Sidra Zia is a former marketer, a writer and a history teacher, an avid tea drinker, a traveler who always finds herself by the sea, and a lifelong devotee of words. She photographs anything and everything, especially the varying shades and the sunny streets of her hometown Lahore, Pakistan.
Tall Man with a Qaraqul Cap
In the middle of the humid summer nights, when it rains, I look out of the latticed window and dream of open fields. The houses on the narrow, meandering streets I live in are piled one on another, blocking out sunshine and wind. What we receive, therefore, is only the rain. It drives down in pounding sheets, clearing away the day’s debris from the lanes. But the drops are not cool and, anyway, Ama does not let us open the window at night. Or even in daylight. For this is a respectable home, where women observe purdah.
My paternal grandmother tells me that hers was a more constrained time than the one I live in. I do not believe her. She says she and her sisters were not allowed outside the house, even in burqah. The only times they left the house were either as a bride, or when their bodies were carried out in death.
My maternal grandmother, however, is not a city girl and remembers life in the village as more open. They were landlords, and though still observing the purdah, they could wander through the fields and visit their cousins under supervision. They had servants who drove the tongas, and acres of land to drive through. And they could breathe, she often tells me, her faded old eyes gleaming beneath tufts of white brows. The wind rose from the west and brought with it the scent of the mountains. The rain was always cold, leaving the earth breathless and gasping and heaving with life again. Plants burst from their buds with vigour, and the scent of rebirth floated on cool breezes.
As I lie in bed and think of their vastly different lives, I wonder how I would have fared if my parents had not let me have an education. If they had married me off at the age of twelve, too. I am seventeen and not allowed to go to college anymore, for there is talk of finding a suitable groom for me, too, now. But I have travelled some tiny bits of our vast subcontinent. I have met people who I am not related to. Always with a dupatta over my head, I have looked at men and women boldly in the eye as I conversed with them. Unlike my cousins in Amritsar, I am not illiterate. I can read and write Persian and Urdu, and I understand phrases of English. Mathematics is like the play of my left hand. And with Ama’s training in cooking, cleaning and managing a household, I feel like I can conquer the world.
But why do I stay awake on nights like these? Dry nights never keep me up. It is always when it rains that I sit up in bed, look out, and long to open the shutters and hold my hand out. The stars will be hidden, but I want to look at the place where they lie, safe in the knowledge that they exist. I want to run to the roof where my brothers and father sleep when it does not rain, and jump up and down and scream a little. This is not normal, surely. These strange, impulsive desires are not those of a respectable girl from a decent Indian Muslim family. So I lie quietly, and wait for sleep to numb me.
Mornings are always busy times. We make our beds; have our breakfast of lassi and paratha once the men have eaten, then my sister is taken by the Ayya to school while my older sister and I sit down to sew. She is to get married this winter, and her trousseau is far from ready.
While my needle meanders through silk and cotton, my mind meanders through the land my maternal grandmother comes from. I know she has family there, though it is apparently a day’s journey by train, which is why she never goes to visit. When I asked her, she told me she has not seen her ancestral home since she gave birth to my youngest uncle. That has to be more than thirty years ago. I cannot imagine staying away that long from my home, even if it sits in claustrophobic streets. My paternal grandmother grew up across the street, and married the first boy whose family asked her parents for her hand. My maternal grandmother was twelve, and my grandfather eighteen, when they married, and, she confides to me, they married for love.
It is a shocking concept, even in this day and age, to think of people marrying for love. But my grandmother lived a happy life, and despite my grandfather passing away, she lives with us in peace.
Our household is a large one: two grandmothers, one grandfather, my parents, my seven siblings, my eight cousins, and the aunts and uncles who spawned them. The house is a four storey one, thank God, otherwise we would be cramped for dear life.
This morning, I hear the news that a woman wants to see me. As her name is spoken, my Nani’s eyes light up. She is from her ancestral village, a distant relative, and she has come to Lahore with her family on a long coveted trip. Here, she hears that Zareen Api’s granddaughter is ‘ready for marriage.’ It sounds crude, and my mother blushes to say it, but I know what she means. Ready, because her education is over, because she is seventeen and almost a woman. But then, her (or my) older sister is getting married at the old age of nineteen, so maybe I am still a child. Either way, I am to be presented to her and a few other female relatives this evening. How embarrassing.
Marriage is a strange process for us. We are brought up in near seclusion, especially us who live in the so-called purana mohalla. But some families like mine are now accepting education for women—that is, as long as it is not too much and not too swaying. And then, when they deem us ready, they take us out of our all-girls’ schools or colleges and make us sit at home until a good enough proposal comes along. Or at least, the first respectable proposal, and then all the money spent on our education turns to rust as we spend our lives catering to our families till we are old, gray and then, dead.
But they tell me times are changing. The goras have given their women the right to vote and the right to drive. And men and women here, in India, protest by the thousands for home rule. Maybe this changing social landscape will change something for me too. Until then, I must dress up in silks in the evenings and stay up at nights, restless.
The women like me. It is apparent from the start. I am demure, yet educated, and I make good rotis. And they think I am pretty. What else could they want for a bride? I keep the sarcasm in check. Never would I dare talk back to anyone.
In less than a week, sweetmeats are being distributed around the neighborhood and to relatives. Phone calls and letters are the main means of celebrating the good news. I am to be married! It cannot take place until my sister’s wedding though. Which means, later in the same winter my sister leaves, I leave too.
But she will only move to another part of Lahore. I, on the other hand, am to journey a full night and a day to the land that contains my blood, but which I have never seen. I am excited, frightened, confident, calm, joyous and nervous in turns.
As the months pass and the rain gives way to storms and then mellows into autumn sunshine, I still lie awake some nights. Now, it is not only the rain that keeps me awake. I am to marry a man in less than half a year, and I have never laid eyes on him. My father and uncles have met him, and gossip has filtered down that he is a quiet, studious sort of a young man.
Is this really to be my fate then? Typical marriage organized by patriarchal heads? As the world changes around me, and cries of a separate land are heard on the streets, I’d hoped for something different too. Perhaps all my hopes are premature. After all, I do not really know what I want. Just change is the only certainty my brain reassures me with when I flounder for a solution. And maybe marriage will give that. That thought does not make me happy and I close my eyes and pretend I dreamt this part.
It is already the morning after my sister’s wedding. We have to take the breakfast over. But cousins nudge and wink at me as they pass. I am now in line. As soon as the guests leave, preparation for my wedding will be underway.
A surreal concept. You think of other people getting married and readily join in the festivities. But you think of yourself as a bride and your heart freezes over.
Ama is horrified when she hears this. She tells me that a good girl does not think of her marriage, but instead focuses on getting ready for it. Apparently, I am not to talk of it at all.
My grandmothers are more ready to listen, each fighting over whose advice or anecdote is more appropriate. Internally, I know neither’s is right, for my world differs from theirs.
Yet on the last Friday before my wedding festivities start, I wonder if there really is such a difference. I pace the room feverishly, uncertain. My paternal grandmother is joyous that the groom-to-be, whom she met a few days ago, is a good looking, smart young man, albeit a bit serious. But I don’t care. Is that wrong?
For I know what I want now.
A man called Jinnah blares over the radio, his English speech being understood only by my brother who enthusiastically nods along. All the Muslims claim he is here to change the world, and I hope they’re right.
It is a freezing morning in March when I wake up. A strange desire has permeated through my dreams and I must act on it. So I tiptoe over sleeping cousins to the window, and gently unbolt it. Opening it inch by inch, I peer out.
Men are returning from morning prayers in the street, walking in groups toward home and tea. Windows like ours are already thrown open. Scents of food being fried and jasmine flowers sneak into my room, but I am too excited to close the window. I look up at the sky and watch it lighten before my eyes. The sliver I can see is star-studded, but the stars are fading fast. I hope it is not an omen.
I close the window now, the excitement ebbing. I climb on to the bed and, holding on to my little sister, I fall fast asleep.
Fireworks. Shouts of mirth. Dholki. These are the noises that bid me farewell as I am carried away in a dolli. I turned eighteen today. I dared open the window today, with my head uncovered. And I am married now. So many milestones crossed. Soon it will be children, then grandchildren, and then? Then death, like a long lost friend, will creep forward.
I shake my head at these morbid thoughts. I should be crying for home and my family like all brides do, instead of weeping quietly at a predictable future.
It is not until the next morning that I dare look at my husband properly. Last night, he said salam, asked how I was, and then went to sleep. As I put things away this morning, and change into my silken shalwar kameez, I watch him. He looks decent. What else can I say?
The train leaves in the afternoon. My family hugs me goodbye. My sisters and cousins sob, while my Ama quietly weeps. Aba has tears in his eyes but smiles as he kisses the top of my head. Then I climb into the carriage and we begin to move.
It is only he and I in the carriage for now. The relatives are giving us a little space. I appreciate the effort, aware that they probably lack comfortable seats and will walk in soon. But my husband is quiet.
When he quietly calls my name, I wake up with a jolt. I realize the warm carriage had lulled me to sleep. He is saying something. I nervously ask him to repeat himself, wishing I didn’t have this heavy burqa on me to block my husband’s first proper words to me.
“You’ll like the village.” He is smiling, and I notice he has a kind face. I feel calmer. “It hasn’t changed much since your grandmother left, I believe. We have a phone, and lesser land than your ancestors. We don’t farm the land, but our tenants do. Our house is nearer the hills. They’re famous for salt.” I feel confused. He takes a deep breath and says, “And we often go to the city nearby. To the cinema mostly.”
I gape. The cinema is something my family sneers at, calling it a devil’s trap.
“I…” he takes a deep breath, and looks down at his hands. Then he continues. “I think the carriage is rather warm. You can take the burqa off if you want.” I do not know how I react, for he hastily adds, “I mean, you’re probably used to it. It’s just that no one in my family takes it anymore, and I’m not sure it’s really comfortable. Sorry if I’m frightening you,” he looks uncomfortable now. “You probably feel more comfortable with it on.”
I stare at him. Who is he? This man in pants and a coat who sits across me in a carriage that is bound for God knows where. Is this a case of being careful about what you wish for? Maybe this is too much change.
“It’s just,” he takes a deep breath again, and I notice the straightening of his shoulders. “We go to hear Jinnah’s speeches when we can. Have you heard of him? Tall man with a qaraqul cap? It’s okay, I’ll show you who I mean one day. If you’ll go, of course…” He pauses, his eyes locked on mine. Waiting… for what? A shudder? A sign signaling my incomprehension?
Quietly, stealthily, I remember the giddy freedom of looking down at a street full of men in the early morning light, seeing the freedom that my relatives tell me people felt as they gathered around Minar-e-Pakistan only two days ago to hear the rallying cry for a pak land. Is this what life is? This shifting of circumstances that takes you from the lap of a secluded family and into the arms of a modern one that goes to the cinema?
I quietly untie the strings around my abaya and pull it off. Brushing my hair consciously back with my fingers, I tuck them into my braid. Then I get up, a little unsteadily, and take off the burqa too. Then, nervously, I smile, and he smiles, and I realize that I can breathe.