Archive for the ‘South Asians in Britain’ Category
I’m still sometimes confused by the present layout of Bradford city centre. Etched in my mind is the arrangement I discovered during my teens. That’s when I earned my first slivers of freedom and was finally permitted, unsupervised, to make my own way into town. Back then, the bus swooped into the Bradford bowl and stopped directly outside the old smoked-glass fronted police station which we knew as the Tyrls. Word had it that there were cells beneath the building from which prisoners were taken to the adjacent Magistrates Courts via an underground walkway. This was long before City Park and Centenary Square, when there was no pedestrianised public area and the lone fountain outside the police station was without airs. But at least we had stylish shops.
The self-effacing Sunwin House had been settled at the junction of Sunbridge Road and Godwin Street since 1932, baring its window displays beneath distinct dark brown awnings. It was the sort of department store that Bradfordians can only dream about today. Sunwin House sold everything from buttons to beds, from toothpaste to television sets, and from wigs to wedding dresses. It had the kind of food hall where buying basics like bread and milk made you feel extravagant. Unaffordability never stopped mum scanning the performance ranges of the German sewing machines on the first floor. The cookware in the basement was more my thing, where I liked to imagine how it would feel to have Wedgewood in my dowry.
The store was owned by the Co-operative group so customers earned dividend stamps – an early version of the club card, you might say – where you were rewarded with a tiny percentage of the value of your spending. A small purchase earned you the small ‘5’ stamps, of which you had to collect 32 before you had the satisfaction of filling a page. You could garner the higher value ’40’ stamps with a large purchase, of which four alone were enough to fill an entire page. There was something gratifying about being issued with a crisp new book, with its distinct red cover promising the ultimate incentive, ‘This book when completed and exchanged is worth £1’. I was the sort of organised person, you see, that industriously collected the stamps, licked them diligently before sticking them meticulously in the book. As if completing the book wasn’t rewarding enough, there was still the bonus of monetary gain to be had!
Across the road from Sunwin House stood the crisp white 12-storey headquarters of the National and Provincial Building Society. The substantial 1960s office block monopolised the prime location, which today makes up much of City Park and Centenary Square. With its prim lawns bursting with spring bloom, it stood self-assured, bowing only before the majesty of the Venetian gothic styled clock tower of Bradford City Hall. It was here on the fourth floor, in mortgage administration at Provincial House that I put my organisational skills to use. Although it was a temporary position, it was the sort of stable nine-to-five office job that mum valued. There was even the possibility of a discounted mortgage rate if I could just impress my employers enough to offer me a permanent position.
Alas, I handed in my notice to start married life in Pakistan. A couple of years later though, I was back in Bradford with ego bruised, contemplating a return to clerical work. Meanwhile, mum was willing me to return to married life in Islamabad after my ‘short break’, which is why she was still shielding the real reason for my abrupt arrival back in Bradford. I wasn’t sure how temporary my refuge would be but I knew it was enough for now. Bigger decisions could wait. I wasn’t ready to make any. I wasn’t sure that they were mine to make anyway. In the meantime, I wanted to make up for the months I’d lost in Pakistan. There was self-esteem to be regained. Perhaps it was time to send a message to my family that I was taking control. But while I yearned for my old life, I didn’t want to confine myself to mortgage admin. If I was going to find a job this time, it would have to be on my terms. To offset my emotional disappointments perhaps, I was also primed to elevate the professional bar.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that my career path was probably influenced by that cult American TV series, The Incredible Hulk. I should say in my defence that I was just an impressionable teenager when the series was broadcast during the early 1980s. It was about a scientist with a sinister secret; a condition which transformed him into a giant green monster whenever he became angry. Jack McGee was his nemesis, a hardnosed reporter investigating the mysterious monster’s sightings for The National Register. Every time he confronted the irritated scientist, Jack was darkly warned, “Mr McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
An annoying antagonist he may have been to everyone else, but I saw Mr McGee as a man with a mission. I was charmed by the world he inhabited; driving up and down the country at all hours to document the stories that fascinated him. He had the sort of job that also appealed to my nosey disposition. But I also knew that any perceptive Pakistani parent would deem it a disagreeable career choice for precisely these perks.
In mum’s day, you see, the ultimate job for respectable women was teaching. But then, as I was often reminded, mum was raised in a society where parental wishes were heeded without question. So she’d worked in a state-run girls’ school in Rawalpindi before marriage. Not only was it stable and secure, the female environment also created the sort of seclusion which the principles of purdah are based on. Even progressive protagonists in Bollywood films of that era became teachers. Naturally, they were portrayed as noble, no-nonsense creatures, ready to nurture their students. There’s an irrepressibly effervescent song from the brilliant film Shree 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955) which comes to mind. ‘Ichak Dana Bichak Dana’ means ‘One Little Seed, Two Little Seeds’, which refers to a game of ‘guess what’. It’s performed by the luminous Nargis, who takes the role of the aptly named Vidya, meaning knowledge. Using song and illustration, she devotedly encourages her young charges to solve riddles in a makeshift classroom in her father’s courtyard. As she asks, ‘bolo kya’ – ‘what is it?’ – at the end of each rhyme, Raj Kapoor in his Chaplinesque guise can’t help falling in love with her. The wholesome teacher though remains characteristically unimpressed by his flirtations.
And so, it was much to mum’s alarm that I rejected the lure of a discounted mortgage and went to work for a tin-pot TV production company. I began to travel almost immediately since we worked from a suite of grubby offices at the Batley Enterprise Centre. We were making a factual series called Zara Dhyan Dein, which loosely translated meant ‘please pay attention’. The programmes looked at health and social issues affecting South Asian families in Britain; like reducing the risk of a heart attack, healthy eating and depression. It didn’t matter that the programme was just five minutes long, or that it was broadcast in the middle of the night. People still watched it, primarily because there was little else televised in Urdu in those days, but mainly because the programme was screened immediately after the weekly Bollywood film.
You see, it was normal to record the Bollywood film off the TV in the late 80s and early 90s because it saved you having to stay up until the early hours to watch the film as it was being broadcast. It was also the only economical way of creating a personal film library. It’s worth remembering that programming VCRs to record automatically was a fiddly affair. It was far simpler to stay up long enough to manually press record at the start of the film, and then retire to bed knowing that recording would continue until the four hour tape was full. Of course the five minute health broadcast, Zara Dhyan Dein, which followed the film, would also be recorded inadvertently.
As it turned out, mum had nothing to worry about. My job as researcher was to organise things, including finding people to take part in the programme; an Indian GP one week, a Pakistani taxi driver the next, volunteers in a gurdwara, a diabetes patient, or a housewife discussing her family’s diet. It may only have been five years since the ceremonial burning of The Satanic Verses outside the Magistrates Courts in Bradford, but Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs were still clamouring to be on TV. I realised that, despite the ungodly hour of broadcast, working on a TV programme for the Asian community seemed to garner an absurd amount of kudos. The weariness of being under the media’s glare that we Bradfordians baulk at today, hadn’t yet set in. On the contrary, having a film crew in the house offered credibility and public recognition. Best of all, mum’s friends assumed that landing this marvellous job was my first step to submitting my husband’s visa paperwork. Although I had no intention of inviting him to join me in Bradford, it suited mum and me not to contradict the conjecture in the community. It bought us both time; as I asserted my new-found independence, I hoped mum might muster the strength to go public with my separation.
Things were going well until the producer announced a programme highlighting the importance of prenatal care. I was to find a young Asian couple where the wife was visibly pregnant, whom we would film going through routine check-ups at a local hospital. At my young age, I’d never had anything to do with pregnancy, so how could I have known that this condition merits the utmost privacy among South Asians. Only after accepting the producer’s challenge did I realise that flaunting one’s baby bump like a pregnant Spice Girl was a massive taboo. Doing so, you see, alludes to private marital relations. Even now, a respectable married woman is expected to bury her bulging bump beneath her diaphanous dupatta and further disguise it with loose clothing.
To this day, pregnant protagonists in Bollywood films also remain a rarity. They don’t parade their pregnant bellies and they certainly don’t sing and dance. The only song that comes to mind is from the blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (Sooraj Barjatya, 1994). You may recognise the opening bars because ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’ (Sister, Your Brother-in-law is Crazy) was famously used in a kitchen roll TV commercial a few years ago. The song further emphasises the invisibility of expectant women from our screens because it actually features a mock pregnancy, purely for the sake of entertaining a gathering of women at a baby shower. As celebrations begin to mark the imminent birth of her sister’s baby, Madhuri Dixit’s character bears a fake oversized bump. The nature of the celebrations requires such a strictly separate women’s space that a lady in drag has to play the male lead. As the two lampoon intimate scenes and pregnancy stereotypes, men are forced to watch secretly because they’re vigorously refused access.
I suppose it was precisely because pregnancy is hidden from public view in my culture that we were making a programme about pre-natal care in the first place. But how could we make the programme if I couldn’t find anyone to take part. The producer seemed very understanding of my dilemma and agreed to come up with an alternative plan. On the day of filming, however, I arrived at the hospital to find a pair of unbecoming dungarees waiting for me, complete with a fake built-in baby bump. In the wake of my failure to find a willing participant, it seemed that I would have to take the role of expectant South Asian mother myself. An Indian crew member was lined up as my on-screen husband.
Despite my unease, I grudgingly went along with the plan in the name of professional integrity. Clad in my pregnancy dungarees, the opening sequence had me writing a letter to a friend to share my happy news. In one scene, I was shown discussing my dietary needs with a nurse. In another, I was having blood tests with my reassuring husband sitting beside me. As filming progressed, so did my anxiety. Amusing as it sounds, I knew this indiscretion would only further aggravate my relationship with mum. I wanted to earn her respect yet my televised phantom pregnancy was surely set to do the reverse.
I made sure she never saw the programme even though it was repeated several times over the coming months. The plot unfolded unintentionally in the food hall of Sunwin House. Mum was treating me to a vanilla custard slice from the bakery counter when she bumped into an old friend. We’d last seen her at my pre-marriage party as I was preparing to leave Bradford. “Congratulations!” she squealed as she embraced mum. Without as much as a glance at my noticeably non-expectant figure, she continued, “So that’s why your daughter is back in Bradford!”
That moment of disclosure was as poignant as it was painful because it captured the frailty of our mother-daughter relationship perfectly. Everyone in Bradford appeared to know something that I’d been frantically trying to keep from her. Meanwhile, mum was resolute that nobody in Bradford must come to know the real reason for my return.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE IMMIGRANT SPOUSE
PREVIOUS: GODSPEED TO BRADFORD
Written by Irna Qureshi
07/04/2013 at 12:49 am
Tagged with baby bump, Bounty kitchen roll advert, Bradford, Bradford City Hall, Centenary Square, Chaplinesque, City Park, Co-operative Group, confinement, Didi Tera Devar Deewana, dividend stamps, Godwin Street, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Ichak Dana Bichak Dana, Jack McGee, Madhuri Dixit, media, mortgage administration, Nargis, National and Provincial Building Society, National Register, One Little Seed Two Little Seeds, police station, pre-natal care, pregnancy taboo, Provincial House, purdah, Raj Kapoor, riddle, Salman Khan, Shree 420, Sooraj Barjatya, Sunbridge Road, Sunwin House, teacher, teaching, The Incredible Hulk, The Satanic Verses, the Tyrls, TV production company, Urdu, VCR, Venetian gothic styled clock tower, video cassette recorder, video recorder, Zara Dhyan Dein
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.
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
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.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
PREVIOUS: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
Written by Irna Qureshi
07/02/2012 at 6:03 am
Tagged with Alliance Francaise, Bhangra, Bradford, chapatties, cockroaches, Crete, dancing girl, Dharmendre, dutiful daughter-in-law, fanzine, father-in-law, five daily prayers, Hema Malini, house lizards, husband, Islam, Islamabad, kitchen, married life, Mosque, Mujra, Naseeb, New Model Army, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, obedience, Pakistan, rotis, Sharafat, Sharafat Chhod Di Maine, Tere Naseeb Mein, Zia-ul-Haq
It’s refreshing that Pakistanis should have a hackneyed view of British life. This explains why my relatives were oblivious to our poverty stricken reality of the Canterbury estate, and imagined I had abandoned a luxurious first world existence in Bradford in 1990, for married life in Islamabad. “All the men carry walking sticks and wear bowler hats to work,” my father-in-law would assert habitually. “I saw it on TV!” Alas, this idyllic 1960s scene from Mary Poppins didn’t quite resemble our ramshackle lives in Bradford. Little did our relatives realise that mum left the house at six in the morning, and walked the four miles home from the sewing factory every evening to save on the bus fare. But then, living on home soil with no experience of being a minority, what would they know about being spat at by little old ladies with blue rinses, or being told to “fuck off back to where you come from.” Nor would they have understood the sardonic wit of our blessed neighbour, Mr Graham, who enjoyed tormenting mum with his plans to dig her grave.
Under the circumstances, it didn’t seem palatable to focus on the differences between us lowly immigrant folk and proper English people. How could we bring ourselves to admit to our relatives, that life in Britain had required us to broker our emotional wellbeing, for the sake of family economics? This is why we peddled a more alluring lifestyle, one that was almost aspirational. Besides, it felt good for once to be ranked among the British. So, if my relatives wished to set me apart as a ‘Britisher’ on the basis of something as superficial as my distinct accent, then so be it. The very notion of mum addressing our milkman with a friendly ‘love’ was already a standing joke among the extended family. Now, it was my Yorkshire lilt that commanded their attention. Why on earth did I wreak havoc on the diction epitomised by our Queen Elizabeth and indeed Julie Andrews? Why did I choose to flatten my vowels? Why did I willingly overlook all the ‘t’s in any word and leave out the ‘h’ from the beginning of ‘holiday’? They loved hearing about my school, located at the top of Little Horton Lane which, much to everyone’s amusement, sounded more like ‘Li-ulor-un-learn’ in my Yorkshire dialect. “That sounds more like French,” they would joke, since the language I spoke wasn’t the version of English they’d been taught at school.
There was an irony in this humour. I’d assumed that I would feel a sense of belonging in the embrace of my extended family, into which I had now married. I had high hopes for a new life in Islamabad, somewhere I would feel secure and self-assured as part of the mainstream, instead of meekly trying to modify my ways as a minority. Having married my uncle’s son, I was naturally very much part of the family, but I was also very much the ‘Britisher’. I was regarded as different, somehow foreign, and something of a novelty. My matter-of-fact British manner was at odds with how things were done in Pakistan. I was considered ‘bholi’, a bit simple, open to manipulation, and therefore something of a liability. I was clueless about observing the confusing rules of formality or ‘takalluf’, where one thing is said but something else is meant. So, I would embarrass everyone by checking with guests if they fancied tea BEFORE putting the kettle on, which would lead to an immediate refusal from the guests even if they were gagging for a cuppa. No! The thing to do was to make the tea WITHOUT checking, and then wait for the guests to protest that they didn’t want any, before insisting that they drink up lest they offend their hosts!
It was my mastery of the local protocol and household chores which filled the letters I sent home to Bradford. Meanwhile, letters from my sister and my mate Josie would be crammed with breathless gossip about mutual friends, as well as updates from Eastenders, Sons and Daughters and the all-important Top 40 countdown. As our correspondence continued, new characters were introduced and it became impossible to keep up with the soap storylines. My excitement about learning who was riding at the top of the charts also diminished when the letters mentioned music acts that I’d never even heard of. As our terms of reference began to change, I started to feel more and more disconnected from my old life in Bradford.
It was probably in the autumn of 1991 that my severance from British culture was most marked. My father-in-law held up the latest edition of the Gulf News supplement to check if I was interested in the cover story. I nodded eagerly as a picture of Freddie Mercury caught my eye. He was wearing a pink suit, holding a vintage microphone with a long stand, ready to rock, with the headline “Farewell Freddie”. Queen must have split up, I thought, and they’re announcing dates for a farewell tour. As I located the article, wondering wistfully if they’d include Roundhay Park among their dates, I realised the singer was dead. As I took in the shocking news, I wondered if I was the last person on earth to be hearing it.
I needed to reflect on the magnitude of the cover story, but my anguish merely bemused those around me. There was no use trying to explain what Freddie Mercury meant to my generation. It’s not that they don’t have pop stars in Pakistan, but how do you explain the Freddie Mercury phenomenon to someone that hasn’t even heard of Bohemian Rhapsody? My father-in-law mockingly offered to organise a ‘Khatam-e-Quran’, a recital of the Quran to bestow blessings upon the deceased. As my thoughts turned to Bradford, I knew mum would have understood. Life in Britain had forced her to cultivate a rudimentary knowledge of popular culture. To her credit, she was so familiar with the regular cast of Top of the Pops that suffice it to say, she’d have invited Boy George in for a curry, had he miraculously turned up at our door! It was mum that educated us about The Beatles the day John Lennon died. I’d largely ignored the talk in the school playground that day. Then, mum walked in from work and promptly announced: “We have to watch The News today because John Lennon’s died and I knew him!”
I’d left Queen singing ‘I Want it All’ a couple of years earlier on Top of the Pops in our lounge in Bradford. Now Freddie Mercury was no more and I didn’t know what had happened in between. How was it possible for someone so invincible to disappear like that? I wasn’t even a Queen fan but I still needed to understand how the drama had unfolded. I imagined Queen’s hits being played back-to-back on the radio, special news bulletins on TV, live pictures showing crowds gathered outside the singer’s home, with tributes pouring in from the world of music and beyond. Alas, it was all out of my reach. Phone calls to Bradford were exorbitant, and strictly reserved for matters of life and death, although this obviously didn’t extend to the passing of rock gods. I felt unsettled by the idea that I couldn’t discuss with any member of my household, the story that was likely to be on everyone’s lips back in Britain. With friends out of reach, there wasn’t even a stranger at the bus stop, with whom I could have a cursory chat about a favourite Queen song, to help process the shocking news.
The last time I’d felt so powerless about events in Britain was during a holiday in Islamabad as a teenager in 1985. Someone dragged me out of the kitchen to watch ‘Khabarnama’, the Pakistani equivalent of the 9 o’clock news because they were reporting a serious fire at Valley Parade football stadium. Bradford was burning and I had a two minute news bulletin to make sense of the story. There was barely time to point out the familiarity of Manningham Lane to my family. On that occasion, just as now, I could do nothing but wait for word from Bradford. Sure enough, my sister’s letter arrived a few days later. It had already been written and sealed before she learnt the news, but given the magnitude of the story, she had written in a corner on the back of the envelope: “Freddie Mercury just died. Will write more soon.”
No Bollywood song captures the sense of dislocation and ache for home that I bore during the autumn of 1991 like this one – ‘Yeh Kya Jagan Hai Doston’ (What is This Place, My Friends?) from the sublime Umrao Jaan (1981, Muzaffar Ali). Rekha plays a highly cultured courtesan who is kidnapped as a young girl from a respectable family. She tries repeatedly to escape her tainted profession, but is unable to. When she is forced to flee the brothel where she has earned many admirers, she joins a party of refugees, performing poetry en route to earn her keep. At one such performance, she finds herself back in the neighbourhood from which she was kidnapped. The courtesan senses the presence of her birth family as well as their looming rejection, thanks to her sullied reputation. Yet, Umrao Jaan’s yearning to reach ‘home’ is palpable in every faltering step.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE DUTIFUL DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
PREVIOUS: A SUITABLE HUSBAND
Written by Irna Qureshi
10/01/2012 at 4:19 am
Tagged with Another One Bites the Dust, Bohemian Rhapsody, Boy George, Bradford, Bradford Fire, Britisher, brothel, Canterbury Avenue, Canterbury Council Estate, Canterbury Estate, Courtesan, Freddie Mercury, Islamabad, John Lennon, Khabarnama, Khatam-e-Quran, Little Horton Lane, Manningham Lane, Muzaffar Ali, Pakistani etiquette, Pakistani formality, Queen, recital of the Quran, Rekha, takalluf, The Beatles, Top of the Pops, Umrao Jaan, Valley Parade Football Stadium, Yeh Kya Jagah Hai Doston, Yorkshire accent, Yorkshire dialect
Of all the proposals to land on our coffee table, there was one in particular which caught my eye. It was simply too good to turn down. An educated, well respected, handsome professional, settled in Pakistan. Best of all, he had no interest in making a new life for himself in Britain. And the last thing I wanted was the burden of settling a immigrant husband in Bradford, a place where I already felt dislocated. Now, with this fine matrimonial package in hand, I felt empowered once again. This was my ticket to new beginnings in Islamabad.
I might only have spent a handful of my 23 years there, but Islamabad still felt like a home away from home. My ties with my parental homeland began in 1971, when dad convinced mum to return to Pakistan with their three children, ostensibly to give us a better quality of life and greater moral values. We moved in with mum’s extended family in Rawalpindi, arriving in the midst of the war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. I was four. My earliest memories are of trenches dug out in the road, nightly blackouts, and older relatives routinely handing out cotton wool to stuff in our ears when the air raid sirens rang, to prevent the sound of explosions from piercing our eardrums.
At the head of our sprawling multi-generational household was my grandfather. He’d return from his book keeping position on a bicycle laden with groceries and biscuits for the eight grandchildren that now lived with him. The warmest of souls, he was himself the eldest of 14 children, which meant there was never a shortage of takers for the woven charpois lining the walls of the veranda, which doubled up as our playground after school. Of course, the busy household meant my agile grandmother was rarely released from the stove. Two older cousins quickly became my favourite family members. The college going daughters of mum’s deceased sister, they took charge of tying a blue ribbon in my hair every morning, in preparation for my school day. Mum’s spirited older brother was an engineer with Radio Pakistan. He’d leave for work with a blue tiffin box tucked in the metal basket of his Vespa. We’d greet his return with dismay, knowing he would shortly round up all the children, including his three sons, for extra maths tuition.
It wasn’t long before we moved to Islamabad. You see, when mum began teaching before marriage, she returned home one day with information about a novel government scheme. A new city called Islamabad was being built close to Rawalpindi. It would become the new capital, being more easily accessible than Karachi (the original capital) which was situated hundreds of miles away, on the coast of the Arabian Sea in the South. Nestled at the base of the Himalayan foothills, the site for the new capital seemed isolated and unwelcoming, so the government was keenly offering financial incentives to speed up settlement. With the unprecedented lure of an 18 month salary advance, mum’s parents encouraged her to buy a plot and persuaded their son to apply too. As fate would have it, mum and her brother were assigned adjoining plots. They even asked the architect to draw up plans for identical properties. When mum began to struggle financially after dad stopped supporting us, her brother stepped in so the building work could continue.
My grandma personally supervised the construction, setting off on foot from Rawalpindi each morning immediately after dawn prayers. She was a Hafiz-e-Quran which meant she had committed the entire holy book to memory. Ever the practical woman, she preferred to invoke prayers rather than engage in idle chatter. For months on end, as she watched over the builders, she infused the bricks and mortar with her prayers, and planted the trees which still offer shade in both gardens. The houses were rented out as soon as they were built, to help clear outstanding loans. In 1975, we finally moved in upstairs at number 9, living off the rent we earned from the ground floor. With my uncle living at number 11, we remained tightknit, with everyone relying on his Vespa as the extended family’s sole means of transport.
I befriended two diligent sisters that lived opposite. The ground floor of their house was also rented out so we’d often exchange gestures from our first floor terraces. I’ll never forget the day they brought the neighbourhood to a standstill by staging a doll’s wedding. They’d accepted a proposal on behalf of their doll from the proud owner of a boy doll, from further down the street. Invitations were issued and we all dressed up to attend the wedding ceremony. The sisters had spent weeks, painstakingly stitching clothes for their doll’s trousseau which ‘the bride’ would take to her husband’s home. They proudly laid out the extensive homemade dowry on their freshly sluiced terrace, and even my uncle’s wife went along for the obligatory inspection. Nurturing the girls’ efforts, their mum even served a wedding feast in the form of chickpea pullao and cardamom infused rice pudding. The women marvelled at the efficiency with which the initial proposal had been advanced, and how smoothly the girls had negotiated the terms of marriage. The attention and respect this event garnered from the adults reiterated, in no uncertain terms, that this was precisely the sort of amusement they endorsed. I also absorbed, at the tender age of nine, that proposals of marriage must follow certain protocol.
My own marriage in 1990 took place long before the growth of Muslim matrimonial websites. Back then, when a girl came of age, her parents would put the word out among informal marriage brokers, and then you hoped the enquiries would come flooding in. I realise it doesn’t sound very spontaneous, but that was the etiquette, and in some quarters it still is. You see, it’s indelicate for a girl’s parents to actively tout for a suitable husband. So, the onus is on the boy’s family to make appointments for viewings, and it’s the boy’s prerogative to make the initial offer of marriage.
Whilst we sat tight, waiting for viewings and offers, both mum and I continued to work on our shopping lists. I wanted a suitor who was well educated; broad minded, with an exciting career, a few stamps in his passport and first class people skills. I hoped he’d be at least moderately good looking and taller than me. There was a supplementary checklist which I’d accumulated through hearsay. I knew, for instance, that it was preferable to make a match where you could live independently, to limit day to day interference from the in-laws, but this wasn’t always possible. I knew it was important to consider the size of the new household. There might be a lot of in-laws to please which might also require extended spells in the kitchen. The mother-in-law’s disposition was also worth mulling over since her willing support could make your new life so much easier. Some of my friends had fretted that a potential suitor might not permit them to work, or he may wish to modify their dress code. As far as I was concerned though, such prerogatives were not even up for negotiation. Besides, I reasoned that these issues wouldn’t matter to the sort of well educated, broad minded suitor I had in mind.
Meanwhile, mum was set on a wholesome son-in-law with a solid family background, a good degree, a strong sense of responsibility and the sort of traditional career that would always pay the mortgage. We also had to give due consideration to the suitor’s social class. You see, our unions aren’t just marriages; they’re family mergers, so it’s vital to ensure that a lasting bond is truly sustainable. We couldn’t possibly marry beneath us. Nor did we want the pressure of keeping up appearances by securing a match with people way above our station. Mum has several cousins in her ancestral village who never married, because their families were unable to identify men of a suitable social class for them. In a couple of cases, I know that property was also an issue. Promising their daughters outside existing kinship networks, would have resulted in the unwelcome division of the family’s property. You see, the daughter takes a share of her father’s property to her new family. Little wonder then that marriage within the extended family is still so popular.
The Indian films I grew up with often reinforced the tribulations of finding an ideal suitor. Yet, there were occasions where people became love-struck before even exchanging a single word. “But how could they know whether or not they have a deeper connection?” I would wonder. Ever the realist, I worried that they hadn’t discussed expectations or joint bank accounts. Indeed, the lovebirds faced many hurdles after it was too late for them to evaluate their differences objectively. With our respective lists, mum and I were simply trying to iron out these obstacles in advance. This exquisite A R Rehman song from Bombay (Mani Ratnam, 1995) eloquently captures the initial exchange between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. In amongst the wedding crowd, a single glimpse of the beautiful girl leaves the protagonist mesmerised. He follows her furtively in the crowd. The girl, the epitome of innocence of course, initially hesitates to return his gaze. She becomes uneasy, tormented by her inability to reject his attention in the largely segregated assembly, and before long her eyes begin to seek his.
Even in Bradford, weddings are regarded as the perfect opportunity for eager mothers to parade their young daughters. So it’s not surprising that the men in films like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 1999) so willing chaperoned their sisters to weddings, particularly since the caring sister was only too happy to intervene on behalf of her distracted brother. As Aishwarya Rai performs ‘Nimbooda’ (which means lemon or sourness, hence the prop in her hand!) with her dance troupe, she’s oblivious to the decent gent in the crowd who has already selected her to be his bride. What makes this a little more plausible, at least to me, is that Aishwarya’s jovial performance showcases her exuberance, and I like to think it is this which makes her so irresistible to Ajay Devgan.
I, on the other hand, was very level-headed about choosing a suitable husband. There was no hesitation when the option of marrying my uncle’s youngest son was put to me, despite the irony that I knew my uncle better than I knew his son, whom I’d seen fleetingly five years earlier at a family wedding in Islamabad. Naturally, his profile came with a good character reference, but I knew little about his daily routine, and nothing about the workings of his mind and heart. I knew him from afar, in the same way I knew my neighbour, with nothing more between us than the occasional inconsequential exchange. The solitary spark of romance in this merger was the nostalgia of a childhood in Pakistan, although that seemed a lifetime away now, and my grandparents, the glue that bonded us all, were long gone.
Rationally though, the arrangement went well beyond the usual union of two individuals, making me something greater than just one half of a couple. Our families shared the same history and I felt relief in such a sense of belonging. I knew that marrying within the family would grant me more security than marrying an outsider ever would. We could also dispense with the usual protracted enquiries since we already knew these people were of good stock. You see, it’s not unheard of for men to have to produce certificates as proof of their qualifications, and wage slips to confirm they really earn what they say they do.
It was reassuring to be stepping into a familiar arrangement. I would effectively be moving next door, from house number 9 to 11. I liked to think I’d be favoured over the other daughter-in-laws since, unlike them, I already belonged to the family. I could be the daughter my uncle never had, and I would gain a much needed father figure. My uncle was now a widower and there were no interfering sister-in-laws living with him. As the only woman of the household, I would automatically assume a rank which most daughter-in-laws wait a lifetime to ascend. And so I accepted their offer, confident that I was the best candidate for the position.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
PREVIOUS: LOST IN BRADFORD
Written by Irna Qureshi
01/12/2011 at 7:52 pm
Tagged with A R Rehman, Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgan, Bangladesh, Bombay, Bradford, East Pakistan, extended family, Hafiz-e-Quran, history of Islamabad, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Kehna Hi Kya, Mani Ratnam, marriage proposal, Muslim matrimonial, Nimbooda, Pakistan, Rawalpindi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vespa, wedding
What troubled me most about my wedding night was the lack of privacy. Obviously we had our own bedroom at my in-laws’, but I wasn’t keen on spending my wedding night in a house swarming with guests. To anyone unfamiliar with Pakistani culture, this may seem a tad inconsiderate, perverse even, so allow me to explain. You see, where I come from, families are huge, the bonds are strong, and lineage is a source of strength and pride. Take my mum, for instance. Her father alone was the eldest of 14 siblings. Even though most of mum’s immediate aunts and uncles have now passed away, the younger generations of the different branches remain close. I can reel off the names of my grandfather’s 14 siblings as naturally as the alphabet, and I can do it according to their birth order. At a push, I could probably also name their spouses and offspring. Needless to say, several generations of each branch were represented at my wedding. Of course my mum also gave due consideration to her mother’s side of the family. It won’t surprise you to learn that even the daughter-in-law of my maternal grandmother’s deceased step brother got an invitation.
You can state ‘Mr and Mrs only’ as loudly as you like on the invitation; it’s still best to assume the entire family will decamp for the celebrations, especially those travelling from further afield. Most come for the three day feast involving the mehndi (the henna party prior to the wedding), the wedding day, and the walima (the groom’s celebration of the consummation of the marriage). We don’t compile guest lists according to individuals. I’ve watched as relatives name the head of a household and then add up all the people in his family unit. And sending out a list of hotels in different price ranges close to the wedding venue would be inconceivable. You see, if our guests can make the effort to attend the wedding, then it’s their prerogative to be accommodated, with three decent meals per day, as well as transportation to the various venues, all at the host’s expense naturally. I’ve known aunts and uncles to rent out houses for a matter of days especially to accommodate wedding guests.
Now I hope you won’t think me selfish for saying so, but here’s the thing; as much as I love a houseful of people, it can all seem a little chaotic when you have to line up for the loo on your wedding day. I might have been the bride-to-be, but for several days I’d been sleeping on a quilt on the living room floor because so many people were sleeping at our house in Islamabad. It was a relief to be able to escape to the beauty parlour to be professionally plucked, preened and polished to Pakistani bridal standards. It was an even greater relief when I later learned that the groom had the good sense to book us into a hotel for a couple of nights – for all I knew, our bedroom was probably already in use!
It took much longer than expected to reach the hotel bridal suite. It was around 10pm and I’d been sitting demurely and with some patience for several hours now; first on the stage in the specially erected marquee on my mum’s lawn where the wedding ceremony was held, and now on the sofa in the lounge in my matrimonial home. I felt wiped out, disorientated and emotionally drained. Meanwhile, it seemed my husband had mysteriously disappeared to run an errand with some friends, so my new in-laws were left to make small talk and to keep me company. Given the occasion, my initial amusement about the delay soon turned to unease as I pondered the possible reasons for the groom’s apparent lack of urgency.
It turned out his friends had taken him out for a drive with an ulterior motive. As is customary at Pakistani weddings, they planned to fleece the groom. You see, the groom spends much of the wedding day collecting envelopes stuffed with cash from wedding guests, in line with the tenet that boxed gifts are useless and cash is always king. So, with a cash reward as an incentive, it’s little wonder that young relatives are keen to goad the groom. The bride’s sisters or cousins start the proceedings. It’s customary for them to find a way to remove one of the groom’s shoes and demand a decent pay-out for its return. The ‘joota chupai’ (hiding the shoe) tradition apparently stems from an old Hindu belief that by touching the groom’s feet, the bride’s sister can help the happy couple to ward off bad luck. Of course the bride’s sisters have an unfair advantage. They know all too well that the groom will be on his best behaviour. He’ll obviously want to impress his new family with his sense of humour, warmth and bigheartedness; no man wants to be labelled a miser by his in-laws, not least on his wedding day!
The groom’s own friends, siblings and cousins reserve their teasing until he returns home with his bride. On my cousin’s wedding night, I was one of a gang of 25 relatives who mischievously blocked the door to his bedroom where the bride was already waiting, and we demanded payment. The groom wanted to be left in peace with his bride while we wanted cash for a midnight feast at one of Lahore’s smartest restaurants. Needless to say, the groom quickly relented. On another occasion, my cousins sought revenge after realising that a young uncle had pre-empted their plans by taking refuge with his bride at Lahore’s Pearl Continental Hotel. While the newlyweds relaxed in their room, my wicked cousins made themselves at home in the hotel’s swanky restaurant. There, with the help of some willing friends, they ran up a considerable bill over the course of a couple of hours. Naturally, they had no intention of paying. After countless interruptions from reception about the outstanding bill, the unfortunate groom finally emerged from his hotel room in a rage and in little more than his shorts and vest.
My husband’s friends too seized the opportunity to play their own prank. Like my cousins, they knew the optimum time to test the groom’s patience is when he is finally sanctioned religiously and socially to be alone with his bride. It turned out my husband’s enterprising friends had driven him into the secluded Margalla Hills where they threatened to abandon him unless he paid up!
Many old Indian films I’ve watched from the 50s, 60s and 70s have depicted the moment the bejewelled bride sits alone on a bed strewn with rose petals, bosom heaving and lips quivering with anticipation, in an elaborately decorated room. The dashing groom makes a polite entrance and takes his first real look at his bride. While he gazes at her poetically and presumably with some relief (that she hasn’t turned out to be a dog), the bride is too bashful to meet his gaze. After a brief and harmless caress, the lights go out!
I think the most daring portrayal of the ‘suhaag raat’ (maiden night) in Indian cinema terms is probably in the following iconic song from an equally iconic movie, Kabhi Kabhie (Yash Chopra, 1976). To appreciate the scene and for the sake of continuity, you need to know that the bride broke off her relationship with a well-known poet after her parents decided to marry her elsewhere. Ironically, her ex-lover is also her husband’s favourite poet. As he admires his beautiful bride, he asks her to recite a favourite song by the poet to commemorate their wedding night. This explains the bride’s wistful tears and the brief entrance by Amitabh Bachchan (the poet), although rest assured he appears purely in her imagination!
I was nine years old when Kabhi Kabhie was released and I remember watching it on television in Pakistan. As I sat through this bold scene countless times, I was still too young to understand the symbolism it contained. Little did I know then that the bride’s long, dark, silken tresses, now unravelled, alluded to her state of undress. Her hair also cleverly obstructed my view, in line with the unspoken ‘no kissing’ rule that existed in the classic Bollywood films of yesteryear that I grew up watching. This immortal scene beautifully depicts the couple’s growing intimacy through the groom’s removal of the bride’s jewellery, one piece at a time – the pearl and gold ‘tikka’ hanging over her forehead, necklace, earrings, and finally the nose ring. The song ends as the groom removes his bride’s nose ring, a crude reference to her loss of virginity. The term ‘nath utarna’ (removal of the nose ring) traditionally signified a dancing girl’s initiation into the sex trade, and is still sometimes used today.
A similar theme is portrayed in a song from the classic film Gunga Jumna (Nitin Bose, 1961). When Vyjayanthimala wakes up beside her husband for the first time, she ventures outside and coquettishly sings about her lost jhumka earring, while the other one remains intact. When her husband comes to find her, the missing earring stuck to the back of his shirt alludes to their intimate night.
I spent the morning after my wedding fending off distant female relatives who seemed particularly interested in my wellbeing: “You look tired dear. Didn’t he let you get much rest last night?” The women giggled knowingly, expecting me to blush like a new bride should, implying just like those Bollywood song sequences did, that what we’d set out to achieve on our maiden night had been duly accomplished. It was a couple of days later that I received a more perceptive enquiry, one that for the first time seemed to imply that there might be more to marriage than making it through the maiden night. A distant uncle asked me, “Understanding ho gayee? Click ho gaya?” What he meant was this: “Have you worked things out? Have you clicked?”
I’d often heard Pakistani women in Bradford mocking youngsters like me about our illusory aspirations to settle down with someone with whom we ‘clicked’. When friends wanted to dismiss an unsuitable match during heated discussions with parents, that’s what they’d say: “We just didn’t click!” meaning there was no spark.
“What is this click business?” The parents would moan as they ridiculed our unreasonable standards. Wasn’t it enough to be found a ‘sharif’ (decent) man who didn’t drink or gamble, who had a stable job and a strong family background?
I sensed this uncle wasn’t interested in my reply. I must have smiled and nodded shyly to his satisfaction, but here’s what I was really thinking: “Worked things out? Understood each other? Isn’t that rather a lot to accomplish in 48 hours?”
We had only just broken the ice. Where exactly do you begin when your terms of reference are totally different and you’ve got a lifetime’s worth of catching up to do? Besides, I was still waiting for the click.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: OBLIGATION AND INTIMACY
PREVIOUS: THE WEDDING DAY
Written by Irna Qureshi
02/09/2011 at 6:45 am
Tagged with Dilip Kumar, family, Gunga Jumna, Islamabad, joota chupai, Kabhi Kabhie, Lahore, maiden night, marriage, nath utara, Pakistani weddings, Rakhi, Shashi Kapoor, suhaag raat, Vyjayanthimala, wedding, wedding customs, wedding day, wedding gifts, wedding night, wedding traditions, Yash Chopra
My wedding day was probably the closest that my life has ever got to resembling an Indian film. The year was 1990. At 23, I was at a good marriageable age. A bit like a graduate trainee who has all the potential to excel with the right sort of guidance, I was still pliable enough for my in-laws to mould me to their requirements. It’s not a decision I took lightly. Throughout my teens, I was conscious of two conflicting paths laid out before me, and I would have to choose one or the other. There could be no in-between. Could I see myself waltzing down the aisle in a big white marshmallow dress? For this option to ring true, I realised I would need to date an English fellow, and this could surely only happen by defecting. I could see myself marrying an English gent if only in my fantasy world. Let’s gloss over the backlash that might have ensued. I imagined having an English husband would make me seem alternative. He would be the ultimate accessory. Such a marriage would speak volumes about my degree of integration. I would leap several social classes overnight, and people would marvel at my confidence to be able to maintain my culture whilst also taking on someone else’s. That’s what I thought.
The reality was quite different. On a practical level, I could never see myself being with someone who didn’t speak my mother tongue, even though I mostly spoke in English. I couldn’t imagine having to explain the machinations of every Indian movie we watched together. There were plenty of minor headaches too that my dream somehow glossed over – the minefield of behavioural do’s and don’ts when sitting with the family. We might even have overcome the whole alcohol, pork and halal hurdle if my Mr Darcy miraculously turned out to be teetotal and vegetarian. But, the reality was that in the absence of anyone sweeping me off my feet, English or otherwise, my options were limited. I didn’t want the headache and the hassle of all that cultural intervention anyway – telling my husband to hide his beer cans in case my family turned up unannounced, and making him use a dedicated frying pan and separate washing up sponge for his un-Islamic bacon breakfasts.
I knew I had to marry someone. There’s no such thing as being single in my culture. In fact, marriage is so critical that we refer to the state of being single as being unmarried. And so, I was really happy to take the traditional route, even though it wasn’t so much a “yes please!” as a “well, why not then.”
And love? Well, despite my 23 years I was inexperienced, just as I was expected to be, in matters of romance. Therefore my decision was quite pragmatic really. I realised it wasn’t an affair of the heart or even a meeting of minds, but I hoped it might be once we got to know each other. I did have a serious talk with my mum about it. “You know I don’t love him,” I started tentatively a few months before the wedding. “Of course you don’t,” she reassured me. “You see, English people do things the other way round. They marry the person they love, but we grow to love the person we marry.”
So that’s how I found myself on that September evening, wearing an exquisitely embroidered gharara (bridal outfit), sitting on a purpose built stage inside the marquee erected on our front lawn in Islamabad. My neck was stooped forward with the weight of the chunky gold necklaces around it and my eyes were demurely downcast, with dozens of aunts, cousins and neighbours clucking around me. Mum had done well to stretch that savings plan she’d taken out with the Prudential when I was in my early teens. She must have felt like she was throwing money into a bottomless pit: yard upon yard of fabric from Bombay Stores; jewellery from the goldsmith working out of his lounge just off Horton Grange Road; extravagant gifts for the groom and in-laws; our flights from Bradford to Islamabad; household items and new furniture for the bedroom I would share with my husband at his parental home; bedding for my new bedroom; catering for hundreds of guests; the fairy lights that adorned our house; as well as the stage that I was now shyly sitting on.
I was merely emulating the blushing brides I’d conscientiously observed at the countless weddings I’d attended over the years in Bradford. We didn’t really know the sorts of people that held receptions in the Holiday Inns and the Hiltons. The people we knew hosted weddings at the Pakistani Community Centre off Lumb Lane, or the Manningham Sports Centre, although I’d been lucky enough to attend a number of upmarket affairs at Rio’s nightclub near the university. I think the best time to go to weddings is in your innocence, when you care enough to notice every detail of the bride’s outfit and demeanour. That’s what us Asian girls did. How unhurriedly did the bride walk? How large did the earrings have to be before they looked tawdry? How big was the clutch bag she carried? How dark was the stain of the mehndi? I also lapped up elaborate wedding scenes in the Indian films I watched. The best films were the ones where the wedding was central to the storyline because that’s when you were treated to several song sequences, each dedicated to a different element of the wedding. There might be a mehndi song to mark the eve of the wedding, where the bride and her friends decorate their hands and feet with elaborate henna patterns, and where one of the bride’s friends might perform a celebratory dance before the gathered crowd.
Then there was the baraat song, another opportunity for a jovial dance sequence, where the groom’s wedding party arrive at the bride’s house (or wedding venue) to take her away. This song from Kaala Pathar (Chopra, 1979) was featured on my own wedding video, when my groom’s procession arrived at our house by car. Although I was already dressed in my finery, I concealed myself with a huge chaddar so I could stand on the balcony to watch their arrival. I was quickly ushered back inside but later watched the video with pride as my family formally welcomed the groom’s party with garlands of marigolds and roses, and scores of young cousins lined up to shower them with rose petals. After the religious formalities were conducted and food had been served, I was finally brought out to take my place beside the groom on the stage. My face was as expressionless as the bride’s in the following song. It wasn’t misery, I assure you. Think of it as a sort of cultural coyness.
Thankfully, brides I’ve seen at real weddings lately as well as in Indian films don’t look like that anymore. But when I got married back in 1990, that look was part of the behaviour expected of the bride, at least among the Pakistani branch of my family. Even though I knew the guests were judging me purely on ornamentation rather than personality or my computer literacy skills, I adored being the centre of attention sitting up on that stage with all eyes on me, my dress and my jewellery. Senior female relatives expressly reminded me not to smile or speak too much, not even for the official photographs. And speaking to the groom was out of the question. I wasn’t even supposed to acknowledge him. It was unbecoming. People would think the bride was shameless, openly looking forward to her wedding night rather than silently squirming with apprehension!
In fact, I was much more excited about unpacking my magnificent trousseau which mum and I had spent a number of years assembling. The furniture I’d chosen for my new bedroom had already been sent on, awaiting my arrival. Mum and I hadn’t seen the bedroom and we didn’t know the room’s proportions, but that’s just how it was then. Little did it matter whether the goods would fit or match the rest of the house, or indeed if they were required at all. My mum had to be seen to have done her duty by providing her daughter with everything she would need to commence her new life. And I wasn’t complaining. I was rather looking forward to arranging my newly purchased lipsticks and nail varnishes on my shiny new dressing table. I’d also finally get to use the various pots, pans and pressure cookers we’d bought, the set of dishes and my new red whistling kettle from Marks & Spencer. I had enough newly stitched shalwar kameez outfits, most of them with matching shoes and handbags, to be able to wear a new one every single day for at least six weeks. In hindsight, shopping for matching bags and shoes was probably a constructive distraction and offered the thrill that was alas absent elsewhere. At the time though, I felt like a very lucky girl, with a wonderful incentive to get married.
Call me materialistic but let me assure you that all this shopping was entirely necessary. In fact it was actively encouraged. My mum was much happier for me to spend my secretarial earnings on yet another evening clutch from BHS than fritter it away on vinyl at the HMV shop round the corner. You see, people of my mum’s generation expected to see a physical transformation in my appearance after marriage. I was taught that women should only adorn themselves after they have a husband to appreciate their efforts. As was tradition, I gave away my old outfits, shoes and Top Shop bangle collection to my friends because these items represented my old life. I’d be delving into my new wardrobe every day to wear embroidered outfits and high heeled shoes befitting a new bride. There’s a famous story about the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya. They married in real life midway through the filming of Abhimaan (Mukherjee, 1973) in which their characters also became man and wife. Audiences flocked to the cinemas because they wanted to see Jaya transformed from a simply dressed young woman to a dazzling bride. To add to the hype, her married character in Abhimaan was much talked about for her stylish silk saris, radiant make-up and jhumka earrings.
The rukhsati scene, the bride’s ceremonial send-off, marks the most poignant part of the wedding ceremony in any Bollywood film. Featuring a sombre song with tender lyrics, it’s a time of high emotion for the bride’s family as they bid their tearful farewells. It’s also in the rukhsati scene that the spotlight shines firmly on the bride. This is where she stops behaving like a mannequin and becomes animated with emotion. I loved these touching scenes and I would spend ages rewinding the video so I could study the bride closely. How many tears? How prolonged was her pain? Did she still look graceful? I remember being particularly awestruck by a bride at a wedding I attended in Islamabad. When the time came for her rukhsati, she dramatically fainted. As an impressionable young teenager, I looked forward to the day when I might have such a remarkable rukhsati of my own.
And so, the moment came for me to leave the stage. In that short walk through the marquee erected on our lawn out into the street to the waiting car, I bade farewell not only to my family but also to my life in Bradford. With each step, I moved closer towards the unfamiliarity of new people and a new home in Islamabad. My sister and cousin led me slowly and ceremoniously. While the groom’s party trailed behind us, my family solemnly lined up on either side. The celebrations for the groom’s family were just about to begin since they were gaining a family member. My family were losing one. Every few steps, a much-loved aunt, uncle or cousin would step forward to kiss me tenderly on my forehead – everyone but my mum who intentionally kept her distance. An embrace from her at this hour would have made my departure more difficult. In one of the loneliest moments of my life, those were some of the heaviest steps I have ever taken. I didn’t know my new family all that well, nor did I know the groom well enough to seize his hand for comfort. Besides, can you imagine the scorn from the assembled crowd! As we reached the send-off car, with the groom waiting pathetically at one side, my sister and I, both of us by now inconsolable, held on to one another so tightly and for so long that someone eventually had to wrench us apart.
It wasn’t until my own rukhsati that the significance of those tears really dawned on me. I realised then that the merriment of the wedding was over and the drudgery of marriage was about to begin. I cried for my mum and I cried for myself. I realised my mum had been preparing me for this day for a long, long time. As I began my new life with the in-laws, I’d be her little representative, clinging on to her values to help me to assimilate. I cried for the weight of expectation on my shoulders but I hoped I wouldn’t let her down. I cried for what I was leaving behind and I cried for what I hoped I’d find ahead. I cried like the bewitching Waheeda Rehman did in Neel Kamal (Maheshwari, 1968), as her distraught father bids her farewell with these heartfelt lines:
Take my prayers with you as you leave
May you find happiness in your new life
May you find so much love with your in-laws
That you never think about those you leave behind
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: THE WEDDING NIGHT
PREVIOUS: YORKSHIRE BOLLYWOOD AND HISTORY
Written by Irna Qureshi
02/08/2011 at 12:26 am