They also serve who...

They also serve who….

Growing up in India I had an ‘aya’…a nanny, a permanent nanny. One that was there my whole childhood. It seemed to me that she gave up her life for ours and swapped our family for her own. Why? What would make one human being forsake her own bonds, her family, her belongings? ...All these years later I ask, answer and know.
It’s a tragic mix of circumstances, of dead-ends on life’s roads and of illegibly scripted promises of better times ahead. It’s the lure of kind words and love, the joys of surrogate motherhood and hopelessness of indentured servitude…it's about loving and being loved, it’s about the desperate need for money and perhaps most fatally about the need to belong.
Kareem bi was a skinny, loving, straight-haired lady who was my mom away from mom. She cleaned, fed and loved me. I never asked if she had a child of her own…mostly because I wasn’t old enough to ask or perhaps because I didn't want to know. I was hers and she was mine, even as she played cricket in a sari and taught me to ride my first bicycle. There wasn't an adventure that she didn't accompany this toddler on and there wasn't a hurt that she didn't repair for this little boy.
On the other side of the social spectrum are rich people. Their lives of privilege seldom come without the accompanying baggage of entitlement, fickleness and self absorption. They ‘have it’ and in India these 'haves' employ 'have-nots' as household help or servants. A few of the rich have more than just the money that elevates them. They have wisdom, a love and an empathy born of humanity instead of sympathy born of position and privilege. Ours was sadly not one of these enlightened families. We were brats. In our house for instance, decades of loyalty and servitude wouldn’t exempt a maid from suspicions of stealing. Jewellery would often be lost or go missing and accusations would fly. It must certainly be the work of the poor, miserable, loving, indentured servants...logic was defied, sentiments subverted, honor and respect denied. I remember Kareem bi crying hysterically at the bottom of the stairs as she implored me, a toddler, to confirm her alibi. She cried all that night...maybe she felt that it was the only language strong enough to convey her innocence.
She ate servant-food that was cooked separately and contained little meat. Meat was expensive and therefore a privilege. So it was served at least twice a day in the master's dining room but only once every few days to the servants who usually dined in the alleyway or the courtyard while sitting on their haunches. She had no easy access to medicines, no doctors, no rest, no off-hours, no shopping, no entertainment, no sitting while us brats were in the room, no casual conversations, little laughter and a little love as long as she gave of herself, selflessly.
The duality of human nature was always on display in our household. It was employed consciously and unconsciously so that between the bait of reward and good treatment and the not-so-veiled threat of ill-treatment lay a bewildered, twitching, uncertain, ready-to-please and too-tired-to-run mind of the servant. Kareem Bi. Captive.
Kareem Bi's noble face is buried in my mind and what's more her nobility is burned into my heart. I would make a pencil sketch now if it would help the police find her. However that can't happen. You see I don't recall the exact events that caused her to leave but I have emotionally reconstructed them for my sanity. One late autumn day as the temperatures cooled in southern India...
"Why are you coughing so much Kareem bi? The kids might catch your cold Kareem bi. Let's have doctor sab check you out Kareem bi...
Oh no! Doctor sab thinks you might have TB (tuberculosis) Kareem bi! Oh my god, how did you get that Kareem bi? Now what will happen to “us” Kareem bi? 
...You have to go and we have no one to look after Baba and Bibi (the kids). Here's five hundred rupees ...take them and leave. Go home and rest...I can call the TB hospital for you (where you can go to die) Kareem bi. We can't pay for your medical costs Kareem bi...we have to find someone else Kareem bi...anyway TB is incurable so what's the point Kareem Bi? Please leave now (..we'll come and get you if we want to feel more noble and less heartless) Kareem bi.
Khuda Hafiz (may God be your protector) Kareem bi.

.....Many months later back from boarding school I ask,
Mom! Where is Kareem bi?”
Oh! She left a few months ago son. She didn't feel well...”

To Kareem bi: Forty years on and you still have a sizable piece of my heart. I love you and in whatever part of heaven you live, my prayers are with you.

And, "I'm sorry".

ps. Kareem bi, do you have any kids?

Mir Ali Dec 22, 2011 Wyckoff


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