Saturday, August 30, 2008


When I was living in Karachi we had a housemaid who would come for a few hours in the day and do the cooking. I say housemaid but Shahnaz was really my mother's age, maybe slightly younger but not by much. She used to make the most awesome parathas. They were layered and crumbly and Shahnaz had this little trick of hiding the ghee in the folds of the dough so that the paratha, when it was delivered to you, would be dry and crisp on the outside but would melt on your tongue with the first bite. It was sheer breakfast heaven and my only complaint was that they were too small, each paratha a diminutive fist-sized portion that disappeared in two or three quick bites.

Shahnaz lived in a squatter settlement some distance from our house and would walk to work every morning. Ours was one of several houses she visited during the day and, by the time I got up, she would already be done with her work and on her way to the next home. The parathas would be wrapped up, warm and toasty in the hotpot. I'd say a quick hello, maybe ask about her health, and then dive into the spoils, occasionally complaining about their size and how I had to eat so many to get my fill. She never said anything and the parathas stayed small.

It occurred to me a few days ago that maybe that was the size of the chappati she made for her kids. She had seven or eight young children - I never asked - and how she fed them I don't know. She worked hard enough but Shahnaz was the only one earning for her family. Her husband had passed away. Keeping portions small would have been one way to keep the children from starving. It embarrasses me now to think of my puerile complaints. What did she go through to maintain that silence, to choose to protect her dignity by abstaining from an explanation of her poverty, her need to willfully deprive her children of the foods she prepared in other people's homes.

What comfort can my words bring her now.


Anonymous Prasanth said...

Good post. I feel one need not have to read too much into it and dramatize the consequence of your queries to her regarding the size of parathas she cooked. Your realization of the size of chappathis she served to her children need not be compared with your queries to her. Your realization is enough. There is no hurting of her involved in your queries. Perhaps her silence should be read differently. Do you have any other reason to attribute her silence?

7:24 PM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

Prasanth: thank you for writing in. You raise some interesting points.

Do you have any other reason to attribute her silence?

I think the reason it provokes comment is because it's a willful response. She, or anybody in her place, could just as easily have complained or asked for money and they would have received it. They could have resorted to illegal means to supplement their income, as many undoubtedly do to make ends meet. The fact that she chose not to do that and to instead just work hard and support her family with honest labour is what impresses me.

I feel one need not have to read too much into it and dramatize the consequence of your queries

Sure. I don't want to be guilty of commodifying someone else's life for dramatic effect. At the same time, there is a disparity between the actions of two individuals, one of whom displays apparently greater moral stature than the other. I can't pass high judgement on the actions of another but, simply speaking, this is a situation where I felt I learnt something from her.

7:58 AM  
Blogger yasmine said...

oh, parathhay!
my aunt makes the best ones (crispy and layered and buttery inside, as you described shahnaz's), and, as a child, i used to eat 3 of them in order to really get my fill. mind you, my aunt's were normal- (large) sized ones.

your post reminds me of the film, Paris J'Taime, where a young woman leaves her crying baby at a daycare and then takes several trains and buses all the way across the city to work as a nanny caring for and singing lullabies to another woman's baby.

5:03 PM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

Yasmine: Yes, I know the one you're talking about. I think it was my favorite from the movie.

5:59 PM  
Blogger yasmine said...

=) i hope you're having a beautiful, blessed ramadan, kk!

6:22 PM  
Blogger Anjum (barsaat) said...

great post, kk, and yasmine's reference to the Paris, Je T'aime short was spot on.

i'm curious, what made you think of it recently?

7:39 AM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

yasmine: jazak Allah. insha-Allah, wishing you and your family the same.

anjum: thank you. i wrote this post just prior to Ramadan and i was thinking about all the goodies we tend to associate with the month, especially at iftar time, and how very little of that actually applies to those less privileged than us. So, while I have an iftar buffet with ten different things to eat and fresh fruit and ice cream and whathaveyou, the families of the poor still break their fast with a meagre date and some daal, in spite of the fact that we've both been hungry for the past twelve hours or so. And it was this inequity, and my own personal need to recognise and remove it wherever i can, that provoked the post.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous pi said...

like many have said realization is good. but charity is even better.

10:06 AM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...

pi: "realization is good. but charity is even better"

absolutely! thank you for saying that.

3:35 AM  

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