my maid’s home burned down.

My maid came to my house after missing one day at around 8 am, crying, and then screaming. She first apologized for not coming to work the day before, and then explained that her home had burned down from a fire. You didn’t know? she asked me. I didn’t. I left for work early and came home at night and in between, fire ablaze the slum area where my maid, Parveen had lived with her children and husband. It was a makeshift home of bamboos like so many others, built above a bed of water with illegal electricity and water running through the hundreds of homes. 150 makeshift homes, gone. Another reports 250. It was on the TV. (click here for the story.) Even my parents saw it from abroad, but I just had no idea.

I hired Parveen just a few days earlier. I have less than two weeks left and needed better help at home and she came in the mornings, around 6:30 am. She cleaned the floors, washed my clothes, cleaned my bathrooms, polished this and that, and occasionally cooked and made my morning tea. She was very, very talkative. I was not annoyed yet. And she was different than other maids I have seen– she accessorized more, wore cleaner clothes. She worked for about four homes in the area and used her money smartly. She even had a bank account. She bought a television, and she managed to purchase a cupboard. She fed her children with her money, one of whom suffered from a disability. Her husband was an occasional rickshaw puller, occasional gambler, and occasional abuser. Like all the other maids’ husbands, my aunt once told me.

She didn’t have shoes and I gave her a pair of flip flops. I gave her 500 taka. I didn’t have anything else to give at the time.I really didn’t. She wouldn’t take food–apparently she doesn’t have the appetite and they are already being fed by an NGO there. But here is the troubling part. I have been talking to some neighbors and people are sympathetic. She just lost everything. But they are also cautious. They told me, be careful, she is going to start asking you for a lot of things and emotionally blackmail you. But she just lost everything, I would respond. She works for four homes and has connections to ten others, she is getting a lot more than other victims who don’t have such connections. So what do I do, just ignore that the poor woman’s house burned down? I mean, she is poor after all, and you can’t deny the fact that house being burned down…I can’t even imagine. At the same time, my neighbors told me, you have to be careful because they are used to wanting more and asking for more and you don’t exactly know for sure how much she has and what she is exactly doing with all of the money and clothes. Cunning, selfish, greedy, and they are used to hustling, they tell me.

The conversations go on and I am left frustrated because I just don’t see how one can ignore that a person is a sufferer and a victim no matter their status in the social ladder of losing everything from a disaster. As someone who has a lot more, am I not obliged to help? If not obliged, shouldn’t I, if I can? How can I check that my charity is actually helping? But how can it not, for Parveen is very, very poor  despite everything.

And how about the rest? my neighbors ask back.

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3 thoughts on “my maid’s home burned down.

  1. This problem is faced by anyone middle class in Bangladesh and, in particular, those of us who are bideshi. It is very difficult to do the ‘right thing’ as, inevitably, it will end up being the wrong.

    In my mind I would rather do something and say sorry later than do nothing at all. One thing we find helpful in this kind of situation is to give loans. These are interest-free and the last payment or two we may well write off as a gift. This way we help, give support but also make the other person accountable. Everyone has troubles one way or another and everyone has to deal with that – even our maids. But we can help in a way that does not make them dependent on us. A loan means they still pay for things but in a way that is affordable and with paying the awful interest loan sharks demand.

    The other thing is that we only give loans to friends and those we have a relationship with. If a stranger comes asking for money I do not give it (though I will give food if I can). I don’t have a relationship with them and I reserve my help to those I know. Heaven knows – there is enough of them we know that need our help!

  2. Brought up in a country like Bangladesh, I have finally trained myself not to look. How many people will you help out? And how do you know that you are actually helping them out? It’s pathetic; I know I am being morose, but there is too much injustice here. This is why I pacify myself by seeing the highrise flats of Dhanmondi while ignoring the street urchins all over the place. According to some recent statistics, the no. of people living inside homes in Dhaka is almost equal to the no. living outside. The best thing to do is wait and watch. And tolerate everything. I have trained myself to think like that.

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