Opinion

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and other Pakistans

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One of the perks of being a “Cornell spouse” is uninhibited access to the university library. So, once every month, I descend into the stacks at Olin with an empty Jansport backpack, the bars on my cell phone dwindling with every step into that delicious musty labyrinth, to emerge a few hours later with books piled up to my chin, like the fat little mouse Gus in Disney’s Cinderalla and his teetering armload of cheese. Setting down my own bits of cheese on the circulation desk, I proudly flourish the shiny blue-and-white Cornell ID Card, and walk out with an immensely satisfied look on my face , 20 pounds worth of books pulling happily on my shoulders and many weeks of apple-pie reading ahead.

The book I just finished is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, a collection of short stories about Pakistan. I had heard about Mueenuddin – praise for the most part, from friends, and a cousin who knew him personally – but for some reason I hadn’t been particularly motivated to read his book, until prompted by a certain Bangladeshi friend from Berkeley. I had been in the middle of a book of short stories by Rabindranath Tagore when I messaged him: “Have you read these? They’re incredible! So witty, wise, sad, ironic..” I raved, and to my surprise he replied: “No, actually I haven’t read any of his stories. But have you read Daniyal Mueenuddin?”

One cannot compare the two at any rate – Tagore is a giant, a saint, a genius – but it suddenly struck me that all this time I had unconsciously been avoiding Pakistan writers. I think the last Pakistani novel I’d read was Kartography, or Moth Smoke – years and years ago. I don’t know why I’d been ignoring them, especially considering that there were just a handful. Perhaps it was my conception of books as windows to other worlds – other times, histories, cultures, people, different and fascinating – and Pakistan was all  too familiar.

But Mueenuddin’s stories left me puzzled, stunned – I knew as little about the world he described as I knew about Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo or Tagore’s rural Bengal. Nawabdin electrician, Saleema,  Zainab, Rezak – all these people were alien to me, foreigners, their private lives detached from mine by an invisible wall. Of course I knew people like them – we kept servants at home, like any well-off Pakistani family, and most of them came from the villages surrounding Lahore. But I really knew nothing about them, the cook, the maid, the chowkidaar, the sweepress, the driver, all the people who worked in my house; I knew nothing beyond the rudiments, the apparent facts. I liked to  think that I was friends with the maidservants, those pretty, smiling young girls who washed and pressed my clothes and dusted my room everyday; at least I had every intention to be friendy. But would I ever know what they really thought about me, or any of us, what they said to each other in the confidence of the kitchen, the one space in the entire two-storey house that belonged to them?  Could one of them be a Saleema, could my cook be a Hassan, could the driver be having an affair with the sweepress half his age? In our house?

It was unimaginable. These ideas had never occured to me, till very recently, when my mother – obviously privy to all the servants’ politics – started to discuss them with me and my sister, suddenly deciding that we were “old” enough. I think it happened when that new maid was hired, the 21- year old widow (so she told us) whom my sister and I nicknamed “Pocahontas” at first sight, so tall, golden and raven-haired she was. After the first few days of feverish excitement among the male servants – all married – the burly cook huffingly announced to my mother that the girl had to be dismissed, she “wasn’t right”. Sahi nahin hai baji. That was all he said. My mother, with her calm, instinctive wisdom, understood everything. She later told us that the young widow apparently had a habit of parading topless on the terrace of the servants’ quarters, causing quite a commotion, and not one  slip-up – including the grumpy cook and even one of the neighbor’s kitchen boys. I will never forget my initial shock and disbelief. “These things happen, Minu,” my mother had said in her soothing way, half-amused at my incredulity.

Of course these things happen. Mueenuddin’s stories revealed that secret world for me. And when he wrote of K.K. Harouni in his attitude towards his servants’ personal lives, “He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort”, I realized that it was, more or less, painfully true.

But I understand even less about the “other” world – K.K. Harouni’s,  Sohail’s or Lily’s, or any of the wealthy people in Mueenuddin’s book. I’m not like them. We’re not like them. My family doesn’t own apartments in London or Paris, my father has never touched alcohol, my mother doesn’t wear saris or grape-sized emeralds in her ears everyday, we don’t socialize with people called “Mino” or “Bumpy”, neither have we ever hosted Tsunami-themed parties with artificial beaches in the lawn, or been invited to one – thank God for that. We know who these people are – in our family we call them the “filthy rich”. Perhaps my father is acquainted with some of them through work, we see them at weddings and other big events, and in the social pages of the Sunday magazines. But there’s is a separate universe. Reading about them in Mueenuddin’s book, I found myself shocked once more. Ecstacy? Getting drunk on bootlegged alcohol, sleeping around? In Pakistan?? How little I knew! How naive I was! Were there only three kinds of Pakistanis then, the struggling, servile poor, the opportunisitic middle-class like Husna and Jaglani, and the hedonistic elites? Where did my family fit in?

I grew up in inviolable purity. In retrospect, I think it almost hilarious, how little I knew of anything – I can just hear my best friend Zohra laughing delightedly at my scandalized face at some story or other –  but I treasure that. I value that, I wouldn’t call it ignorance, but security, that preservation of my inner child. Little things, tiny things, inconsequential for some people maybe; not knowing the smell of alcohol, for instance, till I was a 23-year old graduate student at Berkeley, passing through the dorm to my room on a Saturday night; never having been on a “date” with anyone but my fiance (now husband); still shy of wearing a sleeveless kameez infront of the family elders. The possibility of premarital sex did not exist – the idea of sex itself was, for the longest time, something mysterious, slightly embarrasing, and not particularly fascinating. Outside of marriage, it was an impossibility. It was not only because of our Muslim upbringing, but my personal beliefs, as they evolved with age; grounded in Islam, nourished by the various volumes of Sufi poetry scattered about the house, shaped into an intimate, spiritual, almost mystical view of life that I carry with me everywhere.

I remember how upset I was when some of my friends started smoking in high school  – a habit I still dislike but have grown to tolerate, with a roll of my eyes and half- laughing censure. I’ve accepted many other things since then –  have “grown up”, though somewhat unwillingly. I am not one to judge anybody, not people from other societies and cultures nor fellow Pakistanis. And yet, my heart is still floating in that  prism – sepia-tinted, “old-fashioned”, you might call it – where there is nothing sordid, no taint or speck to marr its clear beauty. Loyalty, fidelity and honesty are things you take for absolute granted; there is no other way to speak to a servant but with the utmost respect, even more than you give your parents; and there is was no other way to look upon your parents but with love, understanding and forbearance, even if you feel angry or wronged. You can go bury your face in the pillow or brood for an hour in your bedroom, but to raise your voice, to actually “fight” or quarrel with them? It never crossed our minds. I tremble at the thought.

As I finished reading “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, with a strangely sad feeling in my stomach, and tears for the “Spoiled Man” Rezak welling up in my eyes – my favourite story in the book – I thought,  “This is a depressing country, this country of ours.”  These were tragic stories, with no real faith, comfort or redemption for any of the characters, the peasant woman or the feudal lord. Their lives seemed empty, hollow, unfulfilled.

But that is not the Pakistan I know. It is not my Pakistan.

One day I’ll write a story about the Pakistani life I knew – a beautiful life, with its share of ordinary family problems, but beautiful, and wholesome, spirited, and simple. One day I’ll write a story about my family, the poets, lawyers, doctors, artists and engineers, never poor, never too rich, and in my memory never anything but upright, dignified in everything they did.  That is the only way I saw them, and that is all I knew.

With my parents and sister at Khanpur Lake, Winter 2008

When in America, do as the Americans don’t

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I wrote this piece for a class on Immigration Reporting at Journalism School last March, right before I left for Spain to film a short documentary about Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona.  

Identity is such a fluid thing – parts of it change every time you move, make new friends, do something different in life – and parts of it are simply unalterable. I can’t say I feel exactly the same now as I did when I wrote this, but it was a very strange and interesting part of my life, shared I think by many Pakistanis studying or living abroad.

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, August 25th 2010
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Rediscovering nationality in the melting pot

MANAL AHMAD, PAKISTAN: I was spring-cleaning my laptop a few days ago when I came across these two pictures. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed them, buried in virtual stack-loads on my hard drive, the blessing and bane of digital photography. But, my general sense of awareness about “culture” and “identity” somewhat heightened of late, I paused to look, and was struck by the utter incongruity of it all. Not just the photographs, but of myself – in Pakistan, an English-sprouting, skinny-jean-wearing junk-food-eating, American Idol-watching “Westerner”, and in America, a jingly, jangly, Urdu-priding, chai-chugging, public transport-taking “Pakistani”.

 manal_double

I moved to California from Pakistan in 2007 to start graduate school at UC Berkeley. Though I had come as a student, I experienced much of what a new immigrant experiences – curiosity, bewilderment, loneliness, discrimination, independence, and – unexpectedly enough – a conscious need to re-affirm my “identity”. During the 22 years I lived in Pakistan, this had only occurred to me on a handful of occasions – cricket matches against India, for example, or when the enormous green-and-white flags appeared on 14th August, Independence Day, only to disappear a day later.

At the upper-class, English-medium, private university in Lahore I attended for my Bachelor’s, there was a course called “Pakistan Studies: Culture & Heritage” that we were required to take before graduating. Ironically, it is in this class that we were thoroughly “de-nationalized”. In this class, taught by a radical Marxist Yale-educated professor, we learnt there was no such thing as a “Pakistani”.

Then what was Pakistan? Little more than a project of India’s Muslim intellectuals, feudal elite and the British colonial government. The very concept of “nation-state” was foreign to the Indian subcontinent; it was forced upon us by the British, and Pakistan was the direct result. At independence in 1947, less than 10% of the people in Pakistan actually spoke Urdu, the national language; most spoke regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or – Bengali! Yes, because Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan, until it seceded in 1971, which of course didn’t do much for consolidating our national identity.

Add to that the fact of the vast economic disparity in the country, 6th most populous in the world, where 1/4th of the people live below the poverty line and 54% have no basic education – I, who started learning English at age 4 and grew up watching Disney cartoons, had a computer at home ever since I can remember, ate out with friends every weekend at American Pizza Huts dressed in jeans and cute tops because that’s what was cool and shalwar kameez was something only our mothers wore or we kept for formal occasions – I was obviously the exception.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy my culture, as I knew it. I loved it, yes; I loved my traditional embroidery, the block-print and mirror-work, the silver jewelry. I loved my home-cooked food, the grand weddings, the Mughal architecture, Ramadan and Eid, sufi-rock; but I loved it, like a visitor, like a curious traveler, collecting souvenirs, taking pictures. Pakistan was a colorful, exotic TV series, which I could switch on whenever I wanted, and switch off whenever the beggars and child laborers and hungry people came on.

My world was very different. Did I really know anything beyond it? No.

Then, I came to America, the place where what little “nationality” I had might have melted away completely. But quite the opposite happened.

I remember the funny warm feeling I got when I saw the first restaurant sign that said “Pakistani cuisine” in Berkeley (later to discover that desi or South Asian food was a local favorite and that there were hundreds of such restaurants all over the Bay Area). “Hey, that’s my place!” I would think with pride, and proudly order in Urdu, and tell him to make it extra spicy, because of course that’s what I was used to. I would stare at the food, my food, that all these foreigners, these Americans seemed to enjoy so much, mystified at the sight of them eating with their hands, tearing the naan into morsels and scooping up the bhindi or aaloo gobi – food so utterly commonplace that you couldn’t find it at even a roadside stall back in Lahore.

I felt a surge of joy at taxi rides, when I would invariably get a Pakistani or Indian driver (yes, Indian counted too, but that’s another complex affinity, another story). I would invariably smile at any man or woman I passed who looked desi to me – maybe I would talk to them at the bus stop or in a store – and how thrilled I was if they understood Urdu!

Perhaps the most bizarre thing was paying $20 to dance bhangra at a San Francisco club called “Rickshaw Stop”. A bhangra club? That didn’t make any sense! Bhangra was what guys did. They did it at weddings to live drummers, or in Punjabi music videos, or in the villages. You didn’t dance bhangra for any other reason. And how would a girl dance bhangra in the first place? Why would you ever even need a lesson in bhangra? It was all too confusing.

But when I saw what it was all about, I realized with a start: this was as much foreign to me as to everyone else in that room. This was bhangra? This incredible complicated sweaty aerobic choreographed performance that all these goras (literally, “white people”, but meaning any Westerner) seemed to be enjoying out of their minds?

Well, I decided I wanted in – I decided that this was mine, it was mine to own, it was Pakistani, and I could do it better than any of these goras because this is what we did back in Pakistan, didn’t we? And everyone believed me.

Why did I need to re-affirm my difference, my uniqueness, my identity in the melting pot? Why did I feel more Pakistani in America? I don’t really know. Is it because in this country, “ethnicness” is generally prized, coveted, glorified? Or, as a human being, you struggle to identify with a group because you find strength in groups, so you meet, talk to and befriend people you may never even have acknowledged back home – just for the color of their passport? Is that hypocrisy?

In Pakistan, I would never talk to my cab driver. I’ve never dream of taking a cab in Pakistan by myself. But here – it is a bonding experience. Here, I trust a desi cab driver over all others. He might have been a criminal back home, for all I know. But in America, it doesn’t matter. We are the same.

And sometimes I find myself thinking – if all Pakistanis moved to the U.S., we might actually be a nation – a much better nation! We would work hard, we wouldn’t have to bribe or take bribes to make our way in life, and we could communicate with each other, without suspicion or pretense or awkward social barriers.

But the question is, is it even real? Or do we find this strange affinity only because we stereotype ourselves to fit American expectations and tastes, shaking hands and serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic”?

The last vestige of nationality probably lies in the accent. The moment people stop asking you what part of the world you’re from when you talk to them – you’re lost. You’ve become American. You drop your T’s. You’ve successfully “assimilated”. And for this confused “Westernized” desi, for whatever illogical irrational reason, that’s not a compliment.