Bollywood in Britain

Tales of being British, Pakistani & female in Bradford, set against classic Bollywood

19 The Immigrant Spouse

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Perhaps there was some accuracy in that acerbic adage that we’d grown up with – the one about Pakistanis owning all the houses – from the days when it was customary on the streets of Bradford to spitefully truncate the very word which defined our ethnic origin. The stories mum recounted of her kin, from before her marriage and migration to Bradford, offered us a window into the mind-set of the class based rural society she came from, and reminded us that aspirations of home ownership ran deep in mum’s Pakistani blood. In a culture where the ultimate security was land, to be a ‘kiraidaar’ (tenant) was to be frowned upon. One aspired to becoming a ‘malik makaan’, literally a property owner. I suppose it was only natural that mum would incorporate these ingrained canons into her new life in Britain. That’s why she’d shrewdly taken advantage of the tenancy entitlement on our home, located on Bradford’s Canterbury council estate, preferring to pay a mortgage rather than squandering her earnings on rent.

A ‘malik makaan’ she might have become, but mum’s dreams didn’t stop there. She was determined to offer her three children an environment more suited to the moral markers she’d imported from Pakistan in 1964; which probably explains why she always addressed our neighbour on the estate as Mr Gardener, despite the fear of God his racist abuse put into all of us. And presumably because mum couldn’t bring herself to concede to our impressionable minds that intimate relations, particularly the kind that produce children, could exist outside marriage, the girlfriend of Terry the milkman, who also happened to be the mother of his children, was always referred to – at least in our home – as his ‘wife’.

It was the early 1990s when we became the proud owners of a handsome mid terrace at the top of Barkerend Road, a world away from the strains of the Canterbury estate. We could now look forward to living among our own folk. Safety in numbers, you might say. The few English families yet to take flight from our street were definitely in the minority. The area still boasted more pubs than fabric shops but sightings of women in shalwar kameez were becoming more commonplace. It was such a novelty to have a corner shop that stocked ‘our’ essentials, like halal meat and coriander. Even the ice cream van that roamed the neighbourhood played Dil Dil Pakistan, that unofficial national anthem by the pop band Vital Signs, as its patriotic chime.

This new neighbourhood would surely be a home away from home for my husband of two years. Several months had passed, you see, since my abrupt return from Pakistan. Having spent my teenage years feeling utterly lost in Bradford, I had resolved to make Islamabad my home after marrying a cousin there. Alas, things hadn’t gone too well so I’d returned for respite.

But time and space had clearly mellowed my mood since I was now thinking about persuading my husband to settle with me in Bradford. This is why I was wading through the spousal visa application; a lonely task when your husband is absent and unfamiliar with the requisites; a thankless chore when he’s a Pakistani national, almost instinctively presumed guilty by the authorities. As if collating the paperwork wasn’t time-consuming enough, the visa application for his permanent stay would take months to come through, perhaps even longer.

I’d reached an impasse. My strength was sapped from staving off pressure to return to Pakistan. Perhaps the protracted visa process would buy me more time and my parade of proactivity might shift the stale conversation in our home. That’s why deferring the decision about the future of my marriage, even if only to bureaucrats at the UK Border Agency, seemed somehow liberating. But given the expertise in our new neighbourhood, I was starting to wonder if the process would even take that long. Transnational marriages, you see – the union between a Pakistani national and a British citizen – were two-a-penny in Bradford Moor.

It was a scene I’d witnessed several times, mindful that this might soon be my reality; the entire family setting off for Manchester Airport, Terminal 2, to welcome the new arrival to Britain, with the nervous looking British bride or groom in tow; the visits to Littlewoods in town for jumpers, socks and shoes to suit the British weather; the obligatory round of dinners for the reunited couple followed by the sightseeing day trip to Blackpool en masse.

The custom of transnational marriages was so popular in fact, that it had its own vernacular. Of course we never used the sociological term, transnational or transcontinental marriage. Instead, we talked colloquially about getting married ‘abroad’, even though we all knew that ‘abroad’ could only ever mean Pakistan. It did no harm to exoticise our perpetual holiday-cum-honeymoon destination. And the spouses from ‘abroad’ that we planned to ‘import’ were referred to as ‘mangaytar’. The term comes from the Urdu word for engagement, ‘mangni’, and means literally ‘the betrothed’ when used in Pakistan. In Bradford though, ‘mangaytar’ was reserved specifically for the partner from Pakistan – the immigrant, if you will – while the British citizen was known as ‘the fiance’ even when we spoke in mother tongue. Although the separate terms conveniently indicated your spouse’s birthplace and likely social mores, the distinction effectively inferred a tacit imbalance between the two parties; ‘fiance’ assumed an air of superiority, while ‘mangaytar’ was at best unequal and pejorative at worst.

Transnational marriages were tied up with the links that much of our neighbourhood had with Mirpur, a region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. So strong were these bonds that it sometimes felt like the same society existed in both places. The people of Mirpur famously practice an intensified system of clan alliance. Biraderi they call it – a scheme of tribal networks or extended brotherhood. Biraderi determines identity and personal codes of behaviour. Protecting its status against other clans is a matter of honour, even if it means favouring allegiance over merit, to the extent that mobilising the biraderi has been known to influence wholesale vote-gathering, not only in Mirpur but also in British politics.

Cousin marriages are intrinsic to the biraderi system because they reinforce ties of obligation, which is a source of pride in itself. No wonder Mr Hussain, now in his fifties, bearded, shalwar kameez clad, walking stick in hand, commanded such respect in our street. To his credit, he had ‘acquired’ the daughters of his own siblings from the ancestral village in Mirpur for his British born sons. He’d also installed his three sons in separate houses on our street, having the foresight many years earlier to buy each house as it came on the market. So Mr Hussain was now the brides’ father-in-law as well as their uncle. And the three brides, all of them cousins who had grown up together in Mirpur, were now neighbours in Bradford, and related to each other in new ways through marriage. This sort of union had many benefits. It permitted property to be retained within the clan. The transnational nature of the match made better opportunities available not only to the three brides, but also to their families in Mirpur. It was also understood that the handpicked daughter-in-laws would readily attend to Mr Hussain and his wife in old age.

There’s also the custom of watta satta, literally ‘give and take’, which establishes a web of familial connections that’s even more mindboggling. Watta satta involves the simultaneous marriage of brother-sister pairs from two households, where the heads of the two households may also be siblings. Crucially, this sort of marriage creates an inner circle of liability. So for instance, if a husband mistreats his wife, then the perpetrator’s sister might be the one to face the repercussions. It’s probably to make allowances for these convoluted family relations that Urdu and Punjabi languages contain extended vocabulary, to help us distinguish between cousins, aunts and uncles on different sides of the family.

The intensely bound networks in our neighbourhood inevitably made for a lot of coming and going, especially since house visiting was the main pastime. And since it was customary for guests to arrive unannounced, it was little wonder that our row of terraces with two reception rooms was so popular; enabling the multi-unit, multi-generational families to use the rear room as a lounge whilst keeping the front for best. Impromptu guests could be accommodated without disrupting family life, but more importantly, separate spaces could be appropriated for men and women. We’re talking about a rigidly patriarchal society here, so this was essentially an extension of purdah to seclude women from men they didn’t know. Akin to the Victorian parlour I suppose, with inner sections of the house reserved for women, while men outside the immediate family had access to only the outer parts.

With the front of the house reserved for men and formal visitors, women preferred to use the back alley as their main thoroughfare, entering one another’s houses by the back door, which led straight into the ‘zenana’, the women’s parlour. Mum did the same on her neighbourly visits, although she was irked to always be the last to hear about a birth, marriage or death. How poignant that we’d sought comfort in living among our own folk after the racism we’d endured on the Canterbury estate, only to find that our new neighbours also considered us to be outsiders. We weren’t one of them, you see, so there was no need for them to mix with us beyond the superficial. With bonds of biraderi in full force, being Pakistani wasn’t enough, it seemed. In order to be truly accepted, you had to belong to the same clan from Mirpur; and we weren’t even from the same region.

But then, quite unexpectedly one morning, Masi Shamim from across the street rang the doorbell as mum was about to leave for work. Clutching an unopened envelope bearing familiar Pakistani postage markings, she insisted she couldn’t go all day without knowing what sort of news it contained. Mum knew this yearning all too well, so without even removing her coat, she sat down and read the letter aloud before handing it back. The grateful listener moulded the piece of paper back into its folds before tucking it protectively inside the envelope. When could she return to dictate her response, she wanted to know.

With no formal school experience, Masi Shamim wasn’t literate in English or her mother tongue and therefore unable to independently read and write her own letters. Enlisting one of her British born children was pointless because they wrote only in English while relatives in Mirpur corresponded only in mother tongue. Many of the women in Masi Shamim’s circle were frustratingly in the same situation. She was loathe to rely on her husband since this would necessitate revealing to him the matters she discussed with her parents. Approaching another man was of course unthinkable. In desperation, Masi Shamim had sought mum’s help.

It wasn’t long before mum was spending Saturday mornings as letter scribe to the women from our neighbourhood, who’d arrive at our house carrying freshly purchased aerograms from the post office. Mum was sage, literate and possessed an unassuming demeanour. But more importantly, she stood firmly outside the biraderi so she didn’t pose a threat to the women’s secrets. I would be charged with fetching tea before I could join the women in the rear lounge. Mum would sit attentively, with one eye on the decorative clock on our mantelpiece, aerogram resting on a thick book on her knee, pen in hand, impatiently awaiting direction. I observed that despite their lack of literacy, the women dictated their letters with a particular formality, in anticipation of the buzz their letters would generate upon receipt. On one occasion, mum began to object when the concluding greetings to various clan members exceeded a page. The woman explained that the letter would be read out in a circle of women, all of whom would expect to be remembered in the communication from Bradford. Even if one woman was missing from the circle, she would come to hear whether or not she’d been mentioned. So, despite mum’s frustration, the etiquette of citing the various members of the biraderi had to be maintained.

You can see why it was impossible to ignore the bonds of biraderi in a neighbourhood like ours, even as a bystander. I thought of my extended family and understood, probably for the first time, that just like a small cog in a large wheel, I too was playing my part in strengthening our clan connections. I was also starting to realise that the only way to endure this pact was to learn to think beyond yourself.

Observing the comings and goings of Bradford Moor also made me wonder what the Border Agency officers made of the networks that were, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to the visa application. I had the list of supporting documents down to a tee: the original marriage certificate as well as a certified English translation; photographic evidence of the ceremony; proof of accommodation; a housing inspection report to demonstrate that an additional person wouldn’t lead to overcrowding in the family home; evidence of savings; pay slips and bank statements showing my ability to support us both. The authorities even wanted proof that we had met, which is presumably why they asked for at least one photo of the happy couple sitting or standing together.

There were no obvious eligibility issues with any of these formalities, although I sensed we’d need artistic license to embellish our demonstration of emotional attachment. Love, you see, would have been nice to have, but it had somehow evaded me. But then, our marriage was always more of a family alliance than the union of two individuals. I just wasn’t sure how to substantiate this on the visa paperwork.

That’s not to say I wasn’t happy about the match from the outset. I completely understood that mum could make no wiser choice, than to give my hand in marriage to her brother’s son. I knew that marrying my cousin would grant me more security than any outsider ever would. I believed that sharing the same background and values were important virtues for building a life together.

Lately though, I’d begun to realise that my husband and I actually belonged to two different worlds, and dragging him out of his world to transplant him into mine, now seemed as senseless as trying to save this marriage. I couldn’t see myself waiting to receive him at Manchester Airport, and nor did I want the responsibility of settling him in. More than anything else, I was perturbed to be struggling to find proof of emotional attachment in my marriage and it jarred me that something so critical to one community could be so inconsequential to another.


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PREVIOUS INSTALMENT:
 CONFINEMENT

18 Confinement

I’m still sometimes confused by the present layout of Bradford city centre. Etched in my mind is the arrangement I discovered during my teens. That’s when I earned my first slivers of freedom and was finally permitted, unsupervised, to make my own way into town. Back then, the bus swooped into the Bradford bowl and stopped directly outside the old smoked-glass fronted police station which we knew as the Tyrls. Word had it that there were cells beneath the building from which prisoners were taken to the adjacent Magistrates Courts via an underground walkway. This was long before City Park and Centenary Square, when there was no pedestrianised public area and the lone fountain outside the police station was without airs. But at least we had stylish shops.

The self-effacing Sunwin House had been settled at the junction of Sunbridge Road and Godwin Street since 1932, baring its window displays beneath distinct dark brown awnings. It was the sort of department store that Bradfordians can only dream about today. Sunwin House sold everything from buttons to beds, from toothpaste to television sets, and from wigs to wedding dresses. It had the kind of food hall where buying basics like bread and milk made you feel extravagant. Unaffordability never stopped mum scanning the performance ranges of the German sewing machines on the first floor. The cookware in the basement was more my thing, where I liked to imagine how it would feel to have Wedgewood in my dowry.

The store was owned by the Co-operative group so customers earned dividend stamps – an early version of the club card, you might say – where you were rewarded with a tiny percentage of the value of your spending. A small purchase earned you the small ‘5’ stamps, of which you had to collect 32 before you had the satisfaction of filling a page. You could garner the higher value ’40’ stamps with a large purchase, of which four alone were enough to fill an entire page. There was something gratifying about being issued with a crisp new book, with its distinct red cover promising the ultimate incentive, ‘This book when completed and exchanged is worth £1’. I was the sort of organised person, you see, that industriously collected the stamps, licked them diligently before sticking them meticulously in the book. As if completing the book wasn’t rewarding enough, there was still the bonus of monetary gain to be had!

Across the road from Sunwin House stood the crisp white 12-storey headquarters of the National and Provincial Building Society. The substantial 1960s office block monopolised the prime location, which today makes up much of City Park and Centenary Square. With its prim lawns bursting with spring bloom, it stood self-assured, bowing only before the majesty of the Venetian gothic styled clock tower of Bradford City Hall. It was here on the fourth floor, in mortgage administration at Provincial House that I put my organisational skills to use. Although it was a temporary position, it was the sort of stable nine-to-five office job that mum valued. There was even the possibility of a discounted mortgage rate if I could just impress my employers enough to offer me a permanent position.

Alas, I handed in my notice to start married life in Pakistan. A couple of years later though, I was back in Bradford with ego bruised, contemplating a return to clerical work. Meanwhile, mum was willing me to return to married life in Islamabad after my ‘short break’, which is why she was still shielding the real reason for my abrupt arrival back in Bradford. I wasn’t sure how temporary my refuge would be but I knew it was enough for now. Bigger decisions could wait. I wasn’t ready to make any. I wasn’t sure that they were mine to make anyway. In the meantime, I wanted to make up for the months I’d lost in Pakistan. There was self-esteem to be regained. Perhaps it was time to send a message to my family that I was taking control. But while I yearned for my old life, I didn’t want to confine myself to mortgage admin. If I was going to find a job this time, it would have to be on my terms. To offset my emotional disappointments perhaps, I was also primed to elevate the professional bar.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that my career path was probably influenced by that cult American TV series, The Incredible Hulk. I should say in my defence that I was just an impressionable teenager when the series was broadcast during the early 1980s. It was about a scientist with a sinister secret; a condition which transformed him into a giant green monster whenever he became angry. Jack McGee was his nemesis, a hardnosed reporter investigating the mysterious monster’s sightings for The National Register. Every time he confronted the irritated scientist, Jack was darkly warned, “Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

An annoying antagonist he may have been to everyone else, but I saw Mr McGee as a man with a mission. I was charmed by the world he inhabited; driving up and down the country at all hours to document the stories that fascinated him. He had the sort of job that also appealed to my nosey disposition. But I also knew that any perceptive Pakistani parent would deem it a disagreeable career choice for precisely these perks.

In mum’s day, you see, the ultimate job for respectable women was teaching. But then, as I was often reminded, mum was raised in a society where parental wishes were heeded without question. So she’d worked in a state-run girls’ school in Rawalpindi before marriage. Not only was it stable and secure, the female environment also created the sort of seclusion which the principles of purdah are based on. Even progressive protagonists in Bollywood films of that era became teachers. Naturally, they were portrayed as noble, no-nonsense creatures, ready to nurture their students. There’s an irrepressibly effervescent song from the brilliant film Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) which comes to mind. ‘Ichak Dana Bichak Dana’ means ‘One Little Seed, Two Little Seeds’, which refers to a game of ‘guess what’. It’s performed by the luminous Nargis, who takes the role of the aptly named Vidya, meaning knowledge. Using song and illustration, she devotedly encourages her young charges to solve riddles in a makeshift classroom in her father’s courtyard. As she asks, ‘bolo kya’ – ‘what is it?’ – at the end of each rhyme, Raj Kapoor in his Chaplinesque guise can’t help falling in love with her. The wholesome teacher though remains characteristically unimpressed by his flirtations.

And so, it was much to mum’s alarm that I rejected the lure of a discounted mortgage and went to work for a tin-pot TV production company. I began to travel almost immediately since we worked from a suite of grubby offices at the Batley Enterprise Centre. We were making a factual series called Zara Dhyan Dein, which loosely translated meant ‘please pay attention’. The programmes looked at health and social issues affecting South Asian families in Britain; like reducing the risk of a heart attack, healthy eating and depression. It didn’t matter that the programme was just five minutes long, or that it was broadcast in the middle of the night. People still watched it, primarily because there was little else televised in Urdu in those days, but mainly because the programme was screened immediately after the weekly Bollywood film.

You see, it was normal to record the Bollywood film off the TV in the late 80s and early 90s because it saved you having to stay up until the early hours to watch the film as it was being broadcast. It was also the only economical way of creating a personal film library. It’s worth remembering that programming VCRs to record automatically was a fiddly affair. It was far simpler to stay up long enough to manually press record at the start of the film, and then retire to bed knowing that recording would continue until the four hour tape was full. Of course the five minute health broadcast, Zara Dhyan Dein, which followed the film, would also be recorded inadvertently.

As it turned out, mum had nothing to worry about. My job as researcher was to organise things, including finding people to take part in the programme; an Indian GP one week, a Pakistani taxi driver the next, volunteers in a gurdwara, a diabetes patient, or a housewife discussing her family’s diet. It may only have been five years since the ceremonial burning of The Satanic Verses outside the Magistrates Courts in Bradford, but Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs were still clamouring to be on TV. I realised that, despite the ungodly hour of broadcast, working on a TV programme for the Asian community seemed to garner an absurd amount of kudos. The weariness of being under the media’s glare that we Bradfordians baulk at today, hadn’t yet set in. On the contrary, having a film crew in the house offered credibility and public recognition. Best of all, mum’s friends assumed that landing this marvellous job was my first step to submitting my husband’s visa paperwork. Although I had no intention of inviting him to join me in Bradford, it suited mum and me not to contradict the conjecture in the community. It bought us both time; as I asserted my new-found independence, I hoped mum might muster the strength to go public with my separation.

Things were going well until the producer announced a programme highlighting the importance of prenatal care. I was to find a young Asian couple where the wife was visibly pregnant, whom we would film going through routine check-ups at a local hospital. At my young age, I’d never had anything to do with pregnancy, so how could I have known that this condition merits the utmost privacy among South Asians. Only after accepting the producer’s challenge did I realise that flaunting one’s baby bump like a pregnant Spice Girl was a massive taboo. Doing so, you see, alludes to private marital relations. Even now, a respectable married woman is expected to bury her bulging bump beneath her diaphanous dupatta and further disguise it with loose clothing.

To this day, pregnant protagonists in Bollywood films also remain a rarity. They don’t parade their pregnant bellies and they certainly don’t sing and dance. The only song that comes to mind is from the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). You may recognise the opening bars because ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’ (Sister, Your Brother-in-law is Crazy) was famously used in a kitchen roll TV commercial a few years ago. The song further emphasises the invisibility of expectant women from our screens because it actually features a mock pregnancy, purely for the sake of entertaining a gathering of women at a baby shower. As celebrations begin to mark the imminent birth of her sister’s baby, Madhuri Dixit’s character bears a fake oversized bump. The nature of the celebrations requires such a strictly separate women’s space that a lady in drag has to play the male lead. As the two lampoon intimate scenes and pregnancy stereotypes, men are forced to watch secretly because they’re vigorously refused access.

I suppose it was precisely because pregnancy is hidden from public view in my culture that we were making a programme about pre-natal care in the first place. But how could we make the programme if I couldn’t find anyone to take part. The producer seemed very understanding of my dilemma and agreed to come up with an alternative plan. On the day of filming, however, I arrived at the hospital to find a pair of unbecoming dungarees waiting for me, complete with a fake built-in baby bump. In the wake of my failure to find a willing participant, it seemed that I would have to take the role of expectant South Asian mother myself. An Indian crew member was lined up as my on-screen husband.

Despite my unease, I grudgingly went along with the plan in the name of professional integrity. Clad in my pregnancy dungarees, the opening sequence had me writing a letter to a friend to share my happy news. In one scene, I was shown discussing my dietary needs with a nurse. In another, I was having blood tests with my reassuring husband sitting beside me. As filming progressed, so did my anxiety. Amusing as it sounds, I knew this indiscretion would only further aggravate my relationship with mum. I wanted to earn her respect yet my televised phantom pregnancy was surely set to do the reverse.

I made sure she never saw the programme even though it was repeated several times over the coming months. The plot unfolded unintentionally in the food hall of Sunwin House. Mum was treating me to a vanilla custard slice from the bakery counter when she bumped into an old friend. We’d last seen her at my pre-marriage party as I was preparing to leave Bradford. “Congratulations!” she squealed as she embraced mum. Without as much as a glance at my noticeably non-expectant figure, she continued, “So that’s why your daughter is back in Bradford!”

That moment of disclosure was as poignant as it was painful because it captured the frailty of our mother-daughter relationship perfectly. Everyone in Bradford appeared to know something that I’d been frantically trying to keep from her. Meanwhile, mum was resolute that nobody in Bradford must come to know the real reason for my return.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE IMMIGRANT SPOUSE
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PREVIOUS: GODSPEED TO BRADFORD

17 Godspeed to Bradford

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.

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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!

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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

PREVIOUS: REDEMPTION

16 Redemption

I was 22 when I attended a funeral for the first time – a bittersweet benefit, you might say, of living across seven seas from loved ones, although the downside was undoubtedly grieving alone. We didn’t have the means to travel to Pakistan for proper farewells. And anyway, we would never have got there in time because Muslims are buried as soon as possible, preferably before nightfall on the day of death. That’s why the devastating news of the passing of my maternal grandmother was cruelly conveyed to mum in a solitary phone call, in the middle of the night. And with that, mum was left to lament alone, without ceremony to ease her pain or cold hard proof to help bring closure. Mum soothed her sorrow by sitting for hours to recite the Quran in measured rhythmic tones, just as she had been taught to do by the mother she was now mourning. Every few days, when she had completed an entire recitation of the holy book, mum would tearfully plead from her prayer mat, that the reward for her efforts be credited to her mother, so it may ease her soul on its progression to the afterlife and grant her a place in paradise.

This was the grandmother who had initiated my religious instruction and taught me the paths to heaven and hell. So I knew that my personal tally of deeds, meticulously recorded by the ever-present angels on my shoulders, would determine my abode in the hereafter. Although my brother would characteristically taunt me that the angel recording my ‘gunaah’ (misdeeds) was overworked, while the one recording my ‘sawaab’ (virtuous acts) had been forced to take early retirement!

If living in Bradford meant that mum missed out on rituals and rites of passage, then her older brother (now also my father-in-law) seemed to make up for it in Pakistan. The way things were done here seemed so un-English. My uncle didn’t need to wait to be invited to a funeral, nor did it seem to matter whether or not he actually knew the deceased. Time after time, he would faithfully take his place in line for the namaz-e-janazah (funeral prayers). When I quizzed him one evening, he explained that offering prayers for the deceased was a merit worthy act in itself. But there was another, more sombre reason for my uncle’s attendance. “Death is a warning about the order of things, a stark reminder of the fate that awaits us all.” Watching me wince with unease, my uncle continued his lecture, “You should go, Irna! There’s nothing quite so sobering as a burial to make you prostrate on the prayer mat every day!”

My uncle didn’t seem to appreciate that I was still grappling with my existing life to contemplate what might happen to me in the next, but his moralising certainly made an impression on me. He wasn’t speaking out of turn. As custodian of my social morality, he was merely giving me every opportunity to prepare for the next stage of my life. Alas, if only someone had thought to offer me a glimpse of my marital afterlife in Islamabad before I rashly relinquished my singledom in Bradford. Perhaps that’s why I could relate so well to Padmini Kolhapure’s character from Prem Rog (Raj Kapoor, 1982) as she looked forward to her impending ‘rukhsati’ (bridal farewell) in the song ‘Yeh Galiyan Yeh Chobara’. The bride’s naivety is agonizingly evident as she blissfully reminds her family and friends of her looming departure for a new life with strangers in unfamiliar surroundings. Her mother (the lady in the blue sari) flinches as the bride sings to her, “Come and hold me mother, as I leave my childhood in your courtyard.” The young woman may as well have been blindfolded because she was as clueless as I was about what a traditional marriage might actually entail.
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How could I have known what marriage looks like when I hadn’t seen one close up? My parents had separated when I was about four. Then, when we lived in Islamabad, there were so many family members and a non-existent notion of couples having private space so I didn’t even know that married couples share a bed. You see, I belonged to the first generation of Pakistanis growing up in Bradford so there were no peers or role models to help us find our way. Perhaps that’s why, when I was introduced to the facts of life in O’ level biology, I simply refused to believe that this repugnant English method of procreation could also apply to Pakistanis. I assumed this was just another transgression, like consuming pork and alcohol, which set us apart from English people. Besides, Muslims didn’t need these procedures because I’d heard babies were divinely ordained. It was only when another Pakistani girl in the school playground confirmed that her parents, upstanding Muslim people, did share a room containing only a double bed, that I began to ponder if there might be some substance in that biology lesson after all!

Now that I was a fully-fledged married woman in Islamabad, I had the privilege of holding court with other women in the same life stage. As long as there were no impressionable unmarried girls in our midst, we could openly compare circumstances, most of which seemed revelatory to me. It was clearly up to the wife to keep her husband happy and her house in order. If you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that life was good as long as there was food on the table and a decent wage coming in! Don’t get me wrong – there were dashes of warmth, regard and friendship, but nobody declared a desire to be loved. It was as though it was irrelevant – nice to have perhaps, but certainly not expected. Was it that these women genuinely didn’t have any need for self-fulfilment, I wondered, or were they simply better at managing their expectations than I was? Perhaps it was down to cultural difference. They seemed so skilled at reconciling their own desires in favour of family duty, and appeared to find contentment in their roles as wives and mothers rather than as individuals. There were times though when I wanted to shake these women out of their selflessness, especially when the conversation spiralled into a casual contest to quantify their tales of woe and scales of abuse. The more you put up and shut up, it seemed, the more you were commended for your efforts.

I’d seen plenty of selfless heroines in Indian films, although it was ironic that the one virtue they believed was worth dying for was love. This was certainly the case in Mughal-e-Azam (K Asif, 1960), one of Bollywood’s greatest historical epics. The film tells the story of Anarkali, a legendary dancing girl in the Mughal court of Emperor Akbar. She falls in love with the Emperor’s son, Prince Salim (who went on to become Emperor Jehangir). Anarkali exemplifies the supreme qualities that are exalted in the classical Urdu ghazal (love lyric), which regards love as a trial where no suffering is too great a price to pay, where cruelty is endured and the lover’s courage and commitment are tested to the very end. Thus, when Anarkali and her rival, Bahaar (the one with the headdress), stage a poetry contest presented in the form of the exquisite qawwali, ‘Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat Aazmaakar Hum Bhi Dekhenge’, Bahaar’s reticence to experience the misery of love earns her the scented rose from the prince’s hand, while Anarkali’s utter dedication to love is rewarded with a prize of stinging thorns.

BAHAAR:
This is what happens to those who fall in love
They suffer in silence and die a miserable death
So I will watch this farce and amuse myself
And save myself from this agony of love

ANARKALI:
Love, I concede, ruins your life
But what fun is a life bereft of grief?
Isn’t it enough that you are remembered long after you are dead?
So I will ruin myself for my love
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Anarkali was true to her word, refusing to renounce her love even after the infuriated Emperor Akbar threatened to entomb her alive. My problem of course was that I wasn’t in love with anyone, so there was really nothing to fight for. Faith had dealt me a dead end even though I had taken my vows in the belief that a husband is for life. But maybe my expectations were too unrealistic. Surely it was down to destiny that I didn’t find love. That’s how it was meant to be. This was my test, and my salvation was in making the most of what I’d been dealt. Didn’t I have the satisfaction of knowing that service in Islamabad was keeping me in my mum’s and uncle’s daily prayers? Why couldn’t I see that the chances of stumbling upon my soul mate in a traditional marriage were always going to be slim? In a culture where the absence of love is rarely reason enough to write off a marriage, I realise that my grievances must have seemed fickle, imagined even. I could see I was luckier than most – I had comfort, security, respect, but you can’t feed the soul on respect alone, can you! If there was no fulfilment for me in being a dutiful daughter-in-law and honourable wife, then what good was the arrangement, even if it pleased everyone else but me?

I didn’t want to take the first step, but what choice did I have? Technically speaking, I was the one that had been contracted to come and live at this address so surely I was the one that would have to leave, even though this would make me blameworthy. So I awkwardly gathered my possessions as the subdued spectators looked on. There was no ceremony, no dialogue, and no post-mortem. But then, there was no approval either – I had simply discharged myself of my obligations. Now, with every scandalous step, I drew closer to trampling on my family’s honour. I wasn’t sure if falling out of favour with elders would be logged as an offence by the angel on my left shoulder. If this was going to affect my credit rating, then I could only hope that redemption was a long way off. My immediate concern, you see, was the wrath that was waiting to welcome me back in Bradford.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: GODSPEED TO BRADFORD
PREVIOUS: RAW SILK

15 Raw Silk

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.”
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: REDEMPTION

PREVIOUS: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY

14 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.
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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.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RAW SILK

PREVIOUS: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

13 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.

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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

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