Life tests our vim and vigor at the best of times and seems an insurmountable challenge at the worst of times. But in our world of low, middle, and high-income nations, some lives are inherently more privileged and systemically valued than others.
This neither means that wealthy people lead easy or care-free lives nor that the poor are relegated to the depths of irreversible misery: it is an illustration, albeit merely one, that the world is a place where complex dualities abound. Masculine, feminine, rich, poor, these are all roles assigned to society by its own machinations and until we question their presence, meaning, and necessity, humanity’s eyes will be collectively shut to a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive. Our anatomies and our economic stature are nothing to be ashamed of. Though they may shape who we are, such identities should not be considered shackles but weights that increase our muscle and mettle.
Like other countries around the world, Bangladesh has a tradition of having servants for the upper class. Though domestic workers were initially considered to be ‘banda’, Bengali for bound to the home, and had little formal legal rights, contemporary society and the law no longer permits this as people have realized the inequitable ways of their past.
Today, many former domestic workers have found more ‘official’ jobs as janitors or cooks in restaurants. Some are able send their children to college to ensure a fate less chained to the whims of employers’. Others, though, grow accustomed to their surroundings and feel they would not be able to cope with the life that awaits them outside. In fact, their employers become a family whom they can’t imagine leaving, a feeling which their employers even reciprocate. The latter category is where Ms. Mirda falls. There is still a stigma within Bengali culture of being ashamed of one’s class, though it is dissipating over time.
Rizia was born in the former East Pakistan town of Boro Pasha in Mirda Bari around the year 1969. She does not have a birth certificate, as most villagers at the time did not have a formal system of birth registration, so her age is a rough estimate. Her village is still home to many agricultural workers. Her father, Hamid Uddin Mirda, was a rice and wheat farmer. Fieldwork is no mean feat, as the workers wake up before dawn and labor until dusk. Rizia has no recollection of her father, as he died when she was very young, likely before she turned 4. This left her widow mother and her two brothers Abdul Majid and Abdul Aziz to fend for her and her two sisters.
Her fondest memories are of her mother and eldest sister, whose names she can no longer remember. But when she does reminisce, it is about her mother cooking for the family. She also speaks fondly of her eldest sister and remembers her braiding her hair and running amok in the village with her hand in hand. After her mother died, Rizia’s eldest sister cared for her like a mother. These recollections of her sister and her mother are the only instances of love she has from her life before beginning domestic work. However, as tradition went, her older sister was soon married off.
The memories she has of her brothers aren’t positive ones and she was reluctant to share them. When asked if she ever thought of them her reply was an abrupt, ”never.” Her brothers could barely take care of their widow mother and themselves and could no longer afford to keep another mouth to feed around. When she was 12 years old, Rizia’s paternal uncle brought her to the home of her current employer’s mother, to be a playmate and caretaker of her current employer, who was only a year old at the time. It was a common practice among the nobility in Bangladesh to keep a ‘companion’ servant for their children, who would both feed them, put them to sleep, and play with them.
Rizia still says that her current employer’s mother and the kindness she showed is the biggest blessing in her life. Clearly, those of a contemporary mindset will disagree - how can becoming a child-worker be a blessing? However, the fact is that relative to most other children her age, she was well clothed, well fed, and not beaten and therefore, better off. We cannot dismiss this notion as cruel moral relativism when the same is done when economists chart development in poor countries. It is not feasible to apply the same standards of healthcare for a mother in a rural Bengali village and a mother in the Upper East Side of NYC. Similarly, it is not feasible to compare her life to that of a child in America. Whether you find international disparity to be a fault of colonialism or a self-inflicted problem, the surrounding circumstances in each country are completely different and must be taken into consideration.
After about a decade of working, she had reached marrying age and was married off to a rice farmer. The marriage broke down in about 2 or 3 months. When asked of her husband, Rizia makes sure to clarify that he was neither cruel to her nor beat her (again, a rarity both for her era and now). It was the in-laws that caused problems, were cruel to her, and led to the ultimate breaking down of the marriage. She believes that their cruelty was spurred by the fact that her dowry was not properly paid, though they might have been abusive regardless. Domestic violence committed by in-laws is unfortunately still a serious issue in rural Bangladesh.
After her marriage ended, she did not go back to her brothers, as she knew what awaited her there: another forced marriage. Instead, she went back to her former employer for work. She was welcomed back and began working again as a nanny to her employer’s newly born son. Through her work, she says she found a solace and reprieve, and though she never had children of her own she felt her employer’s children to be hers in a sense.
After her mother died in 1994, Rizia lost touch with her family. She no longer felt a bond as she did before , and didn’t bother to keep in touch with her brothers. Her younger brother’s son is now an assistant for clerical workers in the High Court of Bangladesh, which is a big step up from being a rice farmer’s grandson. Rizia’s nephew had contacted her and asked her to live with them but she fears would try to dispossess her of her small but ample inheritance and savings.
When asked about any regrets in her life, Rizia wishes she were educated as she feels her life would be very different, however, she has no regrets of her own making. She feels the few decisions she did have the luxury to make herself were good ones. Even after her employer’s passing, which she still mentions with tears in her eyes, Rizia remained in the household and is now nanny to her two grandchildren, the youngest now nearly 3. She has cared for an entire generation of a family and they will be forever indebted to her
This is just one snapshot of one person’s life in a world of over 7 billion people. Rizia’s story brings up numerous complicated issues that illustrious economists and politicians barely scratch the surface of. Rizia is content. Caring for children, though not her own, gives her purpose to wake up in the morning. She is treated well, can go out when she pleases, and does not face the wrath of an abusive husband, which many women of her nation and the world over do. Yes, she has sadness in her life that most readers and I will never have to experience. But the human experience is not a statistic – it is an ongoing visceralness. She is not ashamed of her life, and no one should feel sorry for her. Rizia feels at peace with her life, and ultimately, that is a feat most people would be fortunate to accomplish.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mehvish Ally is an American law student of Bengali heritage. Multicultural from birth, she was born in Kuwait, raised in the United States, and for the last 4 years has been living a confusing expatriate life in Bangladesh. She met Ms. Nirda when she stayed at her employer’s home for a time. Initially, their relationship was distant and had a forced politeness to it, but over time, a sort of kinship grew.