Growing up straddled between two cultures and two religions can be a tough nut to crack, and I went through my fair share of tribulations and adjustments in my younger days. What I remember the most was my paternal family’s perpetual desire to gravitate me towards the culture of the East, while the rebellious soul in me compassed towards the West like a flower desperate for the bright sun. There are many stories and flashbacks of my growing up years and I have penned down one which comes to mind.
I remember the day me and my best friend dashed towards the school gate as soon as the bell sounded. It was the last day of the school year and we were all celebrating by going to a Chinese restaurant for lunch; a rare treat for the girls under the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq which made over-cautious citizens like my paternal grandmother more nervous about allowing me any freedom. We urged the driver to drive fast and take us home, squeezed together on the back seat where we had carelessly thrown our overloaded school bags. I was most excited as my friend was coming home with me where we would get ready together for the much awaited end-of-the-school-year lunch.
Once in my room, I took out a pair of new jeans I had got from Milan that summer on one of the shopping sprees with my mother. It had been so much fun going to high streets and looking at the latest fashion and big stores. How I loved the life on the streets of Milan!! Sighing nostalgically, I started to dress up and once I was ready, I swirled in front of the mirror admiring my reflection in the new figure hugging outfit. Turning to my friend with a mischievous grin, I said “Just you wait and see my grandmothers expression when we go out”.
The past few years had seen an upsurge in the arguments taking place in my household which revolved around my unconventional preference of dressing and social life. The European blood in me rose to a challenge every time this topic came up, and each argument left me bitter and surer that I wanted to move to my second home which was Italy. As I was grew up and became a confident ‘young lady’, my father handed the reins of my upbringing to his mother not realizing that the generation gap between us was too much to bridge; hence not foreseeing the repercussions of this change in command. My grandmother belonged to era where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to get married, have a dozen children and spend the entire day with one arm stirring a spoon in the cooking pot, whilst clutching a wailing baby in the other! Her daughters, my aunts, had followed the expected path and their entire beings were focused on being good wives, gourmet cooks and obedient daughter in laws. Me being a byproduct of two opposite cultures had grown up absorbing a bit of both these polarities. The East was apparent in my preference for spicy food, fetish for colourful glass bangles, and love for loud and music filled weddings. But it was my fiercely independent mind, rebellion of cultural norms and dislike of shalwar suits which loudly reflected my penchant for the West! I had appealed to my father many times in the hope of getting some relaxation in the stringent rules, but found him to be at a loss of how to manage a rebellious teenager on the one hand, and a dominating mother on the other.
I gave one final look in the mirror before opening the door to the room and leading the way forward. Full of excitement, we skipped down the stairs looking like an antithesis of each other; friends of the soul yet so different in our physical outlook. My friend fulfilled all cultural and conventional norms attired in a yellow and white shalwar suit with a matching dupatta spread wide to cover her ample bosom. On the other hand, I was wearing a pair of fitted jeans with a red and white Snoopy tee-shirt which barely covered my rounded hips.
“Look how nice your friend is looking Sarah! Why don’t you wear the new shalwar suit I got stitched for you? Said my grandmother in a well controlled tone.
“Dadi, these are new trousers I got this summer and I want to show them off to my friends’, I replied, hoping that my grandmother would not create too much of a scene in front of my friend. As I opened the main door and headed for the car waiting near the entrance, I looked over my shoulder and trying to placate her, I said, “Dadi, I shall wear the new shalwar suit tomorrow, I promise”.
My shrewd grandmother was intelligent and smart enough to know when not to make an issue, and giving last minute instructions to the driver to drive carefully, she shut the main door and slowly hobbled back in. The last few years had taken a toll on her health with osteoporosis taking over her life and joint pains with painful knees becoming the primary focus of her days. It saddeded me to see how she was now an unrecognizable, mere shadow of her previous formidable self. Reaching the nearest sofa, she lowered herself in it and sighed with relief, mentally preparing herself for yet another discussion with my father when he came home in the evening.
This tug of war between grandmother and granddaughter had reached its zenith since I had started talking of going abroad to University in the next couple of years. She could not conceive such a situation, and reiterated at every possible occasion that I was fast approaching the average marriageable age of Pakistani girls and should incline myself in that direction. Though my father also was not a cheerleader when it came to the thought of sending me abroad to study in the West, he found himself not agreeing to the proposition of an early marriage. He tried to convince me to do my Undergraduate degree in Pakistan and then look towards the West for a Masters Programme: a time when he felt I would be older and more mature.
The lunch was a roaring success with 35 chatty teenagers talking non stop and nonsensically: I would like to remind everyone that in those times, going out with friends without adult supervision was a rare occurrence, so we were all excited beyond words. The day was full of sunshine, the future full of promise; we were happy our O’levels had ended, the summer vacations had started, and we were all together. Filling my bowl with yummy hot and sour soup, I absorbed the positive energy around me and putting my troubles on the back bench for the time being, I filled my mouth with the delicious treat!