9 Obligation and Intimacy
Ever the blushing bride, I didn’t dare allow myself the indulgence of a lie-in with the man I’d just married. It seemed vulgar to linger behind a bolted bedroom door screaming ‘do not disturb’ while the in-laws ate breakfast downstairs. My reasoning was all thanks to the old fashioned values I’d honed back in Bradford. Despite my British birth, I was mindful of the implications of being female from an early age, because my gender was bestowed with the millstone of preserving a valuable commodity – family values. Even though it was sometimes a sham, I was used to manipulating my behaviour because it was usually subject to feedback. “What will people say” was a dominant theme in our home long before my marriage. I was taught that women’s conduct needed greater protection and control because it was worth more, so much more in fact that the entire family’s honour depended on it. And now, with all eyes trained on me as I moved in with the in-laws in Islamabad, I knew it was my conduct rather than my husband’s that would be scrutinised. Besides, he was already within his comfort zone because this was his home. Now it was my home too but it didn’t feel like it yet.
I presumed that being watchful of the unspoken rule that bars public displays of affection, I might exemplify my model upbringing and the Pakistani values I’d inherited from mum. I had after all been trained to switch channels instantly if a sordid kissing scene caught us out on the TV. Mum once deserted a bus stop because she couldn’t bear to stand behind a couple absorbed in a snog. Indeed, I’d never seen a Pakistani married couple holding hands or even sitting snugly on the sofa. Then there was the story of my maternal grandmother which typified the conduct of an entire generation. She moved into the large household that was already occupied by her husband’s parents as well as his many siblings. That old house, with its enclosed courtyard and rooms leading off the veranda, is still standing in our ancestral village of Neela. Only married couples were assigned the privacy of a separate room, primarily for use at night, since much of the day to day activity took place in the communal spaces of the courtyard and veranda. Mum says if my grandmother went inside and her husband inadvertently followed her in, she would quickly retreat lest anyone think the couple was snatching a private moment together!
So there I was in my new surroundings, trying to display the sort of modesty that I thought was socially appropriate. As a naïve 23 year old just entering my first relationship, it never even crossed my mind that my sense of decorum might be based on the antiquated rules from the 1950s, that mum had hauled to Bradford in her suitcase! I wanted someone to tell me to relax and be myself. I wished there was some sort of guidebook that explained the code of conduct a British bride should adopt as she assimilates into a new household in Pakistan. Instead I felt a sort of cultural confusion. That’s why I put myself on a rota of self-imposed early starts. Ignoring my husband’s protests, I would fling myself out of bed, get dressed as quickly as possible and present myself downstairs as soon as I heard activity in the kitchen. In my own way, I was making sure nobody could even accuse me of alluding to intimacy with my other half.
My early mornings might have been entirely voluntary but they were still a struggle because I was also enduring continuous late nights. You see, with the official ceremonies behind us, we had now embarked on a whirlwind of dinner parties, which confirmed beyond any doubt that our wedding was more about a family alliance than the union of two individuals. Ostensibly laid on to honour the bride and groom, the dinners were ultimately a chance for the two families to get to know each other. The invitations always extended to the entire family which meant cooking was abandoned in several households for many days after the wedding. With so many cousins and aunts lining up to host the happy couple and their entourage, the dinners demonstrated how influential and popular each family was, the extent of their clan, as well as the value they placed on kinship ties. And so, my husband and I found ourselves, lunch after lunch, night after night, feasting with the same bunch of people at different tables across Islamabad. The induction was ingenious if a little intense and irritating, since the entourage seemed oblivious to sabotaging our chances of spending quality time together.
Even Bollywood films couldn’t help me in this unchartered territory. My own love story had only just got going after the wedding, whereas it was courtship that tended to be the focus of most of the romantic films I’d seen. The first half was usually devoted to the declaration of love. Then the couple spent the second half ironing out the obstacles that prevented them from marrying – their fathers were arch enemies, the girl was already promised to someone else, the girl was richer than the boy, and so on. Such was the emphasis on love blossoming before marriage, that I couldn’t even recall a Bollywood film where the romance focussed on newlyweds. Recent films have dealt with themes of adultery, separation and divorce yet the notion of romance between husband and wife is rarely explored. Just like this example from Waqt (Yash Chopra, 1965), a song featuring a married couple is likely to be incidental, and generally acts as a precursor to some great calamity. The evergreen ‘Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen’ establishes the couple’s happy family life. Just after the husband publicly serenades his wife at a party, the family is torn apart by a major earthquake in this classic lost and found story.
Interestingly, romantic songs within marriage often feature older couples, even grandparents. There’s a song in the film Baghban (Ravi Chopra, 2003) where the sons, their wives and children help to celebrate a senior couple’s wedding anniversary. Since the grandparents’ roles are played by Amitabh Bachchan and the astonishingly youthful Hema Malini, I can’t help wondering if the song was little more than a ploy to relive the magic these veteran actors created some 20 years earlier in films like Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981).
The exception is ‘Payalay Chunmun Chunmun’ from Virasat (Priyadarshan, 1997) featuring Tabu, my favourite actress. Anil Kapoor (from Slumdog Millionaire) marries out of obligation, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to fall in love with his bride. The song beautifully portrays the newlyweds’ blossoming romance. Towards the end of the song, there’s a delightfully telling scene in which the husband playfully drenches his wife whilst they water their crops. When she runs inside to remove her soaking sari, he sheepishly checks for onlookers before rushing inside to join her.
My own bedtime routine was being compromised by a pressing matter. After returning from yet another dinner party close to midnight, I would wearily remove my makeup and jewellery, and set about rummaging through the various suitcases containing my clothes which now occupied our bedroom. In anticipation of my early starts, I would plan my outfit the night before. This was time well invested because as a new bride, it wasn’t just my behaviour that was under scrutiny, my appearance was too. The scrutiny had started the moment I set foot in my new home on the wedding day. I received a diamond ring from my husband, his first gift to me, as part of the ‘munh dikhai’ ceremony which literally means ‘unveiling the face’. And in the days after marriage, I was similarly ‘viewed’ in exchange for a cash gift, by family, friends and nosy neighbours. You know how it is when your house is up for sale, and the thought of potential viewings, as well as the pressure to promote your property compel you to spruce up your home to an impossibly high standard. Well, that’s just how I felt at times, although the term ‘strictly by appointment’ was often lost on the people coming to greet me.
The problem was that planning the outfits took much longer than usual. All the belongings I’d packed at my mum’s house now sat in suitcases around my new bedroom. The new outfits mum had paid for had already been displaced by an entire wardrobe courtesy of my husband’s family. This was my ‘bari’, the traditional gift of clothing and jewellery to welcome a bride into the fold. It would now be tactful to show my acceptance and appreciation by wearing these outfits. But you see, although the bari was prepared especially for me, my taste and preference had been irrelevant – apart from a request for my measurements and shoe size, I wasn’t even consulted. In fact, the bari was put together secretly, partly to amplify the impact of its presentation. But then, the whole point of the bari is to allow the donors to make a statement about their status and style.
Luckily, it was my good fortune that the wife of my husband’s older brother was in charge, because she was renowned for her fine taste and had a degree in home economics to boot. Still, putting the bari together is no mean feat. It’s a huge undertaking requiring the skills of an experienced project manager – a methodical approach, budgeting and brokering skills, sound judgment, chasing up deadlines, discretion and flair. Then there were the months of shopping trips to bazaars in the gruelling summer heat. Fabrics were selected and delivered to a trusted tailor, and there were discussions about the design of each outfit. An embroiderer was commissioned to create intricate beadwork on the neckline and hem of the kameezes. Dupattas were delivered to the dyer to ensure they matched the accompanying shalwar kameez suits perfectly. Then they were edged with gold or silver trimming to make them appropriate for ‘occasion wear’. Matching shoes, handbags and make-up also needed to be bought or preferably imported.
You’d hardly go to all that trouble if the results weren’t going to be publicly appreciated. In fact, the grand unveiling is precisely the occasion to showcase the efforts and enthusiasm with which the bride is being welcomed. And so the big reveal took place on the eve of my wedding during the mehndi celebrations. With the ceremonies conducted, the food eaten, the bride-to-be poised in her ringside seat, out came the suitcases. Every single item from those suitcases was unveiled to the gathered crowd of women. Each of the 21 outfits had been pinned together to facilitate its exhibition. My sister-in-law and her team held up each outfit with outstretched arms, conscientiously revealing the front as well as the back, then turning 180 degrees to ensure everyone in the audience could appreciate the detailed embroidery. I smirked beneath my yellow dupatta as the scene reminded me of the glamorous hostesses on the TV programme, Sale of the Century. The ladies would then turn the outfit towards the cameraman to ensure an eternal record was being kept of their triumph on video.
The most spectacular outfits were revealed first, like the lengha I would wear on the walima (the celebration to mark the consummation of the marriage). I gasped with delight when a shimmering red shalwar kameez was held up. An aunt sitting nearby instructed me to wear the white China silk outfit when it was her turn to host a dinner. The women nodded admiringly, approving the extent of embroidery on a particular kameez, or acknowledging the quality of the imported court shoes. Now a green towel was held up, forming a canvas for the skin coloured bras and knickers stitched on to it, presumably to make them easier to display. The obligatory gold jewellery was refreshingly tasteful. I spotted a bottle of Lou Lou perfume, a nightie I’d never wear, some very usable clutch bags, as well as a couple of hand knitted cardigans. The clothes were then spread out on a charpoy for closer inspection. Each outfit had been impressively packaged to allow them to be handled by curious women without being damaged.
Ideally, I’d have scheduled 48 hours to unpack and organise my wardrobe; to try on the new outfits at my leisure and identify the shoes, bags and earrings that were the best match. I could have done with some order in my surroundings to counter the confusion I was feeling already. It seemed ironic that the person I was supposed to adorn myself for was the one I wasn’t spending much time with. Rather than bonding as a new couple, our first days together seemed to focus on the social ties that our union had created.
I greeted the end of the honeymoon period with a huge sense of relief. The flurry of activity had died down with the final relatives returning to their homes in different cities, leaving just me, my husband and his father. With the return to normality, I would finally have time to catch up on sleep, sort out my wardrobe and rearrange the bedroom furniture. But there was sadness too. My husband said goodbye to me with a handshake in the driveway as his friend prepared to drive him to the airport. After two and a half weeks of married life, it was time for him to return to his job in the Middle East.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: LOST IN BRADFORD
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