Celebrating the life of Kausar
I left Pakistan 20 years ago, but my ties to my soil remain strong as ever. My childhood and adolescence remain a very important part of who I am today. I thank Pakistan for making them memorable and happy.
At the mature age of 45, I reflect on what my country could have taught me better. ‘Country’ includes my social group, family and kin, friends and peers. These reflections are an effort towards telling the next generation about a few pitfalls my generation did not avoid. We, the so called privileged upper middle class of Pakistani society, tend to follow these patterns generation after generation. Now it is time to break the pattern and set new ones because if unchanged, these patterns will repeat themselves in years to come.
It wasn’t very difficult to hire a domestic help in the house when I was growing up. The salary paid to the person is still a miniscule fraction of what I have paid for house help in many other countries. In Pakistan, there were always people available to help, a privilege I took for granted and missed greatly when I moved overseas. What I had not realized living in Pakistan was that I could do the many things I had wanted to do because there was always someone working for me at home. Food was cooked, clothes washed and ironed, house cleaned because there were other human hands doing all that for me.
After leaving Pakistan, I had to, somehow, do this all by myself while also living a life. In the beginning, I knew not how to do it.
Kausar came into my life when I was 11 and still remains the most influential matriarch of our household. Her power is only a little less than that of my mother, who has, reluctantly, bequeathed this status to her. As a child and then a teenager, I didn’t really expect Kausar to have a life outside of our home. The fact that she was truly devoted to my siblings and me reaffirmed this belief. We gave her love in return but always remembered that she was a helper. Social norms and forms never let us forget. I would still act the spoilt child if she didn’t carry out my instructions and was happy as long as she was obedient.
Thirty-four years later, I have decided to give situations the importance they deserve. I am far more dismissive of imperfection than I ever was. Acquiring perfection is a continuous, exhausting, uphill task and I am not convinced it always justifies the means used to acquire it. I am far more tolerant of a broken vase that slipped from the helper’s hand than I ever was, before. A crease left on the shirt that should have been ironed to perfection, a bit of dust that shouldn’t have been there, and the list goes on. I hope I have come a long way.
In the West, it was so very different from how we perceived and treated our ‘servants’ in Pakistan. Because they commanded respect, we had to give it to them. You talked to them politely, reprimanded a breach of duty as an employer but had no ownership rights over them. They had a life outside their working hours.
When I left Pakistan, my family and Kausar; I realized that maids or ‘helpers’ performed honourable duties in return for a good amount of money and respect. They valued their jobs and were proud of their work just like any other worker. In the West, it was so very different from how we perceived our “servants” in Pakistan. Because they commanded respect, we gave it to them. You talked to them politely, reprimanded a breach of duty as an employer but had no ownership rights over them. They had a life outside their working hours. The division of class, although very prevalent in the Western society, seemed less obvious to my inexperienced eyes, as we all merged into the crowds on the buses and tube stations.
If I can erase only half of the sense of entitlement from my children’s upbringing that I still see in privileged Pakistani homes, I would consider my job well done. To be tolerant of mistakes made by a less fortunate, less educated person who would probably not be our helper if she had better work opportunities. To know that there is more to life than a creaseless bed-sheet or food that is not cooked to gourmet standards; and that there is no shame but pride in doing your work yourself.
Kausar has given my parents, my children, my sisters and me, 34 years of her life. She has looked after me, my children and now, my parents. While caring for our three generations, she has aged herself. Her gait has become feeble, but her sense of humour is just as strong. She still holds the household together like she used to and is able to find a missing napkin or towel like nobody else.
During the ups and downs of helping to run a home, she has remained steadfast in her devotion to our family. I want this piece to be a celebration of her services which are being appreciated not with a medal but with heartfelt gratitude.
The writer is a freelancer based in Manila. She has been teaching
creative writing in London, Pakistan and Manila