Masi’s Little Girl

Story Background

Masi

In the Urdu language, the word “Masi” means “maid.” In Pakistan and India, an entire workforce of Masis come from outer village areas to the larger cities to earn money. Masis are so numerous and inexpensive, that even lower middle class families can afford their services on a daily basis.

For the most part, Masis are uneducated women who have lost their husbands, whose husbands are unemployed, or whose supplemental income is necessary to meet the family’s needs. They carry a load of houses that they visit daily. They perform a number of duties such as sweeping, wiping (mopping), dusting, washing clothes or even sometimes cooking, etc. They sweep using a jharoo, a long brush with a handle. To use it efficiently, Masis squat and sweep with it horizontally across the floor. They wet wipe the floors with a large rag. They often wash clothes by hand.

Most Masis do not have a formal education, but they are capable businesswomen, nonetheless. Although public school is free, school books, supplies, uniforms, and tuition fees can be costly. Consequently, if a Masi has sons, she may try to apprentice them for specific skills of butchery, carpentry, construction labor, baking, or tailoring, etc. If she has daughters, she will likely train them to be Masis, too. When it comes time to marry, being a skilled Masi with an established clientele is a highly valued asset.

Interestingly, most people do not know their Masis’s name. Or, if they are aware of their Masi’s name, they still call her “Masi.” And so, an entire workforce of human beings exists whose personal identity is synonymous with their trade. Of equal notice is that as disinclined as people are to know their Masis’ by name, the Masis also show little interest in revealing their names.

Masi’s Little Girl

She had short black hair and a bright smile. Her clothes were worn and faded. She took her slippers off at the gate and walked about bare-footed.

“Who is she?” I asked my mom.

“That is Masi’s little girl. Why don’t you play with her in the garden?”

“Does she know English?” I asked.

“No, honey,” my mother replied. “She speaks Punjabi like her mom.”

“Oh.”

Masi’s little girl ran around in the grass. She picked a rose from our rosebush and smelled it. I took off my slippers and ran over to her.

She smiled.

I smiled.

She giggled.

I giggled.

She gave me the rose. I still have it. I pressed it in my scrapbook.

Each day, Masi brought her daughter so we could play. We followed Masi around and watched her work.

Masi swept the floors with a jharoo. We swept, too.

Masi wiped the floors with a wet cloth and water. We wiped, too.

Masi squatted at the outside faucet and washed our clothes by hand. We kicked about in the soapy water as it flowed from the faucet to a flowerbed.

When she hung the clothes to dry, we stood under them. The drips were raindrops. Cool kisses of relief from the suffocating heat.

One afternoon I asked my mom, “Can we go to Masi’s house?”

“Masi doesn’t have a house, sweetheart. She lives in a hut.” My mom answered.

“But a hut is a house.” I said.

“I suppose you’re right,” said my mom hugging me. “But Masi’s hut is different. She has a home far in the center of Punjab, but she comes here to the city to earn money. While she’s here, she finds an empty space and with branches and clothes makes a temporary home to live in.”

“Oh…I see,” I said; but I didn’t.

“Can we go there?” I asked.

“Maybe…someday…we’ll see…,” my mom mumbled. I knew what that meant. When she mumbled that usually meant, ‘not likely.’

One day I climbed up on the bed and cuddled up to my grandma. Her breathe smelled of sweet anise and betel nut. “Dadi Jan, does Masi’s little girl go to school?”

“I don’t think so.” She answered.

“Why not?” I asked.

Dadi Jan sighed, “Because Masis usually raise their girls to be Masis, too.”

“What is her real name?” I asked.

“Whose real name?”

“Masi’s real name,” I said.

“I don’t know.”

“What is her little girl’s real name?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I never thought to ask her.”

The day we were leaving, I saw Masi’s little girl for the last time. I showed her my suitcase. She liked it. We ran around the garden. This time I picked a rose for her. I clipped it to her hair.

Before she left, she smiled and said, “Bushra.” I did not understand. She pointed to herself and said, “Bushra.”

“Oh,” I said, “Your name is Bushra.”

I pointed to myself and said, “Sara.”

Bushra slipped dusty feet into her slippers and left with her mom.

When I hugged Dadi Jan goodbye, I said, “Dadi Jan, Masi’s little girl’s name is Bushra.”

The next time we went to Pakistan, that Masi and Bushra were gone. They had gone back to Punjab. Another Masi replaced her. But I have never forgotten Bushra. I wrote her name next to the rose I pressed in my scrapbook.

 

The More I Read, the More I Defined Myself

Until sixth grade, I lived in an unaware haze. When I try to remember me then, all I see is fuzzy and undefined. It was that first year at Rockford Elementary School, that my mind woke up, primarily thanks to an incredibly understanding and inspiring teacher, Mr. Bakke, and a wonderful, fellow student, Linda Nistler.

Linda was the smartest girl in our class. I envied her blonde hair and pretty blue eyes. One day she led me through the wall dividers that separated our three sixth grade classes to an enormous floor to ceiling bookshelf.

“Do you like to read?” She asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“How can you never think about reading?” She asked. “Reading is so much fun.”

Linda pointed to a shelf, gliding her fingertips across the book spines as though each and every one indeed belonged to her, “This is the Hardy Boys series, if you like mystery.”

She pointed to a row of books on the shelf beneath that, “This is the Babysitter’s Club.” She stuck the tip of her finger onto the top binding and tilted book number seven towards herself. “I’m on book number seven. Why don’t you start at number one? If you read fast, you can catch up with me and we’ll read them together.”

Linda pulled book one from the beginning of the row and placed it in my hands.

“But, I warn you. I read pretty fast, so…”

The implication was clear. Linda did not think I would ever catch up to her. Neither did I, frankly.

“There must be hundreds of books on this shelf,” I said gazing in awe over each row from the bottom to the top.

“Two hundred and fifty-four, to be exact,” Linda confirmed.

As we headed back through the room dividers to our classroom, I asked, “how many have you read?”

Linda’s hair flipped forward over her face as she plopped down onto the brown and black, plaid, reading corner sofa. The same slender finger that had claimed dominance over the Hardy Boys Series, delicately slid silky, blond strands behind her ear. A silver cross dangled from her lobe.

“I’ve read forty-six, actually.” She tapped the empty cushion next to her, “Come on, join me. You’ll see how much fun reading can be.”

That’s all it took. From that moment forward, reading is all I ever did. Reading was all I ever thought about. I did catch up with Linda. We voraciously completed the entire book shelf. The more I read, the more I defined myself.  The haze cleared, revealing me.

Hazards of Being a Personal Muse

Work has been pretty intense lately. I’m finding it difficult to keep up with Marlyn’s demands. Being a personal muse is not easy. I’m expected to inspire ideas, give feedback on the plot, aid in the construction of dialogue, listen to innumerable read alouds, and offer productive criticism as regards flow and relevance. I should also mention the job hazards, and there are several.

Devil’s Bridge

One time she took me on a day trip to Sedona. I was touched. She told me it was a vacation and to just relax and enjoy the inspiring views. She took me on a hike to Devil’s Bridge. Breathtaking sites. She treated me to a Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks. Sipping on the Frappuccino, we gazed out at an incredible landscape. Everything was going so well.

Then Marlyn asked, “So Marvin, what if we write a book about a woman, let’s call her…Amanda. So, Amanda takes a day trip to Sedona and when she reaches the top of Devil’s Bridge, she’s kidnapped by aliens and taken to their lair on the dark side of the moon? What do you think about that? Sound good?”

I just wasn’t thinking clearly. The whole day trip thing and the Frappaccino just loosened my tongue and I replied, “Marlyn, that is the most ridiculous plot I’ve ever heard.”

Marlyn didn’t take it well. She slurped to the end of her drink and abruptly grabbed me up. She stuffed me in the back pocket of her purse and proceeded to shop.

“Marlyn, I’m sorry. Please take me out of here, it’s dark,” I pleaded.

“Marvin, you twit, I didn’t employ you to ridicule me.” Marlyn took me out of the back pocket and stuck me behind a barred display in the shop, “Enjoy that, you ingrate,” she goaded as she turned on her heel and left the shop. She left me there for three hours. Sometime after sunset she returned, apologized, and took me home. The entire event initiated within me intense dread over my obvious lack of control. That’s when my visits to Dr. Conrad began. He’s a great psychoanalyst, if you find you ever need one.

On another occasion, I simply wasn’t in the mood to respond. I admit that I have my own issues to wrangle with, and, frankly, any employer worth working for should know when to push and when to be supportive. But Marlyn can be quite narcissistic and selfish. There are times that she even speaks for me when that is not what I was planning to say. I find that quite disturbing.  I already struggle with issues of ‘control.’ Dr. Conrad informed me that this is not unusual for a puppet, particularly an intelligent puppet, like myself.

So this one time, when I did not have the mood to respond, Marlyn accused me of indignant silence. She constructed a ‘time out’ area just above her work space and left me there as punishment. It was torture. Not only did my best friend (Marlyn is my best friend, sad to say) demonstrate blatant disregard for the psychological turmoil I suffer from, but she committed me to a location that further intensified my area of weakness, ‘a lack of control.’ Confined to this perch, I was forced to observe her as she worked by herself. Every once in a while she would glance at me, angry and vindictive.

Consumed by my own resentment and frustration, I stubbornly refused to give in and earn my release from the ‘time out.’ I knew she wouldn’t be able to hold out. After all, I provide a vital, irreplaceable service. And that is when the unspeakable occurred. Marlyn jumped up from her chair, grabbed her car keys, flipped me the finger and left the office. She returned a few hours later, brimming with self-satisfaction. She reached into her bag and pulled out my replacement. “Hey, Marvin,” she taunted, “look who we have here. Meet Martha, my new resident muse.” I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, I realized just how expendable I was…again, no control.

Well, as with everything ‘Marlyn,’ it didn’t last forever. She soon realized that Martha was a horrible muse. Martha simply agreed with everything Marlyn said. “Damn, Martha, you suck! Can’t you offer a bit of constructive criticism? How can I get Amanda out of this predicament? I have her trapped in a cloud of alien mucus.”

To which Martha replied, “There’s nothing to criticize, Marlyn. You are a genius.”

Marlyn looked my way, “What’s your take on this, Marvin?”

I said, “Trash the story, Marlyn. It’s awful.”

Marlyn genuinely smiled, “You’re right, Melvin. I’m so sorry. I should have listened to your advice the first time.”

Martha is still with us. Although she doesn’t contribute much as a muse, she does make for an interesting companion. Well, I must get back to work. Hazards do exist, hours suck, and Marlyn is a temperamental time bomb, but I’m needed and that makes it all the more worthwhile.

Focused on My Boat

Trapped in the conundrum of daily tasks and chores, its so easy to lose touch with the reality of our world. The burden of guilt hovers over me, a menacing shadow, as I struggle through my life, my face turned aside, using the preoccupation of meeting my needs as an excuse to ignore the vast suffering that exists out there…in the world. Handy phrases come to mind that support my practiced indifference, such as “Put yourself at the top of your to-do list and everything else will fall into place.” “If you can’t fix yourself, you won’t be able to fix anyone else.” “Fix the hole in the boat, before you take on extra loads.” Of course, there’s not much I can offer if I myself am messed up. The least I can do is be aware, be informed, and perhaps, spread the word.

I lived for eight consecutive years in North Karachi, Pakistan. Until then, I had never truly seen or experienced poverty. Sure, I had struggled to put myself through college (Thank you, Pell Grant). In pursuit of my degree, I worked as a phone solicitor for the University Alumni Association and sold my blood plasma twice a month to afford room rent and groceries. I thought I was poor. But to the poor of Pakistan, I was upper middle class. I had the opportunity to attend college and  access to some level of government assistance. I completed my BA with honors, no less. That liberal arts education has served me well, but it has never been easy. It’s constant toil, buoyed by luck and skill, that allows me to skim precariously over the depths of debt. I’ve managed to float my boat so far, but only so long as I remain focused on my boat.

My in-laws were probably middle class, at least until my father-in-law unexpectedly passed away, bequeathing all financial responsibility to my husband, the oldest son. In Pakistan, even the middle class or lower middle class can afford a Masi (a house maid). Coming from America where maids are only for the most wealthy, I at first felt confused and uncomfortable about the Masi culture. I wondered how my in-laws could afford it. I wondered how we would be able to maintain the Masi after my father-in-law’s departure. That’s when I realized how very little these hard working women earned.

Most Masis come from cities further north. They come south to Karachi to earn money to send back to their villages. In Karachi, they set up lodging on empty lots, building makeshift homes of fabric draped over wooden, pole frames. Their husbands take labor jobs, where they can, and their children, often barefoot and threadbare, do not have the privilege of going to school. The children’s contributions to the household income are too important. The girls, young Masis in training, help their mothers clean homes. The boys walk the streets with burlap sacks over their shoulders collecting plastic and cardboard to sell, or they are placed on street corners to take handouts from passing cars. Countless times in my daily commute, I’d pass them, young boys dirty and disheveled on the street corners the same age as my son sitting in uniform beside me, anxious for the day of school ahead. It disturbed me. I felt powerless. I would hand them my spare change in hopes that God would absolve me of guilt, small contributions that, rather than change the situation, allowed it to perpetuate.

The Masi comes into your home for a few hours everyday. She sweeps the floor with a horizontal broom called a Jharoo. Squatting, the Masi methodically shuffles through the home sweeping the dust and daily debris ahead of her. Knowing that the Masi will come every morning, members of the household don’t bother to place wrappers or food crumbs in dustbins, rather they toss them on the floor carelessly. They develop what I have coined as, a Masi Mentality, “Throw it anywhere, someone else will pick it up.” After applying the Jharoo throughout the home, Masi, still squatting, wipes the floor with a used piece of fabric. She dips the fabric in a bucket of water mixed with cleaning fluid, wrings it out, and wipes each patch of the floor meticulously. How many times I wished that I had had the mop and bucket system commonly used by janitors in US. It would have relieved the Masi of this backbreaking labor.

Masi washes all the dishes and pots and pans and every other day she washes clothes, often by hand. Some Masis also cook the rice and the bread that we would use for lunch and dinner. After Masi leaves the house, her daily grind has not come to an end, she would move on to her next paying household to perform the same duties again. Our Masi, with her young girls in tow, cleaned four to five houses in our neighborhood before returning home to clean her own. Now, I sit here in air conditioning, typing on my laptop, wondering how I will pay my mortgage this month or if my latest check will arrive in time to buy groceries. I have worries, enough to bring me to tears. It is at this point that I remember Masi and her family and her daily struggles, that will likely accompany her to the grave, and I thank God for my blessings. I ask Him for strength. And I pause to whisper a prayer for Masi.

Not Everything Is Quantifiable

When I was safest, I didn’t know that I was safe. When I was happiest, I didn’t know that I was happy. I don’t mean safe as in protected from physical danger. I refer to the time before I had to feel responsible for my every action. By safe, I mean I didn’t have any financial worries, no obligations, each day involved a series of interactions defined as happy, sad, good, bad…in retrospect, everything then seemed simple. Although, at the time I didn’t see it that way. Safe meant freedom from awareness of accountability. The promise of ‘tomorrow’ loomed large, mystical, and alluring. Knowing that the sun would rise in the morning was enough to help me bear today. The world revealed itself a farce, but then it didn’t matter. Now, it does.

I see a man. He struggles to earn, to pay the bills, to bring home the food, to feed the mouths that eat and complain in the same breath. I see a woman. She made herself prisoner to the expectations of others, panders her soul to justify her place in this space. I see children. They starve for love and search the ‘Why?,’ while media herds them to conform. It’s a pressured cycle, spinning just fast enough to hold them in orbit, but not fast enough to allow them to break free.  There was a time I yearned for the ‘Father Knows Best’ standard, assessing my own experience as abnormal. I wanted routine schedules, routine goals, shared meals, laughter, love…hindsight reveals precisely how abnormal that expectation was. I’ve learned that I cannot control my surroundings or the people around me. The most I can control is myself, and even that challenges me.

I worry for those who wallow there. They have not yet grasped who they are or where they are going. The cycle traps them. Inside they yearn for something they cannot define. They yearn till it aches and take round trip excursions in drug-influenced bliss, imagining that they have escaped, only to return further lost and deeper in spiritual debt. They don’t understand what’s missing. After all, modern scientists claim that they can only believe in that which they see, touch, and measure. They cannot see the pain. A doctor will ask them to rate it on a scale of one to ten. But who’s to prove that his five equals her five. They cannot see the love. Is what I feel the same as what you feel at any given time? How could I ever know? Pain, love, and hate are just a few abstract emotions that we claim to experience but we cannot prove. Does that mean that they do not exist? And what of hope? Is it real, if I cannot catch it between my fingers nor taste it on my tongue?

Some things can be measured and some things can only be experienced. Can you quantify love, happiness, satisfaction or faith? To quantify it, is subjective. I know love is, because I feel it in my mother’s hug and my child’s trusting smile. I know love is real because I can feel its absence…acutely. I know hate is, because I glimpse it in the leer of the hater and respond in kind. It amazes me that we as intellectual beings are so ready to accept that love, hate, or pain exists because we see the evidence of its existence; but we are unwilling to admit the existence of an Ultimate Creator in spite of all evidence.

That very scientific reasoning that denies an Ultimate Creator, also denies the spirit, the self, the soul…And so, they wallow, unaware that they ache for that which they refuse to see. What they search for has been inside them all along. We are taught to count, to measure, to memorize, but we were never taught to believe. Who would choose to be blind if they could see?

The Cavalry Isn’t Coming

As I mentioned before, I’ve been shopping for a home. I’ve learned a lot over the last few months about interest rates, mortgages, house insurance, HOA fees, double-pane windows, etc. I had no choice. It just wasn’t sufficient anymore to simply nod. I had to understand what was being said to me and grasp exactly how deep of a hole I was digging for myself. I had to actually make these super hard and expensive decisions and justify them to myself. I still don’t know if I’ve made the right ones. I could be in way, way over my head.

I really believed the cavalry would come in and save me. By cavalry, I mean an enormous sum of sudden, unexpected money from book sales. Such a fool. In over a year, I’ve sold a grand total of eight books. Any other books that have entered the book-sphere, I’ve had to offer for free. I have to beg for reviews. I’m so ready to interact with my readers….problem is, they literally do not exist. Still, I dream. I imagine opening my monthly bank statement and surprise, there is an enormous deposit from book sales. All my troubles are solved. I can use this money to pay off the principle on my home. I won’t have to worry about large monthly mortgage payments anymore. I could relax just a bit from the daily tension of making ends meet. It’s not as though I am asking for a handout. I’ve offered a well-written book in exchange for a modest sum.

Love You Mom

Well…the cavalry isn’t coming, but I have made an offer on a home. It nearly consumes my nest egg but it is worth it. It’s a small three bedroom home, two story. My mother will have the master bedroom downstairs. I want her to feel safe and cherished. The window in her new room looks out onto the back yard. In our apartment, she has developed the habit of feeding the pigeons on our patio. I think every pigeon in the city comes to our back porch. Now she can feed them in our backyard and watch them easily from her window. She has this fanatic, little Chihuahua, Prancer. Prancer is literally mean to everyone. But, she loves my mother and I am just her poop and pee servant. Now I won’t have to walk her several times a day, we’ll simply open the back patio doors and Prancer will run around freely without a leash.

My son is fifteen years old and he will finally have his very own room.  There are two bedrooms upstairs, one for him and one for me. We haven’t even gone through inspections yet, but he is already collecting items to decorate his room. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I am so very excited. I am thankful that I will be able to give my son this experience. I wasn’t able to give it to my daughter. We moved around so much. She got tired of waiting for her own room and finally moved out. And on the other hand, I am terrified. What if I can’t make the payments? I have to be inhome to care for my mom and so my work is freelance and subcontracting. It is irregular and unpredictable. Can I make it?

But here in our apartment the rent keeps going up. Each year it goes up nearly a hundred dollars. Paying a mortgage will actually be less than we pay to rent. But there are other fees. What if the washing machine stops working or the air conditioner? What if the electricity is too high? And now that I have sunk my nest egg into the house, I won’t have it to help me when the unforeseen occurs. Hence, terror nips at the edges of my happiness. Now, I don’t have the liberty to feel tired. I will have to keep moving whether I’m in the mood or not…like the hamster in the wheel…round and round. Happy yes…but not going anywhere.

Marlyn in a Funk

Graphic of Marlyn’s Funk

This has been a difficult holiday season. Marlyn was in a real funk. She nagged about everything. “The world sucks.” “We’re all gonna die in 2017; idiot president elect thinks nukes are toys.” “My damn toilet won’t stop running, it’s a sign.” “Marvin do something productive for once, go jiggle the damn flush handle.” I said, Marlyn that’s it. I draw the line right here. I am a personal muse not a toilet jiggler.

Nothing I did or said was right. I’m usually a good listener but the whining exceeded my capacity. So, I did what every understanding  friend should do, I hid. It wasn’t too difficult. Marlyn had this enormous pile of miscellaneous papers and letters on her desk. I figured in her present mood she wouldn’t  likely touch the Pile. So, one evening I slipped down under the bottom layer and chilled. It was a bit disorienting listening to her ranting without seeing her.

Four glorious days I spent there. I practically memorized the entire mammogram refusal notification letter that had kicked off Marlyn’s foul mood.  The last day she was totally freaked that she couldn’t find me. “Damn it, Marvin. Where the hell are you?” She apologized a grand total of 73 times. Yep… I did count them. I figured I could store them for future reference. She found me when the

Back to Work

insurance company finally returned her call requiring that she retrieve the notification letter from within the Pile. When she saw me, she threw down the phone and smothered me with kisses. Until that moment, I had never realized how much I meant to her. Gratifying.

2017 looks better now. I’m ready.