We’re in Sydney. We are meeting some old friends and family who live here. We did the touristy stuff the last time we were here. Two weeks in a city like Sydney means you can look up old friends and acquaintances on the days you don’t want to traipse around the city gawping at things.
I met an old family friend today. He is a septuagenarian now. He arrived in Sydney in the 70s. He was young, newly married, had two small children. I expect he arrived with stars in his eyes, dreams of what he was going to become. But swamped with the pressure of work, of making a new life in a new country, he soon found he had to give every last ounce of energy to making it. In the process, he lost his wife. According to his own account, she felt lonely and depressed, all alone in a new country, with two little children to look after, presumably, almost on her own. So even his blossoming career was not attractive enough to keep her from leaving him and their two little children, both under five, and journeying back to Karachi, where her own family was. I find that at once sad and bewildering. I am a mother. What was she thinking? When they were five, I could not bear to be separated from any of my children. How did she think she could survive? And considering the very conservative little community she was a part of in Karachi, how in the world did she find the courage to take such a drastic step all the way back in the 80s?
The gentleman in question, let’s call him S, had a hard time taking care of his two children. But this period finally led him to his wife of twenty-nine years. She was his neighbour. Her offer to help take care of his children once in a while, as he struggled with his new circumstances, eventually led to a deeper relationship which culminated with their marriage. She was a good wife to him and took good care of his children. She occasionally got exasperated with him when she felt he cared more for his children than he did for her. But S claims, that he told her, quite brutally, that although he could find many a wife, he could never part with his children. Eventually things must have fallen into the sort of pattern families fall into. But there was one glaring difference. I wonder if it was as glaring to S, whose children now had a relatively stable domestic life, as it is to me and was to all his family back home. The new wife was not Pakistani – she was Korean. And even more glaringly, she decided to retain her Catholic faith instead of converting to her husband’s faith. I do not bring this up as a criticism – merely as a further complication. The new situation reads something like this: Pakistani man, divorced, in his forties, with two children from his first marriage, married to Korean, Catholic lady, living in Sydney. Call me boorish, but it could have helped matters quite a bit if the Korean lady was all of her lovely self with the addition of being a Pakistani Muslim. It could have cut down on the confusion that seemed to become the hallmark of S’s domestic life. But life is never perfect. And Allah tests all of us in unique ways. He knows best. He loved the Korean lady as much as He loved S undoubtedly.
S moved his family to Karachi in the late eighties. They lived amongst his family and the children went to school. Another baby was born. The Korean wife learnt to speak Urdu. She kept up good relations with his extended family, her Oriental family instincts must have guided her well. A decade and a half went by. A lot happened. I find only the domestic side of the story fascinating – how a multi-cultural, multi-lingual family rose from the ashes and what lay in store for them. As I tell you the rest of this tale, I am reminded of how easy it is to view things in retrospect and fancy understanding just where everything fell apart and where it all came together. When we are in the thick of it however, no such clear-sightedness is guaranteed. May we all be guided by Allah in all things.
In 2000, S moved his family back to Sydney. His eldest, A was 20, second-born, M, 18 and youngest, N, 12 or so. The children became adjusted in schools and colleges here. Fast forward a few years. A, the son, can find no one to marry and settle down with. S, fiercely proud back in the day, asked me today, uncharacteristically meekly, to suggest a ‘good Pakistani girl’ for him, then went on to muse over how little control parents have over their children’s lives here, how A has a quick temper. I don’t know what the problem is exactly. I know A has been through a few serious relationships, his parents anticipating each one to end with A marrying and settling down, and being disappointed each time. A is now 36. M, who is now 34, has been through a terrible tragedy meanwhile. She fell in love with a man who now appears to have been a con artist. The two met in university and got married. When I visited three years ago, I could not see her because she was almost due with her first baby and was finding it hard to travel all the way to the city to see us. This time I discover that her sleazeball of a husband duped her into believing his mother was on the deathbed back in Gujrat, Pakistan, took all their savings and departed to see her. M was used to him going away to Pakistan to see his family for weeks at a time, not keeping in regular contact and then only through email. But when a few months passed, she contacted him to ask when she could expect him back. Meanwhile some of their mutual friends began suggesting he wasn’t up to any good. Some even had news he was not coming back. When she got through to him, he sounded distant but she could still not smell anything fishy. The cat was let out of the bag one day when she caught sight of him outside her apartment building, on the road. When she caught hold of him and asked where he had been, he confessed he had taken up a new apartment barely five buildings down from her own! She confronted him with rumours she had been hearing about him having remarried and absconded. He denied everything. There was not much she could do. She let him go. But she was shaken. She had to get to the bottom of things. She arranged to take him unawares on the street with a few friends soon afterwards. They confronted him as he came out of his building with his new wife. She looked at her face and then at his demanding, ‘Do you want to tell me who that is now?’, to which he apparently replied, ‘Who are you?’ He then tried to run her over as she stood pleading with him to tell her what was going on. He has since denied ever marrying her. He denies his son from their marriage as being theirs. He has told his new wife M is his brother’s wife and her son is his brother’s son. I couldn’t listen to much more. It sounded too much like something that would happen on a Jerry Springer show. You don’t expect it to happen to good people you know, so close to home.
M is in the middle of a messy divorce now. And on the rebound in a new relationship she is keeping to herself at the moment. All I keep thinking is if that one woman, M’s biological mother, could have kept her own desires, her loneliness, her depression to herself, maybe all of these broken lives could have been more whole.