Pakistan Diaries: Servants

"How do you say please?" Sarah asked.

"You don’t say please," our hostess said.

With something less than belief in her voice, she then asked, "How do I say ‘thank you’?"

"’Thank you’ is pronounced ‘shoo-kree-ya’" she explained, "but you don’t say ‘thank you’ to a servant."

Our stay in Pakistan started with five days in Lahore, in the northest corner of Pakistan.  People from Lahore think that Lahore is the best city and that people in the other large metropolis, Karachi, stay up too late and that their city is dirty.  (People in Karachi feel that their city is more fun and that the people in Lahore are stuck up and go to bed early.  They may also be a little sore about having the capital moved from Lahore to Islamabad several years ago.)

Lahore instantly hit us with the class differences between rich and poor.  "All are equal in Islam, there is no caste system in Pakistan", claimed my father, but everything we saw suggested that the Islamic ideal was only partially being practiced by a population that also failed to pray five times a day as proscribed.

The lowest-paying jobs one can take in Pakistan are jobs you will see on the street.  Street sweeper and beggar pay so poorly I can’t even tell you what they make.  One level up from that is house servant, which includes maids, cooks, nannies, and drivers.  A servant makes up to $50 per month and sometimes is given room and board as well.  This gap between rich and poor is such that anyone who has any means at all has as many servants as they wish. 

Servants occupy something akin to ‘easily abandoned family member’ status in most of the households we visited.  They don’t eat with the rest of the family, they are introduced by name when you first arrive in someone’s home, they hang out in the same room, their kids play with the other kids in the family, and they speak to their employers as equals.

At one point we were eating dinner with some friends of the family and Sarah and I found ourselves sitting with two daughters of a moderately conservative family.  Of course they both covered their heads and arms at all times.  We had just visited the big mosque and the fort in Lahore and as we broke for lunch they were telling us about what it was like to grow up in their house.  "We don’t cook", they said.  "I tried to cook once and everyone became ill," said the oldest daughter, "so they told me not to enter the kitchen again."  This wasn’t the cry of a Pakistani Paris Hilton tinged with the irony of wealth, she apparently had made an honest attempt and was really, really, bad at it.  Nobody had thought it an important enough skill to teach her after her initial disaster.

Sarah and I were flabbergasted.  "Um, we do all our own cooking.  You make for a better husband and wife if you can cook."  The fact that Sarah cooked and had no servants was somewhat mind-blowing to them.  There was no room in their worldview for the fact that I cooked and enjoyed it. 

(Although they probably suspected, I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t have a driver, or that we washed our own clothes.)

Continue reading Pakistan Diaries: On the road to Peshawar