I was 22 when I attended a funeral for the first time – a bittersweet benefit, you might say, of living across seven seas from loved ones, although the downside was undoubtedly grieving alone. We didn’t have the means to travel to Pakistan for proper farewells. And anyway, we would never have got there in time because Muslims are buried as soon as possible, preferably before nightfall on the day of death. That’s why the devastating news of the passing of my maternal grandmother was cruelly conveyed to mum in a solitary phone call, in the middle of the night. And with that, mum was left to lament alone, without ceremony to ease her pain or cold hard proof to help bring closure. Mum soothed her sorrow by sitting for hours to recite the Quran in measured rhythmic tones, just as she had been taught to do by the mother she was now mourning. Every few days, when she had completed an entire recitation of the holy book, mum would tearfully plead from her prayer mat, that the reward for her efforts be credited to her mother, so it may ease her soul on its progression to the afterlife and grant her a place in paradise.
This was the grandmother who had initiated my religious instruction and taught me the paths to heaven and hell. So I knew that my personal tally of deeds, meticulously recorded by the ever-present angels on my shoulders, would determine my abode in the hereafter. Although my brother would characteristically taunt me that the angel recording my ‘gunaah’ (misdeeds) was overworked, while the one recording my ‘sawaab’ (virtuous acts) had been forced to take early retirement!
If living in Bradford meant that mum missed out on rituals and rites of passage, then her older brother (now also my father-in-law) seemed to make up for it in Pakistan. The way things were done here seemed so un-English. My uncle didn’t need to wait to be invited to a funeral, nor did it seem to matter whether or not he actually knew the deceased. Time after time, he would faithfully take his place in line for the namaz-e-janazah (funeral prayers). When I quizzed him one evening, he explained that offering prayers for the deceased was a merit worthy act in itself. But there was another, more sombre reason for my uncle’s attendance. “Death is a warning about the order of things, a stark reminder of the fate that awaits us all.” Watching me wince with unease, my uncle continued his lecture, “You should go, Irna! There’s nothing quite so sobering as a burial to make you prostrate on the prayer mat every day!”
My uncle didn’t seem to appreciate that I was still grappling with my existing life to contemplate what might happen to me in the next, but his moralising certainly made an impression on me. He wasn’t speaking out of turn. As custodian of my social morality, he was merely giving me every opportunity to prepare for the next stage of my life. Alas, if only someone had thought to offer me a glimpse of my marital afterlife in Islamabad before I rashly relinquished my singledom in Bradford. Perhaps that’s why I could relate so well to Padmini Kolhapure’s character from Prem Rog (Raj Kapoor, 1982) as she looked forward to her impending ‘rukhsati’ (bridal farewell) in the song ‘Yeh Galiyan Yeh Chobara’. The bride’s naivety is agonizingly evident as she blissfully reminds her family and friends of her looming departure for a new life with strangers in unfamiliar surroundings. Her mother (the lady in the blue sari) flinches as the bride sings to her, “Come and hold me mother, as I leave my childhood in your courtyard.” The young woman may as well have been blindfolded because she was as clueless as I was about what a traditional marriage might actually entail.
How could I have known what marriage looks like when I hadn’t seen one close up? My parents had separated when I was about four. Then, when we lived in Islamabad, there were so many family members and a non-existent notion of couples having private space so I didn’t even know that married couples share a bed. You see, I belonged to the first generation of Pakistanis growing up in Bradford so there were no peers or role models to help us find our way. Perhaps that’s why, when I was introduced to the facts of life in O’ level biology, I simply refused to believe that this repugnant English method of procreation could also apply to Pakistanis. I assumed this was just another transgression, like consuming pork and alcohol, which set us apart from English people. Besides, Muslims didn’t need these procedures because I’d heard babies were divinely ordained. It was only when another Pakistani girl in the school playground confirmed that her parents, upstanding Muslim people, did share a room containing only a double bed, that I began to ponder if there might be some substance in that biology lesson after all!
Now that I was a fully-fledged married woman in Islamabad, I had the privilege of holding court with other women in the same life stage. As long as there were no impressionable unmarried girls in our midst, we could openly compare circumstances, most of which seemed revelatory to me. It was clearly up to the wife to keep her husband happy and her house in order. If you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking that life was good as long as there was food on the table and a decent wage coming in! Don’t get me wrong – there were dashes of warmth, regard and friendship, but nobody declared a desire to be loved. It was as though it was irrelevant – nice to have perhaps, but certainly not expected. Was it that these women genuinely didn’t have any need for self-fulfilment, I wondered, or were they simply better at managing their expectations than I was? Perhaps it was down to cultural difference. They seemed so skilled at reconciling their own desires in favour of family duty, and appeared to find contentment in their roles as wives and mothers rather than as individuals. There were times though when I wanted to shake these women out of their selflessness, especially when the conversation spiralled into a casual contest to quantify their tales of woe and scales of abuse. The more you put up and shut up, it seemed, the more you were commended for your efforts.
I’d seen plenty of selfless heroines in Indian films, although it was ironic that the one virtue they believed was worth dying for was love. This was certainly the case in Mughal-e-Azam (K Asif, 1960), one of Bollywood’s greatest historical epics. The film tells the story of Anarkali, a legendary dancing girl in the Mughal court of Emperor Akbar. She falls in love with the Emperor’s son, Prince Salim (who went on to become Emperor Jehangir). Anarkali exemplifies the supreme qualities that are exalted in the classical Urdu ghazal (love lyric), which regards love as a trial where no suffering is too great a price to pay, where cruelty is endured and the lover’s courage and commitment are tested to the very end. Thus, when Anarkali and her rival, Bahaar (the one with the headdress), stage a poetry contest presented in the form of the exquisite qawwali, ‘Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat Aazmaakar Hum Bhi Dekhenge’, Bahaar’s reticence to experience the misery of love earns her the scented rose from the prince’s hand, while Anarkali’s utter dedication to love is rewarded with a prize of stinging thorns.
This is what happens to those who fall in love
They suffer in silence and die a miserable death
So I will watch this farce and amuse myself
And save myself from this agony of love
Love, I concede, ruins your life
But what fun is a life bereft of grief?
Isn’t it enough that you are remembered long after you are dead?
So I will ruin myself for my love
Anarkali was true to her word, refusing to renounce her love even after the infuriated Emperor Akbar threatened to entomb her alive. My problem of course was that I wasn’t in love with anyone, so there was really nothing to fight for. Faith had dealt me a dead end even though I had taken my vows in the belief that a husband is for life. But maybe my expectations were too unrealistic. Surely it was down to destiny that I didn’t find love. That’s how it was meant to be. This was my test, and my salvation was in making the most of what I’d been dealt. Didn’t I have the satisfaction of knowing that service in Islamabad was keeping me in my mum’s and uncle’s daily prayers? Why couldn’t I see that the chances of stumbling upon my soul mate in a traditional marriage were always going to be slim? In a culture where the absence of love is rarely reason enough to write off a marriage, I realise that my grievances must have seemed fickle, imagined even. I could see I was luckier than most – I had comfort, security, respect, but you can’t feed the soul on respect alone, can you! If there was no fulfilment for me in being a dutiful daughter-in-law and honourable wife, then what good was the arrangement, even if it pleased everyone else but me?
I didn’t want to take the first step, but what choice did I have? Technically speaking, I was the one that had been contracted to come and live at this address so surely I was the one that would have to leave, even though this would make me blameworthy. So I awkwardly gathered my possessions as the subdued spectators looked on. There was no ceremony, no dialogue, and no post-mortem. But then, there was no approval either – I had simply discharged myself of my obligations. Now, with every scandalous step, I drew closer to trampling on my family’s honour. I wasn’t sure if falling out of favour with elders would be logged as an offence by the angel on my left shoulder. If this was going to affect my credit rating, then I could only hope that redemption was a long way off. My immediate concern, you see, was the wrath that was waiting to welcome me back in Bradford.
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Written by Irna Qureshi
08/05/2012 at 1:55 am
Tagged with Anarkali, angels, Bahaar, death, dozagh, funeral prayers, ghazal, gunaah, heaven, hell, K Asif, Mughal Emperor Akbar, Mughal Emperor Jehangir, Mughal-e-Azam, namaz-e-janazah, Padmini Kolhapure, paradise, Prem Rog, Prince Salim, qawwali, Raj Kapoor, redemption, rites of passage, salat-al-janazah, sawaab, Teri Mehfil Mein Kismat Aazmaakar Hum Bhi Dekhenge, Yeh Galiyan Yeh Chobara
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