Domestic Divas and I

Zeinab Masud on a lifetime's worth of experiences with domestic help

Domestic Divas and I
Our cultural landscape involves a life of strong co-dependence between us and the people who work in our homes. While we pay them wages, they make our homes a more comfortable place, leaving us with the space to concentrate on pursuits which would have otherwise been interrupted by the chores of house-keeping.

You need to live away from Pakistan to fully realise the significance of these blessings.

Here in the wild, wild west, (quite literally, this is Seattle) I’m the cook, cleaner, human laundromat, errand runner etc.

It’s not so easy when you have been pampered silly throughout your formative years (and by formative I mean till my late thirties.)

When I finally reached the altar, stunned into submission by Hubby with strong opinions, I sensed a tunnel ahead loaded with domestic tasks.

This was largely due to the fact that I was moving to the land of ‘do it yourself’.

From the ILO

Fortunately hubby had low expectations in that department. In our first year of marriage, I made him green tea with milk in it, burnt various pateelis (pots) and pretended to dust.

It was also a mystery to me as to where the meat (that I was going to cook) was going to come from. Two days before leaving for New Orleans, I asked my cousin Gurya Baji (she was teaching me how to make ‘murghi ka saalan’) “Magar murghi kahan se aae gi?” [But where will the chicken come from?]

What I meant was: do I have to go to the butchers, the supermarket or some select place where sacrificial hens were throttled?

This was the extent of my domestic knowledge. Gurya Baji was not very helpful – she still hasn’t stopped laughing.

The night before my departure, the family gathered to say good-bye.

Terrified at the thought of leaving, I sat there, anxiety- and asthma-ridden.

Suddenly it struck my mother and the relatives that I was off to manage a home with somewhat limited domestic ability.

So about six hours before my flight to the U.S, they thought of the ingenious idea of passing around a diary in which everyone wrote little recipes for me. My favourite was the one which a kind Aunt had scribbled down. It said: “Buy potato salad from the supermarket and sprinkle red chilli on it. That is Aaloo ki tarkari.”

Getting the children ready for school - a common early-morning chore for domestic help in middle- and upper-class homes across South Asia

I love my relatives.

So dear reader, you have some idea of what I was struggling with.

This level of incompetence had been nurtured with a succession of domestic staff hovering around me during my growing up years.

Let’s start with Ayahjee

Ayahjee came into our lives years before I was born. I inherited her from my brother, she used to be Bhayoo’s nanny. Bhagbhari was her name but we just called her Ayahjee. My earliest memories of her are from our time in Delhi.

A small, hunched woman from Sialkot, she spoke intense Punjabi in a croaky voice. Soft, white hair and dark skin, her face was lined with what seemed like a million creases, each line with its own story to tell.

On rainy Delhi mornings, Ayahjee would start putting socks on me, while I was still asleep, so that I wouldn’t have to put them on myself as I was rushing to get ready for school. Little gestures which have kept me warm, years after they actually happened.

Paving the way for a much pampered road ahead.

Ayahjee had a special rapport with every member of our family.

This situation could at times become a bit perplexing. When Mummy and I left for Pakistan for the summer, it was just Ayahjee and Abajan at home (dear ole dad). After a hard day’s work Dad liked to relax and have a sweetie.

He takes these little fruit drops very seriously and can look very dismayed when they finish.

So one day Dad was leaning back in a cosy chair, eyes closed, savouring a sweetie, no doubt reciting Ghalib to himself when Ayahjee approached.

She started gesturing to her pyjamas and words came tumbling out, a torrent of Punjabi. My father, who is not good with languages, looked dismayed at first, then somewhat shattered. The gesturing to the pyjama continued as did the profuse monologue. By now Dad was feeling captive and scared. He assumed that she had hurt herself and was thus pointing to her leg. He couldn’t understand why the impassioned speech had a conspiratorial tone.
While Bashir was serving His Excellency the Beef Stroganoff, he whispered something delicately in his ear. Turned out he was wondering if the US Ambassador could arrange a visa for him

Eventually it turned out that she was confiding in Dad about the fact that she had a secret pocket sewn in the inside of her pyjama, where she was hiding her money.

This would come in very handy as there was a train trip she was about to take.

She had been rather delighted by this ingenious plan and wanted to share it with Dad.

Dad just asked Mummy to come home sooner than planned.

As the years passed, the shapes and forms of our household help changed.

Years later in Bruxelles we had a waiter called Akbar. Akbar had slicked back hair, a paunch and paan stained teeth. His other claim to fame was that he was Ayahjee’s nephew.

This fact was the cause of a certain amount of chaos.

One grey Bruxelles morning, he arrived looking forlorn and weepy.

Teary eyed he told Mummy that there was news from Pakistan that Phuppo Bhagbhari had passed away (Ayahjee). Mummy wanted to protect me from the pain that this bad news would cause so I was not informed of this for a few days. Hushed conversations were held and the news was discreetly broken to my brother, then living in Luxembourg.

We were a family in mourning. Ayahjee, our Mary Poppins was no more.

Bhayoo and I exchanged memories, little pangs in our heart.

A few days later, Akbar skips into the lounge, “Uffho, khabar ghalat thi, Phuppo toh zinda hain!”[The news had been false – she is alive!]

Ayahjee, hale and hearty at 102 years of age, had just been spotted returning from Makkah.

We wiped our tears and tried to kill Akbar. Needless to say, he survived and served us loyally for a while to come.

Our years in Kuwait were spent with two rather interesting gentlemen looking after us.

Kaley Khan was roly-poly, effeminate and full of compliments for my brother.

Bashir, our waiter had a definite dream.

He wanted to find his way back to New York City where once upon a time he worked for some shady, mafioso type pizza joint. He was single-minded in this pursuit.

Kuwait was not his cup of tea but US visas were not easy to come by.

So one balmy summer evening, as we were entertaining the US Ambassador at a formal sit-down dinner, while Bashir was serving His Excellency the Beef Stroganoff, he whispered something delicately in his ear. Turned out he was wondering if the Ambassador could arrange a visa for him. Needless to say, Bashir did not serve at formal dinners for a while. The suspension was short-lived, however, and Bashir was eventually back in the swing of things – not for long though.

Mummy was not pleased when one windy day, she asked Bashir to clean my brother’s car. Looking pensive (no doubt dreaming of the streets of New York City), Bashir remarked “Woh jab gaari chaley gi to mitti urr jaee gi...” [The dust will fly away when the car will be moving]

Despite the colourful eccentricities of some of these characters, they definitely added vibrancy to our home.

As the years passed, we continued to shuffle continents.

When we were living in Pakistan, our majordomo was Jehangir. While he drove my mother slowly and surely up the wall, Jehangir was the kindest soul to ever arrive from Bangladesh. He was also an able philosopher in his own right. He would follow news broadcasts with great interest and share his perspective on politics. If truth be told, Jehangir was not interested in the kitchen work which he had been hired for.

He would constantly forget what he was supposed to cook for the day and at times chappattis would be found in the cutlery drawer.

Years later, when I was married and running my own home in Karachi, I had the good fortune of being able to hire Jehangir as my cook. Unfortunately this did not go down well with Hubby.

One afternoon, I left my husband (Sohailio) and Jehangir alone in the house.

When I returned JJ (my nickname for Jehangir) was in tears and Hubby was threatening blue murder. He claimed that Jehangir was totally inefficient and prone to wandering about, day-dreaming when he should be working. JJ was also fond of putting oodles of forbidden garam masala in dishes which then caused chaos in our gut. Hubby sent a terrified JJ on a sabbatical for two weeks to “think” about his deeds.

Jehangir returned looking suitably pensive after what we thought was some heavy-duty soul searching. Later we discovered that instead of contemplating about his inefficient ways, he had been working in some Chinese restaurant.

Somewhat confused in the kitchen and petrified of my Sohailio, Jehangir remained a deeply loyal member of my household while we lived in Karachi.

Across the globe, as we shuffled continents and countries, we have had a diverse range of people helping us out in our homes.

Varying ranges of eccentric behaviour have come coupled with warm positive vibes.

If good energy makes for happier households then we have been fortunate to have known Jehangir and other domestic helpers along the way.