Perhaps a majority of those reading this will have a person, or people, who come and work in their homes every day. Some will have live-in domestic staff. We currently have two women working in the house and a regular gardener. A driver is about to join the crew that keep the wheels of my household turning. Some have worked for me for years. They know my habits, what colour I like my tea, how I want the toast made and if cooking never to put saag on the menu. They do their jobs around me, fitting seamlessly and mostly silently into my life and they are indispensable. And beyond their approximate age and number of children I know nothing about them other than they are poor.
Though they share my daily life they are not friends. Friendly we are, and there is joking and laughter sometimes… I like to run a relaxed house. But friends we are not. I do not sit down with them at the end of the day and chew over the woes of the world, they are not invited to join me in social events and they live in a place far beyond my consciousness for most of the time — except that I cannot help having an awareness of their poverty and the stresses it brings to their lives.
Cutting to the chase — Naseem (name changed) is in her early forties, widowed and has five adult children. Her eldest daughter, the statuesque Rida (name changed) by a process I never fully understood became engaged to a close relative of mine, fortunately one of the small group of relatives who I would not have hunted down by The Exterminator, and marriage loomed. As did debt. Naseem did not have two rupees to rub together and lived in a one-room house in a basti to the south of the city, close to the railway line.
Sticking with the chase — we decided to pay her expenses for the wedding and host the event in our large garden if they wished. After some hesitation it was a yes, and for three weeks there was marriage frenzy that culminated in a glorious wedding. The bride looked stunning in a white wedding dress that came from the UK, the groom looked equally stunned at his good fortune, there were no fights, the two families got on well (and continue to do so) and it all ended with smiles, hugs, partings and tears — but no unhappiness.
And now the coda. Naseem wanted to say ‘thank you’ and invited us to lunch at her house. We accepted and for the first time in over 20 years I went to the place where one of my domestic staff lived. A tiny concrete box with a half-made courtyard paved with broken bricks, a latrine. An open fire to cook. A small fridge and tiny TV. And a welcome that was warm and heartfelt. And a scrumptious lunch.
We all knew that picking up the tab for the matrimonials had saved Naseem from a crippling long-term debt that she would have willingly taken on. She may never have paid it off in her lifetime. Whilst our contribution was not exactly peanuts it caused us no pain financially, and I know several people, close friends, who also operate a quiet philanthropy to those that serve them every day. Tubewells in remote villages, wedding packages and medical care.
Go to almost any gathering of the middle class and at some point there will be the ‘dodgy servant story’. The thieves, the cheaters, the sleepers-on-the-job and those that skive off early having arrived late yet expect to be paid on time. But not everyone we employ is bent on robbing us. Many will go the extra mile unasked. Turn up on days off. Stay late to get a job finished. Even care for you if you are sick as has happened to me.
So we hugged and parted at the gate of Naseem’s tiny house last Sunday. She had tears in her eyes as we left. Perhaps I won’t wait another 20 years before visiting the home of one of those that make my life so comfortable.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2015.
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