A couple of years ago, a lovely woman called Zainab worked at our house. She had had a very unhappy life and she wore signs of her misfortune in her sunken, always red-rimmed eyes, her grey wrinkled skin and her concave belly. Zainab had four children — all daughters. Her husband was an alcoholic who was only good for spending her hard-earned money.
Zainab would often bring her daughters over to the house, and we were always happy to see them; shy darling little things, all carbon-copies of their mother.
One day, Zainab brought along her youngest daughter Humaira. Sun-burnt and desperately thin, Humaira clung on to her mother’s kameez and kept grinning at us with a gap-toothed smile. Her hair has the colour and texture of straw and her wrist was as big as two of my fingers.
“Nashta Khayya hai?,” I asked her.
(Have you had your breakfast?)
Too polite to say anything, she just kept smiling at me from behind the safety of her mother.
I asked Zainab to make Humaira a roti and to feed her.
When I came back to the kitchen, Humaira was sitting on her haunches, dipping little pieces of roti in to daal (lentils). Incidentally, we only had lentils and a vegetable curry at home that day so I asked Zainab why she hadn’t given Humaira any vegetables.
Zainab looked at me and said in her usual resigned voice:
“Isko sabzi ki aadat nahi hai.”
(She is not used to eating vegetables.)
Then, noticing the bewildered expression on my face, Zainab explained how her family was too poor to afford to even buy vegetables. Little Humaira was four-years-old and she had been eating lentils all her life because her parents couldn’t afford any better.
I have seen abject poverty with my own eyes; I have been to slums where people squat by the roadside and use the toilet because there is no other place they can go. I have seen little children rummaging through garbage to find recyclable items to sell and make some money; I have seen women scrubbing bathrooms of many mansions in the same day just to pay the rent of their one-bedroom, mud houses.
However, never in my life has poverty spelled itself out so clearly before me.
This family was so poor, that they couldn’t even afford potatoes and tomatoes, leave alone chicken or beef. Can you imagine a life like that?
I stared at Humaira, who was happily licking her fingers, and wondered with shame about all the things I have been blessed with in life that she could only ever dream of.
That day, I sent Zainab off with a full month’s ration and continued the trend for the rest of the time she worked with us. My parents now do the same for every member of the house whom works for us, be it the driver or the cook, but how many more Humairas are out there? It boggles the mind just to think of the sheer number.
So, before you sit down to eat a meal today, think about Humaira and count your blessings. Let go of the trivial matters of life and focus on the positives. Utter a little prayer of thanks and also a prayer for those who haven’t been as fortunate in life as we have — because God knows, we are truly fortunate.