Bollywood in Britain

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

Posts Tagged ‘Rekha

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

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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