Granting citizenship status to undocumented Bengalis and Afghans born here? Many a pardesi (non-resident) Pakistani may be up in arms about this step, the very same people who defend the rights of refugees to live and work in Europe. Terms like Islamophobia and xenophobia are tossed out, but apparently not when it comes to the rights of refugees in Pakistan. 

One of the most remarkable Bengali ladies I knew in Karachi has to be the one who turned up at our place when we had shifted to bustling Karachi from placid Peshawar. Clad in a burqa with a small bag slung over her frail shoulder, an infant daughter and son in tow, she stood tall that sunny day as we ran to the kitchen in our school uniforms to see the newcomer. Jet black hair pulled into a bun, shrewd kohl-lined eyes and jagged teeth on a collapsible frame. 

My brother hated food, unless it was a luscious burger topped off with tangy chips and a chilly Coke. Not for him the gravy, the simmering chicken, the lentils, rice or the chapattis. She would spend hours trying to feed him, but he would stuff his mouth with the first few mouthfuls and sit in silent defiance.

Remembering a maid-servant who so influened our childhood

“Why did Allah give you teeth if you are not going to use them, hain?” 

She would poke his full cheeks to kick-start chewing. It was a daily battle, seeing who would blink first, as the pendulum swung to and fro between the two combatants. 

Soon she was telling us stories about her hardships which settled into an even pace of narrative. Perennially unhappy, unwell and mistreated, she spun a fascinating tale which engrossed us. More flourishes were added with time. Her missing husband was abusive, dominating, unmanly and a coward. She was not too happy with the second husband either who was a silent fellow for obvious reasons. Scheming relatives and servants jealous of her myriad talents were added to the litany of complaints. The recipient of most of these stories was my mother who displayed exemplary patience in not only listening, but also doling out advice which was never heeded.

She would poke his full cheeks to kick-start chewing. It was a daily battle, seeing who would blink first, as the pendulum swung to and fro between the two combatants. 

 The mother of all complaints was her erratic asthma which seemed to have a life of its own and showed up only when summoned arbitrarily. The onset of the asthmatic attack was the cue to abandon work and retire. The invalid remained closeted for weeks or months, depending on the level of concern shown by the household. If the parents were travelling, she would make a miraculous return, muttering under her breath, but stationed like a bull dog. There was never any doubt about her loyalty or affection, but as soon as the parents returned, the asthma was back with a swagger. 

In the tussle to be major-domo of the house, nothing could stand in her way, including the crockery. When she was angry the noise would jump by decibels as pots and pans were banged together with gusto, accompanied by a high pitched rendition of that particular day’s woes. At times, intervention was called for or one had to face the unmitigated wrath of an outraged cook. The other servants were soon bludgeoned into submission by her and any errant ones who dared to show any defiance were also quickly brought into line. Everyone in the house knew that it paid to stay in the good books of the major-domo. 

She did not wear the silken clothes gifted to her on Eid and cut a woebegone figure. What she did do unfailingly was pile these new clothes into suitcases which seemed to reproduce as the years went by.

She stayed with us for years, her hangdog expression never altering one whit, her frayed clothes and emotions in tandem. She did not wear the silken clothes gifted to her on Eid and cut a woebegone figure. What she did do unfailingly was pile these new clothes into suitcases which seemed to reproduce as the years went by. When she finally retired, the suitcases were bursting at the seams, bundled on to a Suzuki van. 

There was no news of her for a long time but when my brother was getting married (the one she had the battle of wills with at the dining table), he tracked her down to invite her. At his wedding, she came dressed in a bright sari with golden circles, bearing gifts for us all. My brother came down from the stage to introduce her to his wife and made her sit next to him. 

In an excited tone, she asked about the relatives, the friends, the kids who had grown up. We gathered around her in a semi circle. How are you, we asked, touching her arm. She looked at us and smiled.

The columnist is a freelance writer.
She tweets  MaheenUsmani 
Email: maheenusmani25@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 23rd, 2018