My French teacher and I keep falling into long discussions on life – in French, believe it or not. We have discussed politics, religion, adult acne, colonialism and families among other things. She has a singularly sunny disposition and it doesn’t matter to me whether she has these long-winded discussions with me merely to indulge my (non)budding (non)proficiency at French or because she genuinely finds talking to me enjoyable. On more than one occasion though, she has overstayed the length of her appointed lesson by an hour or more, so I do secretly believe we might be embarking on something resembling a friendship.
This Friday, we began talking about mothers. She told me about her parents going their separate ways when she was a little girl. I began talking about how mine came together. And it struck me again that the story I had managed to condense into fifteen minutes for her, was really quite a remarkable one. Can you imagine an eleven-year old girl willingly swathing herself in a burqa to be allowed to continue going to school? That is what Ammi, my mother, did. My grandmother told her and my aunt, two years older than Ammi, quite unceremoniously, that it was either the burqa or the end of school for the two of them when they were eleven and thirteen years old respectively. Khala, my aunt, bid a hasty farewell to school and happily settled back into what I know was a very conservative lifestyle. Ammi, ever the eager, starry-eyed little girl, didn’t allow a burqa to get in the way of her ambition. She continued school, and went on to St. Joseph’s College, back then, one of the most fashionable and prestigious institutions for young ladies in Karachi.
Nani, my grandmother, indulged her. I think she must have believed that her daughter would get through an Intermediate level of education at college and then consent to getting married. Instead, by the time Ammi finished her Inter’, she was ready to pursue a graduate degree. Moreover, she seemed to be getting into a habit of steadily declining the proposals for marriage that came her way through her parents. The ladies of the community, who came to ascertain her suitability for their sons, began to find in her evidence of something insuperable and unknown. On the other hand, Ammi found whatever she learned of their sons to be far from interesting and in fact, suffocating and typical.
By the time Ammi finished her B.A., she no longer met the standards of the Delhiwalla community. At twenty, she seemed to have become far too old to be considered a suitable match for any of the small businessmen or shopkeepers whose mothers had been erstwhile frequenters of Nani’s house. Although Ammi did not consider this to be a loss, Nani and Nana, my grandparents, began feeling concerned about the wisdom of their decision in having let Ammi have the dominant say about the direction her life took. A year went by during which Ammi tried, through all possible means, to obtain her parents’ permission to join the Karachi University and pursue a Masters degree. Nana and Nani, who were already regretting their decision to allow Ammi to obtain a graduate degree, felt certain that a Masters degree would stamp finality over Ammi’s spinsterhood. Where would they find her a man to marry who would accept a wife as educated and self-willed as her? They preferred to wait and pray fervently for a proposal to miraculously appear on the horizon.
But only a few proposals trickled in – all of them appeared unsuitable, even to Nana and Nani’s more forgiving eye. After a year of staying home, Ammi was allowed the privilege of getting admission into a Masters programme. She was overjoyed at the opportunity, even if it meant being accompanied to and from the university by her old ayah and having a burqa on the entire day.
When Abbu’s proposal was accepted after Ammi finished her Masters, Nana and Nani felt certain this was the only choice for their over-educated, independent-minded daughter. Ammi has always said she was twenty-five at the time of her marriage. I have calculated she must have been twenty-seven. Cecilia, my French teacher found it adorable that Ammi should feel the need to shave off two years – as if after having proven herself in all the most awesome ways she could, she still needed to fit into an elusive social category of acceptability.
Still, Nana harboured an unmitigated hope for a proposal for his daughter’s hand in marriage, from within his community, at the last minute. He secretly vowed that if there was to be one, he would not waste a moment in accepting it, breaking off the marriage he had agreed to between his daughter and a boy from quite another background altogether.
Thank God no such proposal ever came. God has His ways of tying things up. Ammi, individualistic, self-directed, poetic and artistic, would have been smothered in a classic Delhiwalla set-up of subservience to the husband and a blind acceptance of established mores. Abbu’s family was one where women were not only valued, their voices, their views were important. The women in this family were poets, my grandfather was a philosopher of Realism.
When my sister was awarded a scholarship to study in Oxford, Ammi and Abbu did not hesitate for a moment in letting her go. But always, for each one of her three daughters, Ammi’s sixth sense would begin tingling as soon as the age of twenty-one was reached. She never made the mistake of letting her daughters get too old to be considered suitable for marriage in a fickle society she had come to know only too well. The three of us were married off with clockwork punctuality in our early twenties.