Bollywood in Britain

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

Archive for the ‘Muslim Women’ 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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 CONFINEMENT

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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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

10 Lost in Bradford

It pains me to bare my naivety but here’s the truth. It was partly the chance to turn my back on Bradford that lured me into marriage. It wasn’t so much that I was in love with someone; just that I’d fallen out of love with Bradford. I was on the rebound I suppose, and the prospect of a fresh start in Islamabad was tempting at the time, even though the opportunity commanded substantial obligations.

I’m British born, although the early years I spent in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, surrounded by sunshine and several generations of mum’s extended family, were the happiest days of my life. I was four when we left Keighley on dad’s insistence. His conservative outlook made him uneasy about raising daughters in British society. Besides, we’d have a good lifestyle in Pakistan with dad’s British wage to support us. Alas, the remittances from his nightshift as a wool comber became more and more irregular, and then they stopped altogether. Mum had always been adamant that we might have to return to Bradford one day, and she was unwilling to compromise our integration into the British education system. That’s why, even though mum hated being dependent on her family, she sent us to the best schools. She sold what she could from her dowry to pay the fees at the prestigious Presentation Convent where I was taught by English and American nuns. And in 1977, just as mum anticipated, my teachers in Bradford did indeed marvel with incredulity at the standard of my schoolwork and fluent spoken English.

If times were tough in Islamabad, those early years back in Bradford were nothing short of a slog. It might have been rough, but there was something rather poetic about Ringwood Road which encircled the council estate, with five streets flowing through, each one named after a river. At least we lived on one of the most desirable streets. You could practically see Canterbury Avenue, the main thoroughfare, from my bedroom window. So technically, we were right on the edge of the estate rather than in the thick of it. We took great pride in being the only household in Tees Street with a telephone. And whether or not they offered a ten pence piece, we admitted our English neighbours when their emergency calls could not wait for them to walk to the phone box.

My family’s other badge of honour was that we owned our house. Mum astutely took advantage of the council tenancy entitlement. Her Pakistani mentality wouldn’t permit her to throw rent down the drain, when she could pay a mortgage on an investment instead. No wonder mum stayed up night after night to complete her piecework quota, while we got used to being lulled to sleep by the whirring sound of the battered industrial sewing machine, rising up through the floorboards. The day we got double glazing installed was a proud one, not least because the replacement windows also helped to broadcast our home ownership. It didn’t matter that the furniture was donated by Christian Housing Aid. They’d also supplied our kitchenware – but rest assured, mum diligently recited Quranic verses to ritually cleanse the pots and pans, just in case they’d been tainted in a previous life by unIslamic substances.

I suppose we hadn’t grasped quite how much we stood out, until our neighbour’s son came to visit his dad after being released from prison. When father and son didn’t see eye to eye, the young lad decided to serenade his father’s neighbours. We huddled up behind the sofa as he hurtled bricks at our lounge window whilst singing rowdily, “Jesus Christ was born in a stable because all the Pakis have got the houses”. I can’t remember if we bothered to ring the police. The last time we phoned, it was after mum caught someone climbing up the drainpipe in broad daylight, tempted by the open bathroom window. All the police offered was a scolding: “You’re living on Canterbury Avenue love. It’s not Buckingham Palace, you know!”

Of course, you were in a different league altogether if you lived on Canterbury Avenue itself, particularly at the top end, near the dingy little launderette that we used until we could finally afford the luxury of our own washing machine. They were private semis, with bay windows, without the characteristic shared tunnels leading to unkempt back yards, with washing waiting to be nicked. Instead, these semis had gardens with flowering shrubs and neat lawns. My mate Jan lived in one of those houses. She was an English lass with a mum as well as a dad, and a dog who bit me once. Mum lost a few quid in piecework that day, so she could walk me down the hill to the hospital for a tetanus jab. I’d call for Jan most mornings on my way to school. She would often be finishing her breakfast when I called round so she’d invite me in. During those five minute visits, I’d become acutely aware of their distinguished foreignness. Their lifestyle seemed so English; the way Jan walked around the lounge getting her things together with a slice of toast in her hand. That was the thing – she called it “slice of toast” while it was just a “piece of bread” in our house. While Jan drank coffee, I couldn’t think of any Pakistanis that did. We all drank tea, and we liked it stewed. We’d never even bought a jar of Nescafe for our kitchen cupboard because what coffee drinker was ever going to visit our home!

It’s difficult enough trying to settle in a new country at the best of times, but leaving open the option of a return to the motherland only prolongs the pain. You daren’t make yourself at home because you’re still holding on to something else. You can’t set down roots because you’re in a halfway house. That’s precisely the position we were in. The focus during our schooling in Islamabad had been on English. Now that we were settled in Bradford though, it was Urdu that took on added importance. Mum was keen to instil in us a strong sense of being Pakistani. She insisted we speak Urdu at home because we didn’t get to practice it anywhere else. If we were to return to Pakistan, how would we integrate without our mother tongue? I think she feared we’d be cultureless so she felt the need to bolster our Pakistani-ness relentlessly. Mum seemed resolute that life in Britain must not dilute the morally superior culture we had hauled in our baggage from Pakistan.

Mum’s farsightedness certainly gave us an advantage with schoolwork, but trying to assimilate outside the classroom was grim. At a time when all I wanted was to blend in with my classmates, our Pakistani ways made me even more conspicuous. You see, we Pakistani girls have a tendency to develop faster in the physical sense, so I was in the unfortunate position of reaching the throws of puberty ahead of everyone else. My face became riddled with such awful acne that my classmates whispered ‘spotted dick’ as I walked into the classroom. I think mum’s way of preserving my sexual innocence was to shelter me from my own maturing form for as long as possible. So, after PE and swimming, while the other girls arrogantly flaunted their training bras in the changing room, I hoped my ill-equipped vest would go unnoticed.

I found solace in the end in popular music, and I immersed myself in the world of Duran Duran and Smash Hits magazine. When I persuaded the editor of the free local weekly to let me write a music column, little did I know that things would take a turn for the worst. My mate and I had swung the deal by telling him that free records and concert tickets for reviews would be ample payment. My classmates didn’t react well though, when the reviews began to appear in the Bradford Star. I quietly locked myself in the bathroom to wash my pencil case in private after someone scrawled ‘Irna knows fuck all about pop music’ all over it. I’d thought, rather naively, that landing a newspaper column would validate my interest in pop music. Mum would be able to see that I genuinely was going to concerts because she’d be able to read my reviews. The truth is that mum didn’t take kindly to her teenage daughter rolling home on the last train from the Leeds University Student’s Union, nor did she care that the Boomtown Rats were brilliant, or that I’d bagged an interview with Kajagoogoo.

Mum must have felt so lost in Bradford. Even though she migrated to Britain in the 1960s, she didn’t belong here. It was initially her husband’s work that brought her here, and then circumstance. She was barely forty when she found herself alone in a strange country, trying to raise three children. Without the strong extended family unit that protected her in Pakistan, she now felt vulnerable. “What will people say?” became the dominant theme. Mum said she understood my interests and intentions, and she could vouch for my good character. The problem was that my late nights were open to misinterpretation by others, and even though these people had no empathy for us, we still had to live by their expectations. My behaviour needed to pre-empt the reaction it might garner from other members of the Pakistani community, and I wasn’t playing my part in guarding the family’s collective reputation. That’s why mum tried to pull me out of a school play because my Muslim character had a boyfriend. It might make people think I also had one in real life, she argued.

Part of mum’s survival strategy was to romanticise about Pakistan, her motherland. That’s where her inspiration came from. That’s where her nearest and dearest were. She still remembered the scent of the soil. Our finances made it impossible, yet mum planned an interim trip back home with a suitcase filled with nothing but anticipation, gathering dust under her bed. If mum could just get through the next thirty years of employment in Bradford and raise her children, then she could look forward to retiring to Pakistan with a handsome pension, awarded in pounds sterling, to be spent in rupees at a substantially profitable exchange rate.

Mum wasn’t the only one that felt lost in Bradford. Everything I wanted from British life seemed to be in opposition to the values that mum was trying to instil in me. If my life was an Indian film, I’d be tempted to borrow traditional stock characters from the golden oldies, to represent the conflicting cultures which I was awkwardly wedged between. The evergreen classic Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) deploys this technique to present the hero’s dilemma; he must choose between two women with opposing values. In my story then, Britishness would inevitably be characterised by the vamp; an amoral, heartless, rich urbanite, dancing freely in a western frock with a cigarette in hand. To emphasise the point, even the women’s names in Shree 420 are allegorical. Here’s the money grabbing vamp called Maya (delusion) performing her song ‘Murh Murh Kay Na Dekh’ (Don’t Look Back at Your Past) for the hero in a casino.

Since the heroine’s song in Shree 420 highlights her chastity, she’d represent Pakistani values in my story. Vidya (knowledge) is not only pure and demure, but also a school teacher. As the drunk hero walks away from her, Vidya’s soul (dressed in white) expresses her love in the emotional ‘O Janewale’ (I Implore You, If You Must Go, Look Back Once).

Times have changed now of course, in terms of Indian films and British Asian culture. Just as some of the vamp’s characteristics have been incorporated into the modern day heroine, permitting her to be simultaneously sensual and virtuous, so we’re learning to merge aspects of our contrasting cultures to create a hybrid. But back then, in the Bradford of the late 1980s, you had to choose which side you were on. I was weary of being dutiful and living by other people’s expectations. So I daydreamed about being a proper English girl. I wanted to whitewash my brown complexion, dye my dark tresses blonde, have a stylish haircut and change my foreign name to something more straightforward, like Heather or Diane. Surely, then I would be just like everyone else; I would look like everyone else, I would smell like everyone else, I would fit in, I would be accepted. Sensing my anxiety, my straight talking older brother would remind me of the classic scene from our favourite English film, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon masquerade as women. My well intentioned brother would recount the amusing scene where Jack Lemmon tries to compose himself, after inadvertently finding himself in Marilyn Monroe’s intimate company. “I’m a girl. I’m a girl. I’m a girl,” he reiterates frantically. Detecting that I was losing sight of my roots, my brother would counsel me to stand in front of the mirror for a few minutes every morning and repeat: “I’m a Paki. I’m a Paki. I’m a Paki”.

I was desperate to belong to something that was permissible, anxious to be accepted. If I lived in Pakistan, I pondered, surely I’d be in the majority for a change. There would be no outside influence threatening to tarnish the (morally superior) culture imposed upon me. Our way of life wouldn’t need to be defended. I’d be an insider at last. I’d have access to the same opportunities as everyone else. It would all be my own. Perhaps that’s where I belonged. Perhaps that could be my normality. And so, I too began to believe that my dream destination could only ever be Pakistan. My mother’s homeland began to represent harmony and freedom, where my culture could be celebrated at large, where I wouldn’t have to hide and where apologies would not be needed. I believed I had found a place where I would no longer have to conform.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT:  A SUITABLE HUSBAND

PREVIOUS:  OBLIGATION AND INTIMACY

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

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