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.
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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