Published in the Express Tribune Blog, October 4th 2011
A friend from Lahore recently asked me, “What would you miss most about New York if you were to move back to Pakistan right now?”
I thought about it for a few minutes. Unlike many Pakistanis living in the U.S. I knew, I wasn’t particularly attached to this country, or to New York.
To me, it was just another city – a hard city, a cacophonous city, where bright lights and gleaming skyscrapers belied the darkness, the sadness, the grime and the poverty in the corners; where glamour, spectacle, a veneer of ethnic diversity thinly concealed the underlying greed and racism.
I had no great love for New York; my heart still belonged to Lahore, and it was Lahore that I forever looked for, in every street sign, in every face, in every smell and neighbourhood.
But there was one thing.
“Freedom”, I replied to my friend. “That’s what I would miss.”
It wasn’t the freedom to wear a tank top or mini-skirt in public, to dance at a nightclub or get a tattoo; it wasn’t the freedom to hop on a train or bus at any hour of the day and go where you wanted, come home when you pleased; the freedom to attend any kind of rally, concert or film screening that suited your fancy, to make friends with any colour or class of people you chose, to walk out on the street at 2.a.m. for some ice-cream from the 24-hour deli, to nap under a tree in Washington Square Park.
No, these were superficial freedoms. It was something deeper than that.
It was the freedom to be.
Growing up in Lahore, I didn’t ever ask myself – Why are all the women I know teachers and doctors, the other half housewives? Why don’t I know any women engineers, scientists, actresses, novelists, athletes, dancers, photographers, lawyers?
I never asked myself – Why do I have to wait for the driver or one of my parents to drop me to school or to a friend’s house? Why can’t I take the bus, a taxi or rickshaw?
Why must I send the cook to fetch that tub of ice-cream from the shop across the street for my slumber party? Why can’t I go myself?
Why can’t I play cricket in the park? Why can’t I wear jeans to Liberty Market? Why do I need a male friend to accompany me on my field visits to the shehr?
Why must I get married by the age of 24 and have at least one child by 26?
Why? Because that’s how things were.
I never questioned it, or if I did have questions, they were momentary. The main explanation, of course, was that I was a girl.
That was good enough. It was reasonable, it was appropriate. You never asked why your brother could do things you couldn’t, why there was one set of rules for the boys and another for the girls. To question that would seem presumptuous, daftly unrealistic, “Amreekan” – this is was Pakistan, this was how society functioned, and women were completely A-OK with it.
There were exceptions to the rule, of course, a handful of courageous women who dared to break into non-traditional roles and spaces – but these women, although publicly lauded, were implicitly looked down upon by middle- and upper-class morality. They were arrogant, promiscuous, “unfeminine”, or, they were supremely-gifted rarities that happened once in a generation, and while you admired them, you couldn’t possibly aspire to be like them.
And while life did go on, and the women of my class “progressed” day by day, from classrooms to TV screens to charity fundraisers – the socially acceptable, the superficially liberal – the greatest inhibitions remained.
What if I wanted to be a political activist, campaigning door-to-door and chanting slogans at rallies shoulder-to-shoulder with men? What if I wanted to be a social worker, visiting slums and prisons and acid-burn victims in teeming public hospitals? What if I wanted to be a professional musician, performing at cafés, parks, theaters, outside the protective walls of my school or college? What if I wanted to go for a stroll at midnight, sit at a roadside khokha chewing paan, live in a 3rd story flat in Anarkali, ride my bike to work?
What if I wanted to marry for love to a man “below” my class, to a foreigner, to a gora?
What if I wanted to do all of this, not to make any statements, not to be provocative, not be seen or talked about, but just because that’s who I was, who I wanted to be, and doing something contrary would be oppressive, inhibiting.
In New York, all the inhibitions inculcuated in you since childhood slowly chipped away. You could see yourself for who you were, and you could actually be that person. Nobody judged, nobody cared. People treated you as a human being, without the gender labels and cultural baggage. No one stared at you, no one harassed you. No one noticed you for being a woman, for being different. You were anonymous – and while that could sometimes feel lonely, it was also very liberating.
What it comes down to is choice. You coud choose to pursue your passion, and, married, divorced or single, childbearing or childless, rich or poor, be the happiest woman in the world for having done so – or you could be be like the neighbouring mother-of-4, whom society praises for raising such well-behaved children, for keeping such a tidy, efficient household, for having such an amicable relationship with her in-laws, for being so equable with the servants, and yet be lifeless inside, burdened with regret.
For no matter how noble the mission of wifehood and motherhood, no matter how sacred our notions of femininity, I do not believe that any woman can enjoy seeing her ambitions crushed. I do not believe that every aunty I know did not nurture a secret wish in her heart that she was not able to fulfill. And that was a loss not just for herself, but for everybody around her, for society, for the country – because one woman who lives life to her potential, who is brave and follows her heart, is far more inspiring than any number of daughters, wives and mothers imprisoned to their homes and kitchens and children and a job or husband they do not love.
So, yes, what would I miss about New York if I were to move back? The freedom to be. The choice to be. No double-standards. The same rules for men and for women. The same benchmarks for your daughters and your sons. And though I miss Lahore with all my heart, I do not miss its self-righteous upper-class morality.
Obviously, there will never be a day when you wake up in the morning and the men of Lahore cease to ogle, the aunties cease to matchmake, the uncles cease to lecture, and society ceases to preach one thing or other. It’s up to us to make that happen. It’ll take courage, but that’s the only way to live, the only way to free yourself from the invisible cages your mothers were trapped in, the only way to ensure that your children aren’t trapped the same way.
I’ll leave you with a request to read Ismat Chughtai, the brilliant grande dame of 20th-century Urdu literature, whose work inspired me to write this post. She wasn’t just a gifted writer – she was a keen social commentator, whose stories revealed the deepest of deep-rooted hypocrisies in middle-class Indo-Muslim society. She saw things for what they were, she saw herself for who she was, and she was not afraid to be that person, no matter how much people gasped and censured. Though times have changed and women are “freer” than they were in the 1960s, when Chughtai wrote “The Heart Breaks Free”, one of my all-time favourite stories, her observations are just as pertinent today, and we can learn much from them. I couldn’t find the story online, so I’d encourage you to go to a store, buy it and read it, in Urdu or in English. Enjoy!
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.