can make the best of us have a sneezing fit. Zahooran’s problem was….she didn’t cover her face when she did so. Yes, I know. Not nice. Hence, Amu hated having her room cleaned because she hated the idea of Zahooran germs everywhere.

Another thing that drove us all a bit crazy was her complete disregard for personal space, often standing too close for comfort while conversing. She didn’t believe in knocking before entering a bedroom either. But that was one of the few things I could tell her off about without getting personal. Just because she’s a maid doesn’t mean I can hurt her feelings. Though I think I must have hurt them a bit when I asked her not to hug and kiss members of my family when they dropped in for a visit. Maids in Karachi are just NOT supposed to do that. There are unwritten rules! But Zahooran was from a different place, and unschooled in the manners of employee behaviour.

Every neighbour I recommended Zahooran to couldn’t tolerate her beyond a couple of weeks, and I’m sure they’re mystified at my reasons for hanging on to her for two years., but my reasons were simple. (a) She was honest. I could leave the house to her without locking anything and not be scared she would steal something.  (b) She was polite, and hard-working, and never refused an additional chore once in a while. (c) she left the house looking shiny. Every day. And (d)….she was essentially a kind, caring, generous, affectionate soul. She always walked out the door with a muttered prayer for my safety, happiness and well-being. (Allah aabaad, shaad rakhey)

So even though she irritated me and bugged the hell out of Huz and Amu, I couldn’t fire her. Plus, I knew my house was like a getaway for her, an escape from the squalor and cramped environs of Neelum Colony, a place where for three peaceful hours she could forget about her worries and immerse herself in work, something she claimed was one thing she wasn’t afraid of. Give her work, and she was happy. How could I possibly take that away from her?

Perhaps then it was fortuitous that her husband put his foot down and demanded she come back to him and take care of his needs. He was tired of living wife-less for so long and missed having his own woman to cook his food and wash his clothes. And then, she had also saved up enough to get a meter installed in her house, and the idea of finally having electricity, a real luxury, galvanised her. So Zahooran had to go, and she planned to catch the bus on the 2nd day of the New year and make the 22-hour long, arduous and uncomfortable journey back home in the bitterly cold and foggy plains, having packed all her meagre belongings and two new shawls (my gift to her) …and a used ‘new’ cell phone.

The replacement she arranged for me turned out to be a bull of a woman, hefty and rough-looking where Zahooran was petite and bird-like. I took one look at her and immediately thought of ways to dissuade her from coming, telling her essentially, ‘don’t call me, I’LL call you’. And that was that. Couldn’t exactly employ someone who gave the impression she’d eat me alive, first opportunity she got!

So, it has now been three weeks that I have been maid-less, which basically means I spend too much time OCD-ing about cleaning the house rather than blogging. I know you will understand, dear avid readers of my blog. But you should know I am neglecting my kitchen and NOT vacuuming the workroom/office even as we speak, just so I can break out of my blog inertia. It’s a big deal, okay?

But before you go feeling sorry for me, here’s a little bit of exciting news. I may not have a maid, but guess what? Yours truly has found herself a cook!!

So now at least I don’t have to worry about putting food on the table, and can merrily go about doing the housework, exhaust myself for a couple of hours every day, but smile with anticipation at the thought of a kindly elf coming to my house in the evening. All I must do is think up something yum to eat, issue a whimsical order, make sure the essentials are present in the kitchen cupboards, and voila! An hour later, there are magical pots of steaming food, and the house is engulfed in delectable aromas. Oh yes. Heaven IS a place right here on this very earth, and it exists in Munira’s bubble.

And there’s lasagna.


The Visit.

She stood outside the door, waiting, knowing they would recognize her customary thrice-rung bell. It struck her vaguely, that she was actually coming home. This used to be home once, fifteen years in the surreal past.

It was taking longer than usual, so she wondered if they were there, until she heard a muffled but distinctly exasperated voice from within.

‘Open the door, my hands aren’t clean!!’

A striding sound, accompanied by the thump of a walking stick, and the door was flung open. She still isn’t used to the long white beard that greets her now and ushers her in.

‘Come sit, she’s trying out a new recipe.’  Thump, stride, thump. He was in the middle of his daily ritual of getting some exercise by walking through all the rooms of the house, for half an hour. She tells her it actually takes him about an hour to do this, the walk is peppered with intervals of rest.

She was sitting at the table in her nightie, and it is 7:30 in the evening. There is a sedentary energy in the way she’s busy mixing dough and explaining excitedly how she’s been meaning to try out a recipe for savoury flat crisp ‘puris’ to go with the potato curry. Deja vu?

She wandered off into an empty room to change into a t-shirt and tie up her hair, and get down to the real purpose of her visit. Be the cleaning lady.

They had a maid for many many years, who came in every day to clean the house, and cook wonderful food before leaving in the afternoon, to return to her own home somewhere near the old harbour. She had seen two girls grow up in this house, get married…and leave. She didn’t speak much, just went about her work quietly, and the years went by and her bones grew weary and her heart grew weak. She could no longer climb onto a bus, get off, and walk the short distance to the house. It was time to retire, but they didn’t forget her, and sent a bit of money her way for a few years until they heard the news that she had passed, that her heart had peacefully stopped beating one day.

There had never been another maid in that house, and they decided there never would be, despite many protestations by the girls. How would they manage, this aging couple, without anyone to help with the housework? But there never had been a more stubborn set of Capricorns, and they dug in their heels and swore to protect their privacy till push came to shove.

A push might not be such a good idea, she thought, as she surveyed the surroundings, and thought of the day before when she had just dropped in for a long overdue visit to find a big broken frame in the hall, lying in the debris of broken glass. They looked on helplessly, as she got to work clearing up the mess, disposing of the jagged shards of glass and taking apart the frame.

‘God sent you to us today because he knew we were at a loss,’ she said, as her man sat down on a chair to help with the dismantling. She smiles and rolls her eyes, but is painfully aware they’re both over seventy, and it isn’t so easy to bend anymore. Every job has to be thought about twice, and either abandoned for a future date, or delegated to the Man Friday.

And when Man Friday is not around, like now, then the girls descend, like angels of mercy.

The broken frame led to vacuuming the whole room, emptying the contents of the vacuum cleaners innards, unblocking the obstruction that caused poor suction power, and a general assessment of what more needs to be cleaned. So here she was then, surveying the disrepair, feeling a bit overwhelmed but deciding to take it one thing at a time.

She opened a cabinet and saw the old cookers, once used prolifically for making delicious stews and curries, and the big pots that brought back memories of many a hearty biryani. All lying unused now, for who needs to cook large quantities anymore when there’s only two people left in the house?

She cleared the old dining table and dusted the sideboard, catching a glimpse of her, with her back to the doorway, sitting at the ancient desk….once a piece to be proud of, now a battered relic, decades of use under its folding hood, crammed with files and records and letters and certificates. An oil painting hung askew on the wall above the desk, something she had painted…when…? Thirty years? Forty years ago?

The house is full of them. It is full of the things that have made up the backdrop of such a huge chunk of their lives, and it is hard to see it all get old, and dusty, and worn-out. They kept it all together, didn’t they. They don’t believe in replacing anything…just keep fixing what you have, that’s the way to go.

So she’s here now… helping to do just that.

And she cleaned all the surfaces. and she helped warm up the food, the puris were fried, and they set the table with some old and some new crockery, and the three of them sat down for a delicious meal, an all-too-rare occasion nowadays.

Then she washed all the dishes and put them away, kissed the two goodbye…. and drove off, with a promise in her heart, into the world that she made for herself. A world at the corner of which she made a minor transgression by breaking a traffic signal in her haste, only to be let go by the most unlikely-looking candidate for a kindly cop with just a good-natured warning. No fine.

Good karma, you think?

Zahooran and I

It is 1:15 pm and I feel battered, coated and deep-fried.  Zahooran, my maid, has refrained from dropping by for her daily visit for the third day in a row, and I can no longer ignore the house work. These are the times when I realise (with greater intensity) just how much work it is to keep a house clean and dust-free.

I am grateful to Zahooran for being so kind as to clean my house for a mere 3500 rupees a month, really I am, but it is only when she doesn’t show up, that I also realise her excellence at, quite literally, sweeping things under the carpet. I bubbled with a mild form of rage as I went about the house and surveyed the oodles of dust bunnies which had been merrily collecting behind various pieces of furniture for months. Arming myself with jharoos and brushes and dust cloths, I set to work with fiend-like determination.

15 minutes later, the house is hazy with the dust that has been stirred from weeks of dormancy, and my allergies have abandoned their loyalties to the cat. I sneeze and cough as my lungs fight for oxygen while Huz tuts mildly from his desk and asks why on earth I’m bent on torturing myself;  but since I am, I should do it without complaining too loudly as he gets disturbed.
So far, I have cleaned the neglected stuff (sweeping and mopping behind the fridge and tv trolley) as well as the usual stuff, and am no longer surprised at Zahooran’s negligence. I’d probably do the same if I were her. 🙂