I had never had a maid. In fact, there was a period just after my parents’ divorce when my mother took a part-time job as a maid herself for a high-end vacation rental company. I remember they required the vacuum marks on the carpet to be spread out like an open fan. My sister and I, demanding to help, would edge ourselves backwards toward the door as we imprinted the arced patterns on the purple rug.
I had no intention of getting a maid in Dhaka. I had come to the city to do development work. It chaffed against the idea I had of myself: that my loyalties lay with the exploited, not the exploiter. When I found a one-bedroom flat inside Commander Islam’s family compound, the first thing the Commander’s son asked was, “Shall I get Nasima to come up and clean?” I answered, “No, I won’t need a maid,” and received his look of disbelief in return. I wore it as a badge of pride.
Later that evening, my new friend Buno came round and sat in the unfurnished flat playing guitar. I told him about the conversation with Zakaria, the landlord’s son, thinking he would be impressed. Instead, he said, “You know, you coming in here from America, you have money. You have a responsibility to hire a maid here, to give her some work. Otherwise, you are depriving her of a living.” I had never considered this. My independence suddenly felt selfish and short-sighted, no longer something about which to feel proud.
The next morning, I found Zakaria and, by the afternoon, Nasima was in my flat swabbing the floors in a green sari. She was dark and thin with high cheekbones and deep-set eyes that sparked. She told me she was twenty-five, a year my senior. She had three children and a husband who peddled a cycle rickshaw. I imagined them falling in love until I learned better. We communicated in a hot mix of pidgin Bangla, five words of shared English and exaggerated charades. I had to leave the room when she scrubbed the floor.
I quickly adjusted to life with a maid. I would return from the assault of Dhaka’s roads to the ordered oasis of my flat and sink into the calm it evoked, believing I needed it to survive the city. And so, I kept the small luxury of Nasima, even when my money ran out. At some point, I began paying her salary with borrowed funds.
Nasima arrived in the afternoons, after finishing downstairs with the Commander’s joint household. I would see Zakaria standing over her in the mornings, pointing at missed spots on the floor, yelling about the leaves in the driveway. She was rarely alone. He hovered behind her, hands on hips, in exaggerated postures that suggested he was playing the role of petulant landlord in a televised drama. Nasima’s face didn’t quite hold a smirk, but there was something akin to the knowing look of a mother or lover wise enough to interpret male tantrums as cries for sleep or sex. I paid her more than Zakaria told me to, and I noticed that she enjoyed the chance to escape the bullying and micro-management of this spoilt son, returned from an expensive education in the US with nothing to show, no job to keep him out of her hair. The flat became an oasis for her as well.
Slowly, within the rhythm of Nasima’s daily cleaning rituals, small expectations began to surface. I wanted my tea with a little more cardamom. The block print pillows from Arang should be placed at a diagonal on the sofa. My clothes should be separated by color in the wardrobe.
The discoloration on the bathroom tile, visible from the apartment entrance, began to bother me. Mildew had blackened the area leading to the drain. It required a vigorous scrubbing, not just a daily swab. I pointed it out to Nasima, mimicking a scrubbing motion with a hard-bristled brush in my hand. She looked dubious and the blackened tile remained unchanged for the next week. I demonstrated again, showing how, with a little elbow grease, the mildew stains disappeared. Nothing changed. The blackened tile became the first thing I looked for when I opened the apartment door. It was suddenly intolerable.
I decided to enlist Zakaria. I told myself it was only to help with communication, but I must have known it amounted to betrayal. Zakaria became animated when I mentioned the stand-off over the bathroom tiles. He marched to my flat, removed one chappal and began yelling, waving the chappal over his head and intermittently lunging with it as if to strike her. Nasima didn’t flinch or move away. She didn’t look at him. She just kept swabbing the floor, perhaps used to it, perhaps sensing it was a show for me. I glimpsed some power she held over him in the midst of this tirade and wondered if the bullying masked his desire.
After his diatribe, Zakaria walked back to where I had remained at the front door of my flat, not wanting to own my role in this drama. He stuck his chest out and chuckled, “I told her if she didn’t clean that bathroom spotless by today, I would beat her blacker than she already was. You have to be like this with these people, they don’t understand anything else and they are lazy.” He looked to me, expecting the unspoken camaraderie of the elite. I remained silent, knowing that I had caused this.
I walked into the house and shut the door. I found a brush inside the kitchen cabinet and joined Nasima in the bathroom, where we both scrubbed the tiles together in silence.