Bollywood in Britain

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

Archive for the ‘Hindi Cinema’ Category

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

14 Sisterhood and Solidarity

My motive for finding work in Islamabad was actually quite noble. When the Gulf War broke out in early 1991, I’d overhear senior, sager relatives empathising with my husband’s plight of working in the increasingly volatile Middle Eastern region. “What can he do? He has a wife to think about now,” they’d fuss. The ‘allowance’ he despatched every month already made me feel awkward. Now, I resented being talked about like a piece of luggage. Mum had raised us singlehandedly so I wasn’t used to taking money from a man, not even my father. I was happy to play the supportive wife, but I also took pride in being an equal in the partnership. So, I mused, he needn’t stay in the Middle East on my account. I would find a job to support us both so my husband could swiftly come home.

Naturally, being the dutiful daughter-in-law, it was expected that I should pursue my father-in-law’s permission in the first instance. Predictably, he decreed that it was up to the men to provide for me. Besides, I was more useful at home and people would accuse me of neglecting my duties. My father-in-law was also my uncle (mum’s older brother), although he was really more like a father to me. So I had the benefit of reasoning with him in a way that would deem any other daughter-in-law rather insolent. Yes, it irked me that something as slight as a change in his daily routine was reason enough for his reluctance. But you see, that’s just the way our men were raised. I remember how grandma doted on my uncle when I was a little girl and he was a married man and father of three. The moment he returned home from work, the women stood to attention. Even as a child, I sensed from the silence his presence commanded that he was a high-ranking member of our sprawling household. And that’s just how it was – the breadwinner’s every whim was met because it was his labour that brought food to our table.

Growing up in Bradford, it struck me that this wasn’t strictly true. As the sole parent to three young children in our council house, it was mum that had her work cut out with lengthy shifts during the week. Yet, when she escorted my sister and I into town on Saturday afternoons, her clockwatching would leave me feeling exasperated. You see, mum’s sole preoccupation was to reach home to make lunch for her only son, unaware that our return merely disrupted his devotional analysis of the afternoon’s sporting fixtures. “I’m not having my son going hungry while three women gallivant around the shops!” she’d protest. It was as if a man couldn’t be left home alone, just in case he needed something to eat. Why couldn’t the men be trained to help themselves, I’d wonder, just like the women were expected to do? Nor did I understand why our mothers continued to nurture this unconstructive cycle, especially when the ones to bear the brunt of it would be their very own daughters.

As fate would have it, it was my turn now to preserve the redundant tradition. I already resented my role in the kitchen. Yet, in a bid to sway my unenthusiastic father-in-law, I swore that my chores wouldn’t suffer if he permitted me to take a job. He caved in, begrudgingly, and probably because he conceded that my target was unachievable. I didn’t know the first thing about employment options in Islamabad, and in a pre-internet age, I didn’t even know when and where vacancies were advertised. Since my cultural references were entirely British, I knew nothing about local protocols in the workplace. And even if I surmounted these stumbling blocks, how on earth would I get myself to an interview when I wasn’t even used to venturing out alone to buy bread!

The Islamabad I knew back in the early 1990s was a dynamic draw for diplomats rather than the depressing disciplinarians of today. The purpose built capital was a bit like Milton Keynes, laid out on a grid system some sixty years ago and organised into different sectors. While the junior city ascended arrogantly like a privileged cousin, neighbouring Rawalpindi preferred to parade its pre-partition architecture and timeworn meandering bazaars. Rawalpindi was happy to host the racket of rickshaws that were forbidden from fouling Islamabad’s tree lined boulevards. Although Islamabad exuded composure, the people of Lahore mockingly dubbed it the dead city, for its tendency to swallow a sedative after dark just as Lahore was coming to life. If Islamabad was easy to navigate geographically, the lack of decent public transport made it difficult to physically get around. You walked or hailed a taxi from the main road. The problem for me was that a young woman running errands alone was considered vulnerable and therefore frowned upon. It was better to be accompanied by someone – husband, sister, mother, brother, a maid, anyone. I didn’t have a dedicated chaperone at my beck and call though. With a husband overseas and a friendship circle back in Bradford, I was effectively immobilised. However, there were a couple of relatives that stepped in to offer sisterhood and solidarity, and now they would also steer my acculturation towards employment in Islamabad.

My older cousin, mum’s sister’s daughter, lived right next door. Baji (big sister) had the same relationship with my uncle although I was of course additionally married to his son. Living next to an uncle was useful because baji’s husband also worked overseas, leaving her behind to raise their two young children. Before we migrated to Bradford in 1977, I’d watch baji massaging a conditioning concoction of yoghurt and egg yolks into her thick dark hair, with Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” playing on her beloved radio cassette player. By the time I returned to Islamabad in my teens, baji had a tape of the nasal-voiced Salma Agha and her sister Sabina, singing the hits of Abba in Urdu. It was baji that introduced me to the Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa and she was the one that took me to the cinema for the first time in Pakistan. Now that we were reunited, albeit as neighbours with a bougainvillea bush between us, I willed the weekend to come around when baji would be home from work. That’s when we took an unhurried stroll, with her toddlers in tow, first to the Japanese Gardens, and then to browse the countless second hand bookshops and finally to Radio City to rent our ration of films for the week ahead.

Our system for gauging a film’s merits rested principally on its power to make us cry. Having recommended Terms of Endearment to her, baji confirmed the following morning that it was indeed a fine film. Not only had she sobbed herself to sleep, she’d promptly burst into tears again when she woke up! Lest this emotional outpouring fool you, let me just say that baji was actually made of steel. When a four foot snake slithered around our terrazzo hallway, it was baji that had the presence of mind to grab a sickle from her garden as she raced round. While I whimpered with fright, it was baji that instructed our uncle to hold down the back of the snake while she delivered the fatal blow to its head. She later described that as her watershed moment. Killing the snake had made her realise there was nothing she couldn’t do.

Our great aunt, nani jee, was our maternal grandfather’s youngest sister. There were many siblings, which explains why nani jee was actually 42 years his junior! She was even a few years younger than my mum. She held a high ministerial post in the Government of Pakistan and was exceptionally well travelled. Following one of her many trips to Bradford in the early 1980s, her sense of adventure had compelled her to drive an old banger the size of a soap dish, all the way from Bradford to Islamabad, when this sort of journey was still possible. Crucially, even though she was a little younger than my father-in-law, nani jee’s position as his aunt authorised her to flex her clout. So, she would waltz in on her day off, and whisk me away, from under his nose, to the hill station of Murree, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, for a spot of lunch. If she was too busy to drop by, she would send a driver so I could join her for tea and pastries at her office when she was between meetings.

Effortlessly elegant, she walked tall with her shoulders pushed back, while the rest of us tended to hunch ours, as if the natural swell in our chests, already well concealed by our dupattas, was something to be ashamed of. No-one but nani jee could arrange mismatched cushions on her recliners and serve drinks in coarse earthenware glasses, deemed to be fit for only village folk. During one of her fabulous dinner parties, the food somehow fell short. She simply glided into the sitting room and turned on a video compilation of the celebrated songs from Umrao Jaan. As Rekha dazzled the guests in one room, nani jee instructed her staff to clear the dining table and serve dessert. Nani jee made me feel like she had singled me out for her special attention, and spending time with her was like being an intuitive learner at a finishing school. I sense a similar sentiment in this song and dance sequence from Lajja (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2001). It’s not just the way Madhuri Dixit commands centre stage with so much poise and panache. It’s not just the way Manisha Koirala watches her mentor with adoration from the wings. It’s not just the way Madhuri pulls Manisha supportively into the limelight. There’s just an echo of sisterhood and solidarity in their gestures.
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Now, with baji and nani jee confirmed as my secret allies, we sat down to identify the sort of job my father-in-law couldn’t possibly object to. The ladies explained that the foreign embassies and multinationals, tucked away in the Diplomatic Enclave zone offered the highest salaries, the best working conditions, and vitally, a door-to-door pick and drop minibus facility for all staff. Consequently, staff turnover was low and the competition very stiff. But nani jee had often admired my neatly labelled spice jars, and she assured me that if my organisational skills couldn’t get me a job, then my highly prized English accent definitely would. Frankly speaking, there’s little call for formalities like equal opportunities procedures in Pakistan. In fact, it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts. So baji called a financial analyst at the World Bank, an ex-colleague of hers. Indeed, one of the British diplomats was frantically looking to appoint a personal assistant and on the strength of baji’s glowing recommendation, he agreed to see me in the morning. Once my uncle left for work, nani jee’s driver stealthily chauffeured me to the interview. The phones in the office were ringing off the hook and the desks were cluttered with faxes from the Washington HQ. I seized my chance and offered to start immediately on a temporary, no-obligation basis. Back home, I spent hours forming the tactful words with which to break the news to my unsuspecting father-in-law. I was starting my new job in the morning, a full time post in a prestigious institution, which would pay more than my husband was earning in the Middle East.

My husband was the last one to know. As I waited for him to call for our weekly chat, it dawned on me that I was finally going to reap the rewards of my patience, perseverance and isolation. At last I would have my own dedicated chaperone, willing to take me wherever I wanted to go, supporting my every endeavour, keenly prioritising my needs. It wouldn’t be long before my days would be charged with playfulness, and the solace and security of a sturdy shoulder would greet me every evening. My husband and I could finally look forward to getting to know one another. There’s something about the flirtatious nature of this song, ‘Mere Sapnon Ki Rani’ (The Queen of My Dreams) from the evergreen Aradhana (Shakti Samanta, 1969), which takes me back and reminds me of being on the cusp of falling in love. The song is full of exuberance and hope, just as I was.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RAW SILK

PREVIOUS: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

13 The Dutiful Daughter-in-Law

A relic of a childhood spent in Pakistan was that obedience became my way of showing respect to elders. In seeking mum’s guidance, I was showing deference to her continuing role in my life, even if my flourishing free spirit sometimes compelled me to defy her choices. Hindsight tells me that independence and obedience aren’t perhaps compatible after all. But old habits die hard, and so it was that well into adulthood, I simply couldn’t blurt out my garbled plans for a night out as I slammed the door behind me. Ever the dutiful daughter, I would stand soberly waiting for mum to sanction my plans, knowing full well that I was also giving her the power to refuse.

It was my best mate Josie who put me up to going on holiday with her, just as I was preparing to leave Bradford for married life in Islamabad. And before I could back out, she’d booked us a week in a three-star, self-catering apartment in Crete. This would be my first holiday independent of family, and the first one where I would need a beach towel and suntan lotion, instead of a suitcase large enough to carry presents for relatives I hadn’t seen for a decade. But first, there was a hurdle to overcome. I might have been 23 years old and on the cusp of marriage, but I still needed my mum’s permission!

I first met Josie around the time I started producing a quarterly fanzine for confused British Asians like myself. I got the idea after mum puckered her brow when I brought home a photo story magazine which featured among its pages a teenage boy and girl sharing a proper kiss. If this wasn’t the sort of material I should be reading then there was little else that young women like myself could identify with. So I decided to set up a fanzine of my own. Its Asian focus also meant that my attention now shifted from the likes of New Model Army to artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, much to my mum’s relief, although even an outing to something as honourable as a qawwali concert was subject to her approval.

Josie quickly became my confidante and mentor. I often wondered if she was such an understanding friend because, with an Asian husband of her own as well as two small children, she also had a limit to the number of nights out she was permitted per week. So we were perfectly matched as chaperones – both bound in our own ways to family obligations, and always mindful of the curfew waiting to drag us both off the bhangra dance floor at Bradford’s St. George’s Hall.

Now, with the holiday looming, I braced myself. I’d work through the objections I imagined mum would fire at me and rehearse my answers. Then I’d panic and phone Josie once more: “Remind me again why we’re going. Why did you say the trip is important? How should I frame my argument?” When the emotional ordeal made me doubt our upcoming plans, Josie would patiently go over the details again. I had nightmares about breaking the news of our trip with Josie’s husband and children outside, waiting to drive us to the airport. At other times I’d think it was surely only a matter of time before mum found out from someone else, since I’d discussed my dilemma with almost everyone I knew. After months of worry and with just a fortnight to go before the trip, I finally found the courage to speak to mum.

I framed my argument just as I’d rehearsed with Josie. It was probably my last chance to take a holiday like this with a friend, and it would be the perfect way to say goodbye to my old life and reflect on what lay ahead. Josie and I were asking for a few days’ grace to devote to friendship. And besides, if Josie’s husband was willing to look after the children for a week to enable her to accompany me on a trip of a lifetime, the least mum could do was to accept their gesture by letting me go. There was also plenty I didn’t say; that the holiday was a breathing space where I could steal myself, a week where I didn’t have to be someone’s wife or daughter. It was a chance to enjoy one final fling with freedom, a week where we wouldn’t have to observe curfews or explain ourselves, where our movements would not be curtailed. It was our Thelma and Louise moment.

A few months later, mum transferred me from her guardianship to that of her older brother, since he was also my father-in-law. I was now in my uncle’s care since my husband had returned to his job in the Middle East just a fortnight after our wedding. Yes, I could have insisted that he take me with him, but this would have involved trading his male quarters for accommodation that was wife-friendly, probably at considerable expense. The truth is that I wanted to show him what a supportive wife he’d selected. Also, I didn’t want to seem needy, nor did I wish to be viewed as chattel, to be transported with my husband from one location to another. Besides, I’d had enough of feeling out of place in Bradford, and the idea of being suspended in liminality in the Middle East just didn’t attract me. So I remained in Islamabad, where I had my father-in-law for company.

My uncle became the father I never had. A respected senior engineer at Radio Pakistan, I had watched him leaving for work in a suit and tie as a little girl, before Zia-ul-Haq implemented an Islamic system in Pakistan in 1978. Now, I handed over his tiffin box and watched him ride away on his Vespa every morning, with his crisp, cotton shalwar kameez flapping away in the breeze. A deeply spiritual man, my uncle was also open-minded with a cracking sense of humour. I loved his refreshingly healthy attitude towards Islam, advocating a balanced approach to life. His unwavering routine of walking to the mosque five times every day for congregational prayers, went hand in hand with an appreciation for music and dance. Prayer was an individual act and if I chose to waive the virtues of regular prayer, then it was up to me. But I had to be respectful by turning off the music and covering my head, whenever the call to prayer from the mosque loudspeaker permeated our home. One evening, he asked if I was planning to stay up to watch a James Bond film that was being televised. Before I could warn him about the risqué nature of 007’s dalliances, my uncle added enthusiastically, “I’m looking forward to seeing Ursula Andress. I’ve heard she was quite a beauty!”

During an initial spring clean, I came across a forgotten video tape labelled ‘Mujra Songs’ which featured Bollywood sequences in the style traditionally performed by dancing girls or courtesans in the courts of the Mughal kings. We frequently watched the tape together, with my uncle sharing his knowledge of the classic films that had spawned these performances. The tape featured a couple of songs from Sharafat (Asit Sen, 1970) which I found particularly captivating. I was entranced by the quick footedness of the dazzling dancing girl, fluttering around the dance floor like a brightly coloured butterfly. Whilst she had the same playful eyes, she wasn’t as voluptuous as the Hema Malini I remembered from the cabaret song in Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981). It was my uncle who confirmed that the nimble dancer was indeed Hema Malini and the squirming hero was her real life husband, Dharmendre.

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If my uncle was liberal, regrettably he was also set in his ways, especially when it came to gender roles. Being the only son, I’d heard tales of grandma doting on him until her final days. Whilst rotis (chapatties) made for the rest of the household could be relegated to the plastic hotpot to keep warm for an hour or so, my uncle’s rotis had to be made from scratch for maximum freshness, the moment he was ready to eat. And with no daughters of his own, I’d heard whispers among the extended family that he had little understanding of women’s whims. As my new guardian, my uncle had very clear ideas about the division of labour. While he sped off to work each morning, I took my place in the kitchen.

Among the tedium I abruptly inherited was the daily provision of freshly cooked curry and rotis. Perhaps I’d imagined whimsically baking coconut macaroons on a Saturday afternoon, but the idea of putting dinner on the table every night had somehow escaped me! I had also managed to resist mum’s extensive efforts to introduce me to the rigours of roti making, which was now my greatest ordeal. As I kneaded the dough with all my might, I would hear the mocking tone of a great aunt from our ancestral village in my ear, “She who can’t make a roti is not a real woman,” knowing only too well that the shape, size, texture and lightness of my efforts were a measure of my merits as a daughter-in-law. Dry and brittle as they were, my rotis resembled poppadum and were woefully unfit for purpose. They should have been pliable enough to scoop up a dollop of curry, not dependent on a soaking in the sauce to make them edible. Out of principle and adamant that all I needed was patience and practice, my uncle refused to buy them from the roti house more than once a week. When I discovered the local international supermarket stocked pasta and noodles, I started serving them several times a week as roti replacements, until my uncle mischievously mocked me with a newspaper article about a man who’d stabbed his mother for serving noodles over and over again!

To make matters worse, housework needed to be planned around load shedding, the intentionally-engineered electrical outages during peak times due to under capacity. This meant there was no electricity between eight and ten o’clock, nor at lunchtime and again in the evening. I didn’t dare step into a room in the summer months without switching on the ceiling fan first. Load shedding made it utterly unbearable to function in the muggy kitchen. The best remedy was to douse yourself in cold water and keep still for an hour or so until the artificial breeze returned.

The wildlife colonising our kitchen also kept me occupied. I didn’t mind the ants walking in single file along the window sill, and picking them out one by one from the sugar bowl became oddly therapeutic. It was the house lizards and cockroaches scaling our walls that took some getting used to. I didn’t dare leave anything uncovered after locating a lizard perched on a freshly washed bowl when I turned on the kitchen light one evening. If ever I felt inclined to ease my hygiene standards, I remembered how my cousin had unintentionally cooked a lizard after it had fallen into a pot of lamb and spinach curry. My poor grandfather had already been served his dinner when my cousin returned to the kitchen for a refill, and only became suspicious after spotting the now tender meat falling off the skeleton! Yet, a few days after the horror of confronting a black snake in the hallway, I nonchalantly flicked a plump lizard off my pillow before crawling into bed.

Within a matter of months, I’d rearranged the furniture to my heart’s content, labelled all the spice jars and mastered a routine in the kitchen. I’d stitched new curtains for my uncle’s bedroom and even learnt to make tea with the lemongrass growing in our garden. I was ready for a fresh challenge. I thought about improving my O-Level French by taking some classes at the Alliance Francaise, located just a couple of miles from our house. It would get me out of the house and it was high time I made some friends. I put this to my uncle one night as he prepared for his fifth and final visit to the mosque for the day. “How will French help you?” he pondered out loud, much to my unease. “I could understand if it was a cookery course because that would benefit us all,” he continued.

The response was stifling but my uncle was a man of his word. I was also mindful of his seniority in the family which meant that nobody ever stood up to him, not even mum who held her older brother in the utmost regard. So I only dared to challenge his old-fashioned views light-heartedly but it was clear his decision was made. Under the circumstances, it seemed indelicate to involve my husband by pitting him against his father, nor could I ask mum to intervene. With my husband absent, my uncle had evidently forgotten that my primary reason for entering the household was as his son’s wife. So there I was, six months married and stranded in Islamabad, destined for daily drudge as the dutiful daughter-in-law.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY

PREVIOUS: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST

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

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