Rich and Poor People—fiction by Farah Ahamed

2 July, 2023

I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. Who do they think they are, feeding the crows KFC chicken?


Farah Ahamed


Rich people have no idea what it’s like to be poor.

When you’re poor, you’re used to people dropping dead like flies and spending half your salary every month on funerals. Being poor means you’ll die young, because if you’re ill, you won’t have a car to take you to the hospital. And if by some luck you get there by bus, you’ll have to sit on the cold floor in the hospital corridor and wait for hours. And when the nurse finally takes you in, there’ll be no bed, medicine, or doctor. If you survive, your baby might die. If you hit your chest and cry, everyone will say it was God’s will, and if He took away your child, maybe one day He’ll give you a chance to change your destiny and know what it’s like to live like the rich.

Rich people have the luxury to mourn. They make a fuss about every death as if it were not a daily occurrence. Take Ma’am Farida and Mr. Abdul. I’ve been working for them for twelve years now. Last month Mr. Abdul died of a heart attack, and now Ma’am Farida is heartbroken. Every morning she opens the sliding doors to the balcony and looks at the apartment directly across the way. If you asked her why she was so interested in the neighbors, she’d tell you she didn’t care about them — it was what they were feeding the crows that bothered her. That’s another trait of the rich: They’re not interested in the poor, but more worried about the birds starving.

Farida likes to look at those crows in the balcony opposite. The people living in that apartment are new to the building. They like to feed the crows. You’d think rich people like them would buy proper bird feed, but no, they don’t like to waste money on such things. They give the birds their leftovers, and Farida watches the black birds pecking at food in the foil containers and becomes very angry. This morning she swore she’d seen a crow with a bone in its beak, which it had taken from a red and white KFC box on the neighbor’s balcony ledge.

“What are they doing, giving fried chicken to the crows?” she said to me.

I couldn’t tell her “rich people are like that, thoughtless,” so I just said, “Yes, Ma’am.” I busied myself with wiping the mugs in the cabinet printed with congratulations you’re retired now, which Mr. Abdul had received from the university a few years ago. He’d never let Farida use them.

“Abdul would have been appalled,” Farida said. “Don’t you remember how he used to feed the birds with special seeds and watch them feast?”

Mr. Abdul was very particular about the birds, and he had his reasons. Every morning at breakfast he’d call Farida to come and watch the crows. “See how they’re family-oriented,” he’d say. “See how their behavior is so civilized. They could teach you a thing or two, Farida.”

“What do you mean?” she’d say. “Crows are mean and vicious. What’s there to learn?”

One thing you should know about Mr. Abdul is that is he didn’t like being challenged, and over many years I’d observed how he’d controlled Farida.

“The problem with you, Farida,” he said, “is that you don’t look.”

“Those birds are nothing but pests,” she said.

“I’d watch my tongue if I were you,” he said. “If they hear you, they’ll come after you for revenge.”



It makes me want to laugh, how rich people quarrel about meaningless things. When you’re poor you fight about bills, and how your husband is wasting money on gambling and alcohol. You’re at each other’s throats all the time, because what else is there to do? There’s no time for anything but work. No time to put your feet up and have a cup of tea. And here they were, Farida and Mr. Abdul, fighting over the mannerisms of crows.

Every day, it was the same. At first it was amusing, but as Mr. Abdul became obsessive about his birdwatching, their arguments became more heated. What irritated Farida most was the way Mr. Abdul compared her to the crows.

“Crows are sharper than you, Farida,” he said. “They recognize faces.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Just like all crows are the same for us, all humans are the same to them.”

“Your worst habit is that you never want to accept facts.” And he carried on pointing out more positive characteristics about the birds. “Trust me, Farida, once a crow knows your face, they’ll never forget it.”

Finally, Farida said, “Please stop, I couldn’t care less whether they know me or they don’t. It makes no difference to me.”

And because Mr. Abdul always needed to have the last word, he said, “Well you should, because crows hold grudges.”

Maybe now that Mr. Abdul was dead, Farida was asking herself if it was true what he had said; were the crows more intelligent than her? There she was, standing on the balcony, all alone, thinking the crows were all she had left. And she was crying.

“There, there,” I said, and tried to lead her into the sitting room, where I’d kept her breakfast on a tray. “Have some tea. It’s getting cold.”

But she pulled her arm away. “Not now. Can’t you see I’m busy?” She kept her eyes fixed on the black birds jabbing at the KFC box. One cocked its head in her direction and gave a loud croak. Farida gave a small shudder. “Don’t the neighbors care the birds will get indigestion from eating fried chicken?”

“No, Ma’am,” I said, and then before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Rich people don’t worry about things like that.”

She ignored my comment. “Abdul suffered from terrible heartburn,” she said. “He was very sensitive.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“He’d always say, “‘My nerves and stomach are connected,’ then gulp down the ENO while it was still fizzing.”

She looked like she was about to start crying again, so I said, “Please, Ma’am, Mr. Abdul would have liked you to eat your breakfast.”

“How would you know what he wanted?” she said, irritated.

“I haven’t been with you for 12 years for nothing, Ma’am.”

She turned to look at the stool, and I saw her taking in the tea spilled in the saucer, the burned omelet and over-browned toast. Mr. Abdul would never have tolerated me serving such a sloppy breakfast. But he wasn’t there to shout anymore, so I didn’t bother being tidy.

“Leave the tray there,” she said, and returned to watching the birds.

Another characteristic of the rich is they like to waste food. Mr. Abdul always wanted fresh rotis for his lunch, and when I’d bring him a hot one from the kitchen, he’d stop eating the one he’d just taken a bite of and leave it aside, saying it was cold. I started collecting his half-eaten rotis to take home. I’d shave off the edges, cut them into small pieces and keep them in a box. At the end of the week I’d make a dry curry from the leftovers, with tomatoes and onions. This is one way in which the poor survive.

People die in their sleep all the time. When you’re poor you accept it and carry on. But rich people insist on making a fuss. It was true that Mr. Abdul had died suddenly; one minute he’d been fast asleep beside Farida, and the next, when she’d tried to wake him, she’d found he was dead. After the funeral, her daughters had said she should take turns living with them, and suggested a rota. But Farida had refused.

“I’m not an old suitcase,” she said. “I won’t be carted around from one place to another, until my wheels fall off. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay here with Mary.” So her daughters returned to their lives, and she was left here with me.

Mr. Abdul had often told Farida she was incapable of living on her own. He said, “You’re not the independent type, Farida, you wouldn’t know where to begin.”

She hadn’t bothered to contradict him. Maybe she couldn’t imagine her life without him.

I can tell it is noon by the way the sun falls at a particular angle on the parquet floor. Mr. Abdul was very particular, and insisted I scrubbed the floors once a week with a special gloss polish. But nowadays, because he’s not there to notice, and it is such an effort, I don’t bother.

I watched Farida pulling the rocking chair into the patch of light, and sitting down, she shut her eyes. I imagined her enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face. When you’re poor, you don’t have time to enjoy anything.



Mr. Abdul and Farida have lived in this campus flat for the past 30 years. They’d moved to Lahore when Mr. Abdul had joined the School of Engineering at the university. Their flat is on the fourth floor in the middle block of six buildings with identical architecture, arranged fifty feet apart. The tinted-glass windows lend some privacy, but like everywhere else on the campus, the buildings are packed close together; you can look straight into the balconies opposite and see the broken suitcases, old mattresses, dead plants, and washing lines with faded clothes.

One night, when I was clearing the table after dinner, Mr. Abdul began checking the windows as was his habit before bed, when he noticed one of the neighbors reversing their car into his parking area. He immediately rang them up and asked them to remove it.

“You’re being unreasonable,” the neighbor said. “You don’t have a car, and the spot is free, so what’s the problem?”

“It’s my space, so I’ll decide — and right now I want it empty,” Mr. Abdul said, and then he hung up.

Farida said he ought to be more patient.

“Never,” Mr. Abdul said. “If you don’t react right away, they’ll take you for a fool and do it again.”

Mr. Abdul took the matter to the Housing Management Committee and demanded a written apology from the neighbor. The Chairman said no harm had been done, and that Mr. Abdul ought to be a little more flexible. But Mr. Abdul wasn’t having it.

“Don’t interfere with matters which you don’t understand,” he said when Farida tried to persuade him. “It’s a matter of principle.”

The rich think they have the gift of reading people’s minds, and Mr. Abdul especially was of that opinion. Poor Farida, not once had Mr. Abdul seen things from her point of view. She’d fought back as much as she could, but he’d never conceded. Maybe the overwhelming sense of defeat, after his passing, was part of her sorrow.

Later that afternoon, when I saw Farida lying on the sofa with her eyes closed, I went down to the garden. Haroon was waiting for me, and we sat together in the cool shade of the amaltas. However, only after a few minutes I heard Farida calling my name.

“She’s a bloody nuisance,” I said to Haroon. “Look, she’s watching us from the balcony.”

“Mary, get back here at once,” Farida shouted. “What are you doing?”

I raised my arm and waved, and stayed where I was. I gave Haroon the Tupperware container that I’d sneaked out of the kitchen in the folds of my apron. He stroked my cheek, took out a chocolate-covered barfi and popped it in my mouth. These chocolate sweetmeats were Farida’s favorite.

Haroon and I’ve been together for five years. He works as a gardener on the campus. Last year, we lost a baby. We’re trying to save so we can get married. Haroon’s not the most handsome man you’ll ever meet, but he’s got a good heart. He’s thin and dark and always wears a faded red scarf tied like a turban to protect his head from the sun. It makes him look like a man who’s been walking for miles in the desert. Sometimes he drinks too much liquor, and then we argue.

Farida was still standing in the balcony looking at us. “Did you hear what I said, Mary? Get back here,” she shouted.

I lay my head on Haroon’s shoulder; he smelled of cut grass, and sweat. “Happy Birthday, my love,” he said.

“Oi!” Farida called.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I said, but made no effort to get up. I knew my reply would infuriate her, and she’d think I was being cheeky. Over the years I’d often heard Mr. Abdul saying, Never trust the servants, they’ve no loyalty. Always keep them in line, or they’ll end up sitting on your head.

I hate admitting it, but on and off Farida has tried to help me. One time she gave me her old clothes and shoes and her favorite orange handbag, but that was only because the strap was broken. “Make sure you look after it,” she had said. And whenever she’d see me carrying it (because I got it repaired), she’d comment how nice it looked, and I could see she regretted giving it to me. However, I didn’t offer to give it back. Instead I told her how many compliments I’d received.

“Just don’t let Abdul see you with it,” she said. “He’ll say I’m spoiling you.”

We both knew Mr. Abdul had the smallest heart in the world, but our shared understanding of him did not make Farida and me any closer.

Last year, when I was pregnant, I asked Mr. Abdul for a loan so I could get some medical treatment.

“Do I look like a charity to you?” he said. “Why don’t you ask your church to help?”

Farida tried telling him that I’d been feeling unwell and that I was expecting a child, and why couldn’t he deduct a small amount from my salary every month? But he refused. “Haven’t you learned, Farida, that you should never get soft with servants? If you do, they’ll only manipulate you.”

Rich people think they have the gift of prophecy.


Shakir Ali Pakistan, 1914-1975 Oil on canvas 84 x 127cm
Shakir Ali (Pakistan, 1914-1975), Untitled, oil on canvas 84×127 cm, 1966 (courtesy Bonhams).


When I was back from the garden I went straight into the living room. “You called me, Ma’am?” I said.

“What were you doing with that man?” she said. “Who is he?”

“Haroon’s my friend, Ma’am.”

“Friends? Since when do you have time for friends?” She took her dupatta from the chair and flung it around her shoulders. “Abdul wouldn’t have allowed it.”

I raised my chin and looked directly at her. “But Mr. Abdul’s not here, is he?”

“How dare you? I’m going to give that gardener a piece of my mind.”

“Please Ma’am, we were just talking.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said. “I saw you giving him something. What did you steal? I’m going to find out and end this nonsense, right now.” She hobbled to the front door and I followed her out and down the stairs.

“Be careful,” I said. “We don’t want you to have another fall, Ma’am.”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” she said, going down the stairs sideways and holding the railing for support. We reached the ground floor, where we saw Haroon raking the yellow flowers under the tree.

“Oi!” Farida raised her arm and beckoned him. He stopped sweeping and came over. “I don’t pay Mary to gossip with you,” she said. “So don’t talk to her.”

“Today’s her birthday, Ma’am,” he said smiling at me.

“What nonsense,” she said. “Today it’s hers, tomorrow it’s yours, and the day after it’s something else.”

Haroon took the Tupperware from his pocket and offered it to her. “Please try some chocolate barfi, ma’am.”

“What nerve,” she said, her facing turning red. “I recognize those barfis from my kitchen. How dare Mary take them without my permission?”

Just then there was a strong gust of wind, and an empty KFC carton came sailing down towards us. It landed a few feet away from where we were standing, scattering chunks of chicken and chips everywhere.

“This is the limit,” Farida said, and shading her eyes with her hand, she squinted up at the neighbor’s balcony. “Enough is enough.” She began limping towards the opposite building, as a crow flew down and started pecking at the food. “I’m going to give them a piece of my mind. Who do they think they are, feeding the crows KFC chicken?”

“Ma’am,” I said. “Wait.”

“I haven’t finished with you yet, Mary,” she said. “I want to know exactly when you started stealing.” She mumbled as she climbed the stairs using the railing. “Stealing … lying … cheating … Abdul warned me never to trust the servants …”

I went after her, and Haroon followed. “Go away,” she wheezed. “Leave me alone.” We did not respond, but stood behind her in case she lost her balance, watching as she mounted the second and third flights of stairs. “Abdul always said if you can’t defend your principles, you’re worth nothing,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am. But he’s gone, so it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Be quiet, I know what I’m doing.”

Poor Farida. She was losing her marbles. It is no big deal, people are losing things all the time. When you’re poor, you forget things on the bus, or someone picks your pocket or snatches your purse. These things happen every day. But it’s different for rich people; they can’t stand it when something gets lost.

A few years ago Mr. Abdul’s watch had gone missing. “Someone’s stolen it,” he said to Farida.

“It could have fallen off your wrist,” she said. “The strap was loose. You must have misplaced it somewhere …”

“I’d have known if that had happened. I’m not as careless as you are,” he snapped. “Thieves are always looking, and watching. They have a thousand eyes, and when you least expect it, they’ll pounce.”

Mr. Abdul made me search the entire apartment, but the watch didn’t surface. He went through every hour of the day he’d lost it, where he’d been and who he’d met, and became more convinced. “I’ve been robbed,” he said. “Violated in broad daylight.” He gave me long, brooding suspicious stares, but I just looked back at him.

Farida had grown tired of his moaning about the watch. “For my sake, just get a new one,” she said.

“This city is full of thieves. When they see a soft target, they attack.”

“Forget about it,” Farida said. “There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

“No, I’m not letting them get away with it.” Mr. Abdul sat down again in his usual chair and went through the events of the day all over again. But he remembered nothing different.

A few days after the watch incident, Haroon knocked at the door, accompanied by a man. Haroon said the man had something to show Mr. Abdul. The man, a casual laborer working at a building site, opened his handkerchief, which was tied with in knot. “I’m selling this watch,” the man said. “If you like it, you can buy it.”

“Where did you find it?” Mr. Abdul snatched it from the handkerchief and fastened it around his wrist. “How dare you? First you steal it, and now you want to sell it back to me?”

All the trouble that Haroon and I had gone through came to nothing. We didn’t make a single rupee, because Mr. Abdul refused to buy back his watch. “Never,” he said to Farida. “If I do, every morning something will go missing from this place, and every evening we’ll have a thief trying to sell it back to us.”

“The man must’ve found it somewhere,” Farida said. “All you had to do was give him a small reward.”

“Don’t underestimate poor people,” he replied. “For them it’s all about survival.”

When we reached the fourth floor, Farida leaned against the wall and fanned her face with her dupatta. She looked at the three doors. “Where do the culprits live?”

I pointed to the middle door, and she limped across and knocked. A man opened it. He must have been about forty years old, with scanty hair combed sideways across his balding scalp. I recognized him because I’d seen him on his balcony many times speaking loudly on his mobile phone.

“Hello,” he said. “May I help you?”

“I’m Farida, your neighbor from the opposite building,” she said. “And I’m here about the birds.”

“Birds?” he said, looking confused.

Farida turned to me with an exhausted expression. “Explain, Mary. Tell him about the crows.”

“Ma’am doesn’t like what you’re feeding the crows,” I said. “She thinks you should not be giving them KFC.”

“KFC? I don’t understand,” he said.

“Don’t deny it!” Farida raised her voice. “This very morning, I saw the birds with my own eyes eating fried chicken and chips from a KFC box on your balcony.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Do those birds belong to you?”

“Abdul said crows ought to be treated with respect,” she said. “If you don’t, they’ll punish you.”

“But that’s my problem, isn’t it?” he said.

“It’s not right. It’ll give them indigestion.”

The man sniggered. I took hold of Farida’s arm and said, “Let’s go, Ma’am.”

But she pulled it away and said, “Crows recognize faces.”

“Are those birds your pets?” the man asked. Farida gave him a blank look. “I didn’t think so,” he said. “So I’ll feed them whatever I like.”

“Abdul would’ve complained about you to the Management Company,” she said.

But the man had already begun closing the door. “One more thing,” he said, pausing. “If you don’t like what you see, don’t look.” He slammed the door.

“What cheek,” Farida said, her voice shaking. “He wouldn’t have dared, if Abdul was here.” We turned to go back down the stairs, and when Farida saw Haroon waiting, she became more furious. “Why are you still here? Are you spying on me?” She went down one step and almost fell.

Haroon was quick. He grabbed her arm and held her steady. “Easy, Ma’am.”

She tried to push him. “Stop,” she said. “Abdul wouldn’t have liked you touching me.”

“Let’s go,” I said to Haroon. I lifted Farida’s left arm and put it across my shoulder, and Haroon gripped her elbow. We went down the stairs, taking one step at a time.

Each time Farida wobbled, Haroon said, “Be careful, Ma’am,” and she became angrier. When we reached the ground floor we released her, and Farida steadied herself. She looked like she was about to cry.

“Easy now,” Haroon said.

“Be quiet,” she replied.

“Ma’am hasn’t eaten any breakfast today,” I said. I told him how Mr. Abdul had always eaten an omelet and two parathas for breakfast, and that since he’d died, Ma’am Farida had lost her appetite.

“What nerve you have, gossiping about me, Mary,” she said.

I ignored her and said to Haroon, “Poor Ma’am Farida—she’s all alone, and her daughters are far away.”

“At least she’s got us,” Haroon said, and I agreed with him.

When we finally made it up the stairs to the flat, Farida staggered into the living room and collapsed onto the sofa. Haroon waited by the door.

“Tell him to go,” she said, and waved her arm. Her voice was weak. “I don’t want him here. Abdul said gardeners aren’t allowed inside.”

“Come in, Haroon,” I said. Haroon crossed over into the living room. He walked past Farida, and stood in front of the console where all the family photos were displayed: Mr. Abdul and Farida with their daughters; Mr. Abdul shaking hands with the Education Minister; Mr. Abdul wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap at a university golf tournament. Haroon picked up Mr. Abdul’s portrait.

“No, no, don’t touch,” Farida said. “Just go, please.”

“I knew Mr. Abdul,” Haroon said. “He once found me sleeping under a tree and called me a lazy choora. He also reported me to the Management Committee, and I was demoted.”

“That’s how Mr. Abdul was,” I said. “A real bully.”

Farida looked as if she was trying to say something, but no sound came from her mouth. Haroon looked at the photograph for a few more moments, then put it down. “The past’s the past,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person who holds grudges against the dead.”

“Poor people don’t have the luxury of that,” I said. “Come, Haroon, let’s take Ma’am to her bedroom. She’s very tired and must get some rest.”

“No,” Farida said. “No.” Haroon went to the sofa where Farida was sitting, and bent to help her. She began resisting. “No, no, don’t touch me.”

We lifted her up.

“No,” she said.

“You’re very tired, Ma’am,” I said. She tried to protest, but all she could say was no. Her face was wet. We put her into bed. “Get some rest, Ma’am,” I said.

She moaned softly. “Abdul …”

I closed the door. “Come Haroon, I’ll make us some tea,” I said, and went to the kitchen and put some tea leaves and water on the stove to boil.

When I returned to the living room with a tea tray, Haroon was on the balcony laughing softly. He took some chocolate barfi from the Tupperware in his pocket and crumbled it on the ledge. “A treat for the crows,” he said.

I settled down on the sofa, the way I had seen Farida do a hundred times, and drew her soft shawl over my legs. Haroon sat in Mr. Abdul’s chair and put his feet up on a stool, just the way Mr. Abdul used to.

We sat sipping our tea, and by and by, a crow flew down and began pecking at the barfi.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *