The Maid’s Hands

Clink, clink, clink.

I watch her through the rising steam of my cup of chai.

She brings the pestle down again and again onto the small, round, red hot peppers being doomed to the destiny of powdery flakiness in the mortar. She sits on the floor, the gold bangles on her dark wrists gleaming in the midday sun streaming in through one of the kitchen windows.

With every new assault on the peppers, her bangles clink against the rim of the marble mortar.

I am in Karachi, Pakistan. We are staying with my husband’s uncle. His house is fifty years old and sits in what was once an up and coming neighbourhood of Karachi.  Three generations have walked through the doors of this house. It’s big and bright, with several rooms. The floors are remodeled, modern and misleadingly white but the door frames tell the tales of yesteryears. A brown, peeling banister curls from the balcony down into the garden. It used to be red at one point, I am told.

This house has a feeling of being lived in. It has two stories that have seen their share of stories. New brides and new babies, and old grandparents and old grudges.

Clink, clink, clink.

The lady with the espresso skin and black eyes plays the pestle and mortar like an instrument.

In front of her sits an array of whole spices awaiting the slaughterhouse treatment. She looks up at me and smiles timidly.

A persistent crow interjects our silence. I miss hearing birds chirp and crows craw in the middle of December. Our frozen Canadian skies don’t support any such avian activities at this time of the year.

She empties out the ashes of the red peppers into a small jar, her actions methodical and intuitive. She’s done this a million times.

In comes the cumin. Aromas have wings on the backs of which you travel to different eras, to different places. And the smell of freshly ground cumin takes me back to my childhood, to my mother’s hair gleaming in the afternoon sun, as she stood toasting cumin seeds on the stove.

Clink, clink, clink.

I nibble on a pistachio cookie and take a sip of my chai. “How long have you worked here?”

“Since I was fourteen”. No sadness or regret or embarrassment, just a fact.

“Oh.”

My daughter runs into the kitchen like the whirlwind she is, grabs an apple from the fruit basket, and runs out with it.

“Let me wash it first!”

She’s probably half way to China by now. Three year olds.

The woman cranes her neck to look at my daughter through the kitchen door, her eyes gleaming with genuine joy. She smiles.

“She’s beautiful”.

“Thanks, that she is. Do you have children?”

“Two boys and a girl.”

“Oh, acha. They go to school?”

“They do. My girl is very bright!” Her dark eyes are smiling.

“She wants to become a doctor so I told her, ‘Study, study as much as you want. You don’t have to work. You just have to study’”.

“That’s amazing. Make sure she completes her education. It’s so important for girls to be educated, na? It can make or break their life.”

She nods in whole-hearted agreement.

Clink, clink, clink.

She empties out the cumin into another jar then gets up, produces a karahi from the cabinet, plops it onto the stove top and feeds it a generous serving of oil. She sits back, grabs a few garlic cloves and places them into the mortar. Down comes the pestle.

“How did you get this job?”

“My mother use to work for Barey Sahab, your uncle-in-law’s father. I am one of nine children so when I was old enough, my mother asked him to give me a job here. I use to do small chores here and there. Now that my mother has retired, I work here full-time. And my two younger sisters work part-time.”

I think about her mother, an elderly lady who I had seen visiting the house sometimes. The woman’s sisters are tiny, frail things, no older than fifteen. They help with small chores, taking care of the young children, reorganizing drawers and cabinets.

And I wonder.

If may be one of them draws well. Or loves to sing. Or is really good at math. I wonder if their mother was a great cook, or would have loved to read. May be she would have been a talented writer. May be one of them has a knack for fashion, or could have been a gifted teacher.

A lifetime of skills untapped, undiscovered, unapplied. All because their hands never held books. Instead, they spent decades dusting down banisters that turned from red to brown.

The hands that learnt to play the pestle and mortar like an instrument. Since the age of fourteen.

But at least the cycle breaks somewhere. Someone decides that a girl needs a dream. And helps her achieve it. And in the process, changes the destinies of her future generations.

And may be one day that girl will learn to play the mortar and pestle too, but only because she wants to, because she likes the smell of fresh cumin.

Because all a girl really needs is a book. And the dreams just follow.

6 thoughts on “The Maid’s Hands

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