The ‘Helpers’ of Our Lives

Asif Saleh

Published in the Star Weekend Magazine on 9 October 2009.

I have moved back to Bangladesh recently after spending 19 years abroad. In the process of reintegration to the society, I have been amazed to see how much it has changed. I compare my teenage years with those of a teenager today and I find youngsters are so much more globalised, open to new ideas, and hungry for success.

However, there are certain things that have remained the same. Our attitude towards our domestic help have changed very little. Even though, we, the urbanites, spend a major chunk of our time agonising over our ‘kajer loks’, the issue of our treatment towards them still remains a taboo. Would I be really exaggerating if I say even though I had a full time stay-at-home mother, my life has been surrounded by domestic helps? Would it be any different a story for any of you who are reading this? Are they just our employees, or as people who share our private lives, they are a little more than that? I grapple with this issue while introducing my daughter to the domestic helps whom she calls ‘helpers’.

This write up is an ode to the invisible helpers who helped me become what I am.

My first orientation to the concept of domestic help was through Jainal who came from Bogra at the age of eight after losing his father. My mother employed him so that he could play with me and I was not bored in the afternoon. Jainal was an instant hit among our friends with his sharpness and athleticism. My brother and sister started teaching him during the time when President Zia made it compulsory for all SSC candidates to teach an elder illiterate. He was taken in for a ‘viva’ and he did so well that pretty soon all of our relatives and friends started taking him as their case study. Jainal moved on after a few years. He eloped with our chef 10 years older than him, and after a few years in wilderness came back to us looking for a job. His wish was granted in no time. Jainal runs a successful rental car company now and provides me with car service every time I need one in no time.

Much before Jainal there was Abdul bhai who taught me driving in between my trips to different tutors in Dhaka. Abdul bhai also has been with us since he was eight. His parents passed away and he came to our family in Kaptai. My mother can’t remember who brought him to us. But he graduated from a house help to chef, and then from a chef to in-house driver in a few years. Since then, through thick and thin, he has remained with us — now for 40 long years. My mother is as worried about his retirement plan as she is with hers. When my father died, Abdul bhai cried more than any body else. Till date, in his spare time he goes to his graveyard and makes sure that it’s clean and tidy.

Have you ever wondered what’s the story behind so many of the domestic helps being referred to by their son’s name?

I am wondering as I am thinking about Harun-er ma (Harun’s mother). We never asked her real name. But she was the cook-in-chief at our house for the longest time. When my sister had a baby, she asked Harun-er ma whether she wanted to come to the US to help her out. She was ready instantly. For the next five years, she took care of my nephews while my sister was at work peacefully. When I visited her there, she would often ask me to write a letter to Harun on behalf of her. I remember the indignation of a longing mother asking her child to be responsible. Harun was of my age and so Harun-er ma always had a special corner for me. After my return to Bangladesh 13 years later, Harun-er ma came to see me with tears in her eyes. Harun passed away due to some complication after a surgery. I was stunned. Harun-er ma has told my mother that she wants to cook in my house because that would make her feel that Harun is close to her. She starts work next month.

The person who gets the most emotion out of my mother still, however, is Aklima. Aklima stayed at our place for eight years. But she was notorious for her temper. She would fight with a karai if she could when she was in a bad mood, which would happen quite often. But she was a grand cook and someone my mother could rely on when she was away. She would be bitter and angry one moment, and the very next moment would be laughing away. One of her weekly rituals was to fight with my mother and make her mad as hell. We never could figure out why my mother employed a woman who made her so angry. Eventually one day it was a little too much for my mother and she let her go after a bitter fight. Aklima was diagnosed with breast cancer a year after she left our house. My mother quietly used to send her money for her treatment. She mellowed down a lot and eventually passed away only in her thirties, and talked about my mother till her dying days. Till date my mother fondly remembers her service.

When I remember these people and their stories, I often wonder about the stories of abuse I read in the paper. Only a few days ago I went to a child domestic worker drop-in center run by Ain O Salish Kendro and supported by Save the Children and Drishtipat. There I met many of these young Jainals, Abduls and Aklimas. They were trying to learn new skills and get education so that they could climb on the mobility ladder. I was fascinated talking to them. When I read their profiles, it all seemed too familiar. Sons and daughters of landless farmers coming to Dhaka for employment and getting disconnected from their families forever.

I asked the supervisor if they talk about any kind of abuse in their ‘host family’.
“All the time”, she replied.
“Do you not do anything about it?”, I asked.

“If I do anything, they will stop sending them over to the drop-in centre. I only alert people when their complaints become extreme and unbearable”.

“What kind of complaints do you get?”
“Physical abuse by the house head, sexual abuses by the young brothers-in-law of the family — it’s of all kinds. When I talk to them, they often deny it and get very defensive.”

My jaw dropped, and it explained after all these years why the middle class is still afraid to talk about this issue. We have moved ahead so much in our journey as an independent country. We take pride in the progress and liberalisation of our society. But when are we going to look at these skeletons in our closet? Too often we dehumanise our domestic helpers so that we can rationalise our treatment to them. But there lies a Jainal, Aklima, Abdul and Harun-er ma in all our houses.

Can we start with humanising them in our own houses first?

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