Upside-Down World

By Anjum Altaf

To figure out how we have to come to consider an upside-down world as right-side up, you could do no better than become a fly-on-the-wall in an upscale architect’s office.

You will observe, repeatedly, an upright, highly-educated gentleman accompanied by an equally becoming spouse arrive to go over the design of their dream house to be built on 1,000 square yards in what is deemed the ‘ultimate’ community.

(The couple, having purchased the ‘plot’ — that ubiquitous word — at the going market price would be unaware that it was the patrimony of a dispossessed peasant from whom it was ‘acquired’ at a firesale price to be flipped over by a highly deserving beneficiary. And even if they did, they would consider it a part of the rightful process of development in which resources are transferred from those who do not know how to use them to those that do.)

Pardon the digression and refocus on the couple poring over the drawing. The bedrooms would be the first order of priority — they would need to be as many as possible (five, six?) and as large as possible with the master dresser-cum-bath large enough to cater for exercise in case it is raining outside.

Fair enough. There would follow some aesthetic observations on the location of wall-to-wall TV, the size of the foyer chandelier, the sweep of the spiral staircase, the orientation of the winter terrace, and the contours of the fishpond in the garden.

And then, when all that is important is said and done, it would be time to figure out the space for the servant. Watch now, the switch from a framework of maximizing to one of minimizing. How can we design it so that the least amount of precious land is sacrificed? And can we split that minimum space in two because, don’t forget, we will need a driver as well as a cook?

Before long, the agonizing would end with a stroke of pure genius — why don’t we put it on the roof so that no land is ‘wasted’ at all? But the summer, the heat? Don’t worry ma’am, these people are used to everything, one should not go about spoiling them. As it is they are getting too big for their boots. Voila, the servants’ quarters with a roof-top view, smaller in size than the master dresser-cum-bath. The servants would need to come down their spiral stairs to use a latrine on the ground floor — don’t forget, it would need to cater to the part-time gardener as well.

Why, might you ask, do the servants need to live in the same house as the masters in the first place. Why can’t they have a house of their own somewhere else? Well, because the ultimate community in the esrtwhile village is so far out and so sparsely populated that there is no public transport. In any case, the servants have to be on duty from eight in the morning till ten at night so they need to be on call and close at hand.

Nor can the servants afford an independent quarter on their salary (which needs to be contained lest the neighbours rise up in arms for ‘spoiling’ the market). Of course, there is no way they could afford one in which they could house their families as well. Ah, for the good old English days when every decent house had a string of servant quarters tucked away along the back wall. What have we been reduced to? You could have your own dhobi and the cook’s wife could double as the maid. (You can still find some of those if you chose your parents right and inherited a bungalow in the cantonment.)

But back to the servants, who, to survive in this upside-down world, have to be separated from their families, left behind back there somewhere beyond Jhang Maghiana. And they have to work on their off-days to accumulate time to be together twice a year since transport eats up so much of the savings. Once every two years, at best, if they are slaving away in one of the little Gardens of Eden abroad.

From the roof-tops the servants can view the neighbourhood park which they are not allowed to enter because they mar the ambience for the masters’ relaxation and because it is the latter who pay for the upkeep. The servants are allowed to exercise on the rooftop as long as they don’t jump up and down while the master and the mistress are concentrating on important tasks like designing the Single National Curriculum to level the playing field or rejuvenating the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

To top it all off, half the lovingly-made houses in the supremely designed ultimate community are unoccupied for the owners live abroad and have constructed the dream palaces only to have their own abodes when they visit for the winter.

This opinion was published in Dawn on September 12, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019.

No Comments

Post A Comment