There is one specific feature of my life that makes it really different from yours, assuming you are living any kind of typical American or European existence. It is not what you think: it is not the threat of terrorism, it is not living on the other side of the world from my family, it is not living in a Muslim country where I hear the Islamic call to prayer five times a day, it is not my residence in a city full of wild boars and monkeys that often feels one step removed from the jungle. This feature is servants.
Servants! The very word conjures up an 18th-century manor, scullery maids in the kitchen, footmen in the stables, and a butler hovering with a silver tray. At least it does to me. In Pakistan, this word means something completely different, something standard and normal even for the middle classes.
When I moved here and started searching for a place to live, I would go around with a realtor every Saturday to tour houses all over Islamabad. They all had the same basic amenities: more rooms and bathrooms than I would ever need (for the same rent as my apartment in the U.S.), cool smooth tiling in every room to keep down the heat, high ceilings, and “servants’ quarters,” which the realtor would helpfully point out at each location. He would always point them out…I would always look away uncomfortably and mumble that it wasn’t important. We would never tour the servants’ quarters, but he would always take care to highlight them as a useful feature of the property. After a while this also explained why, in houses where each room was routinely the size of my entire apartment in Boston, the kitchens were invariably cramped, dark, and without air conditioning. I soon realized no one expected me to spend any time in there.
At that point I didn’t know if I was ever going to get a housekeeper. I didn’t think I needed one. After all, hadn’t I always done my own cooking, cleaning, and general house management in every other place I had lived my entire life? What was all of a sudden about to change? As it turns out, everything.
The slippery slope began as a gentle curve. Right after I moved into my new place (selected as a result of its relatively small rooms, large kitchen, and huge yard), one of the drivers at work shyly presented his wife to me as someone who would make an excellent housekeeper; she was very hard-working, honest, and furthermore had three children to feed so could I maybe considering hiring her?
At the offered rate of 7,000 rupees a month (about $80) for daily housekeeping, this seemed like a good deal and I went for it. It turned out to be an even better deal than I thought, since Zafer always accompanied Musart when she came to clean (to protect her honor) and made himself useful while he was there. His usefulness included mopping all the floors and picking all the hairs out of my hairbrush every day, a real shocker the first time I saw it happening. All of a sudden I had two “servants,” a word I still shunned in politically-correct horror while using the word “staff” instead.
It wasn’t long before we added Adeel to the mix. Adeel (or “Roger,” his Christian name) was another driver from work who got fired when he discovered that the security manager was having an affair with the lady searcher. This incident alone and the phrase “lady searcher” is worth an entire post but sadly must be glossed over here. I quickly realized that I did not have time in my ten-hour workday to wait 45 minutes in line to pay my cell phone bill; go to separate stores for meat, bread, cheese, and apples; that my lovely house would be afflicted with at least one major upset per day involving water, sewage, electricity, and/or general breakdown; and that I needed Roger.
In the U.S., you don’t need Roger, because there you don’t have to fill a water tank on the roof to take a shower, keep the generator stocked with fuel every day, make almond milk from scratch by soaking the raw nuts for three hours, procure avocados only by developing a special relationship with the vegetable vendor, make sure the batteries on the UPS stay charged, buy stablizers for all your electrical appliances, get mineral water delivered twice a week in huge barrels for drinking and cooking, or have someone drive by your house in the middle of the night to make sure the guards aren’t sleeping. Yes, Roger does all these things, and many more. Turns out, in Pakistan you need servants staff.
Obviously, with my huge yard I also needed a gardener. I figured I would recoup this cost in the abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs that would soon be produced, and furthermore the flower beds could use a little landscaping, couldn’t they? Two security guards were required and paid for by the company, as were drivers, but as the guards were paid approximately $70 a month for grueling 12-hour shifts guarding my life, they got kicked a little extra by way of bonus every month and of course they get Eid cash gifts twice a year like everyone else for Pakistani’s major holidays, so let’s go ahead and add them to our staff calculations. The guard bonuses were Roger’s idea. It was my idea to call Roger our “Chief of Staff,” since by this point an important part of his job was managing everybody else.
But what to do with all those glorious vegetables that started popping up in the garden courtesy of Pakistan’s amazing climate? And did it really make sense to keep ordering out expensive food from restaurants night after night after arriving home late from work and flopping on the couch too exhausted to even make my standard quesadilla? Time for a cook! Sajjid was added to our happy band, three nights per week, and started churning out pesto lasagnas, mushroom risottos, biscotti (did I mention Sajjid used to work for the Italian Embassy?), lamb skewers, coconut curry, and any other recipe I would pull off cookinglight.com and present to him at the beginning of the week.
I didn’t think we could add anyone else to the mix, but then I brought the puppies home, who soon needed to be walked every day and taught how not to be crazy undisciplined animals. Enter Shahzad, dog-trainer! He came highly recommended as the trainer of General Musharaff’s dogs, the former President/military dictator of Pakistan, but this wasn’t really a selling point in my book as I was hoping more for cuddly, friendly labs as opposed to lean, mean attack dogs. Nonetheless, he did a good job. Shahzad contributed even more crew to our operations: apparently he was too senior to actually walk the dogs himself so he outsourced the walking and shampooing to underlings while taking on the training alone.
At this point the house was bulging: no one was living in the “servants’ quarters” except one of the guards, but somehow I had gone from Low-maintenance Girl who Cleans her Own Toilets to Woman who Has Someone Brush her Dogs’ Teeth Every Morning. As lovely as it sounds, it took a little getting used to. At first I could never find anything. Zafer and Musart had particularly strange ways of deciding where things went: I found sports bras hanging up in the closet next to my cocktail dresses and a box of Christmas ornaments in the kitchen, my favorite sweater used as a drape for the dog crate. One time I discovered half a rotten watermelon that I had set on the counter to be thrown away two weeks later, in the freezer. At first it was unsettling to be sitting at my desk checking email and having someone come sweep a broom under my feet, or to stumble sleepily into the kitchen in pajamas to find two Pakistani men rearranging the entire contents of my refrigerator.
But after the initial adjustment period, I got right on board. It is hard to explain the glorious feeling of deciding in the morning that you would enjoy some homemade pumpkin bread that night, that the terrace would really look better with five more potted palms on it, that you needed the black pants dry-cleaned before the weekend, that some fresh flowers in the dining room would be nice, and coming home after work to find all of these things done and delivered, as if by magic fairies. No, it is not a perfect system: the grater still ends up in the laundry room sometimes, when the shopping list specifies spaghetti sauce I might get a can of stewed tomatoes, and my extra fancy artisanal olive oil has been used by the cupful for frying cheese fritters. But really, I can’t complain.
A few years ago, when I was still in Boston, a friend of mine remarked that, had we all been born several centuries earlier in European feudal society, she felt sure that she would find herself the hard-working, curly-haired wench while I enjoyed the pale and quiet life of luxury as lady of the manor. This was not based whatsoever on our financial circumstances at the time (both of us being broke grad students), nor on our abilities or refinement, but simply on some other kind of gut feeling she couldn’t explain.
I thought her prediction was ridiculous. I had never even had a once-a-week housekeeper, let alone a retinue to manage. I scoffed at the idea of depending on other people to take care of my basic needs. Promoting outmoded values of social hierarchy! Acting like Marie Antoinette!
Cut to this moment: a tray of pancakes and scrambled eggs has just been delivered upstairs to my desk so the lady of leisure can write in peace while listening to Debussy. Sajjid is downstairs making appetizers for tonight’s party while elsewhere laundry is being done and sinks scrubbed, the almonds are soaking for tomorrow’s detox smoothie, the dogs are trotting happily around the neighborhood with shiny coats and glistening teeth, and Roger is out buying ice and gladiolas. Welcome to Pakistan.