Archive for the ‘British Muslims’ Category
Perhaps there was some accuracy in that acerbic adage that we’d grown up with – the one about Pakistanis owning all the houses – from the days when it was customary on the streets of Bradford to spitefully truncate the very word which defined our ethnic origin. The stories mum recounted of her kin, from before her marriage and migration to Bradford, offered us a window into the mind-set of the class based rural society she came from, and reminded us that aspirations of home ownership ran deep in mum’s Pakistani blood. In a culture where the ultimate security was land, to be a ‘kiraidaar’ (tenant) was to be frowned upon. One aspired to becoming a ‘malik makaan’, literally a property owner. I suppose it was only natural that mum would incorporate these ingrained canons into her new life in Britain. That’s why she’d shrewdly taken advantage of the tenancy entitlement on our home, located on Bradford’s Canterbury council estate, preferring to pay a mortgage rather than squandering her earnings on rent.
A ‘malik makaan’ she might have become, but mum’s dreams didn’t stop there. She was determined to offer her three children an environment more suited to the moral markers she’d imported from Pakistan in 1964; which probably explains why she always addressed our neighbour on the estate as Mr Gardener, despite the fear of God his racist abuse put into all of us. And presumably because mum couldn’t bring herself to concede to our impressionable minds that intimate relations, particularly the kind that produce children, could exist outside marriage, the girlfriend of Terry the milkman, who also happened to be the mother of his children, was always referred to – at least in our home – as his ‘wife’.
It was the early 1990s when we became the proud owners of a handsome mid terrace at the top of Barkerend Road, a world away from the strains of the Canterbury estate. We could now look forward to living among our own folk. Safety in numbers, you might say. The few English families yet to take flight from our street were definitely in the minority. The area still boasted more pubs than fabric shops but sightings of women in shalwar kameez were becoming more commonplace. It was such a novelty to have a corner shop that stocked ‘our’ essentials, like halal meat and coriander. Even the ice cream van that roamed the neighbourhood played Dil Dil Pakistan, that unofficial national anthem by the pop band Vital Signs, as its patriotic chime.
This new neighbourhood would surely be a home away from home for my husband of two years. Several months had passed, you see, since my abrupt return from Pakistan. Having spent my teenage years feeling utterly lost in Bradford, I had resolved to make Islamabad my home after marrying a cousin there. Alas, things hadn’t gone too well so I’d returned for respite.
But time and space had clearly mellowed my mood since I was now thinking about persuading my husband to settle with me in Bradford. This is why I was wading through the spousal visa application; a lonely task when your husband is absent and unfamiliar with the requisites; a thankless chore when he’s a Pakistani national, almost instinctively presumed guilty by the authorities. As if collating the paperwork wasn’t time-consuming enough, the visa application for his permanent stay would take months to come through, perhaps even longer.
I’d reached an impasse. My strength was sapped from staving off pressure to return to Pakistan. Perhaps the protracted visa process would buy me more time and my parade of proactivity might shift the stale conversation in our home. That’s why deferring the decision about the future of my marriage, even if only to bureaucrats at the UK Border Agency, seemed somehow liberating. But given the expertise in our new neighbourhood, I was starting to wonder if the process would even take that long. Transnational marriages, you see – the union between a Pakistani national and a British citizen – were two-a-penny in Bradford Moor.
It was a scene I’d witnessed several times, mindful that this might soon be my reality; the entire family setting off for Manchester Airport, Terminal 2, to welcome the new arrival to Britain, with the nervous looking British bride or groom in tow; the visits to Littlewoods in town for jumpers, socks and shoes to suit the British weather; the obligatory round of dinners for the reunited couple followed by the sightseeing day trip to Blackpool en masse.
The custom of transnational marriages was so popular in fact, that it had its own vernacular. Of course we never used the sociological term, transnational or transcontinental marriage. Instead, we talked colloquially about getting married ‘abroad’, even though we all knew that ‘abroad’ could only ever mean Pakistan. It did no harm to exoticise our perpetual holiday-cum-honeymoon destination. And the spouses from ‘abroad’ that we planned to ‘import’ were referred to as ‘mangaytar’. The term comes from the Urdu word for engagement, ‘mangni’, and means literally ‘the betrothed’ when used in Pakistan. In Bradford though, ‘mangaytar’ was reserved specifically for the partner from Pakistan – the immigrant, if you will – while the British citizen was known as ‘the fiance’ even when we spoke in mother tongue. Although the separate terms conveniently indicated your spouse’s birthplace and likely social mores, the distinction effectively inferred a tacit imbalance between the two parties; ‘fiance’ assumed an air of superiority, while ‘mangaytar’ was at best unequal and pejorative at worst.
Transnational marriages were tied up with the links that much of our neighbourhood had with Mirpur, a region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. So strong were these bonds that it sometimes felt like the same society existed in both places. The people of Mirpur famously practice an intensified system of clan alliance. Biraderi they call it – a scheme of tribal networks or extended brotherhood. Biraderi determines identity and personal codes of behaviour. Protecting its status against other clans is a matter of honour, even if it means favouring allegiance over merit, to the extent that mobilising the biraderi has been known to influence wholesale vote-gathering, not only in Mirpur but also in British politics.
Cousin marriages are intrinsic to the biraderi system because they reinforce ties of obligation, which is a source of pride in itself. No wonder Mr Hussain, now in his fifties, bearded, shalwar kameez clad, walking stick in hand, commanded such respect in our street. To his credit, he had ‘acquired’ the daughters of his own siblings from the ancestral village in Mirpur for his British born sons. He’d also installed his three sons in separate houses on our street, having the foresight many years earlier to buy each house as it came on the market. So Mr Hussain was now the brides’ father-in-law as well as their uncle. And the three brides, all of them cousins who had grown up together in Mirpur, were now neighbours in Bradford, and related to each other in new ways through marriage. This sort of union had many benefits. It permitted property to be retained within the clan. The transnational nature of the match made better opportunities available not only to the three brides, but also to their families in Mirpur. It was also understood that the handpicked daughter-in-laws would readily attend to Mr Hussain and his wife in old age.
There’s also the custom of watta satta, literally ‘give and take’, which establishes a web of familial connections that’s even more mindboggling. Watta satta involves the simultaneous marriage of brother-sister pairs from two households, where the heads of the two households may also be siblings. Crucially, this sort of marriage creates an inner circle of liability. So for instance, if a husband mistreats his wife, then the perpetrator’s sister might be the one to face the repercussions. It’s probably to make allowances for these convoluted family relations that Urdu and Punjabi languages contain extended vocabulary, to help us distinguish between cousins, aunts and uncles on different sides of the family.
The intensely bound networks in our neighbourhood inevitably made for a lot of coming and going, especially since house visiting was the main pastime. And since it was customary for guests to arrive unannounced, it was little wonder that our row of terraces with two reception rooms was so popular; enabling the multi-unit, multi-generational families to use the rear room as a lounge whilst keeping the front for best. Impromptu guests could be accommodated without disrupting family life, but more importantly, separate spaces could be appropriated for men and women. We’re talking about a rigidly patriarchal society here, so this was essentially an extension of purdah to seclude women from men they didn’t know. Akin to the Victorian parlour I suppose, with inner sections of the house reserved for women, while men outside the immediate family had access to only the outer parts.
With the front of the house reserved for men and formal visitors, women preferred to use the back alley as their main thoroughfare, entering one another’s houses by the back door, which led straight into the ‘zenana’, the women’s parlour. Mum did the same on her neighbourly visits, although she was irked to always be the last to hear about a birth, marriage or death. How poignant that we’d sought comfort in living among our own folk after the racism we’d endured on the Canterbury estate, only to find that our new neighbours also considered us to be outsiders. We weren’t one of them, you see, so there was no need for them to mix with us beyond the superficial. With bonds of biraderi in full force, being Pakistani wasn’t enough, it seemed. In order to be truly accepted, you had to belong to the same clan from Mirpur; and we weren’t even from the same region.
But then, quite unexpectedly one morning, Masi Shamim from across the street rang the doorbell as mum was about to leave for work. Clutching an unopened envelope bearing familiar Pakistani postage markings, she insisted she couldn’t go all day without knowing what sort of news it contained. Mum knew this yearning all too well, so without even removing her coat, she sat down and read the letter aloud before handing it back. The grateful listener moulded the piece of paper back into its folds before tucking it protectively inside the envelope. When could she return to dictate her response, she wanted to know.
With no formal school experience, Masi Shamim wasn’t literate in English or her mother tongue and therefore unable to independently read and write her own letters. Enlisting one of her British born children was pointless because they wrote only in English while relatives in Mirpur corresponded only in mother tongue. Many of the women in Masi Shamim’s circle were frustratingly in the same situation. She was loathe to rely on her husband since this would necessitate revealing to him the matters she discussed with her parents. Approaching another man was of course unthinkable. In desperation, Masi Shamim had sought mum’s help.
It wasn’t long before mum was spending Saturday mornings as letter scribe to the women from our neighbourhood, who’d arrive at our house carrying freshly purchased aerograms from the post office. Mum was sage, literate and possessed an unassuming demeanour. But more importantly, she stood firmly outside the biraderi so she didn’t pose a threat to the women’s secrets. I would be charged with fetching tea before I could join the women in the rear lounge. Mum would sit attentively, with one eye on the decorative clock on our mantelpiece, aerogram resting on a thick book on her knee, pen in hand, impatiently awaiting direction. I observed that despite their lack of literacy, the women dictated their letters with a particular formality, in anticipation of the buzz their letters would generate upon receipt. On one occasion, mum began to object when the concluding greetings to various clan members exceeded a page. The woman explained that the letter would be read out in a circle of women, all of whom would expect to be remembered in the communication from Bradford. Even if one woman was missing from the circle, she would come to hear whether or not she’d been mentioned. So, despite mum’s frustration, the etiquette of citing the various members of the biraderi had to be maintained.
You can see why it was impossible to ignore the bonds of biraderi in a neighbourhood like ours, even as a bystander. I thought of my extended family and understood, probably for the first time, that just like a small cog in a large wheel, I too was playing my part in strengthening our clan connections. I was also starting to realise that the only way to endure this pact was to learn to think beyond yourself.
Observing the comings and goings of Bradford Moor also made me wonder what the Border Agency officers made of the networks that were, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant to the visa application. I had the list of supporting documents down to a tee: the original marriage certificate as well as a certified English translation; photographic evidence of the ceremony; proof of accommodation; a housing inspection report to demonstrate that an additional person wouldn’t lead to overcrowding in the family home; evidence of savings; pay slips and bank statements showing my ability to support us both. The authorities even wanted proof that we had met, which is presumably why they asked for at least one photo of the happy couple sitting or standing together.
There were no obvious eligibility issues with any of these formalities, although I sensed we’d need artistic license to embellish our demonstration of emotional attachment. Love, you see, would have been nice to have, but it had somehow evaded me. But then, our marriage was always more of a family alliance than the union of two individuals. I just wasn’t sure how to substantiate this on the visa paperwork.
That’s not to say I wasn’t happy about the match from the outset. I completely understood that mum could make no wiser choice, than to give my hand in marriage to her brother’s son. I knew that marrying my cousin would grant me more security than any outsider ever would. I believed that sharing the same background and values were important virtues for building a life together.
Lately though, I’d begun to realise that my husband and I actually belonged to two different worlds, and dragging him out of his world to transplant him into mine, now seemed as senseless as trying to save this marriage. I couldn’t see myself waiting to receive him at Manchester Airport, and nor did I want the responsibility of settling him in. More than anything else, I was perturbed to be struggling to find proof of emotional attachment in my marriage and it jarred me that something so critical to one community could be so inconsequential to another.
PREVIOUS INSTALMENT: CONFINEMENT
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.”
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: REDEMPTION
PREVIOUS: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
Ever the blushing bride, I didn’t dare allow myself the indulgence of a lie-in with the man I’d just married. It seemed vulgar to linger behind a bolted bedroom door screaming ‘do not disturb’ while the in-laws ate breakfast downstairs. My reasoning was all thanks to the old fashioned values I’d honed back in Bradford. Despite my British birth, I was mindful of the implications of being female from an early age, because my gender was bestowed with the millstone of preserving a valuable commodity – family values. Even though it was sometimes a sham, I was used to manipulating my behaviour because it was usually subject to feedback. “What will people say” was a dominant theme in our home long before my marriage. I was taught that women’s conduct needed greater protection and control because it was worth more, so much more in fact that the entire family’s honour depended on it. And now, with all eyes trained on me as I moved in with the in-laws in Islamabad, I knew it was my conduct rather than my husband’s that would be scrutinised. Besides, he was already within his comfort zone because this was his home. Now it was my home too but it didn’t feel like it yet.
I presumed that being watchful of the unspoken rule that bars public displays of affection, I might exemplify my model upbringing and the Pakistani values I’d inherited from mum. I had after all been trained to switch channels instantly if a sordid kissing scene caught us out on the TV. Mum once deserted a bus stop because she couldn’t bear to stand behind a couple absorbed in a snog. Indeed, I’d never seen a Pakistani married couple holding hands or even sitting snugly on the sofa. Then there was the story of my maternal grandmother which typified the conduct of an entire generation. She moved into the large household that was already occupied by her husband’s parents as well as his many siblings. That old house, with its enclosed courtyard and rooms leading off the veranda, is still standing in our ancestral village of Neela. Only married couples were assigned the privacy of a separate room, primarily for use at night, since much of the day to day activity took place in the communal spaces of the courtyard and veranda. Mum says if my grandmother went inside and her husband inadvertently followed her in, she would quickly retreat lest anyone think the couple was snatching a private moment together!
So there I was in my new surroundings, trying to display the sort of modesty that I thought was socially appropriate. As a naïve 23 year old just entering my first relationship, it never even crossed my mind that my sense of decorum might be based on the antiquated rules from the 1950s, that mum had hauled to Bradford in her suitcase! I wanted someone to tell me to relax and be myself. I wished there was some sort of guidebook that explained the code of conduct a British bride should adopt as she assimilates into a new household in Pakistan. Instead I felt a sort of cultural confusion. That’s why I put myself on a rota of self-imposed early starts. Ignoring my husband’s protests, I would fling myself out of bed, get dressed as quickly as possible and present myself downstairs as soon as I heard activity in the kitchen. In my own way, I was making sure nobody could even accuse me of alluding to intimacy with my other half.
My early mornings might have been entirely voluntary but they were still a struggle because I was also enduring continuous late nights. You see, with the official ceremonies behind us, we had now embarked on a whirlwind of dinner parties, which confirmed beyond any doubt that our wedding was more about a family alliance than the union of two individuals. Ostensibly laid on to honour the bride and groom, the dinners were ultimately a chance for the two families to get to know each other. The invitations always extended to the entire family which meant cooking was abandoned in several households for many days after the wedding. With so many cousins and aunts lining up to host the happy couple and their entourage, the dinners demonstrated how influential and popular each family was, the extent of their clan, as well as the value they placed on kinship ties. And so, my husband and I found ourselves, lunch after lunch, night after night, feasting with the same bunch of people at different tables across Islamabad. The induction was ingenious if a little intense and irritating, since the entourage seemed oblivious to sabotaging our chances of spending quality time together.
Even Bollywood films couldn’t help me in this unchartered territory. My own love story had only just got going after the wedding, whereas it was courtship that tended to be the focus of most of the romantic films I’d seen. The first half was usually devoted to the declaration of love. Then the couple spent the second half ironing out the obstacles that prevented them from marrying – their fathers were arch enemies, the girl was already promised to someone else, the girl was richer than the boy, and so on. Such was the emphasis on love blossoming before marriage, that I couldn’t even recall a Bollywood film where the romance focussed on newlyweds. Recent films have dealt with themes of adultery, separation and divorce yet the notion of romance between husband and wife is rarely explored. Just like this example from Waqt (Yash Chopra, 1965), a song featuring a married couple is likely to be incidental, and generally acts as a precursor to some great calamity. The evergreen ‘Ae Meri Zohra Jabeen’ establishes the couple’s happy family life. Just after the husband publicly serenades his wife at a party, the family is torn apart by a major earthquake in this classic lost and found story.
Interestingly, romantic songs within marriage often feature older couples, even grandparents. There’s a song in the film Baghban (Ravi Chopra, 2003) where the sons, their wives and children help to celebrate a senior couple’s wedding anniversary. Since the grandparents’ roles are played by Amitabh Bachchan and the astonishingly youthful Hema Malini, I can’t help wondering if the song was little more than a ploy to relive the magic these veteran actors created some 20 years earlier in films like Naseeb (Manmohan Desai, 1981).
The exception is ‘Payalay Chunmun Chunmun’ from Virasat (Priyadarshan, 1997) featuring Tabu, my favourite actress. Anil Kapoor (from Slumdog Millionaire) marries out of obligation, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to fall in love with his bride. The song beautifully portrays the newlyweds’ blossoming romance. Towards the end of the song, there’s a delightfully telling scene in which the husband playfully drenches his wife whilst they water their crops. When she runs inside to remove her soaking sari, he sheepishly checks for onlookers before rushing inside to join her.
My own bedtime routine was being compromised by a pressing matter. After returning from yet another dinner party close to midnight, I would wearily remove my makeup and jewellery, and set about rummaging through the various suitcases containing my clothes which now occupied our bedroom. In anticipation of my early starts, I would plan my outfit the night before. This was time well invested because as a new bride, it wasn’t just my behaviour that was under scrutiny, my appearance was too. The scrutiny had started the moment I set foot in my new home on the wedding day. I received a diamond ring from my husband, his first gift to me, as part of the ‘munh dikhai’ ceremony which literally means ‘unveiling the face’. And in the days after marriage, I was similarly ‘viewed’ in exchange for a cash gift, by family, friends and nosy neighbours. You know how it is when your house is up for sale, and the thought of potential viewings, as well as the pressure to promote your property compel you to spruce up your home to an impossibly high standard. Well, that’s just how I felt at times, although the term ‘strictly by appointment’ was often lost on the people coming to greet me.
The problem was that planning the outfits took much longer than usual. All the belongings I’d packed at my mum’s house now sat in suitcases around my new bedroom. The new outfits mum had paid for had already been displaced by an entire wardrobe courtesy of my husband’s family. This was my ‘bari’, the traditional gift of clothing and jewellery to welcome a bride into the fold. It would now be tactful to show my acceptance and appreciation by wearing these outfits. But you see, although the bari was prepared especially for me, my taste and preference had been irrelevant – apart from a request for my measurements and shoe size, I wasn’t even consulted. In fact, the bari was put together secretly, partly to amplify the impact of its presentation. But then, the whole point of the bari is to allow the donors to make a statement about their status and style.
Luckily, it was my good fortune that the wife of my husband’s older brother was in charge, because she was renowned for her fine taste and had a degree in home economics to boot. Still, putting the bari together is no mean feat. It’s a huge undertaking requiring the skills of an experienced project manager – a methodical approach, budgeting and brokering skills, sound judgment, chasing up deadlines, discretion and flair. Then there were the months of shopping trips to bazaars in the gruelling summer heat. Fabrics were selected and delivered to a trusted tailor, and there were discussions about the design of each outfit. An embroiderer was commissioned to create intricate beadwork on the neckline and hem of the kameezes. Dupattas were delivered to the dyer to ensure they matched the accompanying shalwar kameez suits perfectly. Then they were edged with gold or silver trimming to make them appropriate for ‘occasion wear’. Matching shoes, handbags and make-up also needed to be bought or preferably imported.
You’d hardly go to all that trouble if the results weren’t going to be publicly appreciated. In fact, the grand unveiling is precisely the occasion to showcase the efforts and enthusiasm with which the bride is being welcomed. And so the big reveal took place on the eve of my wedding during the mehndi celebrations. With the ceremonies conducted, the food eaten, the bride-to-be poised in her ringside seat, out came the suitcases. Every single item from those suitcases was unveiled to the gathered crowd of women. Each of the 21 outfits had been pinned together to facilitate its exhibition. My sister-in-law and her team held up each outfit with outstretched arms, conscientiously revealing the front as well as the back, then turning 180 degrees to ensure everyone in the audience could appreciate the detailed embroidery. I smirked beneath my yellow dupatta as the scene reminded me of the glamorous hostesses on the TV programme, Sale of the Century. The ladies would then turn the outfit towards the cameraman to ensure an eternal record was being kept of their triumph on video.
The most spectacular outfits were revealed first, like the lengha I would wear on the walima (the celebration to mark the consummation of the marriage). I gasped with delight when a shimmering red shalwar kameez was held up. An aunt sitting nearby instructed me to wear the white China silk outfit when it was her turn to host a dinner. The women nodded admiringly, approving the extent of embroidery on a particular kameez, or acknowledging the quality of the imported court shoes. Now a green towel was held up, forming a canvas for the skin coloured bras and knickers stitched on to it, presumably to make them easier to display. The obligatory gold jewellery was refreshingly tasteful. I spotted a bottle of Lou Lou perfume, a nightie I’d never wear, some very usable clutch bags, as well as a couple of hand knitted cardigans. The clothes were then spread out on a charpoy for closer inspection. Each outfit had been impressively packaged to allow them to be handled by curious women without being damaged.
Ideally, I’d have scheduled 48 hours to unpack and organise my wardrobe; to try on the new outfits at my leisure and identify the shoes, bags and earrings that were the best match. I could have done with some order in my surroundings to counter the confusion I was feeling already. It seemed ironic that the person I was supposed to adorn myself for was the one I wasn’t spending much time with. Rather than bonding as a new couple, our first days together seemed to focus on the social ties that our union had created.
I greeted the end of the honeymoon period with a huge sense of relief. The flurry of activity had died down with the final relatives returning to their homes in different cities, leaving just me, my husband and his father. With the return to normality, I would finally have time to catch up on sleep, sort out my wardrobe and rearrange the bedroom furniture. But there was sadness too. My husband said goodbye to me with a handshake in the driveway as his friend prepared to drive him to the airport. After two and a half weeks of married life, it was time for him to return to his job in the Middle East.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: LOST IN BRADFORD
PREVIOUS: THE WEDDING NIGHT