I’ve never really been a five-a-day sort of person when it comes to performing the obligatory daily prayers, even though regular formal worship is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Actually, I only have a handful of prayers in my religious repertoire, but at least they’re all well used! My principal prayer is the Ayat-al-Kursi, the Verse of the Throne. It’s known particularly for its powers of protection. Mum would recite it to me at night if I felt scared, so that God would appoint an angel to watch over me throughout my slumber. Much of it was committed to memory by the time I was nine because mum would recite it for me several times a week. By contrast, my day always began with the Lord’s Prayer which we’d recite during morning assembly in school. I couldn’t tell you what ‘hallowed’ or ‘trespass’ meant, nor could I grasp why Christians referred to God as ‘our father’. It didn’t matter though. It was just such a novelty to be able to formally petition God in a language that I could actually understand.
All the other prayers I knew were in Arabic, you see, a language I didn’t know; although I could decipher the script since Arabic used almost the same alphabet as Urdu, my mother tongue. Learning everything by rote, it was accuracy of transmission rather than my comprehension that was critical. The Quran is the literal word of God, I was told, which was revealed to our Prophet Mohammed orally and in Arabic. It followed then that the divine quality of our holy scripture could only exist in its original form. That’s why recitation was so important, and that’s why it could only be in Arabic, whether we understood it or not. And so, learning no more than a couple of lines each day, I’d be reminded that each syllable, circumflex, vowel and consonant required my absolute attention. Every word had to be practiced for pronunciation, intonation and enunciation over and over again, until I could recite the verses as fluently as possible, with rhythm and precision.
My relationship with the Ayat-al-Kursi saw me into adulthood, and the words I’d learnt to utter as a child in moments of distress, remained as dependable as ever. This was never more so than during my final week in Islamabad. The prayer brought calm, concentration and control into an otherwise chaotic time. I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath just before announcing my decision to leave the matrimonial home, which I’d entered eighteen months earlier. I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi as I prayed that the consequences of my transgression wouldn’t damage mum’s relationship with her brother (whose son I had married). I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath as I cleaned out my savings account to hand the cash to a colleague, along with my passport and instructions. Clutching my one-way ticket back to freedom, I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath as I boarded the Bradford bound plane.
That eight hour flight was my liminal space where I could be alone and free. I was no-one’s wife or daughter. And for a change, I was no-one’s responsibility but my own. In an expression of liberation the previous day, I’d dashed out to Radio City in Islamabad’s Super Market, to buy a cassette tape to listen to on my journey home. It was the soundtrack of Henna (Randhir Kapoor, 1991), the film made by Karisma and Kareena’s father. I’d been completely captivated by Zeba Bakhtiar’s angelic beauty after watching the film a few months earlier, and buying the soundtrack suddenly became a priority. I needed some music to immerse myself in and I’d only kick myself if Bradford’s Asian shopping mecca, Bombay Stores, didn’t have it in stock. One song in particular, ‘Janewale o Janewale’, touched me like no other during my fateful flight. Each time the song ended, I would rewind and play it back once more. It was a young woman, brimming with innocence, entrusting a loved one into God’s care, as she bid him farewell, perhaps forever. Godspeed, the prayer-like rousing lyrics reminded me. I shuddered as I remembered that my own path was unlikely to be showered with such sweet blessings. And I quietly cried.
My marriage might have appeared to be a suitable arrangement on paper, but in reality it was nothing short of a farce. Was a loveless marriage all that my destiny had in store for me? But “God helps those who help themselves,” I’d heard, so perhaps it was up to me to change my kismet. Perhaps this was all preordained. Maybe my fate and fortune lay in Bradford after all. I wasn’t expecting the warmest of welcomes but I was certain that, after first summoning strength from my favourite prayer, I’d be able to sit mum down and tell her, face to face, that I no longer wanted to live a lie. Alas, I’d been back in Bradford less than 24 hours when I realised the farce was only just beginning!
The day after my abrupt arrival, mum had been invited to a khatam – a female gathering held in a private home where, by taking a section each, the women complete an entire recitation of the Quran. These gatherings offered precisely the sort of meritorious environment which mothers wanted to expose their daughters to – spiritual reflection in a congregation is always good for the soul! Unfortunately for me, mum was adamant that I would accompany her. As it turned out, mum had deemed this khatam the perfect occasion to mark my entrance as a fully-fledged married woman, back into Bradford society. I realised later that it was also her chance to broadcast the ‘official’ narrative of my sudden reappearance in Bradford – my husband had sent me back for a few weeks because I fancied a break and needed to stock up on toiletries!
The Quranic recital was being hosted by Aunty Bilquis, the one that lived in the affluent suburb of Heaton. That’s where the Pakistani high society lived back in the early 1990s, long before the phenomenon of white flight, and the influx of upwardly-mobile Muslim taxi drivers helped to restyle the landscape. Heaton pledged a quality of life that the likes of us could only aspire to. So it was always a thrill to drive around the tree lined groves, gawping at the smart semis set in mature gardens with deep bay windows, separate dining rooms and downstairs toilets. Aunty Bilquis was hosting a khatam of the Surat Yasin, which is such a commanding verse with benefits manifold that it’s often referred to as the heart of the Quran. We were to recite this lengthy verse several times over. It is said to be particularly valuable in easing the path that lies ahead. Maybe mum had dragged me along to expose me to these prayers, to ease my path back to marriage and Pakistan. Perhaps mum would soon be organising a khatam to pray for her daughter to come to her senses, if only she would dare to go public with her dilemma.
Naturally, I couldn’t be expected to dress the way I used to as a singleton. Most of the women at the khatam hadn’t had the chance to ‘view’ me since my makeover from kanvari (virgin) to shadi shuda (a married woman). Mum picked out a cream coloured embroidered silk shalwar kameez; nothing too garish, but nevertheless ornate enough for someone in my situation – a young woman still revelling in newly wedded bliss. It was only right that I should also display some of the wedding jewellery that mum had bought for me, with the proceeds of her Prudential savings policy.
Being able to show me off in my married finery was a symbol of success for mum, a badge of honour. We may not have had a mature semi to our name, but hadn’t mum done well to marry off her eldest daughter to her brother’s son – in Islamabad, no less! Mine really was the most superlative example of a praiseworthy match. My acceptance of this match showed, without doubt, how well I had been raised. It highlighted how firmly I remained under mum’s influence. Moreover, my ability to assimilate into her family back in Pakistan, was a clear reflection of the traditional values that mum had managed to instil in me. It emphasised that I was not tainted by western culture. Indeed, mum could hold her head up high.
The entrance hall to Aunty Bilquis’ semi resembled an ill organised shoe stall at a car boot sale. But I suppose that’s only to be expected when you’re hosting a gathering for twenty women and it’s customary to remove your shoes. The lounge had been cleared of all furniture and clean white sheets had been spread out over the carpet, along with a scattering of mismatched cushions for comfort. I found a corner and sat down to contemplate. It took a couple of hours for the holy work to be completed. With the prayers out of the way and food about to be served, the atmosphere eased, the chattering grew louder and my inquisition began.
“You’re glowing!” Enthused one ‘aunt’, as she scanned me closely for clues about ‘happy news’, which I may be craftily concealing beneath the flow of my fancy shalwar kameez. And when the aunty suspected the lack of a baby bump might be my own doing, she began to present the alarming implications of frittering away potential baby-making time.
“It’s best to have a baby straight away, so you can check that your machinery is in good working order!” She recommended. “Once you know everything is fine, then you can delay completing your family.”
“When’s your husband arriving?” Another aunty wanted to know.
“Has he not been granted his visa yet?” Someone else asked. The truth was that I hadn’t even submitted the paperwork. How was living with the wrong person in Bradford going to be any different from living with him in Islamabad?
Nobody asked if I was happy. Everyone was too busy jumping to their own conclusions. There and then, I could have shed a tear for my hopes and dreams that now seemed dashed. But how could I? The women seemed oblivious to my pain, even when I tried to vent some irritation. The farce reminded me of the song ‘Mehndi Hai Rachne Wali’ from Zubeidaa (Shyam Benegal, 2001), where the women seem so lost in sentimentality that they only see what they want to see. This serene sounding A R Rehman composition belies the betrayal in the song’s story. Zubeida’s relatives seem almost unaware of her opposition to this marriage, even when the bride’s frustration boils over. Later, when she refuses to express her acceptance before the Imam, her father calmly tells him, “Didn’t you see? She nodded her head in agreement.” And so the congratulations begin!
No, I didn’t make a scene like Karisma Kapoor’s character because my story was played out in Bradford, not Bollywood! Nor was my situation anywhere near as extreme. In fact, I’d been a relatively eager and active accomplice in my own marriage. And now, mum’s friends were vying to congratulate me on my new found happiness. They kissed me respectfully and focussed on the twelve gold bangles sitting snugly on my wrist. They hoped that some of my honour and good luck might rub off on their daughters, so that they too might live off the respect that a good marriage like mine could garner. Wasn’t it better to have the accolade and let mum have her glory, I wondered? And mum seemed so desperate to manage the stigma which my separation would inevitably spark. Perhaps mum was right, you know. Perhaps this wasn’t the end. Maybe a break was all I needed afterall.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: CONFINEMENT
Mum’s married life was scarcely memorable, yet she still muses about the only time my father treated her to a gift. It was 1964 and the occasion was mum’s first Eid in Keighley. Not being the indulgent sort, dad took no pleasure in lavishing his cash, which made it all the more astounding when he presented mum with a plush bundle of turquoise velvet, delicately embroidered with goldwork, so she could stitch herself a shalwar kameez suit to wear on the religious festival. Amusingly, dad didn’t know that the two yard shalwar piece ought to contrast with the two yards for the kameez to break up the uniformity, and that the dupatta should really be diaphanous. In his eager effort to mark the milestone that was his bride’s first Eid, dad had naively bought six yards of the same thing. Nor was the fabric something mum would have picked out for herself, but dad’s extravagance wasn’t lost on her. You see, he’d spent almost a week’s worth of his woolcombing wage to buy the fabric from Brown Muffs, Bradford’s grandest department store, where ladies came from Harrogate just to buy their hats. The crisp white table linen and sparkling silver cutlery of the store’s high-class restaurant attracted the stars performing at the nearby Alhambra Theatre to dine there. Indeed, this institution had such a reputation for luxury goods that Brown Muffs was fondly known as the Harrods of the North.
Dad’s romantic gesture, which stirred mum to stitch and savour that shimmering shalwar kameez, still evokes a fond memory of a closed chapter. Now, a new chapter in my life was beginning and it was my turn to look forward to marking milestones with my husband. It was around this time that I first discovered the film, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Abrar Alvi, 1962), poignantly made around the time of mum’s marriage. Watching the mesmerising Meena Kumari adorn herself so faithfully for her husband, my thoughts would turn to mum. I’ve always known her to dress simply, yet her reminiscences hinted at her prime, of days when she harboured hopes and dreams as someone’s wife, just as one day I would.
The other thing mum romanced about was celebrating Eid with her family in Pakistan, which frankly made our festive efforts on the Canterbury estate feel about as out of place as sunshine on Christmas day. These religiously ordained occasions are meant to be the fibre that ties us, but my memory of Eid is of little more than a time to come to terms with our lonely existence in a foreign land. It’s difficult to believe that back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Eid wasn’t the colourful community affair it is today, with lights draped around the city centre. Yet there was a time when we Muslims still felt rather meek about parading our cultural heritage in public. So Eid would arrive in Bradford unceremoniously and leave with barely a fuss.
The formalities always began with new clothes since Eid requires Muslims to wear their best attire. Mum would ritually escort my sister and I to her favourite fabric emporium, Choudhry Cloth House on White Abbey Road. Bear in mind that this is a decade or two before White Abbey Road was revered as the World Mile, that vibrant cultural quarter which is now the envy of shoppers as far afield as Stockport. Back then though, this main thoroughfare heading out of Bradford city centre towards the delights of Manningham, Girlington and Allerton, offered little more than a kebab and roti house, as well as a hardware store selling plastic lotas (ablution pots), heavy duty rolling pins and chapatti pans.
What I chose was always a compromise. While I coveted the sumptuous silks which actresses of yesteryear wore in the classic Bollywood films I watched, Mr Choudhry preferred to stock a selection of showy satins. Besides, I was desperate for the English folk to forget, even for a moment, just how different we really were, but sadly, Topshop was never the place to go for Eid clothes. So much so, that I actually came to presume it was blasphemous to wear something other than our national dress on the auspicious day, even if being caught outside the house in a shimmering, billowing, non-weather-proofed shalwar kameez made me feel ill at ease.
We knew the two Eids as sweet and savoury rather than by their official names. I preferred the sweet one (Eid-ul-Fitr) which marks the end of Ramadan rather than the savoury one (Eid-ul-Adha) which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The latter is also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, the ethos of which, much to mum’s irritation, tended to trouble my vegetarian tendencies. You see, Eid-ul-Adha also commemorates Prophet Abraham’s willingness to submit to God by sacrificing his son when commanded to do so in a dream. Divine intervention replaced his son Ismail with a lamb, which is why Muslims around the world still sacrifice an animal, usually a cow or a goat, to mark this day. Fortunately, my grandfather in Pakistan organised the sacrifice (qurbani) on behalf of his entire family, but the abundance of meat on the menu for Eid-ul-Adha still made me flinch.
Both of the Eids always began with a breakfast of plump vermicelli steeped in a cardamom-laced milky syrup. Apart from mum’s impatience to admire her handiwork, there was really no rush to get ready – we knew we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. We didn’t have uncles and aunts in Bradford that we could visit to show off our new clothes, to collect gift money from, to run around with their children and to taste the treats at their dining table. Instead, mum would dole out the gift money and then take us on the bus into town so we could spend it. We’d return to feast on shami kebabs, kofta curry (meatballs) and pilau rice and slump in front of the TV, with the grease from our overflowing plates in our laps staining our shiny new clothes. We didn’t expect our festival to merit the sort of superior scheduling reserved for Christmas Day. Any distraction from the day’s dullness would do. The highlight was booking a three-minute call through the international operator, to wish Eid Mubarak to our loved ones in Pakistan. The rest of the evening would be spent dissecting the call, imagining our cousins enjoying the perfect Eid on the other side, without us.
You’ll appreciate my enthusiasm then, when the countdown began to my first Eid in Pakistan as a married woman. Taking a cue from my World Bank colleagues, I spent days spring cleaning to get the house in order for the grand occasion, poring over kebab recipes and stocking up the freezer. Things were going well at work and the dust had finally settled at home. I’d managed to tweak the household routine to fit around my office hours. I’d accepted that as a woman, my financial contribution wouldn’t grant me the leverage that it awarded the men of the household. I’d even stopped day dreaming about coming home to find somebody running around after me. I’d also realised that being taken for granted was simply inevitable when you marry a first cousin and your mum’s older brother becomes your father-in-law.
If I couldn’t cope with the pressures of running a household as well as a diplomat’s office, I could always resign. If I returned home from work to a request for a mutton and pea curry, I’d drop my handbag in the hall and head for the kitchen to start shelling the peas my father-in-law had thoughtfully collected from the market on his way home. And if my double duty meant I was too busy to go out in the evening with my husband, then so be it. Appreciating my predicament, and being far too respectful to stand up to his father, he would leave me to it and go out with friends instead. It was all my own doing, after all. I’d barely sought anyone’s consent before embarking on my job hunt, and besides, my husband’s return to Islamabad meant I’d achieved my goal. So why didn’t I resign? The truth is that while life unravelled at home, it was my job that pinned me together. My job gave me a reason to get dressed and run a comb through my hair every morning. Work was a place where my efforts were rewarded, where my contribution felt valued and where my relationships were equal. It was my job that ignited a spark in my lacklustre life.
The Festival of Sacrifice was upon us, the savoury Eid. Neighbours had bought their sacrificial goats early, so they could pamper them during their final days. I’d return from work to find children taking their special guests to graze in the nearby field or feeding them treats by hand. On the big day, I knew the butcher and his knife would call door to door, slaughtering one unsuspecting animal after another. The meat would then be divided into three equal parts – one to be distributed to the poor, one for friends and family, and the final part for the household’s consumption. I felt squeamish handling raw meat at the best of times. Now, the thought of being responsible for bagging up and freezing the equivalent of a third of a goat, was making me very anxious. On a previous occasion – the Aqiqah (naming ceremony) of my sister-in-law’s new-born, two goats had similarly been bought and slaughtered in our back yard. I refused to leave my bedroom until every shred of bloody evidence had been washed away.
No wonder my disappointment was tinged with relief when my uncle announced his last-minute decision to spend the Islamic holiday with an older son. As head of our household, it was up to him to organise the sacrifice wherever he chose to celebrate Eid, which meant I was now mercifully pardoned from the clean-up operation. Perhaps this was a kindly gesture to give his youngest son and new bride some time together, home alone. Or perhaps this was my uncle’s way of giving me a break from the kitchen. Whatever his intentions, it was a disheartening Eid in the end, empty of all the cordiality and ceremony mum’s reminiscences back in Bradford had conveyed. With my uncle gone, the rigid domestic routine fell apart. I snubbed the big day with back-to-back Bollywood which also drowned out the din of the bleating goats outside. My fear of carelessly catching a gruesome slaughter scene compelled me to keep the curtains drawn too. Meanwhile, my husband slept off the fatigue from his nonstop night shifts.
Wasn’t it just as well that I didn’t get around to ordering the exquisite ensemble that I’d set my sights on months earlier! From the moment I saw it, I was captivated by Ranjeeta’s outfit from the song Husn Hazir Hai, from the film Laila Majnu (H S Rawail, 1976). She wore a charming traditional Afghani dress with sheer, bell shaped sleeves in black chiffon silk, embossed with gold banarsi medallions, accessorised with understated gold hooped earrings offset with a single pearl. I didn’t feel inspired to watch the entire film, but I did scrutinise that song sequence endlessly. And after a while, the dress became trivial as something else in the song took hold. Based on the legendary Arabian Nights tales, Laila Majnu featured star-crossed lovers, willing to give up their lives for each other. Something about Laila and Majnu’s archetypal love story, set against the lingering melody now troubled me. Was Laila really singing that she would die for the man she loved? People didn’t really expect to have relationships like that, did they? You know, ones where they couldn’t imagine life without the other? I’d assumed that everyone just went through the motions as I was doing, so this couple’s devotion reared a tinge of envy. Experience had already taught me that no-one would fight my corner, and now I had Laila and Majnu in my face, with a love so strong that they felt they could challenge the world together. I didn’t just feel envy, I felt neglected too.
A few months before my wedding, I had taken mum into my confidence to tell her I didn’t love my fiance. I suppose I assumed that by telling her, she’d be able to “put things right” in some way. Indeed, a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders as I told her, and sure enough, mum’s supportive words, delivered with such tenderness did comfort me: “Of course you don’t love him,” she’d said. “You don’t even know him! English people might marry the person they love but we grow to love the person we marry.” As I clung to mum’s words, I was unaware of the irony that I probably wouldn’t even accept a temporary job in the hope that I might one day grow to love it. And yet, embracing the traditions of Pakistani culture, this is precisely the premise upon which I was entering something as permanent as a marriage.
And lately, mum’s reassurances had become something of a yardstick with which to measure my feelings. “Do I love him yet?” I’d ask myself. “Do I feel any more than I did a week ago?” If I sensed a void, then I preferred not to dwell on it in case it was real. There was thankfully too much to do each day to stop me from crumpling. Late into the night though, I’d shiver at the thought of confiding in the ceiling fan for years to come; relying on its gentle hum to soften my sobs, with infants asleep beside me, still waiting for love to emerge. Having combed the day for clues, I’d console myself again with a cautious breath: “I’ll give it a few more weeks.”
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: REDEMPTION
PREVIOUS: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
My motive for finding work in Islamabad was actually quite noble. When the Gulf War broke out in early 1991, I’d overhear senior, sager relatives empathising with my husband’s plight of working in the increasingly volatile Middle Eastern region. “What can he do? He has a wife to think about now,” they’d fuss. The ‘allowance’ he despatched every month already made me feel awkward. Now, I resented being talked about like a piece of luggage. Mum had raised us singlehandedly so I wasn’t used to taking money from a man, not even my father. I was happy to play the supportive wife, but I also took pride in being an equal in the partnership. So, I mused, he needn’t stay in the Middle East on my account. I would find a job to support us both so my husband could swiftly come home.
Naturally, being the dutiful daughter-in-law, it was expected that I should pursue my father-in-law’s permission in the first instance. Predictably, he decreed that it was up to the men to provide for me. Besides, I was more useful at home and people would accuse me of neglecting my duties. My father-in-law was also my uncle (mum’s older brother), although he was really more like a father to me. So I had the benefit of reasoning with him in a way that would deem any other daughter-in-law rather insolent. Yes, it irked me that something as slight as a change in his daily routine was reason enough for his reluctance. But you see, that’s just the way our men were raised. I remember how grandma doted on my uncle when I was a little girl and he was a married man and father of three. The moment he returned home from work, the women stood to attention. Even as a child, I sensed from the silence his presence commanded that he was a high-ranking member of our sprawling household. And that’s just how it was – the breadwinner’s every whim was met because it was his labour that brought food to our table.
Growing up in Bradford, it struck me that this wasn’t strictly true. As the sole parent to three young children in our council house, it was mum that had her work cut out with lengthy shifts during the week. Yet, when she escorted my sister and I into town on Saturday afternoons, her clockwatching would leave me feeling exasperated. You see, mum’s sole preoccupation was to reach home to make lunch for her only son, unaware that our return merely disrupted his devotional analysis of the afternoon’s sporting fixtures. “I’m not having my son going hungry while three women gallivant around the shops!” she’d protest. It was as if a man couldn’t be left home alone, just in case he needed something to eat. Why couldn’t the men be trained to help themselves, I’d wonder, just like the women were expected to do? Nor did I understand why our mothers continued to nurture this unconstructive cycle, especially when the ones to bear the brunt of it would be their very own daughters.
As fate would have it, it was my turn now to preserve the redundant tradition. I already resented my role in the kitchen. Yet, in a bid to sway my unenthusiastic father-in-law, I swore that my chores wouldn’t suffer if he permitted me to take a job. He caved in, begrudgingly, and probably because he conceded that my target was unachievable. I didn’t know the first thing about employment options in Islamabad, and in a pre-internet age, I didn’t even know when and where vacancies were advertised. Since my cultural references were entirely British, I knew nothing about local protocols in the workplace. And even if I surmounted these stumbling blocks, how on earth would I get myself to an interview when I wasn’t even used to venturing out alone to buy bread!
The Islamabad I knew back in the early 1990s was a dynamic draw for diplomats rather than the depressing disciplinarians of today. The purpose built capital was a bit like Milton Keynes, laid out on a grid system some sixty years ago and organised into different sectors. While the junior city ascended arrogantly like a privileged cousin, neighbouring Rawalpindi preferred to parade its pre-partition architecture and timeworn meandering bazaars. Rawalpindi was happy to host the racket of rickshaws that were forbidden from fouling Islamabad’s tree lined boulevards. Although Islamabad exuded composure, the people of Lahore mockingly dubbed it the dead city, for its tendency to swallow a sedative after dark just as Lahore was coming to life. If Islamabad was easy to navigate geographically, the lack of decent public transport made it difficult to physically get around. You walked or hailed a taxi from the main road. The problem for me was that a young woman running errands alone was considered vulnerable and therefore frowned upon. It was better to be accompanied by someone – husband, sister, mother, brother, a maid, anyone. I didn’t have a dedicated chaperone at my beck and call though. With a husband overseas and a friendship circle back in Bradford, I was effectively immobilised. However, there were a couple of relatives that stepped in to offer sisterhood and solidarity, and now they would also steer my acculturation towards employment in Islamabad.
My older cousin, mum’s sister’s daughter, lived right next door. Baji (big sister) had the same relationship with my uncle although I was of course additionally married to his son. Living next to an uncle was useful because baji’s husband also worked overseas, leaving her behind to raise their two young children. Before we migrated to Bradford in 1977, I’d watch baji massaging a conditioning concoction of yoghurt and egg yolks into her thick dark hair, with Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” playing on her beloved radio cassette player. By the time I returned to Islamabad in my teens, baji had a tape of the nasal-voiced Salma Agha and her sister Sabina, singing the hits of Abba in Urdu. It was baji that introduced me to the Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa and she was the one that took me to the cinema for the first time in Pakistan. Now that we were reunited, albeit as neighbours with a bougainvillea bush between us, I willed the weekend to come around when baji would be home from work. That’s when we took an unhurried stroll, with her toddlers in tow, first to the Japanese Gardens, and then to browse the countless second hand bookshops and finally to Radio City to rent our ration of films for the week ahead.
Our system for gauging a film’s merits rested principally on its power to make us cry. Having recommended Terms of Endearment to her, baji confirmed the following morning that it was indeed a fine film. Not only had she sobbed herself to sleep, she’d promptly burst into tears again when she woke up! Lest this emotional outpouring fool you, let me just say that baji was actually made of steel. When a four foot snake slithered around our terrazzo hallway, it was baji that had the presence of mind to grab a sickle from her garden as she raced round. While I whimpered with fright, it was baji that instructed our uncle to hold down the back of the snake while she delivered the fatal blow to its head. She later described that as her watershed moment. Killing the snake had made her realise there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Our great aunt, nani jee, was our maternal grandfather’s youngest sister. There were many siblings, which explains why nani jee was actually 42 years his junior! She was even a few years younger than my mum. She held a high ministerial post in the Government of Pakistan and was exceptionally well travelled. Following one of her many trips to Bradford in the early 1980s, her sense of adventure had compelled her to drive an old banger the size of a soap dish, all the way from Bradford to Islamabad, when this sort of journey was still possible. Crucially, even though she was a little younger than my father-in-law, nani jee’s position as his aunt authorised her to flex her clout. So, she would waltz in on her day off, and whisk me away, from under his nose, to the hill station of Murree, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, for a spot of lunch. If she was too busy to drop by, she would send a driver so I could join her for tea and pastries at her office when she was between meetings.
Effortlessly elegant, she walked tall with her shoulders pushed back, while the rest of us tended to hunch ours, as if the natural swell in our chests, already well concealed by our dupattas, was something to be ashamed of. No-one but nani jee could arrange mismatched cushions on her recliners and serve drinks in coarse earthenware glasses, deemed to be fit for only village folk. During one of her fabulous dinner parties, the food somehow fell short. She simply glided into the sitting room and turned on a video compilation of the celebrated songs from Umrao Jaan. As Rekha dazzled the guests in one room, nani jee instructed her staff to clear the dining table and serve dessert. Nani jee made me feel like she had singled me out for her special attention, and spending time with her was like being an intuitive learner at a finishing school. I sense a similar sentiment in this song and dance sequence from Lajja (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2001). It’s not just the way Madhuri Dixit commands centre stage with so much poise and panache. It’s not just the way Manisha Koirala watches her mentor with adoration from the wings. It’s not just the way Madhuri pulls Manisha supportively into the limelight. There’s just an echo of sisterhood and solidarity in their gestures.
Now, with baji and nani jee confirmed as my secret allies, we sat down to identify the sort of job my father-in-law couldn’t possibly object to. The ladies explained that the foreign embassies and multinationals, tucked away in the Diplomatic Enclave zone offered the highest salaries, the best working conditions, and vitally, a door-to-door pick and drop minibus facility for all staff. Consequently, staff turnover was low and the competition very stiff. But nani jee had often admired my neatly labelled spice jars, and she assured me that if my organisational skills couldn’t get me a job, then my highly prized English accent definitely would. Frankly speaking, there’s little call for formalities like equal opportunities procedures in Pakistan. In fact, it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts. So baji called a financial analyst at the World Bank, an ex-colleague of hers. Indeed, one of the British diplomats was frantically looking to appoint a personal assistant and on the strength of baji’s glowing recommendation, he agreed to see me in the morning. Once my uncle left for work, nani jee’s driver stealthily chauffeured me to the interview. The phones in the office were ringing off the hook and the desks were cluttered with faxes from the Washington HQ. I seized my chance and offered to start immediately on a temporary, no-obligation basis. Back home, I spent hours forming the tactful words with which to break the news to my unsuspecting father-in-law. I was starting my new job in the morning, a full time post in a prestigious institution, which would pay more than my husband was earning in the Middle East.
My husband was the last one to know. As I waited for him to call for our weekly chat, it dawned on me that I was finally going to reap the rewards of my patience, perseverance and isolation. At last I would have my own dedicated chaperone, willing to take me wherever I wanted to go, supporting my every endeavour, keenly prioritising my needs. It wouldn’t be long before my days would be charged with playfulness, and the solace and security of a sturdy shoulder would greet me every evening. My husband and I could finally look forward to getting to know one another. There’s something about the flirtatious nature of this song, ‘Mere Sapnon Ki Rani’ (The Queen of My Dreams) from the evergreen Aradhana (Shakti Samanta, 1969), which takes me back and reminds me of being on the cusp of falling in love. The song is full of exuberance and hope, just as I was.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RAW SILK
PREVIOUS: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
A relic of a childhood spent in Pakistan was that obedience became my way of showing respect to elders. In seeking mum’s guidance, I was showing deference to her continuing role in my life, even if my flourishing free spirit sometimes compelled me to defy her choices. Hindsight tells me that independence and obedience aren’t perhaps compatible after all. But old habits die hard, and so it was that well into adulthood, I simply couldn’t blurt out my garbled plans for a night out as I slammed the door behind me. Ever the dutiful daughter, I would stand soberly waiting for mum to sanction my plans, knowing full well that I was also giving her the power to refuse.
It was my best mate Josie who put me up to going on holiday with her, just as I was preparing to leave Bradford for married life in Islamabad. And before I could back out, she’d booked us a week in a three-star, self-catering apartment in Crete. This would be my first holiday independent of family, and the first one where I would need a beach towel and suntan lotion, instead of a suitcase large enough to carry presents for relatives I hadn’t seen for a decade. But first, there was a hurdle to overcome. I might have been 23 years old and on the cusp of marriage, but I still needed my mum’s permission!
I first met Josie around the time I started producing a quarterly fanzine for confused British Asians like myself. I got the idea after mum puckered her brow when I brought home a photo story magazine which featured among its pages a teenage boy and girl sharing a proper kiss. If this wasn’t the sort of material I should be reading then there was little else that young women like myself could identify with. So I decided to set up a fanzine of my own. Its Asian focus also meant that my attention now shifted from the likes of New Model Army to artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, much to my mum’s relief, although even an outing to something as honourable as a qawwali concert was subject to her approval.
Josie quickly became my confidante and mentor. I often wondered if she was such an understanding friend because, with an Asian husband of her own as well as two small children, she also had a limit to the number of nights out she was permitted per week. So we were perfectly matched as chaperones – both bound in our own ways to family obligations, and always mindful of the curfew waiting to drag us both off the bhangra dance floor at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall.
Now, with the holiday looming, I braced myself. I’d work through the objections I imagined mum would fire at me and rehearse my answers. Then I’d panic and phone Josie once more: “Remind me again why we’re going. Why did you say the trip is important? How should I frame my argument?” When the emotional ordeal made me doubt our upcoming plans, Josie would patiently go over the details again. I had nightmares about breaking the news of our trip with Josie’s husband and children outside, waiting to drive us to the airport. At other times I’d think it was surely only a matter of time before mum found out from someone else, since I’d discussed my dilemma with almost everyone I knew. After months of worry and with just a fortnight to go before the trip, I finally found the courage to speak to mum.
I framed my argument just as I’d rehearsed with Josie. It was probably my last chance to take a holiday like this with a friend, and it would be the perfect way to say goodbye to my old life and reflect on what lay ahead. Josie and I were asking for a few days’ grace to devote to friendship. And besides, if Josie’s husband was willing to look after the children for a week to enable her to accompany me on a trip of a lifetime, the least mum could do was to accept their gesture by letting me go. There was also plenty I didn’t say; that the holiday was a breathing space where I could steal myself, a week where I didn’t have to be someone’s wife or daughter. It was a chance to enjoy one final fling with freedom, a week where we wouldn’t have to observe curfews or explain ourselves, where our movements would not be curtailed. It was our Thelma and Louise moment.
A few months later, mum transferred me from her guardianship to that of her older brother, since he was also my father-in-law. I was now in my uncle’s care since my husband had returned to his job in the Middle East just a fortnight after our wedding. Yes, I could have insisted that he take me with him, but this would have involved trading his male quarters for accommodation that was wife-friendly, probably at considerable expense. The truth is that I wanted to show him what a supportive wife he’d selected. Also, I didn’t want to seem needy, nor did I wish to be viewed as chattel, to be transported with my husband from one location to another. Besides, I’d had enough of feeling out of place in Bradford, and the idea of being suspended in liminality in the Middle East just didn’t attract me. So I remained in Islamabad, where I had my father-in-law for company.
My uncle became the father I never had. A respected senior engineer at Radio Pakistan, I had watched him leaving for work in a suit and tie as a little girl, before Zia-ul-Haq implemented an Islamic system in Pakistan in 1978. Now, I handed over his tiffin box and watched him ride away on his Vespa every morning, with his crisp, cotton shalwar kameez flapping away in the breeze. A deeply spiritual man, my uncle was also open-minded with a cracking sense of humour. I loved his refreshingly healthy attitude towards Islam, advocating a balanced approach to life. His unwavering routine of walking to the mosque five times every day for congregational prayers, went hand in hand with an appreciation for music and dance. Prayer was an individual act and if I chose to waive the virtues of regular prayer, then it was up to me. But I had to be respectful by turning off the music and covering my head, whenever the call to prayer from the mosque loudspeaker permeated our home. One evening, he asked if I was planning to stay up to watch a James Bond film that was being televised. Before I could warn him about the risqué nature of 007’s dalliances, my uncle added enthusiastically, “I’m looking forward to seeing Ursula Andress. I’ve heard she was quite a beauty!”
During an initial spring clean, I came across a forgotten video tape labelled ‘Mujra Songs’ which featured Bollywood sequences in the style traditionally performed by dancing girls or courtesans in the courts of the Mughal kings. We frequently watched the tape together, with my uncle sharing his knowledge of the classic films that had spawned these performances. The tape featured a couple of songs from Sharafat (Asit Sen, 1970) which I found particularly captivating. I was entranced by the quick footedness of the dazzling dancing girl, fluttering around the dance floor like a brightly coloured butterfly. Whilst she had the same playful eyes, she wasn’t as voluptuous as the Hema Malini I remembered from the cabaret song in Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981). It was my uncle who confirmed that the nimble dancer was indeed Hema Malini and the squirming hero was her real life husband, Dharmendre.
If my uncle was liberal, regrettably he was also set in his ways, especially when it came to gender roles. Being the only son, I’d heard tales of grandma doting on him until her final days. Whilst rotis (chapatties) made for the rest of the household could be relegated to the plastic hotpot to keep warm for an hour or so, my uncle’s rotis had to be made from scratch for maximum freshness, the moment he was ready to eat. And with no daughters of his own, I’d heard whispers among the extended family that he had little understanding of women’s whims. As my new guardian, my uncle had very clear ideas about the division of labour. While he sped off to work each morning, I took my place in the kitchen.
Among the tedium I abruptly inherited was the daily provision of freshly cooked curry and rotis. Perhaps I’d imagined whimsically baking coconut macaroons on a Saturday afternoon, but the idea of putting dinner on the table every night had somehow escaped me! I had also managed to resist mum’s extensive efforts to introduce me to the rigours of roti making, which was now my greatest ordeal. As I kneaded the dough with all my might, I would hear the mocking tone of a great aunt from our ancestral village in my ear, “She who can’t make a roti is not a real woman,” knowing only too well that the shape, size, texture and lightness of my efforts were a measure of my merits as a daughter-in-law. Dry and brittle as they were, my rotis resembled poppadum and were woefully unfit for purpose. They should have been pliable enough to scoop up a dollop of curry, not dependent on a soaking in the sauce to make them edible. Out of principle and adamant that all I needed was patience and practice, my uncle refused to buy them from the roti house more than once a week. When I discovered the local international supermarket stocked pasta and noodles, I started serving them several times a week as roti replacements, until my uncle mischievously mocked me with a newspaper article about a man who’d stabbed his mother for serving noodles over and over again!
To make matters worse, housework needed to be planned around load shedding, the intentionally-engineered electrical outages during peak times due to under capacity. This meant there was no electricity between eight and ten o’clock, nor at lunchtime and again in the evening. I didn’t dare step into a room in the summer months without switching on the ceiling fan first. Load shedding made it utterly unbearable to function in the muggy kitchen. The best remedy was to douse yourself in cold water and keep still for an hour or so until the artificial breeze returned.
The wildlife colonising our kitchen also kept me occupied. I didn’t mind the ants walking in single file along the window sill, and picking them out one by one from the sugar bowl became oddly therapeutic. It was the house lizards and cockroaches scaling our walls that took some getting used to. I didn’t dare leave anything uncovered after locating a lizard perched on a freshly washed bowl when I turned on the kitchen light one evening. If ever I felt inclined to ease my hygiene standards, I remembered how my cousin had unintentionally cooked a lizard after it had fallen into a pot of lamb and spinach curry. My poor grandfather had already been served his dinner when my cousin returned to the kitchen for a refill, and only became suspicious after spotting the now tender meat falling off the skeleton! Yet, a few days after the horror of confronting a black snake in the hallway, I nonchalantly flicked a plump lizard off my pillow before crawling into bed.
Within a matter of months, I’d rearranged the furniture to my heart’s content, labelled all the spice jars and mastered a routine in the kitchen. I’d stitched new curtains for my uncle’s bedroom and even learnt to make tea with the lemongrass growing in our garden. I was ready for a fresh challenge. I thought about improving my O-Level French by taking some classes at the Alliance Francaise, located just a couple of miles from our house. It would get me out of the house and it was high time I made some friends. I put this to my uncle one night as he prepared for his fifth and final visit to the mosque for the day. “How will French help you?” he pondered out loud, much to my unease. “I could understand if it was a cookery course because that would benefit us all,” he continued.
The response was stifling but my uncle was a man of his word. I was also mindful of his seniority in the family which meant that nobody ever stood up to him, not even mum who held her older brother in the utmost regard. So I only dared to challenge his old-fashioned views light-heartedly but it was clear his decision was made. Under the circumstances, it seemed indelicate to involve my husband by pitting him against his father, nor could I ask mum to intervene. With my husband absent, my uncle had evidently forgotten that my primary reason for entering the household was as his son’s wife. So there I was, six months married and stranded in Islamabad, destined for daily drudge as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
PREVIOUS: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST