As a child, each summer, I performed all the requisite ‘city-girl-in-a-village’ activities: I would go swimming in my uncle’s tubewells, I would show off my latest camera and ask my cousins to take pictures of me picking cotton; I’d spend hours playing hide-and-seek in sugar cane plantations and I would eat any variety of mango that my heart desired because I have eight uncles and they each grew a different kind. But as the years passed, time constraints grew and so did responsibilities and family vacations became nearly impossible to plan.
Last month, one of my first cousins from Chishtian announced to the family that he had fallen in love and was to be married. A trip to Punjab was long overdue and this wedding was a great excuse.
My over-anxious parents, already-irate brother and I boarded the Shalimar Express to Bahawalpur at 6 am on a Thursday morning, with three pieces of hand-luggage, two cartons of presents, a potla of old giveaway clothes, a few shopping bags full of food and snacks and pillows and blankets. Twelve uneventful hours later, the train was closing in on the city where Ziaul Haq had his last meal before crashing to his death — trivia that my Bahawalpuri uncle tells us every time we visit.
Anyone who has ever taken the Shalimar Express to Bahawalpur knows that the train stops at Bahawalpur for exactly a minute and a half and it takes a great deal of expert and strategic pre-planning for four family members and their 11 pieces of luggage to find a way off the train while, simultaneously, aspiring and equally-prepared passengers want to climb aboard and other aggravated ones wish to depart. After much kicking, elbowing and wriggling, we made our way to the main gate, over which there was a life-sized poster of Benazir Bhutto saying: “Welcome Bahawalpur.”
Over dinner, we made plans for the next day: we would join the baraat en route Rahim Yar Khan in my uncle’s car, and on Saturday we would go to Chishtian for the valima.
Almost every family wedding I have attended in Punjab has been held at noon and this function was no exception. The bride was refusing to sit on stage because the sole pedestal fan was broken and she feared her make-up might melt; moreover, the women’s section wouldn’t be served food until the men had eaten. With no bride to take photographs with and no food to eat, I decided to kill time by mingling with guests, most of whom comprised distant family members.
There were a few customary inquiries about why I wasn’t yet married, but the most popular question was related to my choice of profession. I didn’t quite know how to explain the term ‘Editorial Assistant’ in Punjabi, so I decided to describe myself as a sahaafi. I hoped this revelation would start a debate about local political issues and hence pass time till the biryani was served. I was wrong. Some of the most memorable reactions I got were:
“Why beta?” asked my twice-removed great-aunt. “The media is the most shameless profession in Pakistan.”
“If you ever want to screw someone over, set a paper-waali on them,” reflected the father of the bride.
“But you’re a girl — you should teach. Does your father know you do this or is it a secret?” asked yet another worried second cousin of my mother.
“A journalist in Karachi? Didn’t you do well at college?”
At first, I tried to argue and reason with them, but after a distant and unrecognisable uncle said “Oh, so you’re the akhbaari? Tell me: is unemployment really such a problem in Karachi?” I gave up and went to hide behind my brother. He wasn’t having much luck either: they all loved that he was a trusty old banker but he would lose them the moment he mentioned Barclays — if it wasn’t a national bank, they weren’t interested.
For the valima in Chishtian, I decided to try harder. While accompanying the bride to the beauty parlour instead of making conversation, I kept silent and got my hair done, which cost a grand total of 200 rupees. I spoke (read: lied) to my aunts and uncles about how dangerous Karachi was and how I perennially fear for my life.
It seemed to work: the uncles invited me to visit their fields after the function ended and the aunts fondly retold anecdotes from my childhood to other guests. It appeared that to gain my family’s approval, instead of standing out, I needed to fit in.
The writer is a part of Herald’s editorial team.