Masi Means “Maid”
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.
No Formal Education
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, featured in the children’s story below, accompanied her mother everyday when she came to clean my mother-in-law’s home in Karachi, Pakistan. Shortly after she started coming to the home, we knew her name. But to this day I do not know the name of her mother. I wrote this story to inform, to open discussion, and to highlight the natural way by which children are able to bridge gaps and differences. Would that we were all children at heart…
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 Mom.
“That’s Masi’s little girl. Why don’t you play with her in the garden?”
“Does she know English?” I asked.
“No, honey,” Mom replied. “She speaks Punjabi like her mom.”
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 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.