The Dawn: 24th May, 2013

The faceless and the nameless in our city!

Mushtaq Soofi 

A view of Lahore. – File Photo

Lahore is dazzlingly alluring city. It promises everything good; modern houses, cushy jobs, couture, shiny cars, latest gadgetry, restaurants, hotels, theatre, cinema houses and above all glamour and glitter of modern night life. It evokes at the imaginative level what one would love to see: dream like space where in the words of T.S.Eliot “Women come and go, talking of Michael Angelo” .

All this may be true for some but for the majority especially for those smelly commoners who migrate to the city from rural areas and small towns in search of their dream, it proves little more than an unending journey in pursuit of unreachable but never fading image of what life could be. Bertolt Brecht with his unique sense of irony describes the reception the incomers imagine they will get: “The cities were built for you. They are eager to welcome you. The doors of the houses are wide open. The meal is ready on the table. As the cities are very big, experts have drawn maps for those who do not know the programme, showing clearly the quickest way to reach one’s goal”. But the quickest way that brings them to city suddenly ends nowhere.

They find to their utter dismay that city is a jungle where intruders must navigate with their tails down, avoiding any encounter with the well entrenched powerful predators jealously guarding their turfs. The intruders know they are perceived to be lint heads. So they have to prove that they are harmless and of course are of some use.

Who are these people we are talking about? Of course the starved peasants, no longer needed village artisans and jobless hoi polloi of small towns. How they enter the city is in itself a story full of twists and turns. That village folks fear city, is a well known fact. They believe that city dwellers are invariably crafty, out to rob any outsider who happens to visit the city.

Any one ready to leave for city is given countless tips, banal and ludicrous, by all and sundry as how to face up to the situations one may encounter in the city. The first thing one must do is to find a relative, a friend or an acquaintance that may provide shelter and support for initial few weeks. If you are lucky, you may be introduced directly to a willing employer. If things go smooth, after the verification of your credentials to the satisfaction of the employer, someone will have to stand guarantee for your good conduct. There is also an informal network of jobbers operating in the city. Once you are hired as a kitchen boy, security guard, construction worker or driver depending on your qualification and experience, initially on probation, the first problem you face is that of pace and etiquettes that are different from those of sluggish and simple rural life. Beware, you may inadvertently spit in the lush green lawn and get fired. You may unconsciously poke your finger in your nose and offend the lady of the house. Use of mustard oil for hair may be a habit with you, but it is absolutely forbidden as it may make the micro atmosphere smelly and messy. The loud ring tone of your cheap cell phone is definitely going to invite a snub from someone in the house. When admonished, talking back is out of question. Stoical endurance is what is required of you. One can go on and on with the list of don’ts. The list of dos is also endless!

And let us not forget the female workers who constitute a substantial part of work force in the informal sector in our city. They work mostly as maids; keeping the houses of the rich prim. Even a middle class family with modest income can afford to hire a maid or two. Wages are that low! Cleaning and scrubbing the floors, keeping the toilets spick and span, dusting the dustless decorative items and making beds is what they normally do. They at times suffer molestation and face sexual harassment that largely go unnoticed and unreported. Fear of losing face and job silence their cry. So no one is named and shamed. Religious discrimination against the Christian workers of humble origins is not uncommon among the rich conservative Muslim families, displaying the chronic bias of caste system which is an imperceptibly perceptible element of their psyche. They, hypocritical to the core, when confronted, would loudly proclaim that being Muslims they believe in the equality of all human beings. ‘It has nothing to do with the caste, it’s a question of hygiene’ they would insist.

Where do these visibly invisible workers live in our city? Some of them with their employers in the boxes of concrete called servant quarters but most of them find shelter in the sprawling urban slums, under construction buildings and run down areas at the fringes of the city. Beyond the unavoidable contact necessitated by requirements of work; they are shunned as if they are lepers. Brecht in stunning words describes the upper class loathing of the workers, we are talking of: “There are those who move half a street away/the walls are distempered after them/they are never seen again/they eat other bread, their women lie under other men, with the same sighs”.

Before shifting to our city, back home in their hamlets, villages and small towns these men and women though poor, had names and faces that gave them at least some measure of recognition and a semblance of dignity. Now in the city, the so-called civilized world, they are faceless and nameless despite all their skill and hard work. They seem human as long as they work. The moment they finish their job, they are dark shadows to be removed by the flash light of opulence. So they recede to their modern caves. Shakespeare’s King Lear in the storm scene while looking at Edgar disguised as a naked beggar asks in a philosophic vein: “Is man no more than this”? Man certainly is much more than this if allowed being what he could be. And this can only happen when man’s work that enriches life, is accorded social recognition.

Upside of the story is that these aliens in the city, free of traditional hierarchical restrictions and feudal repression, gain a new sense of social mobility in the urban milieu. They can change their jobs and professions. Faceless and nameless, these nobodies whose work and service enable you to have a face and a name, the ones who build houses for you, scrub your floor and cook for you or drive your cars can also be real raconteurs. Spare a moment for them. They have a tale to tell; not full of sound and fury but certainly signifying a little known world of despair and dreams the wretched of the earth are forced to live in.

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