Posts Tagged ‘Radio City’
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.
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!
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
My motive for finding work in Islamabad was actually quite noble. When the Gulf War broke out in early 1991, I’d overhear senior, sager relatives empathising with my husband’s plight of working in the increasingly volatile Middle Eastern region. “What can he do? He has a wife to think about now,” they’d fuss. The ‘allowance’ he despatched every month already made me feel awkward. Now, I resented being talked about like a piece of luggage. Mum had raised us singlehandedly so I wasn’t used to taking money from a man, not even my father. I was happy to play the supportive wife, but I also took pride in being an equal in the partnership. So, I mused, he needn’t stay in the Middle East on my account. I would find a job to support us both so my husband could swiftly come home.
Naturally, being the dutiful daughter-in-law, it was expected that I should pursue my father-in-law’s permission in the first instance. Predictably, he decreed that it was up to the men to provide for me. Besides, I was more useful at home and people would accuse me of neglecting my duties. My father-in-law was also my uncle (mum’s older brother), although he was really more like a father to me. So I had the benefit of reasoning with him in a way that would deem any other daughter-in-law rather insolent. Yes, it irked me that something as slight as a change in his daily routine was reason enough for his reluctance. But you see, that’s just the way our men were raised. I remember how grandma doted on my uncle when I was a little girl and he was a married man and father of three. The moment he returned home from work, the women stood to attention. Even as a child, I sensed from the silence his presence commanded that he was a high-ranking member of our sprawling household. And that’s just how it was – the breadwinner’s every whim was met because it was his labour that brought food to our table.
Growing up in Bradford, it struck me that this wasn’t strictly true. As the sole parent to three young children in our council house, it was mum that had her work cut out with lengthy shifts during the week. Yet, when she escorted my sister and I into town on Saturday afternoons, her clockwatching would leave me feeling exasperated. You see, mum’s sole preoccupation was to reach home to make lunch for her only son, unaware that our return merely disrupted his devotional analysis of the afternoon’s sporting fixtures. “I’m not having my son going hungry while three women gallivant around the shops!” she’d protest. It was as if a man couldn’t be left home alone, just in case he needed something to eat. Why couldn’t the men be trained to help themselves, I’d wonder, just like the women were expected to do? Nor did I understand why our mothers continued to nurture this unconstructive cycle, especially when the ones to bear the brunt of it would be their very own daughters.
As fate would have it, it was my turn now to preserve the redundant tradition. I already resented my role in the kitchen. Yet, in a bid to sway my unenthusiastic father-in-law, I swore that my chores wouldn’t suffer if he permitted me to take a job. He caved in, begrudgingly, and probably because he conceded that my target was unachievable. I didn’t know the first thing about employment options in Islamabad, and in a pre-internet age, I didn’t even know when and where vacancies were advertised. Since my cultural references were entirely British, I knew nothing about local protocols in the workplace. And even if I surmounted these stumbling blocks, how on earth would I get myself to an interview when I wasn’t even used to venturing out alone to buy bread!
The Islamabad I knew back in the early 1990s was a dynamic draw for diplomats rather than the depressing disciplinarians of today. The purpose built capital was a bit like Milton Keynes, laid out on a grid system some sixty years ago and organised into different sectors. While the junior city ascended arrogantly like a privileged cousin, neighbouring Rawalpindi preferred to parade its pre-partition architecture and timeworn meandering bazaars. Rawalpindi was happy to host the racket of rickshaws that were forbidden from fouling Islamabad’s tree lined boulevards. Although Islamabad exuded composure, the people of Lahore mockingly dubbed it the dead city, for its tendency to swallow a sedative after dark just as Lahore was coming to life. If Islamabad was easy to navigate geographically, the lack of decent public transport made it difficult to physically get around. You walked or hailed a taxi from the main road. The problem for me was that a young woman running errands alone was considered vulnerable and therefore frowned upon. It was better to be accompanied by someone – husband, sister, mother, brother, a maid, anyone. I didn’t have a dedicated chaperone at my beck and call though. With a husband overseas and a friendship circle back in Bradford, I was effectively immobilised. However, there were a couple of relatives that stepped in to offer sisterhood and solidarity, and now they would also steer my acculturation towards employment in Islamabad.
My older cousin, mum’s sister’s daughter, lived right next door. Baji (big sister) had the same relationship with my uncle although I was of course additionally married to his son. Living next to an uncle was useful because baji’s husband also worked overseas, leaving her behind to raise their two young children. Before we migrated to Bradford in 1977, I’d watch baji massaging a conditioning concoction of yoghurt and egg yolks into her thick dark hair, with Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times” playing on her beloved radio cassette player. By the time I returned to Islamabad in my teens, baji had a tape of the nasal-voiced Salma Agha and her sister Sabina, singing the hits of Abba in Urdu. It was baji that introduced me to the Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa and she was the one that took me to the cinema for the first time in Pakistan. Now that we were reunited, albeit as neighbours with a bougainvillea bush between us, I willed the weekend to come around when baji would be home from work. That’s when we took an unhurried stroll, with her toddlers in tow, first to the Japanese Gardens, and then to browse the countless second hand bookshops and finally to Radio City to rent our ration of films for the week ahead.
Our system for gauging a film’s merits rested principally on its power to make us cry. Having recommended Terms of Endearment to her, baji confirmed the following morning that it was indeed a fine film. Not only had she sobbed herself to sleep, she’d promptly burst into tears again when she woke up! Lest this emotional outpouring fool you, let me just say that baji was actually made of steel. When a four foot snake slithered around our terrazzo hallway, it was baji that had the presence of mind to grab a sickle from her garden as she raced round. While I whimpered with fright, it was baji that instructed our uncle to hold down the back of the snake while she delivered the fatal blow to its head. She later described that as her watershed moment. Killing the snake had made her realise there was nothing she couldn’t do.
Our great aunt, nani jee, was our maternal grandfather’s youngest sister. There were many siblings, which explains why nani jee was actually 42 years his junior! She was even a few years younger than my mum. She held a high ministerial post in the Government of Pakistan and was exceptionally well travelled. Following one of her many trips to Bradford in the early 1980s, her sense of adventure had compelled her to drive an old banger the size of a soap dish, all the way from Bradford to Islamabad, when this sort of journey was still possible. Crucially, even though she was a little younger than my father-in-law, nani jee’s position as his aunt authorised her to flex her clout. So, she would waltz in on her day off, and whisk me away, from under his nose, to the hill station of Murree, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, for a spot of lunch. If she was too busy to drop by, she would send a driver so I could join her for tea and pastries at her office when she was between meetings.
Effortlessly elegant, she walked tall with her shoulders pushed back, while the rest of us tended to hunch ours, as if the natural swell in our chests, already well concealed by our dupattas, was something to be ashamed of. No-one but nani jee could arrange mismatched cushions on her recliners and serve drinks in coarse earthenware glasses, deemed to be fit for only village folk. During one of her fabulous dinner parties, the food somehow fell short. She simply glided into the sitting room and turned on a video compilation of the celebrated songs from Umrao Jaan. As Rekha dazzled the guests in one room, nani jee instructed her staff to clear the dining table and serve dessert. Nani jee made me feel like she had singled me out for her special attention, and spending time with her was like being an intuitive learner at a finishing school. I sense a similar sentiment in this song and dance sequence from Lajja (Rajkumar Santoshi, 2001). It’s not just the way Madhuri Dixit commands centre stage with so much poise and panache. It’s not just the way Manisha Koirala watches her mentor with adoration from the wings. It’s not just the way Madhuri pulls Manisha supportively into the limelight. There’s just an echo of sisterhood and solidarity in their gestures.
Now, with baji and nani jee confirmed as my secret allies, we sat down to identify the sort of job my father-in-law couldn’t possibly object to. The ladies explained that the foreign embassies and multinationals, tucked away in the Diplomatic Enclave zone offered the highest salaries, the best working conditions, and vitally, a door-to-door pick and drop minibus facility for all staff. Consequently, staff turnover was low and the competition very stiff. But nani jee had often admired my neatly labelled spice jars, and she assured me that if my organisational skills couldn’t get me a job, then my highly prized English accent definitely would. Frankly speaking, there’s little call for formalities like equal opportunities procedures in Pakistan. In fact, it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts. So baji called a financial analyst at the World Bank, an ex-colleague of hers. Indeed, one of the British diplomats was frantically looking to appoint a personal assistant and on the strength of baji’s glowing recommendation, he agreed to see me in the morning. Once my uncle left for work, nani jee’s driver stealthily chauffeured me to the interview. The phones in the office were ringing off the hook and the desks were cluttered with faxes from the Washington HQ. I seized my chance and offered to start immediately on a temporary, no-obligation basis. Back home, I spent hours forming the tactful words with which to break the news to my unsuspecting father-in-law. I was starting my new job in the morning, a full time post in a prestigious institution, which would pay more than my husband was earning in the Middle East.
My husband was the last one to know. As I waited for him to call for our weekly chat, it dawned on me that I was finally going to reap the rewards of my patience, perseverance and isolation. At last I would have my own dedicated chaperone, willing to take me wherever I wanted to go, supporting my every endeavour, keenly prioritising my needs. It wouldn’t be long before my days would be charged with playfulness, and the solace and security of a sturdy shoulder would greet me every evening. My husband and I could finally look forward to getting to know one another. There’s something about the flirtatious nature of this song, ‘Mere Sapnon Ki Rani’ (The Queen of My Dreams) from the evergreen Aradhana (Shakti Samanta, 1969), which takes me back and reminds me of being on the cusp of falling in love. The song is full of exuberance and hope, just as I was.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: RAW SILK
PREVIOUS: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW