Reham Khan Book Chapter 1
Life started off in Libya. I remember Libya as a happy place, characterised by the smell of fresh-baked baguettes, khubz, and huge Egyptian chapattis. This was a time when everyone had nothing but praise for the rather charismatic and revered Muammar Gaddafi. He was considered quite a heartthrob by the ladies (my mother’s diary would open to a photograph of him). He was known for throwing out westerners on a whim, an action which would result in educated people like my mother filling in for English teaching positions, and even English radio stations. There were frequent mentions of his erratic temperament, but this was a man seen by most of those he was ruling as a strong leader; one who stood up to bullying and had miraculously survived numerous assassination attempts.
My parents, like many of my mother’s family, left Pakistan in the late sixties. My dad was a young ENT surgeon who chose to move to Libya. My mother, ever the perfectionist, had already completed her family by then; she had a boy and a girl. But then…I happened. Perhaps being born in the Great Sahara has something to do with my ability to persevere and survive hardship. My mother certainly believed that I was a true Bedouin. I was born in the beautiful Mediterranean town of Ajdabia, in North Western Libya. We later moved to Benghazi. The society I recall was liberal. Women in traditional outfits walked side-by-side with ladies in skirts. In fact, the womenpkhad a very Parisian fashion sense, with face-nets, berets, and fishnet stockings all the rage.
Home life was peaceful and happy. Mummy and Daddy were ha py. She would sing while cooking. I would help with the dishes. Surprisingly,@furqanIhaveaclearmemory going back to when I was about four years old, with some flashes from when I was even you ger, boosted by family albums of happy and
prosperous times. Indians and Pakistanis enjoyed well-paid positions and a vibrant social life. I remember my mother being quite the fashionista: whether it was Western suits or Indian sarees, she was always beautifully elegant. She cut striking picture. My sister, although a teenager at the time, was also very fashion-conscious, from fake eyelashes to huge flappers. My father was very fond of taking photographs of his beautiful wife and his daughters. I would never pose though. In every family photograph, my head would be turned the other way. My defiant, free-spirited nature was always right there.
My independent nature was something of a concern for my parents at times. As a two-year-old in our flat in Ajdabia, I decided one day that I was old enough to have my privacy. I decided to lock the bathroom door behind me, despite instructions not to do so. Unfortunately, locking the door for a toddler is a lot easier than opening it. I must have spent an awfully long time in there as I remember an abnormally long, black bathtub. However, I waited calmly, without even a whimper, while the family panicked outside.
Apparently, I was an unusual baby in that I never cried. I find it hard to believe that but everyone swears by it. I was apparently even taken to doctors to see if there was something wrong with me. I was probably just a quieter baby than my older brother, who cried enough to wake the neighbours up. The whole house would spend the evenings rocking and singing him to sleep. The favourite bedtime song was ‘Munir Khan bunay ga sadr–i-Pakistan’ (Munir Khan will become President of Pakistan).
I stayed calm that day too, until eventually a young girl from next-door was recruited to climb in through the skylight and open the door from the inside. My parents were relieved, and I wasn’t scolded. In fact, I only remember my mother being angry at me on two occasions at most. She didn’t need to get
angry. She could simply give me or my brother the look, and we would not step out of line. Her weapon of choice for getting us to behave was “I will not speak to you”. For me and my brother, that was like a death sentence. It was the end of the world. It was an effective instrument of torture to get us to drink endless glasses of milk or excel in school.
With my own children, I found that my sudden, quiet disappointment worked so much better than persistent nagging or shouting, which generally falls on deaf ears. A talkative woman suddenly going quiet is a very clear sign of danger. I developed this mechanism to avoid saying anything hurtful. By simply allowing myself a few minutes to calm down, I would then be able to return and talk rationally about almost any issue. The kids could immediately recognise and correct their behaviour. Ugly arguments were never my style. Whether it was work issues or relationship issues, it was my style to get into the car and drive away and get it out of my system alone, without witnesses.
My father was a gentle soul, and never even so much as looked at us sternly. I was very much daddy’s girl. Throughout his lifetime, I was his partner-in-crime when it came to eating out. My mother always insisted on very bland, healthy food at home, so Daddy and I would have lunch and ice-cream before coming home, but would always be caught because of the telltale signs of ice-cream on my school uniform. My father was popular in Libya too. I recall him being treated with utmost respect at work and in general. There was generally a respect for doctors, and the mere mention of his profession would result in people at car repair shops refusing to take money.
The Libyans were a loving lot, and fond of showering pkeople with gifts. I remember several incidents where a reluctance to accept gifts was met with shock and genuinely hurt feelings. I remember my mother being asked to fill in as a substitute teacher in times when American or British teachers were
thrown out. Her students kept bringing@furqanexpensivegiftsthat my mother would refuse, resulting in tears. It wasn’t only materially that Libyans expressed their love. Our landlords lived in the same compound
as our family and an Indian family. They were not only good landlords but treated us like family. On one occasion, my mum came home to find my sister covered in hives and blisters. Apparently, the landlady had been waxing her ow daughte s with the traditional halawa wax (sugaring), and since Sweety was visiting, she got the works too.
Our other next-door neighbours were a Hindu family. The parents were both doctors and they had two boys. An aya (nanny) had been brought from India to look after the boys. My independent streak was once again visible as I refused to be kept locked away. One morning in an emergency, my parents left me at home alone for less than half an hour. When Tony and Joy from next door came over to play, they found me locked in the house. Not one to give up, I asked the younger one, Joy, who was about two years old, to crawl under the Venetian style blinds a couple of times to prise them open enough for me to slide out from underneath it. Mission accomplished, we went over to their home to play. We had not intended to stay for very long but soon became so engrossed with the train sets and the Kiri cheese sandwiches that we forgot to go back to my place. Meanwhile, my parents were having the scare of their lives trying to find their missing child. They had checked everywhere except with the next-door neighbours.
Although our Hindu neighbours were secular, I remember the aya taking our arti and applying tilak after her prayers. In addition to teaching us the Quran herself, my mother had taught us about all world religions. My own family were deeply religious Sunni Muslims. Both sides of my family were descendants of Ghurgushtan, the third son of Qais Abdur Rashid, the legendary father of the Pashtuns who brought Islam to our region. Qais is said to have travelled to Medina and been introduced by General Khalid bin Waleed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The holy Prophet (PBUH) is
believed to have given Qais the name Abdul Rashid, the ‘servant of the right-minded’. It is widely believed that Qais married Khalid bin Waleed’s daughter, Sara, and returned to his birthplace of Zhob on the border between Baluchistan and Khyber Pukhtunkwa. His grave is in the Suleiman Mountains, also called Qais Baba Ghar.
My mother’s family are Pannees, an Afghan tribe. They came even before the first Pashtun ruler of India, Behlol Lodhi, arrived in the region. They were asked by Lodhi to support him. They were horse and camel breeders at the time. My father’s tribe, the Swatis (originally from Shalman in Afghanistan), came to Swat in the time of Mahmud Ghauri. Later, with Jalal Baba, they ousted the Turks from Hazara at the start of seventeenth century. Swatis have occupied the hills and plains ever since, and are the biggest land-owning group of the Mansehra and Battagram districts. My dad’s side is Lughmani Swati, mainly settled in Baffa, Balakot, and Battagram. This Pashto speaking belt is very religious.
My father’s family had a tradition of teaching Quran and Tafseer. However, being bound to pure Islamic teachings never meant bigotry or insensitivity to other religions or sects. All the women in the family were highly educated. My father’s sisters were educated at Aligarh College in Delhi, before the partition of India into two states. It took two days by train from our village in Baffa in the North of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. Both worked as educationists even before they were married. This progressive attitude meant the children in our family grew up in an environment that was neither bigoted nor intolerant.
To me, acceptance always came naturally. I was in for a shoc years later when an older Pakistani lady would say to me, “It’s bad enough when they go off with white boyfriends, but how can they go with a black man?” Such attitudes were nowhere near as uncommon as they should have been. Despite
being rather dark ourselves, our societies@furqanwerehorriblyracist towards blacks and dark-skinned people in our own communities, and perhaps still are. Even my ow grandmother, who was a pale redhead herself,
would complain if anyone got a touch of a tan or, God forbid, was born dark.
My ability to speak several languages developed through my exposure to several cultures and races from a young age. As the light-complexio ed, ather talkative young child of a popular couple, I was spoiled by all in my parents’ social circle in the Pakistani communities of Benghazi. The doting adults would teach me songs and jokes, and I would soak it all up. There are tape recordings of me as a three-year-old, telling jokes in Punjabi about Sardars (Sikhs), learned from Indian aunties. Punjabi was not my mother tongue, but a clear reminder of how many influences I had. My ability to memorise numbers and verses was enhanced by my mum, who had impressive general knowledge and was a huge fan of poetry. As an eight-year-old, I could recite Shikwa and Jawabi-i-shikwa by Dr Iqbal, the Ulysses of Urdu poetry.
It seems that someone had also fed me racist and religious bigotry at some point, as I vividly remember once making derogatory comments about Hindu gods while playing with my next-door neighbours. I didn’t know what I was saying. My mother gently corrected me by telling bedtime stories of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his perseverance, even when attacked with stones by his own people.
As a child I required little supervision or rest. I was happy playing on my own with plasticine, or outside on bikes with the boys next-door. There wasn’t much in the way of TV viewing in my life, but I do remember being enthralled by the film The Message, based on the life of our final prophet Hazrat Mohammad (PBUH). Night after night, I would watch it alone in the dining room where the TV was. I couldn’t have been older than four or five. I don’t remember watching standard TV or cartoons until I was a teenager. I was lucky to have an imagination, as well as parents who never used the TV as a
babysitter. In fact, very few people can claim that they were as privileged as I was when it came to having attentive parents. My multi-talented mother was certainly an inspiration, and she gave us a head start over other children. Birthdays were large, elaborate affairs, and my mother baked the most fantastic cakes imaginable. Everything she did, she did to perfection. These high standards were also expected of us. Not disappointing her was what we cared about most. We would all grow out of it eventually, and she would finally come to accept that life is not about being perfect. To be imperfect is to be unique.
Money was good, and the quality of life was even better. If it hadn’t been for my older sister growing up so quickly, my parents would have had no intention of returning. But, like it is with most expats, getting the daughter married off was a major motivating factor. My father wanted to move to England, but mum only liked it as a shopping destination. She persuaded him to move back to Pakistan instead.
One of my prized possessions in Libya was a shoebox of arts and crafts. It had bits and bobs and all sorts, with green shining foil crescents that I had cut out. In my excitement for our move, I had used the pieces of green and white to make the Pakistani flag. However, despite promises that it had been packed too, it was left behind. I could not tolerate that I had been lied to. I remember driving my mother mad with my persistent nagging to find those materials again. There is a strict code of conduct among Pashtuns (known as Pukhunwali) that ties us to high standards of hospitality and friendship. For deception, it advocates a fitting revenge. It may have been a small thing but, true to my roots, I did not forgive my parents for years for deceiving me.
Life in Pakistan should have been perfect. My mother had built her dream home in the city of Peshawar, right next door to the sister she had missed so much. This was the city where she had gone to
college. But things were different now under the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. His involvement in the American war against the@furqanUSSRinAfghanistahad literally changed the scenery. Afghan refugees were everywhere. For the elite, these poor people were destroying the peace of their leafy
suburbs. We conveniently forgot that they were homeless because of us Pakistanis fighting the American war in Afghanistan. I remember buying cheese and oil from CSD (military stores) clearly stamped ‘For Afghan Refugees – Not or resale’. I also found a lovely friend in an Afghan refugee called Roohia. She told me the horrific story o how they had escaped the bombing in the middle of the night, and how the cash they stuffed into their socks was destroyed as they waded through water to reach safety.
Meanwhile, my mum and dad would have their only argument ever in front of me over the height of the boundary wall. My mother had built a 5-foot wall with decorative gaps in the middle. But the culture of the 80s was tilting more towards purdah. My mother eventually had to give in, and the wall was raised to a height of nine feet around the entire property, which had become the norm in those days. She brought it up resentfully every so often for years to come. She felt that her home had been turned into an ugly oppressive fort.
I had to deal with my own mini culture shock. Like many expat children, I refused to eat the local produce and dairy because of the unfamiliar smell and appearance. My weight loss was a huge concern for my family. But even to a child the differences between prosperous Libya and regressive Pakistan were so obvious. In fact, one of the first observations I had made about the country that my parents had missed so much was, “Your Pakistan is so toota phoota [broken]”.
The Pakistan that they had returned to was crumbling, but the cracks were just beginning to appear.
We had left my shiny foil stars behind in Libya to come over to be with my older sister and brother,
who had been sent to live with my mum’s parents earlier. They had been in boarding schools in Malta, and as my sister blossomed into a stunning teenager, the decision to send her back to Pakistan was made. My brother was also packed off to live with my mother’s parents. The move from Irish Catholic schooling straight into Pakistani culture meant the youngsters had to do a lot of unlearning, and a lot of quick cramming of new rules.
One major difference between Western and Eastern societies can be found in the terminology for close family members. In our society, there are several unique words that are used to display our affection to each other that go beyond the straightforward English terms of brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, etc. We are accustomed to adding these kinds of terms to the end of everything, so that everyone receives this kind of respect. People we don’t even know will have something simple like Sahab or Sahiba added to the end of their name (meaning sir/ma’am or Mr/Mrs). But for those we know and love, many more terms become available to us. Our people have ended up with a lot of different names for each other, borne out of respect and love. The suffix –jee (or alternatively –jaan) is a form of endearment reserved for those we hold dear. In fact, we are taught to refer to grown-ups as auntie or uncle even if they are not blood relatives.
There are several other terms too, like chacha, chachi, taya, tayi, appa, appi, bhai, bhabhi, etc. While I am a khala to my sisters’s children, I am a phuphi to my brother’s children, while my brother is a mamoo to our kids (and his wife a mami). The intricate system is further complicated by the fact that we will address random people as bhai or baji (meaning brother or sister) as a sign of respect. It was something my kids would find overwhelming but amusing. Major exceptions to this complicated set of
titles were my parents, who both took ownership of more distinctive and easy nicknames. My father was known as Daddy to most of us, @furqanwhilemymothertooko Barimummy (meaning the Big Mummy), inheriting the moniker from her own mother. Perhaps they were trying to be trendier than virtually
everyone else in the world by not accepting some v ri tion of grandfather and grandmother.
My grandfather, Dr Sher Bahadur Khan Pannee (who shared a striking resemblance with President field marshal General Ayub Kha ) was conside ed a rather eligible bachelor, and was fondly known to all as Khanjee. He was the only son of an a l ent Pashtun family, and a direct descendant of the Munir Khani tribe. His light complexion and hazel eyes added to his desirability. The local families were to be disappointed however, as the young doctor chose to marry a beautiful girl from Kasur, in Punjab. She was also from a Pashtun family belonging to the tribe of Batakzai from Kandahar, who had settled in the small hamlet of Kot Haleem Khan in Kasur. Everyone came to know her as Beejee.
The very pale-skinned Beejee of the Punjab had a classic oval face, with serenity reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. She belonged to a very rich, highly educated family, and was admired for her sophistication. My grandfather was a regular visitor to their house in his quest for knowledge of Islam and history. However, this marriage would produce no children, and an heir was vital for the Munir Khanis to continue their bloodline. (My grandfather was one of only two children, with his only sibling, a beautiful sister, having died of tuberculosis in her youth). After years of fighting off coordinated pressure from the rather authoritative mother and an insistent family, my Khanjee finally gave in. On the insistence of the family (and with the permission of his first wife), he entered into a second marriage to secure an heir.
This was what my sister Sweety was exposed to when she was sent to Pakistan. Her diaries from her time there are hilarious. The young teenager (who had been brought up overseas, away from family in a rather Western setting) quickly had to ditch her jeans for the loose shalwar-kameez that my grandfather preferred. The poor tailor would get horribly confused, as the teenager mimed to him to ignore my
conservative grandfather’s strict instructions to keep the outfits baggy and shapeless. Despite the strict atmosphere, she fell in love with the noisy households of Pakistan, and the extended families and staff. Later in life, Sweety would be working as a gender trainer. It surprised me that she would look back and describe the setup of my grandfather’s home (with his two wives) so positively. When I’d ask her specific questions about her time there, she wouldn’t be very helpful. Her response to every question was, “It was great, I loved it! The food was great! The people were great! Khanjee was great!”
The rather young second wife, Saadat Sultan, was my biological grandmother, but in our family, Beejee was always treated like a mother too, and was deeply respected by all the family. This was also encouraged by my grandmother (my own Barimummy). Sweety remembers how well the two wives got on with each other, describing them as close friends in a happy and harmonious home atmosphere. My mother, one of six children, had often told us how they all looked up to Beejee, who was full of wisdom and knowledge. Her status was never diminished in the household.
My Barimummy entrusted her first child, Iqbal Khan Pannee, to Beejee as soon as he was born. Beejee encouraged her own sister’s marriage to a cousin of her husband. Her sister’s children were considered very much part of the family too. Her niece was later married to the son of my uncle, Justice Abdul Hakeem Khan. It seems that the families had a positive experience, and further matrimonial matches within them were encouraged. However, besides my own marriage, there were no other unions with first cousins in the family, predominately due to an awareness of the possibility of genetic abnormalities.
The two ladies were poles apart. Beejee was an avid reader but loved her beauty routines too. My mother learned more about literature and skincare from her than her own mother. She fondly recalled
how Beejee never went to bed without@furqanmoisturisingherfeet. Beejee was very fond of wearing heavy jewellery and staying bedecked. Her pazaibs (anklets) were individually about 12 tolas (4 ounces) in
weight. One of her beautiful dawni (headpieces) w s given to my mother for her wedding, and handed down to Sweety. My Barimummy on the othe hand, was a typical busy mum to six, with no time or inclination towards personal care. A t b of Nivea was all she used, and that too very rarely. The tall young woman had the added responsibility of a huge household, with an army of staff and extended family. And yet, the two wives of Dr Sher Bahadur Khan shared a lifelong friendship. Although much younger than Beejee, my own grandma survived her by only a year. Beejee’s funeral was lovingly arranged by my Barimummy. According to my sister, a lot of credit went to Khanjee for maintaining fair and equal treatment of his wives, as prescribed by Islam.
Additionally, my Khanjee was known for helping the destitute, and a lot of widows and orphans were financially supported by him. This was very much a tradition his own mother had set. Although a very strict disciplinarian, his mother was a very loving and giving woman. My mother’s nanny had been rescued as a young child from being sold into slavery. Bebe was of an Afridi origin, and soon became the overriding authority in the house. From housekeeping to managing finances, there wasn’t much she could not do. Bebe was never treated like a servant. She was duly married off but chose to continue to live and work for us. She was given a generous piece of land near the main home, and her children were supported through high education. Today, they are professionals just like our own family members.
I was quite fond of Bebe. She had a habit of bringing me lots of colourful necklaces from her shopping trips. But she became my superhero after one incident. It was the evening, after my grandmother’s funeral. My mum had fainted in her grief as usual, and I was (of course) the nurse. As I looked up, I saw Bebe approach us. She was holding a long wooden pole like a spear in her hand. Her tiny eyes glittered in the dimly lit room. She held her finger to her lips so I’d stay quiet. Like a Zulu
warrior, in one swift movement she aimed at the corner of the bedhead and struck hard. My mum sat up, startled. We both looked down at the stone floor to see a viper, cut into two pieces. Bebe did not mess around.
The big kitchen was always full, and my chatty sister was often told off by my mother for sitting in the kitchen with the staff. It was a habit Sweety would maintain for the rest of her life; she was forever pampering the children of her staff like they were her own grandchildren. There was never any concept of inequality in our homes, and these have always been inherited values. One day, I would find myself with my own staff and household, and I would discover that my disregard and distaste for collecting wealth and assets would keep my staff worrying for me. There was a time when my cleaner came back from her holiday and delivered her mother’s message to me: fire all the staff, move into a smaller property, and keep only one maid for myself. They felt that I should build a house for myself and save for my old age. I laughed and said, “How much older do you think I am likely to get? So far, so good”.
My grandfather outlived both his wives, and remained mobile right to the end. Perhaps the wives became good friends because Khanjee spent much of his time studying and writing. His rather voluminous ‘Tareekh-i-Hazara’ is considered the most authoritative historical account of our region of Hazara. He encouraged me to write to him, and the response would be full of corrections. Not only were grammatical errors not permitted, but ideas were expected to be refined too.
Regretfully, I had very little interaction with my mother’s parents. They lived predominately in Abbottabad in their old age, and my grandfather’s last days were in my aunt’s home. Sweety however, enjoyed a close relationship with my maternal side, and was the a le of their eye. The first born in the family had the privilege of growing up around my uncles and aunts, who adored her. My mother would
tell me of the huge picnics, with all@furqanthekidspackedintothe Dodge. My grandfather liked his cars, and it was important to get the new executive car in the market on his driveway. Sweety recalls an Opel
Rekord in the 70s, as well as a red Volkswagen Beetle th t was bought for my youngest aunt (and is still parked in one of the huge garages in Abbottabad).
The family had close friendships with the B itish, dating back to pre-partition days. Major Abbott, the first Deputy Commissioner of H zara District (1849 to 1853), gave a certificate and an estate to the Chief of Paniah, Qaim Khan, who was my grandfather’s great-uncle. He wrote fondly that Qaim Khan (along with his brothers, sons, and nephews) stood by his side throughout like his right hand. ‘The chief of Paniah, Qaim Khan, demonstrated great courage and exhibited loyalty in the battle of 1949 against the Sikhs,’ he wrote, before continuing with ‘Qaim Khan is a generous man and well respected in the whole district. I am parting with great sadness and regret in my heart with this loyal friend of mine’.
The furniture, Royal Doulton china, and huge collection of rifles displayed around the towering property on Police Line Road were constant reminders of the close association with the British Raj. After serving as the Director of Health, the doctor retired as Deputy Inspector General of Jails in 1956. He continued to practice from his clinic, Dar us Shifa (House of Healing), in his home for several years afterwards. People still say that he was the finest surgeon of his time. His clinic was fascinating, with its classic-style laboratory of huge glass beakers and jars. He eventually turned his attention to tracing his roots, and his writing reflects his personal turmoil as he served the government while supporting the cause of a separate homeland for Muslims.
The anglicised influence was unshakeable for much of the family. His own two uncles emigrated to the U.S., and his only first cousin (born to an Italian mother in America) used the name Robert Joffrey instead of his Muslim name. He was the founder of the Joffrey Ballet, the first dance company to perform at the White House, at Jacqueline Kennedy’s invitation. It went onto become the first ballet
company to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multimedia, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it (Robert Altman’s The Company).
My own three uncles chose to settle outside Pakistan. They maintained no links with the country. It was quite ironic really. Munir Khani wanted heirs so that their name would persist and their lands would be retained. But those heirs chose never to claim their inheritance or their family name. In fact, my older uncle Iqbal, who is more of a friend to me than an older relative, was very vocal with his concerns about my decision to return to Pakistan in later years. The accidents, heartbreak and insults I continually faced were to cause him further pain and anxiety. My older brother Munir, named after our valiant ancestor, would ask me how I coped with the problems in Pakistan.
I smiled and said, “I cope happily”.
To me, such things were not problems, but challenges. Life is like an ECG. As long as there are highs and lows, we are alive. When it goes flat, death is pronounced. As the poet Ghalib would say, “Moht sey pehley zindagi ghum sey nijaat paye kyun? (Before death, how can life be free of worry?)”.
It didn’t have to be a male heir. It didn’t have to be someone named Munir Khan who would tell the world of our bloodline and our tradition. The heir never needed to own lands or wield a sword. It could be a woman with no assets. All that was required was a woman who loved her roots, and conquered with her smile.
My brother had always found@furqanitdificulttoadjustto life in Pakistan. Even as a young kid the arrangement wasn’t working for him, so my parents were forced to move back earlier than they had
initially planned. Sweety was stunning and marri ge proposals had begun to pour in from a young age. After moving to Pakistan, I found myself interrogating suitors on a daily basis. I remember one eager young man trying to get inside info om me. “Can I ask you something?” he said, putting on the charm. I responded dryly, “You can ask all you want. I can choose not to answer”.
Some of them never quite recovered rom the questioning of this young, budding journalist, while others tried to buy me off with chocolates and comics. I was building up an impressive stash of Archie and Richie Rich comics but, needless to say, the bribes didn’t work. I was never the type to care for ‘gifts’. This was something that wo ld co ti e to be true decades later. My loyalties couldn’t be bought by material offerings. Love, of course, was different. I could give my life for love. That was the Pashtun way.
Ironically, after the huge push to get her married, my sister refused to say yes to anyone. There were rishtas (proposals) from nearly all the provinces, and a few from other nationalities too. She remained unmoved and focused on her graduation from Jinnah College for Women in Peshawar. She also completed a few semesters of Masters in Microbiology from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and a few other courses besides, but she couldn’t settle on her Prince Charming.
My father, brother and I found the almost-daily arguments between my mum and my sister emotionally draining. My arrival in the family, and the ultra-lenient attitude of my parents towards me, also wasn’t appreciated by Sweety. My mother had been pushed into parenthood at a young age, and hadn’t exactly built the best of relationships with her firstborn as a result. She was a teenager when she gave birth to Sweety, but had been in her thirties when she had me. She had clearly been cutting her teeth with the first child. She was an experienced parent by the time I arrived. My mum made me promise that I would never put her through the same thing when I navigated my own teenage years. I
kept that promise, but made up for it in my adulthood instead.
The huge age gap between my siblings and I, as well as the fear of risking my mother’s displeasure, meant I learned never to argue. To this day, I prefer to walk away instead of having a long, drawn-out confrontation. For a lot of my childhood I remember apologising profusely on behalf of my sister just to calm things down. My sister found me to be a very irritating presence as I was her polar opposite. People have always had trouble coping with my endless energy. Sweety would return from college and flop in the afternoon heat of Peshawar, only to be disturbed by the sound of me roller-skating up and down the long driveway. The afternoon sun couldn’t deter me from play. She describes me as a constant noisy presence, and her complaints aroused little sympathy from my mum.
My level of activity required a lot of sugar. Everyone in my family has always had an incurable sweet tooth. I was always after some kind of snack, and there would be no biscuit jar in the house that I left full. My mother would make sure everyone got equal servings of ice cream, putting her aptitude for mathematics to good use when dividing the slab into five perfect pieces. Like normal humans, we would all eat our puddings when served. Except Sweety. She would hoard hers away, and it would torture me for days. Chocolates that were given to my brother and I were finished in a matter of seconds, while Sweety’s would build into an impressive stash. Naturally, in the interest of making space in the freezer, and to save the chocolates from reaching their expiry date, I would lend a helping hand here and there. This would be met with blood-curdling screams from my older sister. The poor girl was expected to be the understanding older sibling.
There must have been a lot of pent-up anger toward me, the little monster. Indeed, one day when my parents were away and she was left to babysit, I received a resounding slap across the face (the only
time I was ever smacked as a child!)@furqan.Sweetyrecallsthatthe rest of that day was spent in terrible anxiety that I would tell on her. I never did, of course. I sometimes wonder if it might have been my annoying
presence that finally led Sweety to go for marriage.
She finally settled on the most unlikely of candidates: a recommendation from my dad’s sister of a family of apparently similar circumst nces. The family had lived in Libya and England and the boy’s father was an ENT surgeon, like my dad. The family was originally from Haripur but had settled in Rawalpindi. The term most flippantly used in Pakistan is the rather vague ‘sharif’, which means ‘respectable’ when it comes to describing how suitable a prospective suitor’s family is. In most cases, it means that the family is of the same sect and has money.
Even as a young adolescent, I could see how dramatically different this family was from ours. I quite liked their desi nature. In stark contrast to the reserved, ladylike demeanour of my mother, the mother-in-law seemed like Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. They were loud, expressive and different. The young man himself was nothing special. Nobody could quite see what Sweety saw in Khalid because he was not exactly God’s gift to womankind in looks or personality. According to her, she liked him because he paid her no attention at all, unlike the rest of the world drooling at her feet. She would find out pretty soon what it was like to live with a man who never praises but is liberal with criticism.
Khalid was a wonderful big brother to me as he was to his own sisters, but with his wife, his behaviour left a lot to be desired. In private, he was affectionate to her, but in public he was aloof and distant. He clearly could not handle living with an exceptionally beautiful woman. He would demonstrate his insecurities through many snide and sarcastic jibes, even in front of me. Sweety would put up with his sarcasm, his violent mood swings, and even his reluctance to work for years on end. However, she would eventually give up and start to work as a schoolteacher to pay for her children’s education and retain her sanity. Like many Pakistani parents, they stayed together for the children.
When the boys left home, they separated.
Khalid died soon after, at the rather young age of 52. A three-minute cardiac arrest ended his rather uneventful life. Their youngest, Yousaf, was alone to deal with it all, as the older two brothers were now overseas. Yousaf was deeply affected by this sudden loss. He had to quickly grow into the young man his father had never been. He took on the responsibility of looking after his grieving grandmother and managing her affairs singlehandedly.
My nephew took after me. He also knew something about having to step up and take charge of a difficult situation in order to survive.