In Pakistan, a very obvious dichotomy exists between “the rich” and “the poor”. Those that are considered to be part of the “upper class” dissociate themselves from the “upper middle class” who in turn dissociate themselves from the rest of the Pakistani population that lives much less glamourous lives than the few individuals residing in these classes. I don’t declare this dichotomy to be critical of those that reside in these richer classes of Pakistani society as I myself am a part of it. I also don’t declare it in an attempt to pose the notion that all that live in these upper classes of society are oblivious to the suffering of the impoverished people in Pakistan or live lives of relentless and unchecked privilege and luxury. I bring attention to the presence of this societal division because I realized its true effect and meaning, after a trip I took to Pakistan this summer. By sharing the change in my perspective from when I first set foot in Pakistan to when I left, as well as the stories of individuals from the parts of Pakistani society that are usually ignored, I simply wish to reflect on my experience and share some of the most profound lessons I learned along the way
I remember stepping off the plane into the humid night air in Lahore, a wave of nostalgia from my childhood hitting me all at once after 7 years of being away from the place of my birth. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had qualms and worries about experiencing culture shock or not being able to adjust after being away for so long. But mostly, I was just excited to see my grandparents and my extended family for the first time since I was 11 years old. My first night in Pakistan served as a stark contrast to the life of privilege and comfort I am used to living in Canada. I spent my first night at my grandparents’ home who with all of their love and affection had tried their best to make sure that my sister and my parents passed our stay in the comfort of air conditioned rooms. But alas, even they had no control over the energy crisis that plagues many areas of Pakistan and causes the electricity to go out every few hours. So I spent my first night trying to fall asleep in my overheated room as the light fluctuated every few hours and with the petty fear of the famous Pakistani lizards that circulate around houses on a daily basis. After tossing and turning for a few hours, the fatigue of air travel finally caused me to succumb to sleep. I woke up covered in more sweat than I thought naturally possible and my first thought was to jump in the shower. I took a cold shower that morning, not because I preferred it but because the electricity was out and I would’ve needed it to return in order for the water to be heated up. I remember thinking to myself then, how funny it was that in Canada, I subconsciously perceived little things like having hot water to shower with and an air conditioned room to be almost like a right I deserved to have. It was in this night that I learned too that the childhood maid that practically grew up with us, Rubina, had passed away. The cause, a simple surgery gone wrong. Her fate was told to me in the form of a short passing comment by my granddad who told it in a manner of a person who was burdened by hearing too many tragic stories like hers on a daily basis. Again I was immediately struck by the fate of the childhood maid who had taken care of me like a sister and played with me at an age where all I cared about were Barbie dolls and having a doll house that was better than the rest of the kids at school. I realized that if Rubina had undergone the same surgery in Canada or if someone wealthy had secured a better doctor or proper care for her in Pakistan, she would have been well and alive. I went to sleep that night with confused thoughts and a heavier heart than the one I had arrived with. Living in Canada, we always hear messages that remind us to be grateful for what we have, but being reminded of it in real time struck a much deeper chord than simply believing that I knew what it meant all along.
Although I loved seeing all of my family again and getting to visit my childhood home, the part of the trip that was most important to me was getting to learn about the strife, struggle, and resilience of the average person living in Pakistan. These are the stories of the ordinary people in Pakistan. The ones that are not considered part of the “upper middle class” or “upper class” society. The one’s whose lives are not shrouded in glamour, in regular shopping trips, in concerns about what the latest fashion is, and what next restaurant is the most prestigious to eat at. And I admit, I lived as part of this “upper middle class” lifestyle in Pakistan, but as a child, I never really understood that the world I was living in was sheltering me from the reality of the thousands of people so close to me who lived lives that were starkly and vastly different from the one I was and still am used to living in Pakistan and here in Canada.
The first group of people whose stories I want to share are the stories of the maids that work for my grandparents. In Pakistani culture, it is very common for families to keep servants to carry out routine tasks like kitchen and cleaning work around the house. However, unlike the “cleaning ladies” in Canada that perform the same tasks, these servants and helpers are integrated much more deeply into the home system in Pakistan and often spend years working with one family. The maids at my grandmother’s house consisted of a young woman in her 20’s, with 2 young children and two little girls between the ages of 7-11, Saira and Asma.
Resilience and Respect
Because my grandmother is now in an age where she is unable to handle the daily kitchen tasks and cooking for the household, the young woman of 20 came in every day to cook the meals for the day as well as handle the routine tasks associated with the kitchen. At first glance, she seemed like an ordinary young woman with an optimistic attitude, a smile that conveyed a genial spirit, and a propriety of manner that wasn’t usually seen in a woman of her background. It was only after I got to know her story that I realized how much emotional tolerance and strength it must have taken her to display such a positive attitude. This young woman countered every societal notion that most women in her socioeconomic condition are plagued by in Pakistan. Namely, in a society where a woman choosing to divorce her husband is still considered to be a taboo, especially for a woman of her socioeconomic standing, she was standing up for herself and negotiating a divorce from a husband that was addicted to alcohol and neglected her well-being. Additionally, she was earning a livelihood so that she could send her two children to school and make sure that they got an education. On the last day that I spent in Pakistan, as I was saying goodbye to her, she thanked me for treating her with kindness and explained how it helped her feel happier every day she came in to work. It was then that I realized another important lesson. Often in Pakistan, servants are regarded with mistrust and careful distance as stories and events of robberies and even murders being conducted by the hands of servants in households circulate and pervade the “upper-middle class” society. However, it was ingrained in me to trust rather than to mistrust people. Shakeela helped me remember that sometimes people just need to be treated with respect and compassion in order to be reminded that they are worthy of being valued; they can be empowered to recognize the strength that resides within them.
Education is a Privilege, Not a Right
On my second day in Pakistan, I remember walking out of my room in the morning to find a petite young girl of 7 with a little scarf wrapped around her head leaning down carefully over a tattered book, staring at it with an intensity and concentration that piqued my curiosity. I walked over to her and asked her what her name was and she timidly responded, “Saira”, the same name as my grandmother. I discovered that Saira came in every day for a few hours so that my grandmother could teach her to read.
Another young girl who soon joined Saira was, Asma. Asma grew up in a large family and had to work from a very young age in order to help support her mother in feeding her family. Before she came to work for my grandmother, she worked for a group of people who cut off all of her hair because they wished to prevent lice from her hair from spreading to their family. Since that day Asma always wore a headscarf wound around her head, too embarrassed to reveal her choppily cut hair to anyone. Despite her past experiences, her eyes were filled with the energy of a girl who wasn’t afraid to dream. Her personality served as a stark contrast to the quiet timidness of Saira. It was no wonder that they became fast friends. Once Asma noticed that Saira was learning to read, she obviously had to join in on the fun. Both Saira and Asma were like any young girls, they loved ice cream, they loved sneaking out to the swing set in my grandmother’s backyard to experience a few moments of childhood bliss. But, unlike most girls of their age they had to forfeit going to school regularly in order to support their families.
Since my grandmother often felt tired, she couldn’t dedicate as much time as she would have liked to their learning. So, my sister and I took up the task. They both read books that were torn and worn out, but the state of their reading materials didn’t take away from the wonderment and excitement with which they wanted to learn how to read. It was incredible, heart-warming, and humbling to see their eyes light up when a new word or sound made sense to them or when they realized that they had mastered reading a full sentence. After the Urdu lessons, it was time for English, and after that they wanted to know how to do math. Their curiosity never subsided, and it was this innocent and relentless curiosity to learn that reminded me how lucky I was to live in a country where I am able to receive an education in any field that I wish to.
Hope you enjoyed reading this, stay tuned for Part 2 🙂