An Elf Who Writes Poetry

Ten years of living in California, more than half of them alone, has made me a realist (those who knew me best in my past life in Pakistan call me cynical), and has also taught me the value of both having and not having household help. I love cooking and cleaning; the former learned like a science with sheer force of will to conquer my husband's palette and make him realize that I am not a failure at anything, not even at the art of cooking perfect biryani; and the latter coming naturally to me as a product of loving order and aesthetic (my father would argue that it comes genetically from him). 

This particular love for both acts makes me happy that having household help is the exception rather than the rule in America. We are the true "servantless cooks" as the great Julia Child called us. We plan a party from start to finish, from nibbles to appetizers to entrees to desserts, from china to music to candles to flowers, it is all up to us, and all this is accompanied by the less than charming chopping, cutting, washing, frying, dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing, and shining. There are days now when I really don't want to do the dishes or wipe down the counters or pick up scattered toys after Jahan is asleep. In these moments, I find myself wishing for my own little elf, a full-time maid like we had at my mother's house, unintrusive and vigilant, she would hover at the edges of all messes, clean them up like magic, assist with the annual winter cleaning (we undertook large cleaning projects in the winter in Pakistan because the spring/summer monsoons generally made everything very messy) by dusting, folding, wiping, mopping, et cetera. She would wash the dishes as my mother cooked, and by the time the meal was over, the kitchen would be sparkling clean. At night, she would tell me and my sisters stories. In the morning, she would iron our uniforms and wave from the gate as my mother pulled away from the driveway to take us to school. I loved her. 

I am reminded of her now close to twenty years after she stopped working for my mother (she got married), because my sister-in-law, Maham, has just hired a new maid. A few days ago I saw Maham's tweet:
"Been having the TOML [time of my life] winter cleaning with an elf I can call my own! Yay Nazia!"
We then spoke on Skype and I had the pleasure of meeting Nazia. About fifteen years old with large eyes, an open unassuming countenance, and a ready smile, Nazia fluttered on the periphery of the view. Maham raved about her manners and quickness in learning, her love for reading, and drive to succeed...and her poetry. 
In Pakistan, there is such an overwhelming majority of the population under the poverty line and lacking even primary education that there are always children as young as ten or eleven who are compelled to work to support their families. I will give you an example. My mother is currently employing one full-time maid who is about 15 years old. The maid's mother has passed away due to a sickness that was probably as treatable as pneumonia, but due to lack of resources and healthcare, she was not able to get treatment. Her father has some kind of mental illness (what it is, no one knows, because there is no infrastructure for the poor to see doctors and get diagnoses). His two daughters are currently living in my mother's house. The older one, the 15-year-old, helps with household tasks like cooking and cleaning. The younger one, about 8 years old has become the new apple of everyone's eye and has been enrolled into a neighborhood school to study. The older one is also getting lessons from my sister at home. With the best luck, these two little girls will stay in their present situations for a few years (if their father doesn't try to move them to better paying jobs), get a basic education (not all employers are able to offer the same charity to the household help - yes, getting them an education is considered charity, because it's money coming out of the employer's pocket with no way of knowing whether the servants will even stay with the same family - it's a complicated relationship), and then marry one rung above their social status, best case scenario - to a day laborer, driver, shopkeeper's assistant, etc., so their children don't have to clean people's houses for a living and can get a proper education.  
Many of the patron families are gentle and loving. My mother has always treated household help as  part of the family. It is the same in my mother-in-law's house. It is the case in many middle-class, educated, genteel families. However, in certain cases, the household help is abused by the hiring family, and on the flip side, there are cases where servants rob their employers, abuse children they are hired to look after, etc. There is a whole spectrum of unfortunate circumstances. All different kinds of people everywhere, that's what it boils down to in the end.
But let's focus on the fortunate events, shall we? So, Nazia has come to work for my sister-in-law for two months. Hearing that she likes to read Urdu digests and the poetry of Faraz Ahmad and Allama Iqbal piqued my attention. Many of the maids who come from suburban towns and villages are completely illiterate. To hear that Nazia can read and write made me happy and sad at the same time. I will explain why in a second. I asked to talk to Nazia and she came forward shyly. 
Me: "What do you like to read, Nazia?" 
Nazia, the poet and reader
Nazia: "Urdu novellas and stories."
Me: "Maham told me that you also write poetry. Do you?"
Nazia: "Yes, in Urdu and Punjabi."
Me: "Wow, that's great shaabaash [good job]. Can you recite one of your poems for me?"
She did. It was good. Full of pining love and woes of a broken heart.
Me: "Nazia, did someone break your heart? Are you sad? Or do you just write these because you like to?"
Nazia: Laugh. "I haven't done anything that would break my heart, Baji [big sister]. This is just what I think of."
I then asked her if I could write about her and put her picture on my blog. At this, Maham quickly pulled up this blog on her computer and told Nazia that this is Baji's "magazine." Maham looked at me to ask if this explanation was alright. I nodded my assent. Nazia got really excited about being featured in my "magazine."
Nazia: "Baji, thank you for thinking I am worth writing about."
I wanted to cry a little bit. Here was a brilliant young woman with all the passion of the world in her poetry thanking me for considering her worth writing about. If only it was within my power to let her know that she and others like her should be worth much more. Worth free government schools and vocational training and a movement for girls' education. I, being disillusioned with Pakistan for so long, saw promise in this young woman. Here was true Pakistan. A girl from a village with one school for miles and one medicine dispensary selling cough and fever remedies. This girl probably sat on bamboo mats in a mud hut with a thatched roof  to take her lessons. And here she was in one of the biggest cities of the country happy as a lark in her present situation.
Me: "When did you drop out of school, Nazia?" 
Nazia: "After 8th class. There were no more classes in our village school. But I wanted to study more. I wanted to be something."
Me: "What would you have become if you had studied more?"
Nazia: Shy laugh. "A doctor or something."
I said I would explain why I was happy and sad when I first learned about Nazia's poetry. I was happy because I had no doubt that Nazia's children would have an education. She would make sure of that. Her mother had done her a great service by sending her to the village middle school. She was now much better prepared to do more than that for her own children. I was sad because she could have been more if only she had the resources. A doctor or something. 
But for now, I am happy that Nazia is lighting up my house in Pakistan. She is helping Maham with the housework, going shopping with her for clothes, buying lots of Urdu digests to read during the day, learning how to cook from my mother-in-law, and is content overall. She is wonderful company for everyone and a comfort for my mother-in-law who flits about the house all day like a worker bee. To me, she is a satisfying presence in the background of Skype calls, sitting in her corner of the room she will share with Maham for the next two months, snug under the covers with a pile of books next to her, engrossed in her digest, looking up periodically to wave and smile at me.
I am waiting for this little elf to write some of her poetry down so I can send it to Urdu magazines to be considered for publication. I have promised myself that this will not be the only "magazine" in which Nazia is published.