My first curry

It feels like eons ago that I was a new resident at the International Islamic University Girls’ Hostel in the fall of 1991. I was the only faculty member at the hostel, and special permissions had to be acquired for me. Living in a hostel in a city far from my comfortable middle-class family was a strange practice for women of my class. Why would I choose to do this? How could my family countenance this? People were mystified.

But my parents wanted me to chase my dreams, and they also wanted me to have financial independence.

The hostel was not comfortable. It wasn’t always clean. I remember being shocked by the communal bathroom on my first day there. I didn’t have a private room at first; I shared one with people who weren’t terribly happy about sharing a room, and who thought I was rather spoiled (which I was). They laughed about how pale I looked when my mommy and daddy dropped me off, and how I’d vomited for nerves en route to the hostel.

And there I was, in Islamabad, to teach English to IIU students.

This was a new existence. If you wanted something, you had to get it. If you wanted it done, you had to do it yourself. I was the youngest child of a middle-class doctor; I attended the best and most expensive girls’ school in Lahore. We were frugal, but we were insulated from everyday life. And then I was out there, by choice, dealing by myself with sniping colleagues, catty students, hostel staff, bus drivers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, cat-callers …

I was often hungry. Hostel food wasn’t good, and it wasn’t enough. But I was no cook. I never actually learned as a girl. I took a rubbish class with some housewife, and watched as she cooked dishes in her kitchen, but I was not an interested learner.

I was always cold; for a Lahore-raised girl, Islamabad by the hills was often freezing. We didn’t really have winter-appropriate clothing, now that I think about it. And no buildings were insulated, ever. Always drafty. So I got myself one of those tiny, terribly unsafe gas heaters, a rickety little metal thing – I can’t even find pictures of it online anymore. But it was a lifesaver on those cold mornings when I shivered through fajr.

I don’t know who, but somebody taught me I could flip the heater on its back and it would then be a little stove. On this little stove, I balanced a small saucepan. Poured a little oil into the pan, and chopped an onion and a tomato into it. Cooked it for a few minutes, grabbed a roti from the hostel kitchen, and this was my dinner.

How delicious that simple onion-tomato curry was to me.


Feminist critique in a Pakistani film, Ek Gunah Aur Sahi

FIPRESCI - World Cinema - Cinemas of the South

A hit in 1975, the Pakistani movie Ek Gunah Aur Sahi (Just One More Sin), attacked exploitative respectability patriarchy in the story of a madam, known as “Mummy” and her (real or adoptive) daughter, Afshan. The bare plotlines are familiar: the deeply spiritual madam and the prostitute with a heart of gold seek respectability but they are defeated by male lust on the one hand and misogynistic respectability on the other. Once I can gather my emotional energy to do so, I’ll write a feminist analysis of the entire film.

One of the songs in this film, Aa dekh Mohenjodaro mein, rendered powerfully by Noor Jahan is, for its time and place, quite radical in its feminist critique of patriarchy. I have been trying unsuccessfully for some days to add translations to the youtube videos (they will not allow it), so I decided to just post my translation here.

In the scene, the respectable man who is besotted with Afshan, the prostitute, encounters her and her madam at the ruins of Mohenjodaro. In this song, Afshan confronts the man with the history of patriarchy and female exploitation and degradation. The song makes use of the Pakistani Muslim assumption of superiority to an idolatrous past. In the past, Afshan says, the priesthood used and abused women for profit and pleasure. Yet what has changed today, in an enlightened Islamic society? Here too, women are both consumed and slandered. So objectified and valueless are women that even respectable families sell their daughters by advertising their beauty for the sake of a marriage proposal. In Muslim Pakistan, the birth of a girl is greeted with sorrow and anger, while the birth of a boy grants honor and pride to the father. Men hold the keys to respectability, honor, religion, social mores, and status; how is their humanity superior to that of women? The song closes with a ringing call for freedom from these chains of patriarchy and submission.

Where have I come from, who am I?
Maybe you might know me
The curtain rises from history
See if you can recognize me

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine
On this weak hope I live on still
Some day perhaps my fate will change

With a sandalwood mark on my forehead
And bracelets of flowers on my arms
You called me devadasi
Made me dance in temples of worship
Lustful priests lived off my blood for centuries
Their god was pleased with my service
And humanity’s tavern flourished as well

How will you erase my tale?
It is written in the stone of history

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

She who is sold in the markets
She wanders lost in the streets
She is an eclipsed moon
A star fallen from the heavens  
Every evening she changes into this form
Lying in your bed
Yet she may be someone’s mother
She is someone’s daughter too

Disrepute is my destiny
So go on, and enjoy slandering my name

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

What happened, has happened to us in dark ignorant times  
But sadly, even today in respectable families
By custom, we decorate and display our daughters
For marriage proposals, a hundred ways are devised
That this bad commodity may be sold off somehow

Such is the ‘honor,’ such is the ‘esteem’
That I am granted in the world today

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

To you belong morality, religion is yours
Yours are the rules, yours is the law
But is your being separate from mine?
Is your blood distinct from mine?  
When a son is born, how proudly does your neck stretch high
What happens to you when a woman births a girl?

So when will the day of freedom arrive?
When will these chains of mine be shattered?


What you left behind

Old house
Photo credit: JJ Foster

When you move geographically, when you immigrate, no one tells you what this really means.

You think of yourself as a safely transplanted shrub: everything you need is going with you, and you will make a home in a new place. Nothing will change. No one tells you that you are pulling up roots, ripping yourself.

You imagine that you are packing everything you need in some infinite suitcase.

But there is a weight limit.

You think of yourself as adding to what you already have. But there is subtraction. Stuff gets left behind.

You left huge chunks of yourself behind. And now you have to grow new limbs and new pieces of our heart. It hurts to grow. It hurts to replace yourself.

When you arrive at your destination, you are so busy setting up in the new place, you don’t check to see what you brought.

And eventually, when you have the time and mental energy to check your attic and your albums, you realize that your life, huge chunks of it, got left behind, never to be reclaimed. What you left behind isn’t waiting for you. It was swept away with time. And so are you.