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They Could Teach Us a Thing or Two – Part 1

In this mini-series, Umm-e-Ismaeel shares how the lives of two maids taught her a lesson in gratitude.

I once read somewhere that all people come into your life for a reason – maybe to teach you an important lesson or to help you learn patience or to remind you to be grateful for what you have. Or maybe you just needed them at the time for friendship. I believe Parveen and Maria came into my life for all the above reasons.


Parveen comes to our house to iron and wash the clothes. For years, her routine has always been the same. She enters the house, takes the dirty laundry to the backyard where a small area with a tap has been set up for doing the laundry, soaks it in a tub, enters the house and starts ironing. When she’s done, she goes back outside, washes the clothes (with freezing water in the winter), hangs them to dry and then leaves. All of this is done in utter silence; she doesn’t speak unless spoken to and, if she does speak, it is only to ask for the washing detergent.


I got to know Parveen a few weeks before my delivery. Being pregnant with my first baby, I needed prenatal massages on a regular basis for my sciatic pains and because they would hopefully be beneficial to my newborn’s health. My mother-in-law suggested I ask Parveen. In Pakistan, it is an understood fact that women of the labour class are usually good at giving massages. Their bodies become strong and robust due to the manual labour they do every day and they also learn the art from their mothers and grandmothers. So I arranged with Parveen to massage me daily for 30-60 minutes after her work was done.


Surprisingly, as silent as Parveen was while working, she was quite the chatterbox during our massage sessions. It seemed as if she needed someone to talk to and in me she found a good listener. I started asking questions to get to know her and she would regale me with stories from her past and present. As she spoke in Punjabi, I didn’t always understand what she said, but despite that I would nod my head and smile or frown at the appropriate times.

Parveen, who is in her 50s, has nine children – six sons and three daughters. Her husband is in the army; hence the family has been living for years in rent-free accommodation. Army life also requires her husband to travel for long periods, leaving his family behind. During one of these times many years ago, Parveen was heavily pregnant with her fifth child. As is common among the labour class, they prefer to go to a local midwife rather than a doctor, even though being in the army entitles them to free health care in the army hospital. The midwife is usually not professionally trained or certified. Whatever she knows, she will have learnt from her mother or grandmother and her own experience.

Parveen’s sister took care of the children while she had her delivery. An hour or so after the delivery, her sister left to take care of her own children. Soon after, Parveen’s children came to her room and said they were hungry. Even the oldest child was not old enough to put together a meal for the young ones. So Parveen, despite just having endured a painfully long labour and delivery, got up to make a meal for her children. She instructed the eldest child to bring her a chicken from the few they had. Once the chicken was delivered to her, she slaughtered it, skinned it and cooked it to feed the hungry mouths around her. The needs of her children gave her strength to do what few people could.

A few years later, tragedy struck Parveen’s household. Her three year old daughter, Muskaan, contracted chicken pox, which is a common illness, but ignorance turned it deadly. Parveen didn’t know how to treat the illness so she asked a cousin of hers for advice. That cousin promptly applied oil all over Muskaan’s body. In the Indian Subcontinent, most people out of ignorance believe that oil massages are a cure-all. Soon after, Muskaan started vomiting blood and rolling her eye balls upward. Her father rushed her to the hospital but Parveen stayed behind; she couldn’t bear to see her beloved daughter in so much pain. At the hospital Muskaan had difficulty breathing. The doctor at the hospital put an oxygen mask on her but informed her father that it might be too late to do anything. They injected her with drugs, placed an IV into her, but to no avail. At 10 am the next morning, Muskaan breathed her last.



The tragic loss of her innocent little angel robbed Parveen of peace of mind. She sunk into depression, couldn’t string together more than a few sentences in a day; for years she lived like a mechanical robot. It was only her Christian beliefs and support from her family that helped her through her ordeal. At her husband’s advice, she started working again. She lost herself in her work, going from house to house, zealously washing and ironing clothes. The hard work gradually lifted Parveen’s depression and, after many years, she finally found closure.



The challenges in her life didn’t end though. A few years later, her teenage son was involved in a car accident. While waiting on the curb for a rickshaw, a car coming at full speed crashed into him. The driver of the car rushed him to hospital, where it was found that his right leg was badly crushed. He needed multiple surgeries; the driver gave an initial amount that was enough for one surgery, but disappeared after that. It was bad enough for Parveen to see her son in so much pain, but she also had to endure the humiliation of going around asking for money for her son’s surgeries. After more than two years of surgeries and physiotherapy, her son can finally walk, but with a limp.



At the time of writing this article, Parveen was tried yet again. Two of her sons are part of a group of young men who clean the streets in our compound. A theft took place in a nearby house and the mistress of the house put the blame on one of the men who cleans her gardens. She had him arrested and he blamed the entire group. One of her sons was arrested and she told the other son (who has a weak leg because of the car accident) to run and hide in a relative’s house outside the compound. She knew if the police beat him he could suffer permanent damage to his leg. For five days she kept going to the police station and giving them an earful. Even though she belongs to the labour class, she captured their attention and respect. For her son’s sake, she became a fearless lioness in front of authority. After six days in custody, he was finally released on bail.

Parveen’s struggles moved me and made me cringe with shame. Like the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “If one of you looks at a person who is better than him in wealth and body (charm), let him look at the people beneath him.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim) This is the right attitude of a believer. Doing that made me realise how privileged my life is. I have taken so many things for granted: travelling in planes and cars, visiting different countries, enjoying a variety of food, never having to really work unless I wanted to and not because I had to – the list is endless. When she told me about her pregnancy, it made me wonder if I could be so strong had I been put in such a situation. I felt ashamed when I pondered upon the small things I complained about and how frustrated I often felt when my life wasn’t taking the direction I wanted it to. Her struggles taught me to be patient in times of stress or hardship and from her suffering I learned not to moan and groan about inconsequential things like how so-and-so said this and that or how the tailor ruined my outfit.



To be continued…

Umm-e-Ismaeel has lived in Saudi Arabia, N. America and now resides in Pakistan. She is an ESL teacher and freelance writer; her work has been published in various magazines and ezines. In her free time, she likes baking, painting and gardening with her son.