15 Raw Silk
Mum’s married life was scarcely memorable, yet she still muses about the only time my father treated her to a gift. It was 1964 and the occasion was mum’s first Eid in Keighley. Not being the indulgent sort, dad took no pleasure in lavishing his cash, which made it all the more astounding when he presented mum with a plush bundle of turquoise velvet, delicately embroidered with goldwork, so she could stitch herself a shalwar kameez suit to wear on the religious festival. Amusingly, dad didn’t know that the two yard shalwar piece ought to contrast with the two yards for the kameez to break up the uniformity, and that the dupatta should really be diaphanous. In his eager effort to mark the milestone that was his bride’s first Eid, dad had naively bought six yards of the same thing. Nor was the fabric something mum would have picked out for herself, but dad’s extravagance wasn’t lost on her. You see, he’d spent almost a week’s worth of his woolcombing wage to buy the fabric from Brown Muffs, Bradford’s grandest department store, where ladies came from Harrogate just to buy their hats. The crisp white table linen and sparkling silver cutlery of the store’s high-class restaurant attracted the stars performing at the nearby Alhambra Theatre to dine there. Indeed, this institution had such a reputation for luxury goods that Brown Muffs was fondly known as the Harrods of the North.
Dad’s romantic gesture, which stirred mum to stitch and savour that shimmering shalwar kameez, still evokes a fond memory of a closed chapter. Now, a new chapter in my life was beginning and it was my turn to look forward to marking milestones with my husband. It was around this time that I first discovered the film, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (Abrar Alvi, 1962), poignantly made around the time of mum’s marriage. Watching the mesmerising Meena Kumari adorn herself so faithfully for her husband, my thoughts would turn to mum. I’ve always known her to dress simply, yet her reminiscences hinted at her prime, of days when she harboured hopes and dreams as someone’s wife, just as one day I would.
The other thing mum romanced about was celebrating Eid with her family in Pakistan, which frankly made our festive efforts on the Canterbury estate feel about as out of place as sunshine on Christmas day. These religiously ordained occasions are meant to be the fibre that ties us, but my memory of Eid is of little more than a time to come to terms with our lonely existence in a foreign land. It’s difficult to believe that back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Eid wasn’t the colourful community affair it is today, with lights draped around the city centre. Yet there was a time when we Muslims still felt rather meek about parading our cultural heritage in public. So Eid would arrive in Bradford unceremoniously and leave with barely a fuss.
The formalities always began with new clothes since Eid requires Muslims to wear their best attire. Mum would ritually escort my sister and I to her favourite fabric emporium, Choudhry Cloth House on White Abbey Road. Bear in mind that this is a decade or two before White Abbey Road was revered as the World Mile, that vibrant cultural quarter which is now the envy of shoppers as far afield as Stockport. Back then though, this main thoroughfare heading out of Bradford city centre towards the delights of Manningham, Girlington and Allerton, offered little more than a kebab and roti house, as well as a hardware store selling plastic lotas (ablution pots), heavy duty rolling pins and chapatti pans.
What I chose was always a compromise. While I coveted the sumptuous silks which actresses of yesteryear wore in the classic Bollywood films I watched, Mr Choudhry preferred to stock a selection of showy satins. Besides, I was desperate for the English folk to forget, even for a moment, just how different we really were, but sadly, Topshop was never the place to go for Eid clothes. So much so, that I actually came to presume it was blasphemous to wear something other than our national dress on the auspicious day, even if being caught outside the house in a shimmering, billowing, non-weather-proofed shalwar kameez made me feel ill at ease.
We knew the two Eids as sweet and savoury rather than by their official names. I preferred the sweet one (Eid-ul-Fitr) which marks the end of Ramadan rather than the savoury one (Eid-ul-Adha) which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The latter is also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, the ethos of which, much to mum’s irritation, tended to trouble my vegetarian tendencies. You see, Eid-ul-Adha also commemorates Prophet Abraham’s willingness to submit to God by sacrificing his son when commanded to do so in a dream. Divine intervention replaced his son Ismail with a lamb, which is why Muslims around the world still sacrifice an animal, usually a cow or a goat, to mark this day. Fortunately, my grandfather in Pakistan organised the sacrifice (qurbani) on behalf of his entire family, but the abundance of meat on the menu for Eid-ul-Adha still made me flinch.
Both of the Eids always began with a breakfast of plump vermicelli steeped in a cardamom-laced milky syrup. Apart from mum’s impatience to admire her handiwork, there was really no rush to get ready – we knew we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. We didn’t have uncles and aunts in Bradford that we could visit to show off our new clothes, to collect gift money from, to run around with their children and to taste the treats at their dining table. Instead, mum would dole out the gift money and then take us on the bus into town so we could spend it. We’d return to feast on shami kebabs, kofta curry (meatballs) and pilau rice and slump in front of the TV, with the grease from our overflowing plates in our laps staining our shiny new clothes. We didn’t expect our festival to merit the sort of superior scheduling reserved for Christmas Day. Any distraction from the day’s dullness would do. The highlight was booking a three-minute call through the international operator, to wish Eid Mubarak to our loved ones in Pakistan. The rest of the evening would be spent dissecting the call, imagining our cousins enjoying the perfect Eid on the other side, without us.
You’ll appreciate my enthusiasm then, when the countdown began to my first Eid in Pakistan as a married woman. Taking a cue from my World Bank colleagues, I spent days spring cleaning to get the house in order for the grand occasion, poring over kebab recipes and stocking up the freezer. Things were going well at work and the dust had finally settled at home. I’d managed to tweak the household routine to fit around my office hours. I’d accepted that as a woman, my financial contribution wouldn’t grant me the leverage that it awarded the men of the household. I’d even stopped day dreaming about coming home to find somebody running around after me. I’d also realised that being taken for granted was simply inevitable when you marry a first cousin and your mum’s older brother becomes your father-in-law.
If I couldn’t cope with the pressures of running a household as well as a diplomat’s office, I could always resign. If I returned home from work to a request for a mutton and pea curry, I’d drop my handbag in the hall and head for the kitchen to start shelling the peas my father-in-law had thoughtfully collected from the market on his way home. And if my double duty meant I was too busy to go out in the evening with my husband, then so be it. Appreciating my predicament, and being far too respectful to stand up to his father, he would leave me to it and go out with friends instead. It was all my own doing, after all. I’d barely sought anyone’s consent before embarking on my job hunt, and besides, my husband’s return to Islamabad meant I’d achieved my goal. So why didn’t I resign? The truth is that while life unravelled at home, it was my job that pinned me together. My job gave me a reason to get dressed and run a comb through my hair every morning. Work was a place where my efforts were rewarded, where my contribution felt valued and where my relationships were equal. It was my job that ignited a spark in my lacklustre life.
The Festival of Sacrifice was upon us, the savoury Eid. Neighbours had bought their sacrificial goats early, so they could pamper them during their final days. I’d return from work to find children taking their special guests to graze in the nearby field or feeding them treats by hand. On the big day, I knew the butcher and his knife would call door to door, slaughtering one unsuspecting animal after another. The meat would then be divided into three equal parts – one to be distributed to the poor, one for friends and family, and the final part for the household’s consumption. I felt squeamish handling raw meat at the best of times. Now, the thought of being responsible for bagging up and freezing the equivalent of a third of a goat, was making me very anxious. On a previous occasion – the Aqiqah (naming ceremony) of my sister-in-law’s new-born, two goats had similarly been bought and slaughtered in our back yard. I refused to leave my bedroom until every shred of bloody evidence had been washed away.
No wonder my disappointment was tinged with relief when my uncle announced his last-minute decision to spend the Islamic holiday with an older son. As head of our household, it was up to him to organise the sacrifice wherever he chose to celebrate Eid, which meant I was now mercifully pardoned from the clean-up operation. Perhaps this was a kindly gesture to give his youngest son and new bride some time together, home alone. Or perhaps this was my uncle’s way of giving me a break from the kitchen. Whatever his intentions, it was a disheartening Eid in the end, empty of all the cordiality and ceremony mum’s reminiscences back in Bradford had conveyed. With my uncle gone, the rigid domestic routine fell apart. I snubbed the big day with back-to-back Bollywood which also drowned out the din of the bleating goats outside. My fear of carelessly catching a gruesome slaughter scene compelled me to keep the curtains drawn too. Meanwhile, my husband slept off the fatigue from his nonstop night shifts.
Wasn’t it just as well that I didn’t get around to ordering the exquisite ensemble that I’d set my sights on months earlier! From the moment I saw it, I was captivated by Ranjeeta’s outfit from the song Husn Hazir Hai, from the film Laila Majnu (H S Rawail, 1976). She wore a charming traditional Afghani dress with sheer, bell shaped sleeves in black chiffon silk, embossed with gold banarsi medallions, accessorised with understated gold hooped earrings offset with a single pearl. I didn’t feel inspired to watch the entire film, but I did scrutinise that song sequence endlessly. And after a while, the dress became trivial as something else in the song took hold. Based on the legendary Arabian Nights tales, Laila Majnu featured star-crossed lovers, willing to give up their lives for each other. Something about Laila and Majnu’s archetypal love story, set against the lingering melody now troubled me. Was Laila really singing that she would die for the man she loved? People didn’t really expect to have relationships like that, did they? You know, ones where they couldn’t imagine life without the other? I’d assumed that everyone just went through the motions as I was doing, so this couple’s devotion reared a tinge of envy. Experience had already taught me that no-one would fight my corner, and now I had Laila and Majnu in my face, with a love so strong that they felt they could challenge the world together. I didn’t just feel envy, I felt neglected too.
A few months before my wedding, I had taken mum into my confidence to tell her I didn’t love my fiance. I suppose I assumed that by telling her, she’d be able to “put things right” in some way. Indeed, a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders as I told her, and sure enough, mum’s supportive words, delivered with such tenderness did comfort me: “Of course you don’t love him,” she’d said. “You don’t even know him! English people might marry the person they love but we grow to love the person we marry.” As I clung to mum’s words, I was unaware of the irony that I probably wouldn’t even accept a temporary job in the hope that I might one day grow to love it. And yet, embracing the traditions of Pakistani culture, this is precisely the premise upon which I was entering something as permanent as a marriage.
And lately, mum’s reassurances had become something of a yardstick with which to measure my feelings. “Do I love him yet?” I’d ask myself. “Do I feel any more than I did a week ago?” If I sensed a void, then I preferred not to dwell on it in case it was real. There was thankfully too much to do each day to stop me from crumpling. Late into the night though, I’d shiver at the thought of confiding in the ceiling fan for years to come; relying on its gentle hum to soften my sobs, with infants asleep beside me, still waiting for love to emerge. Having combed the day for clues, I’d console myself again with a cautious breath: “I’ll give it a few more weeks.”
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