I was fourteen years old the first time I saw the 1981 Bollywood film Umrao Jaan . It was a searing afternoon in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I sat in the blast of the AC in the living room, the remote control turned to the TV and VCR, a bowl of potato chips on the table before me. The movie began—two kidnapped girls being sold, their fates decided by their complexions—and, by the time the fair girl was living her life as a respectable wife while Umrao, the darker girl, grew into an esteemed courtesan, I had pushed my snack away.
Both wife and courtesan lived in cages but, while the wife’s cage door was firmly shut and the keys in her husband’s fist, the courtesan’s cage door was ajar; on occasion, she could enjoy freedoms such as composing poetry, earning an income, and running away with a lover. The final image of the film—the courtesan looks into a mirror, wipes it clean, and so begins a new chapter of her life— burrowed itself deep into my fourteen-year-old heart. I had discovered my calling.
The film Umrao Jaan is based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s 1899 novel and chronicles the life and times of its eponymous heroine, as well as other courtesans. It also illustrates the hierarchy within prostitution where courtesans are the elite of the lot. As such, courtesans are accomplished women to whom the Nawabs, and other social luminaries, sent their sons to learn the finer arts of poetry and etiquette. With the advent of the Victorian British in the subcontinent, the status of the courtesan changed until, finally, by the early twentieth century, she had devolved into a common prostitute. The smart ones, the lucky ones, however, branched off into singing and acting careers.
When my mother, an anesthesiologist, returned that evening from the hospital, I solemnly sat her down and, in a voice treacle-thick with happiness, informed her, “I want to be an actress when I grow up.”
My mother blinked.
“I want to be like Rekha in Umrao Jaan . It’s what I want to do.”
My mother slapped me. Then, tearing up, she immediately gathered me to herself: Only prostitutes were actresses. I was to prostrate on the prayer mat and beg Allah for forgiveness for allowing the devil to impregnate me with such a vile desire. I was not to breathe a word of this to my father.
My father was not a film watcher though he did occasionally enjoy watching actresses twirl in impossible circles and stamp their anklets in time to the most intricate of beats. But, no matter how impressive the dancing prowess, he equated acting with prostitution, for both professions made a woman available to the male gaze. My father had come of age in the mid-twentieth century, a time of great social upheaval between Hindus and Muslims which solidified, for the vast majority, their differences.
In Muslim culture, dancing and singing were associated with Hindu religion; these acts became anathema for respectable Muslim women who traditionally wore veils and lived away from the public eye, their domestic lives preoccupied with being good daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. Sometimes there was the odd Muslim woman from a respectable background whom either economic necessity drove into the acting profession, or her father supported her dreams.
“Your father,” my mother said, “will die.”
I did what any fourteen-year-old might have done given the circumstances—I did not mention acting again and clandestinely prepared for my dreams by practicing dancing to Indian films on the VCR. Although my parents disapproved of entertainers, they had nothing against entertainment and so I grew up with Indian films in tandem with books.
My father considered books the font of knowledge and would happily feed my gluttonous appetite for reading. Had my parents checked my reading material, I’m sure they would have disapproved of Deenie and the Sweet Valley series on account of crushes and kisses, but the covers were mostly smiling girls. Those that were suggestive, i.e. Te Amo Means I Love You , I covered with the same brown paper I used to protect school-issued textbooks.
My favorite places to read were my bedroom windowsill, with a steep drop to the concrete bottom, and behind the thick blue drapes in our drawing room, for both places rendered me practically invisible. Consequently, in my mind, books were socially acceptable, respectable, tepid creatures, shut-up until opened and, even then, silent in contrast to acting and dancing which were loud, exuberant exhibitions of life.
There is a photo I discovered in a family album around my late twenties in which my father sits in the periphery of an audience full of men in equally smart shirts and pants. They are watching a belly dancer who is striking a pose on a table. No matter how many times I stare at the photo, I cannot recognize the smiling, clapping man in this picture as my father. My father was somber in everything he did, whether it was his generosity with charity (in Islam, charitable acts are not to be advertised), sitting up with me all night during thunderstorms, which terrified me, or driving around my mother because in Saudi Arabia women are forbidden to drive. Dignity, respect, and reputation were the most important values in the world for this man who hurt no one and wanted no one to hurt him.
My father does not remember how this photo happens to be in his possession or when it was taken. It could have been during his Aligarh Muslim University days in India, he says, or, later, when he left for England for his Chartered Accountancy degree. He was an educated man who had observed that the world was kindest to a woman who accepted her traditional boundaries, a woman who valued her dignity and respect above all else. In his world good girls did not smoke, go to parties, or talk to boys. My parents always stressed the importance of being a wife and a mother while a career was an afterthought, this despite my mother’s thriving profession as a doctor but, unlike dancing, singing, and acting, medicine is a “noble” occupation.
Many years later, after we had moved back to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, I sat in my Advanced Level Easy Urdu class reading the novel Umrao Jaan when my Urdu teacher, a sweet woman with a hoarse voice, called me to her desk. Her husband was a TV producer, she said. He was casting for a new TV serial. He had seen me the other day. Was I interested in acting?
Since returning to Pakistan I had been offered opportunities to appear in movies but I had enough sense to know that my father would never let me near the then very dubious Pakistani film industry. Pakistani television, however, was different, because of its association with acclaimed writers had given it a veneer of respectability. I waited for an opportune moment to inform my father of my good luck.
That moment came at the start of the 7:00 p.m. Khabarnama , the English news broadcast read by Shaista Zaid, a woman my father considered most dignified even if she was on TV, with her killer combination of pious dupatta always elegantly arranged over her hair and her stately English accent. Before I finished sharing news of the offer, my father rose, his face a puddle of agony and, turning to my shocked mother, told her to tell me to never dare mention such a proposition again. Then he left the room.
The next day I arrived at school a mess and went straight to the Urdu teacher. She took one look at me and sighed, for my father’s reaction was typical of a man from a conservative background. As in all countries, conservatives, liberals, and fundamentalists live side by side; there are echelons in Pakistan that would laugh at my father’s rigid stance just as there are echelons who would laugh at me for calling my family conservative, considering that I was studying at a co-ed institution.
My Urdu teacher sighed and asked if it would help if she and her husband called my house to assure my father that the mohol , the atmosphere, at the TV studios was respectable.
“Okay,” I said praying this call would make all the difference.
My father hung up on them. In a voice brimming with quiet disappointment, he said, “This wish of yours is never going to come true as long as I’m alive.”
I had thought such dialogues existed only in melodramas as I tried to reconcile this angry father with the man who’d held me tenderly through thunderstorms.
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“ Laug kya kahein gey? What will people say?” my mother said, wringing her hands.
“Who cares!” I cried.
“ Hamari naak cut jai gi . Our noses will be cut off,” my father said. “ Hamari izzat khak mein mil jaey gee. Our good honor and reputation will turn to mud.”
“No one will marry your sister, your cousins,” my mother said. “No one will marry you.”
“I don’t care,” I said. But I did care about ruining my sister and cousins for it didn’t seem fair that anyone else should suffer for my dreams. For the umpteenth time I longed for a society where individuals mattered over the group.
“No one will marry you ,” my mother repeated as if this prospect was the worst nightmare in hell, which in Pakistan where marriage may as well be the state religion, it perhaps is.
“You don’t want me to do anything ,” I said, hating my parents for not seeing my way even as I hated myself for not seeing their way.
“You can write,” my father said, his tone pleading with me to stop making life difficult for all of us. “You have my permission to write.”
I begged my father to reconsider. I begged my mother to help me out. My mother had given up her own dreams of being a journalist in light of her father’s decree that she study medicine, but she said she was helpless. Perhaps she could not see the irony of her siding with my father, or else she was keeping the peace at home as best as she could, or else she truly did agree with my father’s view of the world; she was, as she said, helpless. A supportive mother can only go so far in a culture where fathers reign supreme.
I would have run away from home but in the Pakistan of that time, there was nowhere to run. Extended family might enjoy the politics of shaming your particular family while friends might eventually inquire exactly how long you are planning to stay.
Instead, I ran away into books, their fictional lives guaranteeing happy endings or, at the very least, endings which had rhyme and reason to them other than: I am your father and I said No. But my literary heroines—Thomas Hardy’s Eustacia Vye, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Edith Wharton’s Countess Olenska—though they were struggling with provincial suffocations, marital expectations, and societal rules, could not help explain my father, and it wouldn’t be until I started reading Urdu literature that I began to put together the puzzle that was my father: such a generous forgiving man and yet so ungenerous and unforgiving in this one aspect.
I saw attitudes like my father’s mirrored in Kishwar Naheed’s memoirs and in Ismat Chughtai’s works. In these female writers and feminists’ brash words, I saw my own boldness plus confusions echoed: Why were demure women held up as paragons of virtue? Why did they not break out of their mental prisons? Why were relationships between men and women always only about sex? Why did family honor always have to trump individual desire?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been telling stories to myself. Whether an elementary schooler playing handball against playground walls, a middle schooler roller skating on the flat top roofs in Jeddah, or a teenager playing squash in the Lahore Gymkhana, I would make up stories based on novels I was reading. Eventually I started to write original material and get published. A poem won honorable mention, another story won a contest, and I was offered the job of an editor for a budding literary journal.
I took no pride in these achievements. Traditionally, Pakistani women have been permitted to write from behind a veil; they would have a voice and yet be voiceless. I was disappointed that I had, despite living in the twenty-first century, allowed myself to be relegated to a purdah of sorts. Writing was respectable, nonthreatening, invisible—what a failure I was for obeying my father’s imperial edict: “You have my permission to write.”
I resented having been saddled with regrets not of my own making. I resented the fact that writing was some sort of a consolation prize.
One day, I wrote a story which I didn’t know I contained in my imagination. It was inspired by a family vacation to Thailand. Bangkok was an interesting place where, on one side of a road, my mother would be shopping for freshwater pearls while, on the other side, my father, beet red, would be lured by catcalls promising him “girls of any age and shape.” “Papa’s Girl” concerns a child who witnesses his father with an underage prostitute in Bangkok and the effect that incident has on him on his wedding night.
“Papa’s Girl” got published. Someone said I’d written it for shock value and to get famous. One woman declared that I was mentally ill and that I did not deserve to have children, especially not sons. A friend’s husband was adamant that I’d written pornography, although I stand by my conviction that anyone who is titillated by this particular story needs to get professional help. I thanked God that my parents were not readers, yet I couldn’t help but wonder what my father’s reaction would be. Had I cut off their noses? Had I turned their honor to dust? Had I ruined their reputations after all? Would my sister and cousins end up divorced or, at the very least, had I given their spouses and in-laws ammunition against them?
Whatever the case, “Papa’s Girl” shattered my assumption that writing was a timid, respectable, barely visible creature which hid itself away on windowsills and behind silken drapes.
But it would be another prostitute who would bring me full circle.
There are two types of people in this world: those who follow their dreams, and those whose dreams die fallow because they don’t have the guts to take a stand, a real stand, a stand in which they care less about others and more about themselves. People say to take responsibility for your decisions. I don’t know if this is a fair expectation from a teenager living in the Pakistan of that time. But if I do take any responsibility, if I am at all an agent in the regret that has dogged me so much of my life, it is that I should have cared more about my own dreams. My sister and cousins would have survived.
There is a popular adage that goes, “Behind every successful man there stands a woman.” I firmly believe that, in my part of the world, “Behind every successful woman stands her father.” It is a fact even for Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai; had Malala’s father not been the forward thinker he is, then Malala may not have ever availed the opportunities that have come her way. I often wonder what Malala’s father’s reaction would have been had Malala, rather than simply wanting to go to school, informed her father that she wanted to be a singer, a dancer, an actress.
If you really love something, do you ever miss your boat? Is it ever too late to live some version of your dreams? Pakistani women grow up being told that, once they get married, they are free to fulfill all their interests. Once I got married, I was technically free to indulge in my “true calling,” to “fulfill my dreams,” if not on the big screen or on TV, then at least in an amateur theater group and, if not that, then would I yet not have practiced monologues, gone through scripts, something, anything to remain true to myself?
Instead, I wrote. Despite that it would have made more sense for me to have rebelled and never have written a single word. Despite that writing well was difficult and not just a matter of mimicking dance moves. Despite rejection, so, so much rejection that is a writer’s life. Despite an incident where a drawer full of my diaries and stories was set on fire and my work burned because the diaries recorded conversations with boys and the stories were romances, and I arrived home to my pink ceramic sink covered in ashes and I turned on the tap to literally watch years of memories, which are real stories and fiction, which are stories from our imagination, go down the drain. Despite everything, I continued to write. A reluctant writer but nonetheless a writer.
In the early 2000s, my firstborn was sleeping in my arms when I stumbled upon In Custody playing on TV, a film based on Anita Desai’s novel, which I had yet to read. The movie is about a Hindi professor who wants to interview a famous Urdu poet in order to preserve his poetry for posterity. The poet’s domestic life is a mess. His first wife, a respectable doyenne, is a querulous, cunning person trapped by the limits of her own mind, while his second wife, a prostitute before he married her, is also a poet. I remembered Umrao lounging on diwans, her pen striking notes of freedom onto paper, and here was this prostitute wife, played by a vulnerable yet proud Shabana Azmi, doing the same even though no one acknowledges her or her poetry. At one point in the film, she says, “In your opinion a woman can be a dancing, singing courtesan but not a thinking being who can express thoughts and passions through poetry. Why not?”
Her chutzpah was all. And it came to me like a slap, as epiphanies often are to the soul, why I had never pursued acting. When my fourteen-year-old self had told my mother, “I want to be an actress,” what I meant was not that I wanted to be an actress per se, but that I wanted to be as independent and strong-willed as I imagined those courtesans and prostitutes—those women who were always writing, who were always drunk on ink for their pens, who were their means to display loud exhibitions of their disobedient brilliant souls. I wanted to be my own person too. That was all.