Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Khatam-e-Quran

17 Godspeed to Bradford

I’ve never really been a five-a-day sort of person when it comes to performing the obligatory daily prayers, even though regular formal worship is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Actually, I only have a handful of prayers in my religious repertoire, but at least they’re all well used! My principal prayer is the Ayat-al-Kursi, the Verse of the Throne. It’s known particularly for its powers of protection. Mum would recite it to me at night if I felt scared, so that God would appoint an angel to watch over me throughout my slumber. Much of it was committed to memory by the time I was nine because mum would recite it for me several times a week. By contrast, my day always began with the Lord’s Prayer which we’d recite during morning assembly in school. I couldn’t tell you what ‘hallowed’ or ‘trespass’ meant, nor could I grasp why Christians referred to God as ‘our father’. It didn’t matter though. It was just such a novelty to be able to formally petition God in a language that I could actually understand.

All the other prayers I knew were in Arabic, you see, a language I didn’t know; although I could decipher the script since Arabic used almost the same alphabet as Urdu, my mother tongue. Learning everything by rote, it was accuracy of transmission rather than my comprehension that was critical. The Quran is the literal word of God, I was told, which was revealed to our Prophet Mohammed orally and in Arabic. It followed then that the divine quality of our holy scripture could only exist in its original form. That’s why recitation was so important, and that’s why it could only be in Arabic, whether we understood it or not. And so, learning no more than a couple of lines each day, I’d be reminded that each syllable, circumflex, vowel and consonant required my absolute attention. Every word had to be practiced for pronunciation, intonation and enunciation over and over again, until I could recite the verses as fluently as possible, with rhythm and precision.

My relationship with the Ayat-al-Kursi saw me into adulthood, and the words I’d learnt to utter as a child in moments of distress, remained as dependable as ever. This was never more so than during my final week in Islamabad. The prayer brought calm, concentration and control into an otherwise chaotic time. I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath just before announcing my decision to leave the matrimonial home, which I’d entered eighteen months earlier. I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi as I prayed that the consequences of my transgression wouldn’t damage mum’s relationship with her brother (whose son I had married). I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath as I cleaned out my savings account to hand the cash to a colleague, along with my passport and instructions. Clutching my one-way ticket back to freedom, I muttered the Ayat-al-Kursi under my breath as I boarded the Bradford bound plane.

That eight hour flight was my liminal space where I could be alone and free. I was no-one’s wife or daughter. And for a change, I was no-one’s responsibility but my own. In an expression of liberation the previous day, I’d dashed out to Radio City in Islamabad’s Super Market, to buy a cassette tape to listen to on my journey home. It was the soundtrack of Henna (Randhir Kapoor, 1991), the film made by Karisma and Kareena’s father. I’d been completely captivated by Zeba Bakhtiar’s angelic beauty after watching the film a few months earlier, and buying the soundtrack suddenly became a priority. I needed some music to immerse myself in and I’d only kick myself if Bradford’s Asian shopping mecca, Bombay Stores, didn’t have it in stock.  One song in particular, ‘Janewale o Janewale’, touched me like no other during my fateful flight. Each time the song ended, I would rewind and play it back once more. It was a young woman, brimming with innocence, entrusting a loved one into God’s care, as she bid him farewell, perhaps forever. Godspeed, the prayer-like rousing lyrics reminded me. I shuddered as I remembered that my own path was unlikely to be showered with such sweet blessings. And I quietly cried.

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My marriage might have appeared to be a suitable arrangement on paper, but in reality it was nothing short of a farce. Was a loveless marriage all that my destiny had in store for me? But “God helps those who help themselves,” I’d heard, so perhaps it was up to me to change my kismet. Perhaps this was all preordained. Maybe my fate and fortune lay in Bradford after all. I wasn’t expecting the warmest of welcomes but I was certain that, after first summoning strength from my favourite prayer, I’d be able to sit mum down and tell her, face to face, that I no longer wanted to live a lie. Alas, I’d been back in Bradford less than 24 hours when I realised the farce was only just beginning!

The day after my abrupt arrival, mum had been invited to a khatam – a female gathering held in a private home where, by taking a section each, the women complete an entire recitation of the Quran. These gatherings offered precisely the sort of meritorious environment which mothers wanted to expose their daughters to – spiritual reflection in a congregation is always good for the soul! Unfortunately for me, mum was adamant that I would accompany her. As it turned out, mum had deemed this khatam the perfect occasion to mark my entrance as a fully-fledged married woman, back into Bradford society. I realised later that it was also her chance to broadcast the ‘official’ narrative of my sudden reappearance in Bradford – my husband had sent me back for a few weeks because I fancied a break and needed to stock up on toiletries!

The Quranic recital was being hosted by Aunty Bilquis, the one that lived in the affluent suburb of Heaton. That’s where the Pakistani high society lived back in the early 1990s, long before the phenomenon of white flight, and the influx of upwardly-mobile Muslim taxi drivers helped to restyle the landscape. Heaton pledged a quality of life that the likes of us could only aspire to. So it was always a thrill to drive around the tree lined groves, gawping at the smart semis set in mature gardens with deep bay windows, separate dining rooms and downstairs toilets. Aunty Bilquis was hosting a khatam of the Surat Yasin, which is such a commanding verse with benefits manifold that it’s often referred to as the heart of the Quran. We were to recite this lengthy verse several times over. It is said to be particularly valuable in easing the path that lies ahead. Maybe mum had dragged me along to expose me to these prayers, to ease my path back to marriage and Pakistan. Perhaps mum would soon be organising a khatam to pray for her daughter to come to her senses, if only she would dare to go public with her dilemma.

Naturally, I couldn’t be expected to dress the way I used to as a singleton. Most of the women at the khatam hadn’t had the chance to ‘view’ me since my makeover from kanvari (virgin) to shadi shuda (a married woman). Mum picked out a cream coloured embroidered silk shalwar kameez; nothing too garish, but nevertheless ornate enough for someone in my situation – a young woman still revelling in newly wedded bliss. It was only right that I should also display some of the wedding jewellery that mum had bought for me, with the proceeds of her Prudential savings policy.

Being able to show me off in my married finery was a symbol of success for mum, a badge of honour. We may not have had a mature semi to our name, but hadn’t mum done well to marry off her eldest daughter to her brother’s son – in Islamabad, no less! Mine really was the most superlative example of a praiseworthy match. My acceptance of this match showed, without doubt, how well I had been raised. It highlighted how firmly I remained under mum’s influence. Moreover, my ability to assimilate into her family back in Pakistan, was a clear reflection of the traditional values that mum had managed to instil in me. It emphasised that I was not tainted by western culture. Indeed, mum could hold her head up high.

The entrance hall to Aunty Bilquis’ semi resembled an ill organised shoe stall at a car boot sale. But I suppose that’s only to be expected when you’re hosting a gathering for twenty women and it’s customary to remove your shoes. The lounge had been cleared of all furniture and clean white sheets had been spread out over the carpet, along with a scattering of mismatched cushions for comfort. I found a corner and sat down to contemplate. It took a couple of hours for the holy work to be completed. With the prayers out of the way and food about to be served, the atmosphere eased, the chattering grew louder and my inquisition began.

“You’re glowing!” Enthused one ‘aunt’, as she scanned me closely for clues about ‘happy news’, which I may be craftily concealing beneath the flow of my fancy shalwar kameez. And when the aunty suspected the lack of a baby bump might be my own doing, she began to present the alarming implications of frittering away potential baby-making time.

“It’s best to have a baby straight away, so you can check that your machinery is in good working order!” She recommended. “Once you know everything is fine, then you can delay completing your family.”

“When’s your husband arriving?” Another aunty wanted to know.

“Has he not been granted his visa yet?” Someone else asked. The truth was that I hadn’t even submitted the paperwork. How was living with the wrong person in Bradford going to be any different from living with him in Islamabad?

Nobody asked if I was happy. Everyone was too busy jumping to their own conclusions. There and then, I could have shed a tear for my hopes and dreams that now seemed dashed. But how could I? The women seemed oblivious to my pain, even when I tried to vent some irritation. The farce reminded me of the song ‘Mehndi Hai Rachne Wali’ from Zubeidaa (Shyam Benegal, 2001), where the women seem so lost in sentimentality that they only see what they want to see. This serene sounding A R Rehman composition belies the betrayal in the song’s story. Zubeida’s relatives seem almost unaware of her opposition to this marriage, even when the bride’s frustration boils over. Later, when she refuses to express her acceptance before the Imam, her father calmly tells him, “Didn’t you see? She nodded her head in agreement.” And so the congratulations begin!

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No, I didn’t make a scene like Karisma Kapoor’s character because my story was played out in Bradford, not Bollywood! Nor was my situation anywhere near as extreme. In fact, I’d been a relatively eager and active accomplice in my own marriage. And now, mum’s friends were vying to congratulate me on my new found happiness. They kissed me respectfully and focussed on the twelve gold bangles sitting snugly on my wrist. They hoped that some of my honour and good luck might rub off on their daughters, so that they too might live off the respect that a good marriage like mine could garner. Wasn’t it better to have the accolade and let mum have her glory, I wondered? And mum seemed so desperate to manage the stigma which my separation would inevitably spark. Perhaps mum was right, you know. Perhaps this wasn’t the end. Maybe a break was all I needed afterall.

THE NEXT INSTALMENT: CONFINEMENT

PREVIOUS: REDEMPTION

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

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