Lesser Mortals
By   Nilofer Sultana
Rawalpindi Cant., Pakistan


Amma Zainab looked shattered and bedraggled with her hair disheveled and her eyes blood-shot. The poverty-stricken widowed woman worked in many houses in my neighborhood, doing all arduous jobs like laundering the clothes, washing dishes and scrubbing floors. She never expressed her grouses when asked to do any miscellaneous extra jobs.

She had only one son who had recently acquired a job of an electrician. While climbing an electric pole for some repair work he got a severe electric shock.  Luckily he survived but one of his arms had to be amputated. His mother’s world was torn apart. She just could not get over the tragedy that had befallen them as if from the blue.

Such horrendous incidents are almost a daily occurrence in Pakistan. There are some grave points to ponder. Human life is indubitably valuable. It is tragically sad that victims of chill penury are constrained to expose something so precious as life to the danger of death. To kill their hunger-pangs they have to go through physical excoriation and have to encounter health hazards, economic privations and social injustices.  To drag on a weary life, they risk that life itself. The responsibility devolves upon the employers and higher-ups in the relevant departments to provide safety gadgets and precautionary devices to the workers doing risky jobs like maintenance and repairs of electric poles, transmitters, etc. Prompt first-aid measures should be readily available. Sadly enough the pittance such lesser mortals get is in no way commensurate with the frightfully dangerous nature of their jobs.

One of the downtrodden and pitiable segments of our society is that of the sweepers. Due to the filthy nature of their job they deserve immense respect and our deep-seated gratitude. Just imagine if they abandon their job for a couple of days, the malodorous heaps in our houses and on the roadsides can make life a hellish experience for us. Ironically the more difficult their job, the more deplorably low is the wage-level that they are considered entitled to.

We are all familiar with the common sight of sweepers busy sweeping away the refuse and littered garbage from the roadsides, early in the morning amidst columns of dust. They unreservedly inhale the dust and unknowingly endanger their health. The awareness has yet to be created among them that at least they cover their noses when they raise clouds of dust with their broomsticks. 

Some arrangement has to be made to sprinkle the places they sweep with water, plausibly with the help of water-tankers. These columns of dust pose serious threat to the health of the passersby as well. It is high time we give a serious thought to safeguard something so inestimably valuable as health, something so immeasurably precious like life.  In some cases the sweepers have to go down the gutters to clear the sewerage lines of the cluttered filth and the malodorous fumes to which they are exposed without any protective devices can even cause their death. Wishfully some mechanical devices can be substituted for manual labor in such life-threatening jobs.

Another very ghastly spectacle that meets the eye more often than not is that of little children trawling the garbage heaps for any saleable or usable item. These ragamuffins scavenge the putrid trash with their bare hands and are mostly barefooted. It is not difficult to gauge the serious consequences of their exposure to myriad diseases and epidemics. For them a mere survival in their grinding poverty is the sole concern. The government, the philanthropic and welfare organizations are responsible to remedy the situation. Life for the people who have to kill their hunger pangs and cannot think beyond one day has to be made bearable and livable.

Life for the less privileged ones is one big question mark and that is: how to grapple with the tedium and hardships of life? It is so painful to see the endless queues of low-paid workers near the banks to  pay their utility bills, the random rows of pensioners waiting to collect their paltry pensions. Even in the hospitals they have to wait sometimes under the scorching sun for their turn to see the doctors. The mental stress and strain these victims of poverty undergo defies all description. Crushed under the rigors and burdens of life, they seem to have resigned themselves to their fate. Can there be a change for them for the better?  In civilized societies even animal life and health are valued; it is criminal to relegate human beings to the status of dumb driven cattle. Self-esteem and dignity of every living being has to be assigned due importance.

I started with Amma Zainab’s pitiable plight. Coming back to her, I painfully reflect upon the uncertainty and insecurity that surround the domestic servants, the minions and daily wage earners in various repair shops and wayside eateries and bistros. They work without any legal protection. The working hours are not specified, holidays are a distant dream and the fear of eviction haunts them constantly. They take it as fait accompli to bear all hardships despite the abysmally low level of wages. There are no courts that they can approach for redress.  Speedy and cost-free justice seems a remote possibility. In some cases, domestic servants are subjected to physical torture and their perpetrators more often than not go Scot-free.    

Who will ever come to the rescue of these silent sufferers? This reminds me of a poor woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy working laboriously at a construction site. She was almost breathless as she carried a heavy load of bricks on her head. Assuredly the motherly love for the child she was nurturing in her womb, goaded her on to work and live on to see her child in her arms one day. But what about her husband, the father of the unborn child who was legally and morally bound to fend for her? Why were the employers and co-workers so callously indifferent to her pitiable condition? Those who are accursed by fate and have to cope with an impecunious life seem to ask us many questions, wordlessly though. ‘Do we not need a breathing space?’ ‘Can life be a tad easier for us?’ ‘How long are we supposed to rivet our gaze on the inaccessibly distant rosy horizons?




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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