The Slum Life

I was born to a Muslim family in a very small village in Sahiwal, Pakistan. Sahiwal is a city located in the province of Punjab. There’s a great divide between the northern and southern regions of Punjab. The north is prosperous while most of the south is impoverished. We lived on the southern side of the province. My family was immensely poor.

My father was the only working individual of the house, and his meager income could barely get us by. He was a barber and owned a small shop in the village, while my mother was simply a housewife. I was the eldest of the six sisters in my family. As the only source of income in the house, my father longed for a son to share his responsibilities, but unfortunately, his desire could not be fulfilled. With every passing year, he was losing strength and becoming weaker. Raising six daughters wasn’t easy for him. There were times when we had nothing to eat, and we would go to sleep hungry. Sometimes we would just fry onions with red peppers and eat them with “Roti” (a round thin piece of flour cooked on fire). It was all we had.

We had a small house. It wasn’t very well made, but it was still home. The roof would often leak when it rained. Permanent maintenance would cost a lot of money, so for years and years we lived with a temporary one. My father would sometimes cover the roof with a cloth, and other times we would just place a huge container under the roof to catch the water.

Village life is considered the worst kind of life in Pakistan. There is a great economic divide between the cities and villages. Here, the word village equals “a place for only the poor.” It is deprived of almost every possible necessity to live: electricity, tap water, sui-gas, schools, hospitals, and anything that makes life worthwhile. There was no school in our village, so neither me nor my sisters received any education. We used to help our mother with house chores every day, and that was all the purpose of our life. I didn’t dare to dream anything more than that.

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As soon as I turned eighteen, my father started searching for an eligible bachelor for me. Marrying me off would lessen his burden and give him one less mouth to feed. He found many, but unfortunately all of them wanted a good dowry, and we didn’t have any savings to afford that.

His search continued for weeks until he found a family who was willing to take me without a dowry. Unlike the others, this family was against the idea of dowries. They lived in the city of Lahore, about three hours away from our village. They asked for my hand in marrying their son, and my father immediately accepted the proposal. He brought the good news home one day, and he was happy.

In villages, girls are not asked about their preferences or desires. Parents make all the decisions for them, big and small. Therefore, I was not asked if I wanted to marry this man. I was simply told that this was the man I’d be marrying. Like every other village girl, I had absolutely no say in the decision.

The man was named Naeem. He was a nomad. Life of nomads in Pakistan is even more atrocious than the lives of villagers. My father still accepted their proposal even though he knew this about Naeem. He was just happy to have found someone to marry me off to. This was not my dream marriage by any means. It was not that I was waiting for some sort of Prince Charming. I wasn’t. But I did have hoped for a promising future. I wanted my future to be certain and happy. When I learned that my soon-to-be husband was a nomad, I knew my chances of a peaceful, happy life had vanished. I knew what I was signing up for by marrying a nomad.

I wish that I could hate my father for the decision he made, but I didn’t because I knew what he was dealing with. He was growing more debilitated each day, and he had responsibilities of my five sisters over his old and fragile shoulders. All I wanted was to bring ease to him. I wanted to make things less worrisome for him, so I agreed to the marriage. I pretended to be happy with it even though I was crying inside.

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Our marriage took place 15 days after the acceptance of the proposal. The ceremony was very simple and was held in our house. My wedding day was the first time I got to have a look at my husband. I felt nothing during the ceremony. I was numb. I had decided to suppress my emotions a long time back when I didn’t want to burden my family. Nothing mattered to me at that time. I was just going through the motions without taking them in. Though I admit that a small part of me was looking forward to the next phase of my life. I was anxious for a change.

I moved to Lahore with my husband the very next day. Upon arriving, he told me that he had no house or place to live. For shelter, he would hang up a canvas wherever he could find a spot to create a sort of a tent and live under it. That was what we did. We looked for an appropriate place to hang our canvas. Finding a place wasn’t difficult. There were many empty fields near a commercial area, so we just picked one of the available spots.

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Our canvas “house” in Lahore, Pakistan.

Living under a canvas was a whole new experience for me since I was used to having a real roof over my head when I lived with my family in the village. It took me some time to adjust, but I got used to it eventually.

On the other side, I did feel fortunate that my husband was very caring. He didn’t have much to give me, but he made sure I was given the love I deserved. He didn’t have a proper job. He worked as a sewage cleaner and was only called for work when they needed him. Though he didn’t make much, I was happy with the little money he made. I thought of working as a maid to ease his burden, but this was against his self-esteem, so I never did. I made peace with our poverty.

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We wanted to have children. But after four years of being married, I still couldn’t get pregnant. We weren’t sure why. I went to many doctors and tried to seek treatment, but nothing seemed to work. Doctors told us that I might never be able to conceive due to some abnormalities in my body. This was the most heart-breaking news for me. An infertile woman was a terrible tragedy in our country. My in-laws started calling me “banjh”, a term used for females who can’t reproduce. Members of his family suggested that my husband should get married again. In Pakistan, it’s very important for a man to have children to carry on his family name. This is critical for all men, rich or poor. With my condition, I could never give my husband a son or a daughter to accomplish that mission. I felt useless. I was unable to fulfill my most important responsibility as a wife.

Luckily, my husband proved to be a loyal man and refused all such suggestions of leaving me. He snubbed everyone saying that it was God’s will that this happened. He said he was happy with his life no matter what. I started respecting and loving my husband even more because of his loyalty to me. However, my grief was never ending, and I felt very bad for my husband. A sense of guilt prevailed in my heart.

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More days passed, and the time came for us to migrate to another area, because the plot where we were staying was going to become a mall soon and they got all of us out. We were reluctant, but it was not a big deal. No problem seemed too terrible for me now as I had already seen hell when I was given the news that I wouldn’t be able to conceive.

We located another empty spot, which was about an hour away from our previous one. It was a new place with new people, and I hoped for some good changes in my life. There were more people with large families, which made me happy and hopeful that my desolation would go away now that I was around more people. My husband’s brother also lived there with his family.

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Me (middle) with my sister-in-law (left) and one of the other artery members along with both of their children, 2018.

My brother-in-law and his wife were good, kind people. They were the only relatives that didn’t suggest that my husband should get married to someone else. They had five children and were expecting a sixth one when we moved there.

Knowing our situation, the couple decided that they would hand over their sixth progeny to us regardless of the gender. I was surprised by their generosity. They made this decision probably because they knew that at the end of the day, the child would have similar living conditions whether he was with us or with them. We were all nomads. Circumstances would always stay the same, so it didn’t matter which family the child lived with.

A few months later, a beautiful baby girl was born. As promised, the couple handed their baby over to us the day after she was born. A ray of sunshine broke into our dark canvas tent.

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Everything has changed since our daughter came into our life eight years ago. I started to feel alive again. I found a new purpose to live. I have loved and nurtured her like my very own. With her in my arms, I don’t feel incomplete anymore. She taught me the meaning of motherhood. Together, we witnessed a fair share of bad and terrible days. Good ones seldom come, but we are still happy. We are together and healthy, and that’s what matters. We never have had enough to eat, and we surely never ate to our fill, but we try to be content with what we have.

I want my daughter to get education so that she could achieve all that I couldn’t. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible yet, because we haven’t got enough money to send her to school. I was disappointed at first, but I’ve now made my peace with it. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and if this is how God wants us to live, then I am happy to live this way.

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My daughter (first left, eight years old) and other kids in front of our canvas tent, 2018.

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I’ve always believed that happiness comes to different people in different forms. My happiness is my husband and daughter. Our conditions may be poor, but we are not poor in spirit. We find happiness in the things that we have instead of drowning in sadness for the things that we don’t. I have a loyal husband, a wonderful daughter and a peaceful life, and those are the things worth smiling about.

February 12, 2018


-This is the story of Nasreen Kiran-

30-year-old Nasreen lives with her husband Naeem and adopted daughter Iqra in a small canvas tent located in an open plot in Lahore, Pakistan. She lived a life in poverty with her family in a small village until she turned 18. She was forced into an arranged marriage with a nomad who lived an even harder life than where she came from, but she made the best of it. She’s now found happiness in the humble life she lives. She wants the best for her daughter and hopes that she can one day study in a good school and attain good education.

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