In upper middle class houses in Lahore, the word for maid is now ‘Masi’ borrowed from Punjabi which means aunt. If you are a thoroughbred middle-aged Punjabi and dare to tell your aunt (mother’s sister) what it means in our city these days, she would die of shock. She would utterly fail to comprehend the new meaning the word has acquired. The phenomenon points to an ongoing socio-cultural and linguistic process, reflective of changing relationship between certain sections of affluent urban class and working class and their relationship with the Punjabi language.
‘Masi’ (mausi in Hindi and old Urdu) has been and still is a close relative and an important member of extended family. But how did shift in the meaning of this word occur? It may not appear something serious. But if you pause for a moment and ponder, such a small thing may lead you to a discovery of symptoms of a deeper malaise affecting the very fabric of social life, class relations, and language.
Let us try very briefly to trace the journey of the word ‘Masi’. In the Punjab’s cities decades ago Punjabi with its various shades was used as a natural language of conversation and communication. Anybody would call his or her mother’s sister ‘Masi’ without slightest hesitation as it was a very respectable word evoking affection and love. Slowly and gradually with the spread of so-called modern education, middle class youth started calling their mother’s sister ‘Khala’ taken from modern Urdu. Children of Punjabi elites replaced the word ‘Masi’ with English equivalent aunt as a sign of being schooled in western ways. Common folks continued to use the old word for what it stood for. Any elderly woman, not related to the family in any way, would also be addressed as ‘Masi’. Even married and aged working class woman would be called ‘Masi’ as a mark of respect, evoking feelings of distant tribal kinship.
The word did not carry any derogatory connotation. It, in fact, mellowed for a moment at least the class distinctions between two individuals of unequal status. Language helped facilitate such social intercourse. Here one can find the key to decode the process underlying the metamorphosis of the word ‘Masi’. Working class woman having no blood relation with the family would come to do household chores and the family would call her ‘Masi’ out of cultural habit. During the last few decades as a consequence of pervasive penetration of free market, emerged our consumer society which flaunts conspicuous consumption and class distinction as an emblem of cultural advancement. Calling a maid aunt could be embarrassing for a status conscious family. So a way out was to use English word aunt or Urdu word ‘Khala’ for one’s mother’s sister and poor ‘Masi’ of Punjabi was reduced to denote a maid.
But how did word ‘Masi’ land in a city like Karachi? Working class families from the rural areas of the Punjab after having lost jobs in the shrinking agricultural sector migrated to Karachi in their unending journey of survival. Female workers from the first batches which arrived in Karachi years ago, though poor but recognized as respectable individuals in their villages and towns, introduced themselves with the epithet of ‘Masi’ knowing little that this would entail unintended consequences denying them social respectability. So ‘Masi’ for her employers in Karachi was little more than a maid. Imagine a sixty plus lady in a posh area calling twenty years maid ‘Masi’. The scene is hilariously ironic, straight from the theatre of absurd if you know the nuances of the Punjabi language.
Another aspect the issue in question brings up is historical; a strong bond between the Punjabi language and working classes. They have kept this dynamic and highly expressive language alive despite its being disowned by ignoramus Punjabi ruling clique.
One need not lament the changes that inexorably take place in the sphere of language. “Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration,” claimed Samuel Johnson. This view has rightly been challenged by modern linguists. Language does change but does not necessarily change for worse as is generally believed. Forces of destruction and regeneration are always at work in language. What one does lament is the notion the so-called educated Punjabis have of their language and their demonizing the people who speak it. This act betrays the complete alienation of the Punjabi ruling elites from their roots and history and their loathing for the
people they claim to represent. The question involves not just the changes in the meanings of a word but also of changes in class relations.
‘Masi’ who does dishwashing for you and scrubs your floor, can also be a good raconteur. Spare a moment for her. She has a tale to tell signifying an unknown world of despair and dreams the working people live in. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2014