By Harris Khalique
February 04, 2015
Shazia is one of those remarkable young women who have never been to school but first picked up the Urdu alphabets just by playing with friends in her village who were fortunate enough to go to school. After moving to Islamabad and put to work by her mother as a housemaid, she learned to read and write the language by spending time with school-going children in different homes. She is about twenty-years-old now and whatever little leisure time she gets, she tries to watch soaps and films like girls her age but also enjoys reading Urdu poetry and short fiction.
Shazia’s parents belong to the Loota and Charniara castes of Punjab. These are bracketed with castes likes Nokhi, Mochi, Mirasi and Musalli. Her ancestors traditionally worked as cattle-herders, tillers, crop-pickers and brick-kiln workers for Chaudhries who are Niswanas, Sipras, Arains and Syeds, etc in that area. Brick-kilns now are increasingly run by Pakhtuns who have migrated to Chiniot and around there. People belonging to these working castes are also daily-wage labourers and house servants now.
Shazia’s father took care of the cattle of the local landowner before becoming a farm labourer because tending cattle only brought him 24 mounds of wheat grain in a year and no wage in cash. Yes, no exaggeration. That was his annual wage for 25 years of his life. If he would borrow money from the employer, his clerk would keep a record of that. At the time of leaving the job, that money had to be returned with interest.
About six years ago, Shazia’s father died after being accidentally hit by a vehicle during the process of loading sugarcane which was being trucked to sugar mills. The widow received Rs20,000 in compensation from the truck driver. Her husband used to earn Rs2 per mound for cutting the sugarcane crop and so make about Rs10, 000 in the season (not a month – a season). After his death, Shazia’s mother decided to move to Islamabad with her six children and began to work as a housemaid. She was soon successful in getting her two girls employed as well; they were 17 and 14 then. The eldest among the six is a son who became a daily wager in Islamabad but now works as a helper in a kitchen at some training institute. The youngest three – two boys and a girl – go to school.
Imagine: in a household of seven people with three daughters to be eventually married off, the collective family income of Rs29, 000 a month make them feel much better off in Islamabad than they had ever been in village Kalowal Chak Jodh near the town of Chiniot. They could also manage to return the money with interest to the local landowner that their father had borrowed when he worked only for 24 mounds of wheat grain per annum.
Shazia’s mother thinks that her two older daughters are running late in terms of getting married. She continues to look for the right men for them mostly when she goes back to her village and the town of Chiniot where their extended family lives. Lately, she has also started looking for a suitable match for each of the daughters in and around Islamabad. However, it will not be that easy for her to marry them off when she has to raise three children still going to school.
The two daughters contribute more than their mother and elder brother because they are full time housemaids with other living expenses covered. Their salaries are largely saved for others in the family. Shazia remains the biggest contributor to her family income as she gets separate pocket money when the whole wage goes to her mother. She and her brother are the only two who get more than the monthly minimum wage determined by the government but her brother has to spend at least half of his salary on his transport, food and clothing expenses.
Shazia’s uncles and aunts, cousins and nephews, everyone related to them or known to them, in their own village and the villages around them live under debt – large or small. There is no one except for her immediate family now who have no debt to pay off to any local landlords, shopkeepers, businessmen or brick-kiln owners.
Her mother is a relieved woman and Shazia’s is a proud family in the sense that the mother and her children worked seriously hard for six years in a distant city to rid themselves of any loans and debts back home. That is a feat they all achieved with a terribly meagre income. Just think how little the rural labourer earns even today – far less than the income of a poor household in a city – and the debt trap they are kept within.
Shazia’s paternal uncle still takes care of the cattle, buffaloes and cows, of the landowning family in their village. He has four children. His wife is a housemaid who gets one meal a day for herself and her children as the only wage. If she takes the day off, she doesn’t get the meal. There is no financial transaction involved.
The term used in Punjabi for hiring people to work for you like that is ‘Roti te rakhya haiy (Working for bread)’. Shazia’s uncle worked at a brick-kiln for some years and was under a debt of Rs100,000 when he wanted to leave. His current employer, the landowner he has worked with now for several years, paid off the debt. That shifted the uncle’s debt account to the new employer. Now the man has a much larger debt to pay back to the current employer if he ever decides to leave since whatever he borrows gets written down and the interest accumulates.
Why does he borrow at all if he gets enough wheat to feed his family for the year and his wife and children get one meal a day? He has to borrow because he is dirt poor and has to buy things against cash, simply in order to survive. Haven’t we got a cash economy in Pakistan? It is 2015, but Shazia’s uncle does not get any wage in cash. He continues to tend and herd the cattle for twenty four mounds of wheat grain per annum.
Shazia’s maternal uncle made some savings from his labour and borrowed money from family and friends to buy a rickshaw. On the intercity road passing through village Jani Shah near Chiniot, a reckless bus driver first ran over a five-year-old girl on the road and then crashed into the rickshaw killing Shazia’s uncle. The driver escaped from the scene.
With the girl on the road and those on the rickshaw, there were three other children and two adults who were killed in the accident. Shazia’s uncle was in his late twenties and his wife was pregnant with their first child when he died. The only son they have was born five months after his death. A case was registered but since the driver worked for an influential Syed family of the area, neither was any justice expected nor was it every achieved.
Shazia Allahditta, the twenty-year-old young woman from Kalowal Chak Jodh, Chiniot, and her family and clan are a part of those 60 million Punjabis of Pakistan who work hard to make their ends meet and still can’t get two decent meals in a day, leave alone health, education and sanitation. The other 40 million fall in different categories and are not necessarily all affluent. But they are a little better off.
The 60 million or more I speak of are treated like dirt by the elite. They continue to provide comfort and cheap labour to the privileged in this country, but are no less the victims of the Punjabi elite and upper classes than those living in the smaller provinces who feel that about themselves.
Harris Khalique is a poet and author based in Islamabad.