Bollywood in Britain

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

Archive for the ‘British Muslims’ Category

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

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

12 Another One Bites the Dust

It’s refreshing that Pakistanis should have a hackneyed view of British life. This explains why my relatives were oblivious to our poverty stricken reality of the Canterbury estate, and imagined I had abandoned a luxurious first world existence in Bradford in 1990, for married life in Islamabad. “All the men carry walking sticks and wear bowler hats to work,” my father-in-law would assert habitually. “I saw it on TV!” Alas, this idyllic 1960s scene from Mary Poppins didn’t quite resemble our ramshackle lives in Bradford. Little did our relatives realise that mum left the house at six in the morning, and walked the four miles home from the sewing factory every evening to save on the bus fare. But then, living on home soil with no experience of being a minority, what would they know about being spat at by little old ladies with blue rinses, or being told to “fuck off back to where you come from.” Nor would they have understood the sardonic wit of our blessed neighbour, Mr Graham, who enjoyed tormenting mum with his plans to dig her grave.

Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem palatable to focus on the differences between us lowly immigrant folk and proper English people. How could we bring ourselves to admit to our relatives, that life in Britain had required us to broker our emotional wellbeing, for the sake of family economics? This is why we peddled a more alluring lifestyle, one that was almost aspirational. Besides, it felt good for once to be ranked among the British. So, if my relatives wished to set me apart as a ‘Britisher’ on the basis of something as superficial as my distinct accent, then so be it. The very notion of mum addressing our milkman with a friendly ‘love’ was already a standing joke among the extended family. Now, it was my Yorkshire lilt that commanded their attention. Why on earth did I wreak havoc on the diction epitomised by our Queen Elizabeth and indeed Julie Andrews? Why did I choose to flatten my vowels? Why did I willingly overlook all the ‘t’s in any word and leave out the ‘h’ from the beginning of ‘holiday’? They loved hearing about my school, located at the top of Little Horton Lane which, much to everyone’s amusement, sounded more like ‘Li-ulor-un-learn’ in my Yorkshire dialect. “That sounds more like French,” they would joke, since the language I spoke wasn’t the version of English they’d been taught at school.

There was an irony in this humour. I’d assumed that I would feel a sense of belonging in the embrace of my extended family, into which I had now married. I had high hopes for a new life in Islamabad, somewhere I would feel secure and self-assured as part of the mainstream, instead of meekly trying to modify my ways as a minority. Having married my uncle’s son, I was naturally very much part of the family, but I was also very much the ‘Britisher’. I was regarded as different, somehow foreign, and something of a novelty. My matter-of-fact British manner was at odds with how things were done in Pakistan. I was considered ‘bholi’, a bit simple, open to manipulation, and therefore something of a liability. I was clueless about observing the confusing rules of formality or ‘takalluf’, where one thing is said but something else is meant. So, I would embarrass everyone by checking with guests if they fancied tea BEFORE putting the kettle on, which would lead to an immediate refusal from the guests even if they were gagging for a cuppa. No! The thing to do was to make the tea WITHOUT checking, and then wait for the guests to protest that they didn’t want any, before insisting that they drink up lest they offend their hosts!

It was my mastery of the local protocol and household chores which filled the letters I sent home to Bradford. Meanwhile, letters from my sister and my mate Josie would be crammed with breathless gossip about mutual friends, as well as updates from Eastenders, Sons and Daughters and the all-important Top 40 countdown. As our correspondence continued, new characters were introduced and it became impossible to keep up with the soap storylines. My excitement about learning who was riding at the top of the charts also diminished when the letters mentioned music acts that I’d never even heard of. As our terms of reference began to change, I started to feel more and more disconnected from my old life in Bradford.

It was probably in the autumn of 1991 that my severance from British culture was most marked. My father-in-law held up the latest edition of the Gulf News supplement to check if I was interested in the cover story. I nodded eagerly as a picture of Freddie Mercury caught my eye. He was wearing a pink suit, holding a vintage microphone with a long stand, ready to rock, with the headline “Farewell Freddie”. Queen must have split up, I thought, and they’re announcing dates for a farewell tour. As I located the article, wondering wistfully if they’d include Roundhay Park among their dates, I realised the singer was dead. As I took in the shocking news, I wondered if I was the last person on earth to be hearing it.

I needed to reflect on the magnitude of the cover story, but my anguish merely bemused those around me. There was no use trying to explain what Freddie Mercury meant to my generation. It’s not that they don’t have pop stars in Pakistan, but how do you explain the Freddie Mercury phenomenon to someone that hasn’t even heard of Bohemian Rhapsody? My father-in-law mockingly offered to organise a ‘Khatam-e-Quran’, a recital of the Quran to bestow blessings upon the deceased. As my thoughts turned to Bradford, I knew mum would have understood. Life in Britain had forced her to cultivate a rudimentary knowledge of popular culture. To her credit, she was so familiar with the regular cast of Top of the Pops that suffice it to say, she’d have invited Boy George in for a curry, had he miraculously turned up at our door! It was mum that educated us about The Beatles the day John Lennon died. I’d largely ignored the talk in the school playground that day. Then, mum walked in from work and promptly announced: “We have to watch The News today because John Lennon’s died and I knew him!”

I’d left Queen singing ‘I Want it All’ a couple of years earlier on Top of the Pops in our lounge in Bradford. Now Freddie Mercury was no more and I didn’t know what had happened in between. How was it possible for someone so invincible to disappear like that? I wasn’t even a Queen fan but I still needed to understand how the drama had unfolded. I imagined Queen’s hits being played back-to-back on the radio, special news bulletins on TV, live pictures showing crowds gathered outside the singer’s home, with tributes pouring in from the world of music and beyond. Alas, it was all out of my reach. Phone calls to Bradford were exorbitant, and strictly reserved for matters of life and death, although this obviously didn’t extend to the passing of rock gods. I felt unsettled by the idea that I couldn’t discuss with any member of my household, the story that was likely to be on everyone’s lips back in Britain. With friends out of reach, there wasn’t even a stranger at the bus stop, with whom I could have a cursory chat about a favourite Queen song, to help process the shocking news.

The last time I’d felt so powerless about events in Britain was during a holiday in Islamabad as a teenager in 1985. Someone dragged me out of the kitchen to watch ‘Khabarnama’, the Pakistani equivalent of the 9 o’clock news because they were reporting a serious fire at Valley Parade football stadium. Bradford was burning and I had a two minute news bulletin to make sense of the story. There was barely time to point out the familiarity of Manningham Lane to my family. On that occasion, just as now, I could do nothing but wait for word from Bradford. Sure enough, my sister’s letter arrived a few days later. It had already been written and sealed before she learnt the news, but given the magnitude of the story, she had written in a corner on the back of the envelope: “Freddie Mercury just died. Will write more soon.”

No Bollywood song captures the sense of dislocation and ache for home that I bore during the autumn of 1991 like this one – ‘Yeh Kya Jagan Hai Doston’ (What is This Place, My Friends?) from the sublime Umrao Jaan (1981, Muzaffar Ali). Rekha plays a highly cultured courtesan who is kidnapped as a young girl from a respectable family. She tries repeatedly to escape her tainted profession, but is unable to. When she is forced to flee the brothel where she has earned many admirers, she joins a party of refugees, performing poetry en route to earn her keep. At one such performance, she finds herself back in the neighbourhood from which she was kidnapped. The courtesan senses the presence of her birth family as well as their looming rejection, thanks to her sullied reputation. Yet, Umrao Jaan’s yearning to reach ‘home’ is palpable in every faltering step.

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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

PREVIOUS: A SUITABLE HUSBAND

11 A Suitable Husband

Of all the proposals to land on our coffee table, there was one in particular which caught my eye. It was simply too good to turn down. An educated, well respected, handsome professional, settled in Pakistan. Best of all, he had no interest in making a new life for himself in Britain. And the last thing I wanted was the burden of settling a immigrant husband in Bradford, a place where I already felt dislocated. Now, with this fine matrimonial package in hand, I felt empowered once again. This was my ticket to new beginnings in Islamabad.

I might only have spent a handful of my 23 years there, but Islamabad still felt like a home away from home. My ties with my parental homeland began in 1971, when dad convinced mum to return to Pakistan with their three children, ostensibly to give us a better quality of life and greater moral values. We moved in with mum’s extended family in Rawalpindi, arriving in the midst of the war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. I was four. My earliest memories are of trenches dug out in the road, nightly blackouts, and older relatives routinely handing out cotton wool to stuff in our ears when the air raid sirens rang, to prevent the sound of explosions from piercing our eardrums.

At the head of our sprawling multi-generational household was my grandfather. He’d return from his book keeping position on a bicycle laden with groceries and biscuits for the eight grandchildren that now lived with him. The warmest of souls, he was himself the eldest of 14 children, which meant there was never a shortage of takers for the woven charpois lining the walls of the veranda, which doubled up as our playground after school. Of course, the busy household meant my agile grandmother was rarely released from the stove. Two older cousins quickly became my favourite family members. The college going daughters of mum’s deceased sister, they took charge of tying a blue ribbon in my hair every morning, in preparation for my school day. Mum’s spirited older brother was an engineer with Radio Pakistan. He’d leave for work with a blue tiffin box tucked in the metal basket of his Vespa. We’d greet his return with dismay, knowing he would shortly round up all the children, including his three sons, for extra maths tuition.

It wasn’t long before we moved to Islamabad. You see, when mum began teaching before marriage, she returned home one day with information about a novel government scheme. A new city called Islamabad was being built close to Rawalpindi. It would become the new capital, being more easily accessible than Karachi (the original capital) which was situated hundreds of miles away, on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the South. Nestled at the base of the Himalayan foothills, the site for the new capital seemed isolated and unwelcoming, so the government was keenly offering financial incentives to speed up settlement. With the unprecedented lure of an 18 month salary advance, mum’s parents encouraged her to buy a plot and persuaded their son to apply too. As fate would have it, mum and her brother were assigned adjoining plots. They even asked the architect to draw up plans for identical properties. When mum began to struggle financially after dad stopped supporting us, her brother stepped in so the building work could continue.

My grandma personally supervised the construction, setting off on foot from Rawalpindi each morning immediately after dawn prayers. She was a Hafiz-e-Quran which meant she had committed the entire holy book to memory. Ever the practical woman, she preferred to invoke prayers rather than engage in idle chatter. For months on end, as she watched over the builders, she infused the bricks and mortar with her prayers, and planted the trees which still offer shade in both gardens. The houses were rented out as soon as they were built, to help clear outstanding loans. In 1975, we finally moved in upstairs at number 9, living off the rent we earned from the ground floor. With my uncle living at number 11, we remained tightknit, with everyone relying on his Vespa as the extended family’s sole means of transport.

I befriended two diligent sisters that lived opposite. The ground floor of their house was also rented out so we’d often exchange gestures from our first floor terraces. I’ll never forget the day they brought the neighbourhood to a standstill by staging a doll’s wedding. They’d accepted a proposal on behalf of their doll from the proud owner of a boy doll, from further down the street. Invitations were issued and we all dressed up to attend the wedding ceremony. The sisters had spent weeks, painstakingly stitching clothes for their doll’s trousseau which ‘the bride’ would take to her husband’s home. They proudly laid out the extensive homemade dowry on their freshly sluiced terrace, and even my uncle’s wife went along for the obligatory inspection. Nurturing the girls’ efforts, their mum even served a wedding feast in the form of chickpea pullao and cardamom infused rice pudding. The women marvelled at the efficiency with which the initial proposal had been advanced, and how smoothly the girls had negotiated the terms of marriage. The attention and respect this event garnered from the adults reiterated, in no uncertain terms, that this was precisely the sort of amusement they endorsed. I also absorbed, at the tender age of nine, that proposals of marriage must follow certain protocol.

My own marriage in 1990 took place long before the growth of Muslim matrimonial websites. Back then, when a girl came of age, her parents would put the word out among informal marriage brokers, and then you hoped the enquiries would come flooding in. I realise it doesn’t sound very spontaneous, but that was the etiquette, and in some quarters it still is. You see, it’s indelicate for a girl’s parents to actively tout for a suitable husband. So, the onus is on the boy’s family to make appointments for viewings, and it’s the boy’s prerogative to make the initial offer of marriage.

Whilst we sat tight, waiting for viewings and offers, both mum and I continued to work on our shopping lists. I wanted a suitor who was well educated; broad minded, with an exciting career, a few stamps in his passport and first class people skills. I hoped he’d be at least moderately good looking and taller than me. There was a supplementary checklist which I’d accumulated through hearsay. I knew, for instance, that it was preferable to make a match where you could live independently, to limit day to day interference from the in-laws, but this wasn’t always possible. I knew it was important to consider the size of the new household. There might be a lot of in-laws to please which might also require extended spells in the kitchen. The mother-in-law’s disposition was also worth mulling over since her willing support could make your new life so much easier. Some of my friends had fretted that a potential suitor might not permit them to work, or he may wish to modify their dress code. As far as I was concerned though, such prerogatives were not even up for negotiation. Besides, I reasoned that these issues wouldn’t matter to the sort of well educated, broad minded suitor I had in mind.

Meanwhile, mum was set on a wholesome son-in-law with a solid family background, a good degree, a strong sense of responsibility and the sort of traditional career that would always pay the mortgage. We also had to give due consideration to the suitor’s social class. You see, our unions aren’t just marriages; they’re family mergers, so it’s vital to ensure that a lasting bond is truly sustainable. We couldn’t possibly marry beneath us. Nor did we want the pressure of keeping up appearances by securing a match with people way above our station. Mum has several cousins in her ancestral village who never married, because their families were unable to identify men of a suitable social class for them. In a couple of cases, I know that property was also an issue. Promising their daughters outside existing kinship networks, would have resulted in the unwelcome division of the family’s property. You see, the daughter takes a share of her father’s property to her new family. Little wonder then that marriage within the extended family is still so popular.

The Indian films I grew up with often reinforced the tribulations of finding an ideal suitor. Yet, there were occasions where people became love-struck before even exchanging a single word. “But how could they know whether or not they have a deeper connection?” I would wonder. Ever the realist, I worried that they hadn’t discussed expectations or joint bank accounts. Indeed, the lovebirds faced many hurdles after it was too late for them to evaluate their differences objectively. With our respective lists, mum and I were simply trying to iron out these obstacles in advance. This exquisite A R Rehman song from Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) eloquently captures the initial exchange between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. In amongst the wedding crowd, a single glimpse of the beautiful girl leaves the protagonist mesmerised. He follows her furtively in the crowd. The girl, the epitome of innocence of course, initially hesitates to return his gaze. She becomes uneasy, tormented by her inability to reject his attention in the largely segregated assembly, and before long her eyes begin to seek his.

Even in Bradford, weddings are regarded as the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters. So it’s not surprising that the men in films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 1999) so willing chaperoned their sisters to weddings, particularly since the caring sister was only too happy to intervene on behalf of her distracted brother. As Aishwarya Rai performs ‘Nimbooda’ (which means lemon or sourness, hence the prop in her hand!) with her dance troupe, she’s oblivious to the decent gent in the crowd who has already selected her to be his bride. What makes this a little more plausible, at least to me, is that Aishwarya’s jovial performance showcases her exuberance, and I like to think it is this which makes her so irresistible to Ajay Devgan.

I, on the other hand, was very level-headed about choosing a suitable husband. There was no hesitation when the option of marrying my uncle’s youngest son was put to me, despite the irony that I knew my uncle better than I knew his son, whom I’d seen fleetingly five years earlier at a family wedding in Islamabad. Naturally, his profile came with a good character reference, but I knew little about his daily routine, and nothing about the workings of his mind and heart. I knew him from afar, in the same way I knew my neighbour, with nothing more between us than the occasional inconsequential exchange. The solitary spark of romance in this merger was the nostalgia of a childhood in Pakistan, although that seemed a lifetime away now, and my grandparents, the glue that bonded us all, were long gone.

Rationally though, the arrangement went well beyond the usual union of two individuals, making me something greater than just one half of a couple. Our families shared the same history and I felt relief in such a sense of belonging. I knew that marrying within the family would grant me more security than marrying an outsider ever would. We could also dispense with the usual protracted enquiries since we already knew these people were of good stock. You see, it’s not unheard of for men to have to produce certificates as proof of their qualifications, and wage slips to confirm they really earn what they say they do.

It was reassuring to be stepping into a familiar arrangement. I would effectively be moving next door, from house number 9 to 11. I liked to think I’d be favoured over the other daughter-in-laws since, unlike them, I already belonged to the family. I could be the daughter my uncle never had, and I would gain a much needed father figure. My uncle was now a widower and there were no interfering sister-in-laws living with him. As the only woman of the household, I would automatically assume a rank which most daughter-in-laws wait a lifetime to ascend. And so I accepted their offer, confident that I was the best candidate for the position.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST

PREVIOUS: LOST IN BRADFORD

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

PREVIOUS: THE WEDDING NIGHT

8 The Wedding Night

What troubled me most about my wedding night was the lack of privacy. Obviously we had our own bedroom at my in-laws’, but I wasn’t keen on spending my wedding night in a house swarming with guests. To anyone unfamiliar with Pakistani culture, this may seem a tad inconsiderate, perverse even, so allow me to explain. You see, where I come from, families are huge, the bonds are strong, and lineage is a source of strength and pride. Take my mum, for instance. Her father alone was the eldest of 14 siblings. Even though most of mum’s immediate aunts and uncles have now passed away, the younger generations of the different branches remain close. I can reel off the names of my grandfather’s 14 siblings as naturally as the alphabet, and I can do it according to their birth order. At a push, I could probably also name their spouses and offspring. Needless to say, several generations of each branch were represented at my wedding. Of course my mum also gave due consideration to her mother’s side of the family. It won’t surprise you to learn that even the daughter-in-law of my maternal grandmother’s deceased step brother got an invitation.

You can state ‘Mr and Mrs only’ as loudly as you like on the invitation; it’s still best to assume the entire family will decamp for the celebrations, especially those travelling from further afield. Most come for the three day feast involving the mehndi (the henna party prior to the wedding), the wedding day, and the walima (the groom’s celebration of the consummation of the marriage). We don’t compile guest lists according to individuals. I’ve watched as relatives name the head of a household and then add up all the people in his family unit. And sending out a list of hotels in different price ranges close to the wedding venue would be inconceivable. You see, if our guests can make the effort to attend the wedding, then it’s their prerogative to be accommodated, with three decent meals per day, as well as transportation to the various venues, all at the host’s expense naturally. I’ve known aunts and uncles to rent out houses for a matter of days especially to accommodate wedding guests.

Now I hope you won’t think me selfish for saying so, but here’s the thing; as much as I love a houseful of people, it can all seem a little chaotic when you have to line up for the loo on your wedding day. I might have been the bride-to-be, but for several days I’d been sleeping on a quilt on the living room floor because so many people were sleeping at our house in Islamabad. It was a relief to be able to escape to the beauty parlour to be professionally plucked, preened and polished to Pakistani bridal standards. It was an even greater relief when I later learned that the groom had the good sense to book us into a hotel for a couple of nights – for all I knew, our bedroom was probably already in use!

It took much longer than expected to reach the hotel bridal suite. It was around 10pm and I’d been sitting demurely and with some patience for several hours now; first on the stage in the specially erected marquee on my mum’s lawn where the wedding ceremony was held, and now on the sofa in the lounge in my matrimonial home. I felt wiped out, disorientated and emotionally drained. Meanwhile, it seemed my husband had mysteriously disappeared to run an errand with some friends, so my new in-laws were left to make small talk and to keep me company. Given the occasion, my initial amusement about the delay soon turned to unease as I pondered the possible reasons for the groom’s apparent lack of urgency.

It turned out his friends had taken him out for a drive with an ulterior motive. As is customary at Pakistani weddings, they planned to fleece the groom. You see, the groom spends much of the wedding day collecting envelopes stuffed with cash from wedding guests, in line with the tenet that boxed gifts are useless and cash is always king. So, with a cash reward as an incentive, it’s little wonder that young relatives are keen to goad the groom. The bride’s sisters or cousins start the proceedings. It’s customary for them to find a way to remove one of the groom’s shoes and demand a decent pay-out for its return. The ‘joota chupai’ (hiding the shoe) tradition apparently stems from an old Hindu belief that by touching the groom’s feet, the bride’s sister can help the happy couple to ward off bad luck. Of course the bride’s sisters have an unfair advantage. They know all too well that the groom will be on his best behaviour. He’ll obviously want to impress his new family with his sense of humour, warmth and bigheartedness; no man wants to be labelled a miser by his in-laws, not least on his wedding day!

The groom’s own friends, siblings and cousins reserve their teasing until he returns home with his bride. On my cousin’s wedding night, I was one of a gang of 25 relatives who mischievously blocked the door to his bedroom where the bride was already waiting, and we demanded payment. The groom wanted to be left in peace with his bride while we wanted cash for a midnight feast at one of Lahore’s smartest restaurants. Needless to say, the groom quickly relented. On another occasion, my cousins sought revenge after realising that a young uncle had pre-empted their plans by taking refuge with his bride at Lahore’s Pearl Continental Hotel. While the newlyweds relaxed in their room, my wicked cousins made themselves at home in the hotel’s swanky restaurant. There, with the help of some willing friends, they ran up a considerable bill over the course of a couple of hours. Naturally, they had no intention of paying. After countless interruptions from reception about the outstanding bill, the unfortunate groom finally emerged from his hotel room in a rage and in little more than his shorts and vest.

My husband’s friends too seized the opportunity to play their own prank. Like my cousins, they knew the optimum time to test the groom’s patience is when he is finally sanctioned religiously and socially to be alone with his bride. It turned out my husband’s enterprising friends had driven him into the secluded Margalla Hills where they threatened to abandon him unless he paid up!

Many old Indian films I’ve watched from the 50s, 60s and 70s have depicted the moment the bejewelled bride sits alone on a bed strewn with rose petals, bosom heaving and lips quivering with anticipation, in an elaborately decorated room. The dashing groom makes a polite entrance and takes his first real look at his bride. While he gazes at her poetically and presumably with some relief (that she hasn’t turned out to be a dog), the bride is too bashful to meet his gaze. After a brief and harmless caress, the lights go out!

I think the most daring portrayal of the ‘suhaag raat’ (maiden night) in Indian cinema terms is probably in the following iconic song from an equally iconic movie, Kabhi Kabhie (Yash Chopra, 1976). To appreciate the scene and for the sake of continuity, you need to know that the bride broke off her relationship with a well-known poet after her parents decided to marry her elsewhere. Ironically, her ex-lover is also her husband’s favourite poet. As he admires his beautiful bride, he asks her to recite a favourite song by the poet to commemorate their wedding night. This explains the bride’s wistful tears and the brief entrance by Amitabh Bachchan (the poet), although rest assured he appears purely in her imagination!

I was nine years old when Kabhi Kabhie was released and I remember watching it on television in Pakistan. As I sat through this bold scene countless times, I was still too young to understand the symbolism it contained. Little did I know then that the bride’s long, dark, silken tresses, now unravelled, alluded to her state of undress. Her hair also cleverly obstructed my view, in line with the unspoken ‘no kissing’ rule that existed in the classic Bollywood films of yesteryear that I grew up watching. This immortal scene beautifully depicts the couple’s growing intimacy through the groom’s removal of the bride’s jewellery, one piece at a time – the pearl and gold ‘tikka’ hanging over her forehead, necklace, earrings, and finally the nose ring. The song ends as the groom removes his bride’s nose ring, a crude reference to her loss of virginity. The term ‘nath utarna’ (removal of the nose ring) traditionally signified a dancing girl’s initiation into the sex trade, and is still sometimes used today.

A similar theme is portrayed in a song from the classic film Gunga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961). When Vyjayanthimala wakes up beside her husband for the first time, she ventures outside and coquettishly sings about her lost jhumka earring, while the other one remains intact. When her husband comes to find her, the missing earring stuck to the back of his shirt alludes to their intimate night.

I spent the morning after my wedding fending off distant female relatives who seemed particularly interested in my wellbeing: “You look tired dear. Didn’t he let you get much rest last night?” The women giggled knowingly, expecting me to blush like a new bride should, implying just like those Bollywood song sequences did, that what we’d set out to achieve on our maiden night had been duly accomplished. It was a couple of days later that I received a more perceptive enquiry, one that for the first time seemed to imply that there might be more to marriage than making it through the maiden night. A distant uncle asked me, “Understanding ho gayee? Click ho gaya?” What he meant was this: “Have you worked things out? Have you clicked?”

I’d often heard Pakistani women in Bradford mocking youngsters like me about our illusory aspirations to settle down with someone with whom we ‘clicked’. When friends wanted to dismiss an unsuitable match during heated discussions with parents, that’s what they’d say: “We just didn’t click!” meaning there was no spark.

“What is this click business?”  The parents would moan as they ridiculed our unreasonable standards. Wasn’t it enough to be found a ‘sharif’ (decent) man who didn’t drink or gamble, who had a stable job and a strong family background?

I sensed this uncle wasn’t interested in my reply. I must have smiled and nodded shyly to his satisfaction, but here’s what I was really thinking: “Worked things out? Understood each other? Isn’t that rather a lot to accomplish in 48 hours?”

We had only just broken the ice. Where exactly do you begin when your terms of reference are totally different and you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of catching up to do? Besides, I was still waiting for the click.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: OBLIGATION AND INTIMACY

PREVIOUS: THE WEDDING DAY

7 The Wedding Day

My wedding day was probably the closest that my life has ever got to resembling an Indian film. The year was 1990. At 23, I was at a good marriageable age. A bit like a graduate trainee who has all the potential to excel with the right sort of guidance, I was still pliable enough for my in-laws to mould me to their requirements. It’s not a decision I took lightly. Throughout my teens, I was conscious of two conflicting paths laid out before me, and I would have to choose one or the other. There could be no in-between. Could I see myself waltzing down the aisle in a big white marshmallow dress? For this option to ring true, I realised I would need to date an English fellow, and this could surely only happen by defecting. I could see myself marrying an English gent if only in my fantasy world. Let’s gloss over the backlash that might have ensued. I imagined having an English husband would make me seem alternative. He would be the ultimate accessory. Such a marriage would speak volumes about my degree of integration. I would leap several social classes overnight, and people would marvel at my confidence to be able to maintain my culture whilst also taking on someone else’s. That’s what I thought.

The reality was quite different. On a practical level, I could never see myself being with someone who didn’t speak my mother tongue, even though I mostly spoke in English. I couldn’t imagine having to explain the machinations of every Indian movie we watched together. There were plenty of minor headaches too that my dream somehow glossed over – the minefield of behavioural do’s and don’ts when sitting with the family. We might even have overcome the whole alcohol, pork and halal hurdle if my Mr Darcy miraculously turned out to be teetotal and vegetarian. But, the reality was that in the absence of anyone sweeping me off my feet, English or otherwise, my options were limited. I didn’t want the headache and the hassle of all that cultural intervention anyway – telling my husband to hide his beer cans in case my family turned up unannounced, and making him use a dedicated frying pan and separate washing up sponge for his un-Islamic bacon breakfasts.

I knew I had to marry someone. There’s no such thing as being single in my culture. In fact, marriage is so critical that we refer to the state of being single as being unmarried. And so, I was really happy to take the traditional route, even though it wasn’t so much a “yes please!” as a “well, why not then.”

And love? Well, despite my 23 years I was inexperienced, just as I was expected to be, in matters of romance. Therefore my decision was quite pragmatic really. I realised it wasn’t an affair of the heart or even a meeting of minds, but I hoped it might be once we got to know each other. I did have a serious talk with my mum about it. “You know I don’t love him,” I started tentatively a few months before the wedding. “Of course you don’t,” she reassured me. “You see, English people do things the other way round. They marry the person they love, but we grow to love the person we marry.”

So that’s how I found myself on that September evening, wearing an exquisitely embroidered gharara (bridal outfit), sitting on a purpose built stage inside the marquee erected on our front lawn in Islamabad. My neck was stooped forward with the weight of the chunky gold necklaces around it and my eyes were demurely downcast, with dozens of aunts, cousins and neighbours clucking around me. Mum had done well to stretch that savings plan she’d taken out with the Prudential when I was in my early teens. She must have felt like she was throwing money into a bottomless pit: yard upon yard of fabric from Bombay Stores; jewellery from the goldsmith working out of his lounge just off Horton Grange Road; extravagant gifts for the groom and in-laws; our flights from Bradford to Islamabad; household items and new furniture for the bedroom I would share with my husband at his parental home; bedding for my new bedroom; catering for hundreds of guests; the fairy lights that adorned our house; as well as the stage that I was now shyly sitting on.

I was merely emulating the blushing brides I’d conscientiously observed at the countless weddings I’d attended over the years in Bradford. We didn’t really know the sorts of people that held receptions in the Holiday Inns and the Hiltons. The people we knew hosted weddings at the Pakistani Community Centre off Lumb Lane, or the Manningham Sports Centre, although I’d been lucky enough to attend a number of upmarket affairs at Rio’s nightclub near the university. I think the best time to go to weddings is in your innocence, when you care enough to notice every detail of the bride’s outfit and demeanour. That’s what us Asian girls did. How unhurriedly did the bride walk? How large did the earrings have to be before they looked tawdry? How big was the clutch bag she carried? How dark was the stain of the mehndi? I also lapped up elaborate wedding scenes in the Indian films I watched. The best films were the ones where the wedding was central to the storyline because that’s when you were treated to several song sequences, each dedicated to a different element of the wedding. There might be a mehndi song to mark the eve of the wedding, where the bride and her friends decorate their hands and feet with elaborate henna patterns, and where one of the bride’s friends might perform a celebratory dance before the gathered crowd.

Then there was the baraat song, another opportunity for a jovial dance sequence, where the groom’s wedding party arrive at the bride’s house (or wedding venue) to take her away. This song from Kaala Pathar (Chopra, 1979) was featured on my own wedding video, when my groom’s procession arrived at our house by car. Although I was already dressed in my finery, I concealed myself with a huge chaddar so I could stand on the balcony to watch their arrival. I was quickly ushered back inside but later watched the video with pride as my family formally welcomed the groom’s party with garlands of marigolds and roses, and scores of young cousins lined up to shower them with rose petals. After the religious formalities were conducted and food had been served, I was finally brought out to take my place beside the groom on the stage. My face was as expressionless as the bride’s in the following song. It wasn’t misery, I assure you. Think of it as a sort of cultural coyness.

Thankfully, brides I’ve seen at real weddings lately as well as in Indian films don’t look like that anymore. But when I got married back in 1990, that look was part of the behaviour expected of the bride, at least among the Pakistani branch of my family. Even though I knew the guests were judging me purely on ornamentation rather than personality or my computer literacy skills, I adored being the centre of attention sitting up on that stage with all eyes on me, my dress and my jewellery. Senior female relatives expressly reminded me not to smile or speak too much, not even for the official photographs. And speaking to the groom was out of the question. I wasn’t even supposed to acknowledge him. It was unbecoming. People would think the bride was shameless, openly looking forward to her wedding night rather than silently squirming with apprehension!

In fact, I was much more excited about unpacking my magnificent trousseau which mum and I had spent a number of years assembling. The furniture I’d chosen for my new bedroom had already been sent on, awaiting my arrival. Mum and I hadn’t seen the bedroom and we didn’t know the room’s proportions, but that’s just how it was then. Little did it matter whether the goods would fit or match the rest of the house, or indeed if they were required at all. My mum had to be seen to have done her duty by providing her daughter with everything she would need to commence her new life. And I wasn’t complaining. I was rather looking forward to arranging my newly purchased lipsticks and nail varnishes on my shiny new dressing table. I’d also finally get to use the various pots, pans and pressure cookers we’d bought, the set of dishes and my new red whistling kettle from Marks & Spencer. I had enough newly stitched shalwar kameez outfits, most of them with matching shoes and handbags, to be able to wear a new one every single day for at least six weeks. In hindsight, shopping for matching bags and shoes was probably a constructive distraction and offered the thrill that was alas absent elsewhere. At the time though, I felt like a very lucky girl, with a wonderful incentive to get married.

Call me materialistic but let me assure you that all this shopping was entirely necessary. In fact it was actively encouraged. My mum was much happier for me to spend my secretarial earnings on yet another evening clutch from BHS than fritter it away on vinyl at the HMV shop round the corner. You see, people of my mum’s generation expected to see a physical transformation in my appearance after marriage. I was taught that women should only adorn themselves after they have a husband to appreciate their efforts. As was tradition, I gave away my old outfits, shoes and Top Shop bangle collection to my friends because these items represented my old life. I’d be delving into my new wardrobe every day to wear embroidered outfits and high heeled shoes befitting a new bride. There’s a famous story about the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya. They married in real life midway through the filming of Abhimaan (Mukherjee, 1973) in which their characters also became man and wife. Audiences flocked to the cinemas because they wanted to see Jaya transformed from a simply dressed young woman to a dazzling bride. To add to the hype, her married character in Abhimaan was much talked about for her stylish silk saris, radiant make-up and jhumka earrings.

The rukhsati scene, the bride’s ceremonial send-off, marks the most poignant part of the wedding ceremony in any Bollywood film. Featuring a sombre song with tender lyrics, it’s a time of high emotion for the bride’s family as they bid their tearful farewells. It’s also in the rukhsati scene that the spotlight shines firmly on the bride. This is where she stops behaving like a mannequin and becomes animated with emotion. I loved these touching scenes and I would spend ages rewinding the video so I could study the bride closely. How many tears? How prolonged was her pain? Did she still look graceful? I remember being particularly awestruck by a bride at a wedding I attended in Islamabad. When the time came for her rukhsati, she dramatically fainted. As an impressionable young teenager, I looked forward to the day when I might have such a remarkable rukhsati of my own.

And so, the moment came for me to leave the stage. In that short walk through the marquee erected on our lawn out into the street to the waiting car, I bade farewell not only to my family but also to my life in Bradford. With each step, I moved closer towards the unfamiliarity of new people and a new home in Islamabad. My sister and cousin led me slowly and ceremoniously. While the groom’s party trailed behind us, my family solemnly lined up on either side. The celebrations for the groom’s family were just about to begin since they were gaining a family member. My family were losing one. Every few steps, a much-loved aunt, uncle or cousin would step forward to kiss me tenderly on my forehead – everyone but my mum who intentionally kept her distance. An embrace from her at this hour would have made my departure more difficult. In one of the loneliest moments of my life, those were some of the heaviest steps I have ever taken. I didn’t know my new family all that well, nor did I know the groom well enough to seize his hand for comfort. Besides, can you imagine the scorn from the assembled crowd! As we reached the send-off car, with the groom waiting pathetically at one side, my sister and I, both of us by now inconsolable, held on to one another so tightly and for so long that someone eventually had to wrench us apart.

It wasn’t until my own rukhsati that the significance of those tears really dawned on me. I realised then that the merriment of the wedding was over and the drudgery of marriage was about to begin. I cried for my mum and I cried for myself. I realised my mum had been preparing me for this day for a long, long time. As I began my new life with the in-laws, I’d be her little representative, clinging on to her values to help me to assimilate. I cried for the weight of expectation on my shoulders but I hoped I wouldn’t let her down. I cried for what I was leaving behind and I cried for what I hoped I’d find ahead. I cried like the bewitching Waheeda Rehman did in Neel Kamal (Maheshwari, 1968), as her distraught father bids her farewell with these heartfelt lines:

Take my prayers with you as you leave
May you find happiness in your new life
May you find so much love with your in-laws
That you never think about those you leave behind


THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE WEDDING NIGHT

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY

6 Yorkshire Bollywood and Me (History)

Above the flickering gas fire on the mantelpiece, a precious jar labelled 1964 took pride of place. My parents had carefully filled it to the brim with religious values and cultural traditions before leaving Pakistan to start a new life in Keighley. Although the label had faded and the contents had curdled by the 1980s, my well-meaning parents continued to regard it as a current record of morality in their motherland. In reality, that jar offered nothing more than a moment in time, a moment from 1964, three years before I was even born. I imagine every Pakistani family had a jar like that – the saving grace of every working class immigrant parent; a device to inculcate roots and scruples, and to guard their susceptible Bradford born offspring from the intoxicating fumes of unsuitable British values which lurked beyond the threshold.

Thanks to jars like that, women like me grew up with values that were so out-dated that they didn’t even have much currency back in Pakistan’s cosmopolitan centres. Cousins imagined my British upbringing would have made me much more “westernised” than they were. I was such a disappointment to them. They mocked my Urdu because I used words they considered obsolete and which only our elderly great aunts uttered. They expected me to wear skirts but having grown up with the mantra, “We don’t show our legs”, I’d apologetically pull out a suitcase full of old fashioned shalwar kameez and mismatched dupattas. Their tales of dalliances and sneaking off to parties scandalised me. My cousins couldn’t comprehend why I hadn’t taken advantage of all the freedoms that life in Britain apparently afforded a young woman like me! In fact, it was because I treasured my hard-earned freedom so much, as well as my mother’s trust which granted me those scraps of independence in the first place, that I didn’t see sense in gambling it over a trivial liaison.

My relatives in Pakistan love a good Indian movie. You’ll know from my previous blogs (Yorkshire Bollywood and KEIGHLEY and also Yorkshire Bollywood and GEOGRAPHY) that Britain is a prominent screen location in Bollywood films. In fact, British locations as well as Brit Asian characters (NRIs they call them, non-resident Indians) have become so popular in recent years, that many Bollywood fans in India (and Pakistan for that matter) form their impression of Britain from what they see in Indian films. When VisitBritain became aware of this phenomenon, it even produced a Bollywood Movie Map to encourage film fans to visit the British locations shown in their favourite films. I’m afraid places like Southall and Bradford barely got a look in – they’re usually the preserve of proper British Asian films like Bend it Like Beckham and East is East. Southall and Bradford are probably a bit too real and rustic for Bollywood which tends to favour locations that look a little more desirable on screen.

It’s safe to say that some of the NRIs (non-resident Indians) really do inhabit a different world on screen to the one we recognise. There again, my relatives in Pakistan don’t seem to appreciate that, in many ways, Bradford’s Pakistani community also inhabits a world of its own! And here’s the problem. Some of my relatives think that watching a Bollywood saga is all the evidence they need to stoke their misguided belief that we’re all doing really well here in Bradford. But believe me, there was no consoling my neighbour’s sister-in-law when she came to Britain and realised she’d have to live in a terrace with a kitchen in the dank cellar, bedroom in the draughty attic, mouldy shower curtains and a concrete garden just big enough for a washing line, and even that floated above her husband’s beloved Toyota which was parked there.

Director Karan Johar depicts the lifestyle of the super rich who live in mansions on screen (which are often stately homes in reality), usually set in a classy London suburb. Take Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham (Johar, 2001) for instance, which offers completely over the top, unadulterated glamour. In the song that follows, the young couple meet at King’s College, although Blenheim Palace and its lavish grounds were used as a stand in. The rugby and cheerleading scenes were shot at the Millennium Stadium in Wales. The couple flirt beside several tourist spots, including the British Museum’s Great Court. They have access to designer gear, the shortest skirts and the fastest cars. This wasn’t my experience of university life! Since most of the protagonists in Indian films are Hindus or Sikhs, I’m not expecting to see an example of the Pakistani fashions exhibited on White Abbey Road, but my issue is this. Whilst I’m trying to keep pace with my cousins in Islamabad, Karan Johar’s depiction of Brit Asian excess not only distorts my reality but further fuels their expectations of my lifestyle!

Britain has now become one of the main overseas markets for Bollywood, with many Indian films simultaneously released in India and Britain. Indian films now feature regularly among the UK top twenty releases. When Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham (also abbreviated as K3G) was released in 2001, it entered the UK box office chart at number 3, only a couple of places below Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. K3G was also a forerunner for setting part of the storyline in Britain. The portrayal may have been exaggerated, but the storyline appealed to the huge number of South Asians living in America, Canada, Middle East, and of course Britain. This is an important market; the higher ticket prices paid by Bollywood audiences overseas can bring in over half of a film’s total earnings. Within 15 days, K3G recovered half the $10 million production cost. It makes sense then for Britain and Bollywood to strengthen their ties, which is precisely what Yorkshire had in mind when it successfully bid to host the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFAs) in 2007.

The prestigious awards, also nicknamed the Bollywood Oscars, build on Bollywood’s global reach by taking the ceremony to a different international location each year. The ceremony is watched by 400 million people in around 100 countries. It’s a way of promoting Bollywood beyond India, and thanking international fans for their support by taking the show, complete with A list Bollywood stars, to them. Bradfordian Zulfi Karim was behind the idea to bring the 2007 IIFAs to Yorkshire. As a destination marketing specialist, he attracts large scale events to the region. During a trip to Amsterdam in 2005, friends dragged him along to the IIFA Awards at the Ajax Stadium. Despite only a limited interest in Bollywood, he was mesmerised by the world-class event and returned to Bradford thinking of a way to bring the IIFAs to Yorkshire.

I’ve explained in previous blogs (Yorkshire Bollywood and KEIGHLEY and also Yorkshire Bollywood and GEOGRAPHY) that Yorkshire is one of Britain’s most sought-after filming destinations, although still relatively unknown to Indian film directors. This was the perfect opportunity to woo them with Yorkshire’s stunning abbeys, great houses, castles, gardens and legendary landscape, which could offer an impressive backdrop to song and dance sequences. But how could Zulfi Karim and his team shine the spotlight on Yorkshire? How would they pitch a county in the north of England against cities with international repute such as New York, Marrakesh, Barcelona and Sydney? I should explain that just like the majority of tourism from India, filming for Bollywood tends to be concentrated in London and the South. Clearly it was time for Yorkshire to overcome this prejudice and showcase its unique identity. The following song from Salam-e-Ishq (Advani, 2007) illustrates all too well the way films often focus on the grandeur of distinct British architecture (Oxford University in this case) as well as the capital’s landmark tourist spots (Trafalgar Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge). In fact, it’s often the case in India and Pakistan that the words ‘London’ and ‘Britain’ are used interchangeably!

In the end, it was the “quirky” nature of Yorkshire’s proposal which swayed the IIFA officials. When they arrived for a recce, the Yorkshire team exploited Bollywood’s current love affair with Britain by showcasing Yorkshire’s distinctive heritage and presenting a quintessentially British experience. There were trips to the North Yorkshire Moors, Bolton Abbey, visits to great houses such as Harewood and Chatsworth, as well as breakfast laid on by the Duke of Devonshire.

The bid team had to demonstrate that they had infrastructure in place to cope with an event of this scale. The IIFAs typically take place over a long weekend, incorporating a film premiere, workshops, a business forum, a charity sports match, as well as the green carpet awards ceremony. Along come 2,000 of Indian cinema’s glitterati expecting direct flights from India (preferably British Airways!), chauffeur driven limousines, fine Indian cuisine, 5 star hotels, media entourage, and security and so on. The sheer scale of the event and the logistics meant that one Yorkshire city alone couldn’t cope. The only arena large enough to accommodate an awards ceremony was in Sheffield, while Leeds had the region’s smartest hotels. Also keen to be involved was the Bradford based National Media Museum which has regularly attracted Indian stars to its film festivals over the years. So, it would take the combined infrastructure of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, York and Hull to sell Yorkshire to the IIFA bosses in India.

Yorkshire’s bid also drew on Bradford’s long standing relationship with Bollywood. Remember that famous scene in East is East where George Khan’s family drove from Salford to Bradford just to watch an Indian film at the cinema? Well, they weren’t alone. During the 1950s and 60s, migrant mill and foundry workers from as far away as Newcastle and Sheffield came to Bradford to catch an Indian film on their day off. Bradford was in the enviable position of having several exclusively Indian cinemas after Asian entrepreneurs bought up cinemas destined for closure. It wasn’t uncommon to catch a film at noon at the Western Talkie Theatre in Little Horton, perhaps moving onto the Kashmir Cinema in Wakefield Road for the 3pm show. Visitors had to make the most of their long trip! There was no professional circuit of distributors then. Cinema owners contacted Indian businessmen in London or Birmingham who had connections with film companies in India so they could get a print. Many of Bollywood’s legendary actors, such as Dilip Kumar, Dharmendre, Sunil Dutt and Vijayanthimala came when their film was screened for the first time in Britain, which was often in Bradford. I suppose you could call it a film “premiere” although it wasn’t exactly a red carpet set up; it was billed as a “personal appearance”. The distributor would call the star up on stage to say a few words at the start of the film, and then they signed a few autographs.

Many folk can’t grasp why Bollywood films are as popular among Pakistanis as they are among Indians. Perhaps they forget that India and Pakistan were one country until independence in 1947, so they share the same rich history. Sadly though, the popular British imagination holds contrasting and often mistaken impressions of India and Pakistan. India, perhaps because it retained the original name, is lauded as the repository of all things historical, mystical and cultural. Pakistan meanwhile is berated as nothing more than the land of fundamentalists. In fact, as Empress of India, Queen Victoria also ruled what is now Pakistan. On her way to college each day, my mum walked past a statue of Queen Victoria, standing high on a plinth located at one of Rawalpindi’s most prominent junctions, looking down majestically upon her subjects. Ironically, Rawalpindi got its statue of Queen Victoria four years ahead of a similar statue being erected in Bradford city centre!

Those statues are all that remains of imperial power now, along with a sense of nostalgia, and a heritage shared between Britain and India. Possibly one of the greatest British bequests to India was the game of cricket. And what better way to woo a world-class cricketing nation to Yorkshire (for that award ceremony, remember!) than the promise of a charity sporting fixture at Headingley, the home of Yorkshire cricket. And who better to endorse Yorkshire as potential hosts of the Bollywood Oscars than “Sir” Geoffrey Boycott and Sachin Tendulkar, one of India’s finest batsmen. You don’t need me to tell you how passionate Indians (and Pakistanis!) are about cricket. Actor/producer Aamir Khan even made an entire film with the beautiful game at its centre – the match itself took up almost half of the near four hour film! Set in British India in 1893, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time (Gowariker, 2001) takes its name from an agricultural tax levied by the British. A drought ridden village tries to rid itself of the oppressive tax after being challenged by the British masters to a game of cricket. But the village must first unite and learn to play the game, as this song clip shows. Several British actors starred in the film, even delivering dialogues in Hindi. Lagaan went on to earn a best foreign film Oscar nomination in 2002, only the second Indian film ever to do so.


THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE WEDDING DAY

PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND GEOGRAPHY

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