A Spiraling Staircase: a narrative regarding caste in Pakistan

By Zainab Bhatti

The ride to Sialkot, as a kid, appeared to be an endless journey. Cows littered the flat lands, peacefully grazing. Arduous workers bent over square rice fields. Herders shuffled their cattle along the edge of the path. Vibrant trucks decorated with art trekked by slowly, cars often speeding up to overtake them. Motorcycles, piled with families of five or six, precariously managed their balance. All seemed to pass in slow motion as we zoomed by.

In reality, the drive was a mere two hours from Lahore. Our merging onto a single dirt road signaled to me that we were closing in on our destination. The car rumbled and shook over the rocks on the uneven road. The winding way, albeit headache inducing, gave me a newfound appreciation of the smooth glide of cars on asphalt.

Soon enough, we pulled up to the gateway enclosing my aunt’s house. I let out a sigh of relief and scrambled to get out of the cramped backseat and stretch my muscles. The sun was beating down hard as usual; however, now, there was no air conditioning to protect from the sweltering heat. The rest of the family struggled to exit the car as they grabbed suitcases and bags. Ahead of them, I stared at the ornate gate, afraid to touch it because of the heat. To my benefit, someone swung the gate open, and we walked in, aunts, uncles, and cousins greeting us with awkward hugs and kisses. I peered around the front area. The lawn was bright green and trimmed close. The tight alleys between the house and its outer walls were perfect for running, ducking, and hiding as if in a high speed chase. After finishing with the customary traditions, we were led in through the large mahogany doors that creaked open in a grand manner.

The expectations set with the grand manner of opening were matched once inside. The kitchen was dark and sleek. To enter the family and dining room, one had to open large sliding glass doors. The bedrooms were spacious and meticulously decorated. And a black spiraling staircase led up to the second floor.

The appreciation extended to the house itself and my aunt. Other adults and kids dampened my spirit for Sialkot. The stay felt cramped by the adults’ expectations to remain obedient and converse with other cousins. As someone content with with my own company paired with a growing desire to just play, I found these cousins lackluster.

After a hearty lunch, everyone settled down, The talks about the weather and older relatives bored me, so I slid out of the dining room. I found myself wandering around, exploring the house for treasures or a dark, mysterious door leading to another dimension. I ended up at the foot of the spiral staircase. The black tiles were warm from the heat of the day as I climbed upstairs. It was quiet, especially compared to the lower floor. I snuck around the unoccupied rooms, until I heard a steady noise of water sloshing around. I crept, suddenly more alert, until I reached the source of the noise. There I saw a girl, squatted. She sat in front of a plastic tub filled with soap and laundry. She pushed and squeezed, pushed and squeezed the clothes in the soapy water. She seemed tired, although she was working hard at the clothes. I leaned against the wall, entranced by the movement of her hands washing the clothes. She must have sensed someone watching her after a while because she stopped and turned her head. Making eye contact with her, I smiled and turned around to leave her in peace.

I saw her later that day, downstairs. It took a minute for it to click that she was one of my aunt’s maids. She would work in the kitchen, bring chai to my aunt, clean the floor, and iron clothes. She was older than me. But young. She was most likely a teenager. The clothes she wore were simple: a shalwar kameez and a matching dupatta. Her shirt was loose and hung off her body; the dupatta appeared worn and old. She would work quietly but was prone to making mistakes. Many times I could hear my aunt’s loud voice scolding her, telling her she was no good at her one job. Anytime I heard the harsh admonitions, my heart ached. She was just a girl.

Head Merala, Sialkot

I saw her cleaning up the mess left behind after dinner. Extended family had dropped by, so there were even bigger piles of dishes requiring her attention. Glancing around for any onlookers, I dropped by and began to pick up the plates and glasses scattered throughout the dining room. Once in the kitchen, we established a system. She would wash and I would dry. The house was tranquil by the time the work was completed and we took a seat at the bottom of the staircase.

Finally, I had the chance to converse with her. I learned her name. Her age. She told me about her family. Her sister. She talked about why she was working here. How this was one of the only opportunities for some kind of prosperity. We talked and talked until my mom called from the top of the stairs, in a sleep induced voice, to come rest.

She was my friend. Whenever I had the moment, we would sit at the bottom of those stairs and talk. I learned about her childhood, she learned about mine. She would say she loved my clothes; I always complimented her long hair. It reached down her back.

Plans were altered and Eid was spent in Sialkot instead of returning back to Lahore and celebrating. The atmosphere of the house was bright and lively. The men had went to pray and were just returning. The women were scrambling around the house. One was having their clothes ironed. Another was taking a shower. A few were cooking breakfast. After the general bustle of the morning was overcome, the best part of any Eid came: the eidi. Adults and kids alike gathered in the dining room. Each uncle, aunt, and relative whipped out their allotted cash and handed it to the kids in a disorderly fashion. After gathering my shares I decided I had had enough of the commotion and headed out.

I saw her sitting outside, on the bottom of the stairs, looking glum. Her knees were pulled up tight, and her head rested on top of them. I sat by her and looked at the wad of rupees in my hand. She probably wouldn’t get that. She wasn’t with her family on one of the most important holidays of the year. Instead she sat in a stranger’s home, cooking their dinner and cleaning their clothes. So I asked her to give me her hand. She hesitantly extended her palm outwards.

“Here, your Eidi,” I said as I placed it in her hands. She hugged me tight and thanked me over and over. All I could do was smile, content that I could make my friend happy.

The next night, as we sat underneath the black staircase, she asked me if I had money to spare. She insisted she needed it. Thinking nothing of it then, I scrounged some up and gave it to her. Again, she thanked and thanked me.

Something began to feel off when she asked again. And again. And yet again. It seemed as if she was only talking to me to take advantage of a gullible mind and acquire some extra cash. Feeling hurt, I told her that I had no more money to spare. She didn’t look my way, let alone talk to me, that day.

Our Sialkot trip came to an end a few days after Eid. We had not talked since I told her I had no more money to give. As I sat on the staircase, my bags packed and ready to go, she came by and sat down. I was hoping to apologize and call her my friend once more. She never gave me the chance.

One last time, she begged I provide her with some money, because that’s what friends are for. But I truly didn’t have any. I was just a kid. And my parents had already told me when I asked them that she was paid a decent salary for the work she did. I did the only thing I thought was right, and I left her sitting on the bottom of the dark staircase.