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.
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.
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