A day in the life of Nasreen kaamvaali
"Don’t you understand? Leave, you idiot!" the choti baji told 9-year-old Nasreen.
Get-togethers at our place had increasingly become as monotonous John Grisham’s novels - the same faces, the same stories. That was before a fecund family brought along its 12-year-old maid who doubled as a nanny.
Nasreen had a clean face, shampooed hair and possibly her best dress on, but bent by the weight of a chubby baby, she seemed like a blot on the landscape. She couldn’t be part of light-hearted flirtation, political discussions or trade cooking recipes, so she just sat in the corner and smiled. For a pubescent girl stuck with a two-year-old who, when not eating or sleeping, could only utter nonsense and liked relieving himself in his pants, she seemed rather too happy.
After downing the main course (which thanks to my family’s culinary provincialism is almost always limited to nihari) people melted away to different parts of our house. Nasreen went with the girls to watch some silly movie.
Half an hour later Nasreen was told to leave the TV lounge. After investing 30 minutes in a movie, no one would want to miss the ending, and neither did Nasreen. She used her best defense:
Acha baji, ab mei bilkul chup. (Alright baji, I won’t speak now.)
Tumhay samajh nahi aa rahi? Jao - idiot! (Don’t you understand? Leave, you idiot!)
This is where another choti baji, unable to grasp the concept of a defiant maid, inquired:
"What is she?"
I couldn’t decide whether she is linguistically challenged or just downright inconsiderate. Though the way she rolled her eyes back into her head after saying this, I’d say the odds are strongly in favour of the former.
Acknowledging all the hisses and frowns, Nasreen smiled but didn’t leave. Thus, it was decided that hostilities couldn’t be suspended. The women who paid her salary continued to discuss her in English.
"She is a real b**** right?"
It was a surprise when Nasreen lost her temper but managed to stop at just convincing herself, rather loudly though, that the two ladies bore uncanny resemblance to female canines as well.
Moments later, bari baji barged in and asked Nasreen to find herself better company in the drawing-room. Before leaving she considered it relevant to add that the maid was “really very foul-mouthed”. Nasreen had missed the movie, was shamed in front of everyone and then subjected to the torture of a mortally boring conversation. However, none of these could be the cause of her bloodshot eyes.
When Nasreen cried she didn't cry for a movie, for her dignity or a bad day, she cried for her lot in life. It’s not one lost evening she has to mourn; it’s the evening of tomorrow, of the day after tomorrow and probably the rest of her unmarried life.
In Lahore alone, there are hundreds of Nasreens. Serving tea before the sun looks down upon empty streets; outside elite schools with their mistresses who can’t carry their babies any longer than nine months and at davats sitting in kitchens with toddlers. It’s such a shame that while Cossette has survived Les Miserable, Jean Valjean hasn’t.
When a 9-year-old boy working for a close relative decided he had had enough of washing plates, his uncle, who worked as a driver for the family decided to ‘bring him to his senses’ by cutting his ear off. And then my aunt, an otherwise accommodating and sensitive woman, after expressing the customary horror at the use of such persuasive arguments, turned to the child-servant and asked:
"We haven’t been cruel to you, have we? You don’t starve, you get good sleep."
It was strange that it would escape her that food and clothes don’t make a home for a 9-year-old.
I don’t know what one needs to do to help this wretched lot out of this pit, but I do know what one doesn’t need to do: treating them as slaves. And to know this, one doesn’t need to revisit the sixth day of creation, one doesn’t need government laws, and one certainly doesn’t need guts. All one needs is shame - only a little of it.