The rebel in me…

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!

 

The seventh child….

The contractions in my lower abdomen became very sharp and I doubled over with pain. Yet again, I willed my seventh about-to-be-born child to be a boy this time; “Please God please”, I prayed fervently looking up at the whirring fan on the ceiling which was peeling in many places.  At the end of the next jolt of pain, I felt the baby slide out onto the bloody sheet and enter this patriarchal world. The room filled with the sound of a wailing baby who seemed unhappy to be let out of a comforting and safe haven into this cold and alien world. The fear of it being another girl paralyzed me and I shut my eyes tightly, too afraid to look at the baby or ask about the gender. My mind wandered back to the last two times which had been the worst of the six deliveries; my husband had ignored me for weeks, while my mother in law had found every opportunity to berate me for failing to produce a male child for her only son.

Very early in my marriage I had understood that I would earn respect and a place in my husband’s heart only if I produced a son! But each subsequent pregnancy culminated in the birth of yet another girl, leading to an exponential increase in resentment and alienation. My husband ignored the girls, forgot their names and cursed the day he married me, while my mother in law threatened me with a second marriage for her beloved son. Why didn’t they understand that I was not to blame? How could he be oblivious to the fact that girls vied desperately for his attention? I could sense that our male dominated society had boxed me amongst the ‘unfortunates’ and looked at me with eyes filled with pity and tinged with derision.

My only ally was my mother who counselled me on various herbs and talisman’s which she willed would result in the procreation of a male child. Many visits were made to far off darbars to offer alms and prayers, and repeated visits made to doctors who claimed to have a cure for ‘son-less’ women; but post each birth, the doctors and holy men were quickly labelled as quacks and charlatans. On the birth of my fourth daughter, my mother prepared me for the inevitable outcome of the arrival a second wife and urged me to accept my fate if that were to happen. Luck was probably on my side as despite six daughters, my husband had not gone in search of another woman  to share his marital bed. At least not yet!

I tried to shower extra love and affection on my innocent daughters in the hope of reducing their present pain at their fathers alienation, and their future pain of always being the less important person in all spheres of their lives. Even as a young girl I had understood that the birth of a boy was celebrated with fanfare, sweetmeats and gifts, while the birth of a girl was not announced in the hope that family and neighbors would soon forget this shameful occurrence! Whilst I was growing up in my parents house, the jarring difference in the way me and my brothers were treated would always remain imprinted in my personality; better schooling, extra treats, and new clothes and shoes! I was smart enough to know that the males in the house were to be given preferential treatment, but vulnerable enough to feel the pain of unfairness in my innocent heart. I felt sad knowing that patriarchal societies leeched on infanticide and infant mortality of young girls, and much as I may have tried, there was nothing I could have done in my limited influence and capacity.

The loud wailing of the baby jolted me back to the present, and I looked up to see the midwife holding the newborn who was all swaddled in a warm blanket. Looking around, I saw a room full of women: my anxious mother and concerned sisters, my ever judging mother in law, and a babble of curious neighbours. Tired and exhausted after a long delivery, not ready to deal with people and too afraid to know the inevitable, I closed my eyes, shut my ears and prayed for oblivion.

A Day out with the camera…

Traveling is a passion for me and photography a hobby: the result is different cultures steeped in a kaleidoscope of colours captured on camera.  My recent exploration led me to a land of beauty, warmth, peace and culture: Sri Lanka. The intense greenery in this small island is a welcome sight, the food a gastronomic pleasure, and the shopping irresistible. This was my second visit to the country, but my first armed with my new Nikon. I happily clicked away, adamant to capture all the beauty and culture of the island, but more importantly, store joyous memories of time well spent with loved ones!

“Twenty years from now you will look back more regretfully upon the things you didn’t do than those you did. So set free the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. Dream. Explore. Discover.” – American author and humorist Mark Twain

 

The weight in the womb…

The wind blew with a gust making the black veil slip from Saira’s head; she grabbed it tightly and covered her face, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Finally she reached the preset meeting point and quickly turned the corner hoping no one from her family or neighbourhood had seen her leave. As promised, Adil was waiting for her under the tree with his motorcycling revving, ready to drive off as soon as she sat behind him. She heaved a sigh of relief sure that no one had seen her, and finally relaxed enough to start enjoying the illicit ride with this man she hardly knew.

Saira belonged to a poor family who had seen struggle, deprivation and hunger for as long as she could remember. She had gone to a local state owned school for her primary education but it ended as soon as she was old enough to earn and contribute to the meager earnings of the family. In all these years she had worked as a sweepress, a house maid, a baby sitter, and now a cook, slowly climbing up the hierarchy of domestic help and earning a reasonable salary. Though she enjoyed the freedom of being able to move around on her own and spend a bit of her money on small treats, there were days when she felt burdened by the weight of her parents expectations and the drudgery of a long and  hard day. Like all girls of her age, she spent many hours daydreaming of meeting a handsome man and getting married to him.

Her daily walk to work required her to cross a mechanics shop where each day she craned her neck to look for the handsome and burly mechanic who was always shouting orders at his team. Once in a while their eyes met and though she quickly averted her eyes, it always made her blush and wanting more. After many weeks of trying to catch each others eyes, one day she found the young man standing on the road almost blocking her way. It took only a few encounters for Saira to lose her shyness and for the conversation to become more comfortable leading to an arrangement to meet alone. Though she knew that her family would not approve of her talking and meeting a strange man, but the drudgery of her days and the lack on any better prospect propelled her and she agreed to meet Adil and go on a drive with him.

She kept her face covered while Adil drove through the familiar streets of her neighbourhood, and only once they had entered unknown zones did she relax and let her veil down. They rode around town for hours holding on tightly to each other, till he stopped in a remote and vacant plot. Promising to never leave her and send his parents to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, he convinced her that their physical closeness was only a way of expressing his ardent love. One thing led to another, and Saira found herself caught in the physical love of two people, exciting and powerful,yet darkened by the shadows of social and cultural norms.

It took a few months for Saira to realize that she was pregnant; this realization was followed by disbelief, fear and shock. She tried to contact Adil to remind him of his ‘true love’ and his long overdue marriage proposal, but he was not to be found at his place of work nor was he responding to her desperate phone calls. The fear of being an unwed mother in a society who viewed this as a crime almost stopped her heart on many occasions, only to be revived back to reality by a study kick in her womb.  Her womb became heavy and her stomach swelled more and more each day till the sinful reality became a loud scream for all to hear. Her parents beat her black and blue out of anger and shame, the neighbours shunned her and her younger sisters blamed her for their lack of future prospects.

The months passed and Saira stayed indoors away from prying eyes, till one cold, winter morning her water broke. The pain became unbearable and she screamed and screamed till she was hoarse, hoping her voice would carry far and reach her unfaithful lover. Though her heart ached at the thought that Adil had deserted her in such a condition, the impending arrival of her child gave her strength and she pushed and pushed till her little boy slid out onto a dirty sheet. The midwife quickly wrapped the baby in a blanket and handed him over to Saira’s mother who was watching from the corner of the room. Saira could see her mother take the baby and leave the small room; she wanted to call out for him but the sedative given to her by the midwife kicked in and she fell in a deep slumber.

She must have slept for long because when she woke up, night had fallen and a small light was burning in the corner of the room. She called out to her mother asking to see her son, eager to see the prospect of a better future in his tiny eyes.  She wanted to hold him close and suckle him to her breast in the hope that the emptiness and shame in her life would now be filled by this child borne from her womb. She called and called for her baby but no one responded. And as she screamed louder for him, she knew that she would never, ever hold him close to her breast: that he had been taken far away from her to wipe clean the shame and dishonour brought upon her family, and that she would spend the rest of her life with a large gaping hole in her womb, her heart and her soul. As she imagined her baby lying in a crib far away with his little mouth puckered and wanting her breast, she felt a flash of physical pain in her empty womb,: her world collapsed around her and she began to howl and scream like a wounded animal till all her inside became empty and she could scream no more!

 

Abandonment…

The sound of my pitiful crying grew fainter and fainter as I lost all energy to go on. The wetness of the sheet underneath me, the gnawing in my little stomach, and the feeling of abandonment all reached a zenith and I started howling once again; pitiful sounds which must have attracted some attention as I felt myself being lifted up into warm arms and carried away from my wet, cold and confined space. The  room I found myself in was warm and bright, and  I could hear the voices of many people talking all at once; who, what, when, why. While I tried to adjust to this new environment, I felt someone remove my wet clothes and wrap me in a warm, thick blanket. The warmth of the dry clothes and the comfort of being in secure arms lulled me and I drifted off to sleep despite the deep, dark feeling of hunger in my stomach.

I remember the day I was conceived; oh what a joyous day that was! My mother, only 17 years old then,  had quickly dabbed on some lipstick and left her work early, telling her mistress that she had to go somewhere. My father rode up on a borrowed motorcycle and picked her up from the corner of the street, where she had been standing all veiled up to ensure that no one recognized her.

My mother belonged to a poor family who worked in people’s homes and earned just enough to keep the kitchen stove lit in their worn down home. Her father was a laborer who worked at construction sites all day, and had consequently become dark, thin and emaciated over the course of the tough years.  My father instead belonged to a relatively more affluent family, and he was the lead mechanic in a large car workshop. He would see my mother walk to work each day and pass in front of his shop; after many months of intent pursuit and cajoling, they started talking till he finally convinced her to go on a ride around the city on his motorcycle. They rode around town for hours, holding on tightly to each other, till he stopped in a remote and vacant plot. Promising to never leave her and send his parents to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, he convinced her that their physical closeness was only a way of expressing his ardent love. One thing led to another, and I was conceived in a flash; created by the physical love of two people, yet darkened by the shadows of social and cultural norms.

It took a few months for my mother to realize that I was growing inside of her; this realization was followed by disbelief, fear and shock. She tried to contact my father to remind him of his ‘true love’ and his long overdue marriage proposal, but he was not to be found at his place of work nor was he responding to her desperate phone calls. The fear of being an unwed mother in a society who viewed this as a crime almost stopped her heart on many occasions, only to be revived back to reality by a study kick in her womb.  Her stomach swelled more and more each day till the sinful reality became a loud scream for all to hear. Her parents beat her black and blue out of anger and shame, the neighbours shunned her and her younger sisters blamed her for their lack of future prospects.

The months passed with my mother staying indoors away from prying eyes, till one cold, winter morning I decided enough was enough, and I needed to get out of my confined space. My mother screamed and screamed till she was hoarse, yet I gave her no respite and pushed my way out till I slid onto a dirty sheet. I waited for the warmth of my mother’s arms and the comfort of her breast, but instead I felt someone carry me out of the warm room into the cold night. I tried to call out to my mother to ask her to save me from this stranger who was taking me way from her while the umbilical cord was still wet and oozing, but no one heard me. Very shortly, I felt myself being put in a cold, empty crib. I waited and waited and waited till I could wait no longer. The wetness of my clothes and the hunger in my stomach gave me the strength to start howling again.

As I mentioned at the start, I was picked up and taken in a warm room and changed into dry clothes. I felt the teat of a bottle touch my lips, and I clamped hard and sucked with all my little might till I felt full and satiated. Feeling more energetic now, I looked around the room and saw a row of small cribs all filled with babies like me. Young though I was , I understood that this was going to be my new home where all of us little abandoned souls would share mothers, blankets and bottles and pass through life never knowing where the other part of the umbilical cord had dried.