Of mercenary maids and urdu teachers

Times are tough and getting tougher. Reasons to smile, let alone laugh out loud, are rarer by the day. Let’s face it- there are times when things are so astonishingly out of ‘true’ that if you don’t laugh, you’ll only make yourself ill with rage. Seeing the funny side of any given situation is sometimes the only way to survive and some days, some situations and some people, really just take the biscuit!
A recent visit to a foreign friend was one such time, as her maid – extremely well paid and with very little actual work to do of course – left us completely astounded. There were only two things we could have done as the day unfolded. Either we could laugh, or we could weep. We did both, laughing until we cried at the ridiculousness of it all.
‘Why did you put used bed sheets back into the cupboard without washing them?” my friend asked the maid, wondering just how many times this had happened without her knowing, and if the bed sheets, nicely folded as they were, had been washed at all for the past six weeks (which is when she was hired). The maid mumbled an inaudible response and continued ironing an obviously unwashed shirt. “You have to wash the clothes before ironing them,” she was told in absolute disbelief. “Can’t you see how dirty that shirt collar is?’
The english speaking maid, educated to matric at least, in her mid-twenties, replied ‘And what am I supposed to do?’
‘Wash the things of course,’ she was instructed by my horrified friend who, like myself, found the maid’s attitude impossible to understand and her education hard to fathom. As we contemplated our next move, she suddenly piped up, ‘Do you know what’s happening in Lahore? The police killed 39 militants there last night. This is very bad Madame... Very bad.’
‘Lahore?’ she was asked in puzzlement. ‘That was the Army and it was in Waziristan, not in Lahore’.
‘Waziristan is in Lahore’ we were told with such alarming confidence, such deadly earnest, that both of us were hard pressed to believe that it might just be true.
Helping herself to her employers phone when she thinks no one is looking, examining ‘finger writing’ (intended as a polite hint), on table tops and sideboards as if it had come from outer space and then declaring, ‘I don’t dust!’ are just some of her charming habits. She raised her eyebrows in utter disbelief at a glass of water she had just spilt on the floor and stated, ‘Sir did it,’ before moving on to gaze, in sheer mystification, at the army of ‘dust bunnies’ under the bed. She complains, at length, ‘Too much work to do here. Far too much.” Often she will seek out opportune moments to ask, “Do you want a massage, Madame? Only Rs 5,000. A haircut? Threading?” and so on and so forth until ‘Madame’ sits down at her computer to work which is when, after being repeatedly asked ‘not’ to interrupt, her daily torrent of questions really begins and all work grinds to a halt.
The maid is one bane of ‘Madame’s’ life. Her Urdu teacher is another.
The teacher arrives, twice a week with wife in tow, to teach Urdu in a ‘professional accent’ – an accent that nobody can understand more than half of, laying waste to the intricacies of a language which is, when treated with respect, a beautiful, highly descriptive dialect but which he mangles almost as badly as he does the English explanations that go with it.
So ‘Madame’ is subjected to her lesson taught by rote, and accompanied constantly by cheers of ‘Shahbash, Shahbash’ to the point where one expects he will quite literally pat her on the head. She valiantly tries to comprehend his teaching as I struggle not to laugh out loud in the kitchen. The laughter does erupt after the couple have left, and ‘Madame’ ends up wondering what on earth she is learning and what she is paying through the nose for.
The reason I relate this column is twofold: As light relief in trying times but far more importantly, to illustrate how the rapidly shrinking, foreign community in Pakistan are continually exploited; not just by maids and teachers but also by shopkeepers and 90% of other Pakistanis that they interact with on a daily basis.
No, we are not a nation of con-artists, thieves, scoundrels and liars but foreigners, especially those who have personally suffered at the hands of such blatant exploitation, can be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Of course we laugh, but its all quite sad really.

The writer has authored two books titled The Gun Tree:  One Woman’s War, The Parwan Wind - Dust Motes and lives in Pakistan.


The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

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