Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Rawalpindi

14 Sisterhood and Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREVIOUS: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

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

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