1997

My school sends a letter addressed to my parents that states girls beginning fourth class can no longer wear navy-blue, knee-length frocks with red belts cinching the waist. Instead we will be required to wear navy blue shalwar kameez with white sashes. The letter also lists out the different stores my parents can buy the uniform from, and promises that the school logo will be pre-stitched on the kameez. I, my mother’s oldest, am ten years old that year. She forgets about this letter, though she does go to Karachi Company to stand in line at the bulk stationers so she can buy plain brown paper and notebooks for my younger brothers and me. She spends the night before the first day of the new school year covering our notebooks neatly with the paper. The next day she sends me to that all-girls school without the shalwar, tying the belt instead around a hand-me-down kameez from one of my cousins. And even though the kaaj at the sides flap open to reveal my 10-year-old legs, my mother thinks it really will not matter if I wear this approximation of a frock, though this is tantamount to sending a young girl to school in just a long-ish blouse.

The next morning, while driving me to school, my father stares at me in the car and says, Something looks off, before leaning over to smooth down one of my eyebrows. That’s better. My new classroom is populated with all the girls from last year—Saba, Hira, Shafaq, Sumaiya, etc. In the excitement of lining up by height and trying to see if anyone has grown taller or shorter after the summer holidays, opening our crisp new notebooks, and rubbing the ends of our erasers to soften them on our desk, no one says a word about me in just my kameez and my bare legs. All day, shalwars around me—standard cotton-polyester blends, elasticated at the waist—billow easy and free. At home time, though, when I am exiting the school gates to step towards the honking red Mehran in which my khala—my mother’s older sister—sits waiting to pick me up, the security guard sitting on a stool by the gate calls towards my back, Beta kal se shalwar pehen ke aana. My khala hears him tell me to wear a shalwar tomorrow and laughs the whole way home, continues to laugh even when she repeats the story to my mother as she drops me off, and my mother laughs too. They nearly split in two over it, the orange Tang shaking in their glasses. I will suffer over slights and mistakes much, much smaller than these when I am older, but for now, my mother and I are almost one person, and I still believe that if she thinks it is okay for me to not wear a shalwar under a kameez, it is probably in the realm of okay, though my parents do drive back to Karachi Company that very evening and buy a shalwar, so the next day I can fit seamlessly into the mold of how girls—fourth class and above—should look. 

1999

My younger khala perms her hair that year, refuses to take me to do mine without my mother’s permission, regardless of how much I beg her. But perms were popular in the eighties, my mother says in the face of my incessant begging. She stares accusingly at her younger sister as she says this, as if my khala has dealt out some great injustice to this decade. It has only been two years since the shalwar debacle, but my father is on his way up at work, and with this my mother has finally allowed herself to think of us as, in some years, being able to be part of the upper-middle-class. This means, as a family, we cannot go backward and must instead take strides forward. We already have a new computer at home, for which my brothers and I have shunned our faithful old Nintendo 64. We only play Mortal Kombat and Aladdin on this computer, but even the playing of these games is a source of some pride for our parents. We are children now, but we are also citizens of the future.

Besides, you are too young for a perm, is what my mother says.

Perhaps to make up for failing to facilitate a perm for me, my younger khala sneaks me, and in fact all us girl cousins, out to our uncle’s house to watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. This movie is a revelation, for it shows eleven-year-old me exactly how a girl/woman should dress to achieve a dream level of attractiveness. I am talking, of course, of the scene in which Anjali wears a white shalwar kameez and red dupatta while hanging off a moving train as Rahul begs her to stay, though he maintains he is in love with another woman (the asshole). This scene shows me how to be wanted by a man while remaining untouched, the possibility of love always being more attractive than love when you are a pre-teen. My mother, who by now is exhausted from saying no to the perm, finally says yes to the white shalwar kameez and red dupatta.

I have one stitched: chikankari embroidery on white cloth for the kameez that will have three-quarter sleeves and a boat neck, pure cotton for the shalwar, and a bright-red chunri dupatta that crinkles open when I pull on the rope-like twist. It is magnificent. I shine it. Sadly, all the men and boys I encounter that summer remain unattracted to me despite my near religious adherence to this white-shalwar-kameez-red-dupatta uniform.

My father finds out, months later, that my khala has shown us the movie and yells at her for corrupting us. Who knows what you want your life to look like ten years from now, but these girls are from shareef families! Shareef means decent, a mantra the middle classes have always mobilized—I will realize later—for steering girls like me towards the belief that a devotion to decency (often code for chastity demonstrated via a certain way of dressing) will result in the eventual (re)appearance of a man, and that will be all we need for the rest of our lives.

2000

My father’s job transfers him to Australia for three years, leading my parents to talk incessantly about what school years my brothers and I will be able to finish over there before having to come back. While packing, we give away some things and put others in storage. My mother gives away all my clothes—they will be too small for me anyway when I come back—except for a few that she decides we will take with us, for community events over there. The general air across our extended family implies that some great fortune has befallen us because we are going abroad. Still, my parents are mindful of saying, over and over to everyone who congratulates them: We will be coming back.

In Australia, my parents keep on with their reign of rule-setting in continued service of female decency (we have to go back!); no sleepovers, no tight jeans, no sleeveless shirts, and no boys (ever). They do not mention drugs or alcohol or anything that even implies smoke coming out of orifices. Anyway, these rules do not matter because my mother still dresses me, and because during that first year in this new country one of my male classmates says—loudly enough for the whole class of blond Australians to hear, Why do you have a mustache?

My mother buys all my clothes that year: semi-flared jeans, basic T-shirts, and jumpers from the clearance racks of Kmart, Target, and Big W. We are saving the dollars my father is making here so that we will be rich when we get back. I make some friends that year, including Dina, who, halfway through seventh grade, giggles and says, Why is your mustache blonde?

This time, I have an answer: I have begun to bleach it.

In class one day I sit on a chair covered by ink from a burst pen. It is nearing winter and I am wearing a jumper, and the ink is all down my back, and I become paralyzed with fear. When some boy says, Why don’t you just take it off? I have the presence of mind to not immediately blurt out the truth: I am not wearing anything underneath. Boys in seventh grade have one-track, sex-addled minds. I stand instead throughout that whole hour and keep the jumper on, much to the bemusement of my classmates. And when I get home, I yell at my mother, Why didn’t you tell me you are supposed to wear T-shirts under jumpers? I didn’t know, she admits. This time there is no shared laughter; both she and I are afraid. She lets me buy my own clothes from then on, and allows me to tweeze my monobrow (though not the mustache just yet). She does not say anything when, during those next three years, I focus on making myself look as inconspicuous as possible.

2005

My father has been promoted on his return; he has brought some savings back. My parents enroll me in a school in Islamabad that you can tell is for rich kids, or, if not for the super-rich kids, for the upper-middle classes. We all brag about where we swim.

I am also excited because the school, housed in a mansion, looks like a place where romances can burgeon, where I believe some boy will offer to buy me fries from the school canteen and I will shyly eat them with him as we sit on a stoop. Soon I hope to be fully part of this social fabric where students, when they are not in class, sit around in groups on the concrete outside the house masquerading as a school, or walk loops around it, occasionally stopping to affectionately call out to each other. My mother allows me to have my mustache threaded.

My confidence rises, so I begin to wear kajal and mascara to school, walk a little taller, ask to borrow my mother’s silver rings, and finally, also begin to attract male attention, though this is very short-lived. This one student, Saad, stands by the school gate at home-time one day and says, Beautiful, MashAllah in an exaggerated English accent while staring directly at my breasts. My mamoon has come to pick me up on exactly that day, by chance, and overhears him, and leans out of the car window and calls him a maderchod and various other expletives in Punjabi, before the guard at the school gate is moved enough to tell him to stop harassing the students. The story spreads at school, and what remains is this sense that, though I do speak English with a bit of an accent that implies that I learned it in a foreign country, perhaps the rest of my family isn’t as refined as I make myself out to be (case in point: my gangster maternal uncle).

During these years teenage girls are straining towards a seemingly refined homogeneity of which I long to be a part. I straighten my hair, make the important semi-annual pilgrimages to the sales at G E N E R A T I O N with all my cousins. Years from now, we won’t be able to throw a stone in the city without hitting a store selling ready-made designer clothes, but for now this is the only one my aunts and my mother know about that bestows on its wearers a certain aura of well-to-do-ness and modernity. My cousins and I fan out across the store, shoulder to shoulder with random aunties who, like our own mothers, are also looking to buy exactly the right sort of shalwar kameez for their daughters and for themselves. There is a general charge in the air that suggests wearing these clothes will change something. When my cousins are picking out clothes for themselves, they pick up things for me too, in case the store runs out of my size before I can get to a certain rack. And really, I do feel happy when I wear the clothes. Everyone says I look so beautiful and modern. I still have some of them years later: made of cotton, silk, georgette, linen. They are embroidered and appliquéd; the length of the kameezes are different depending on what year they were bought. Now, they look like clothes anyone could have worn. I don’t remember buying them, any of the crowds in the store, how I felt when I tried them at home. They are neatly packed away in suitcases that come down once every few years, before being folded back and locked away.

2011

I am going to America for my master’s degree, but not before promising my mother that I will go through the rishta process, meet the men she wants me to meet. Perhaps you can get engaged before you go!

Mothers of men show up dutifully in lieu of their sons, hopeful that I too will happily carry on the baton of decency they have carried all their lives. This hope moves us all forward through this dance in which I dress in the tunics from the ready-made clothing stores that have sprung up across the country over the past few years. All the aunties my mother knows acknowledge that the balance between decency and modernity is a tricky one these days; for example, a dupatta is not always required as it was in my mother’s time, and it is okay if the girl sits and the house-help serves the tea to the prospective rishta’s parents. Sometimes this is even preferred, as it indicates that the family of the prospective bride has a certain amount of wealth.

My aunts say, There will be no trouble with her. She is such a decent, modern girl, and your family is so good. By now, I understand that “good” means “rich,” which means my father is in a position of power now.

The prospective mothers-in-law, despite all the various ways in which I am good in society’s eyes, also demand their own versions of goodness from me: 

We are looking for someone from Lahore;

We do not want her to work;

The only thing my son requires is that his prospective wife has a child by next year October so he can retire and be done with the child’s schooling by the time he is 55;

The only thing my son requires is that his prospective wife put the shopping bags away as soon as she comes back from shopping;

The only thing my son requires is that she never wear sleeveless–

My mother does not press me when I turn them all down, though you can see she thinks I should say yes. She looks down at the floor every time I issue a rejection, takes a deep breath. I turn down even the good ones, the men who come with their mothers and look at the floor, and those whose mothers say nervously that they like me, the men I meet alone in cafés, who seem sweet and anxious to be kind.

It is the first year I think that I am brave enough to only go after what I really want, even though all that means in my early twenties is being able to go to New York for two years to walk around in oversized coats with sheer tights and ankle-length boots. My parents let me leave in pursuit of this shallowest of dreams, but not before my mother elicits a promise from me that I will come back and get married. At the airport, my brothers kiss me on the cheek, one by one, and tell me that they will miss me, and my older khala cries more than my mother, though she knows I will be back in two years.

In New York, I spend two years doing my master’s and wearing whatever the hell I want because I can: patterned tights, thick heavy sweaters that would be too warm for back home, hats that sit crookedly on my head, boots that reach my knees. I make my hair up in outlandish styles; once I even crimp it and pile it all up on top of my head, line my eyes so the eyeliner goes all the way to my temples in a thick curved line. It feels excellent to walk around like that. From a thrift store, I buy sunglasses three sizes too big for me for two dollars and wear them everywhere. Most of these styles look out of place when I return home—it is as if I am trying too hard. Eventually I settle on long tunics in block colors, capris that end right above my ankle, oversized jewelry, cardigans in the winter. I wear the sunglasses sometimes. They still look good.

2016

I am at home—have been back for four years—when we find out my father is sick. It is pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to the liver. At first the cancer has not spread to his lungs, or his bones, or his gallbladder, his prostate, his kidneys, his throat—they are all still pristine. Then I have to watch my mother read each report about the disease’s progression into the previously cancer-free parts of him. This is the life she has built that is slowly being dismantled: a man, a house, and three children, though the sons are now taking their turn studying abroad, and the daughter is here, and will hopefully get married soon. I will turn 30 in two years, so really, I must get married soon. Even so, my father never once says, Get married before I die. I would do it if he said it, looking as thin as he does.

My mother reminds me that how we look as a family has an effect on how the hospitals treat us, so we dress in our best clothes, we make sure the doctors know that we speak English well, that really, we are not the sort of family who go through hardship routinely. Later, I will think about what it means that we are performing our wealth at the expense of other people’s lives. Once I will even tell my mother I cannot continue to live in a country that requires me to prove who I am over and over again, even though I am not who I am, I am who my father is (was), but I would do it again in the exact same way (no question), if in any version of this story my father gets to live. The doctors and the nurses walk us through this compassionately, tell us the facts, prepare us by using the word terminal, by explaining what palliative care means and that DNR stands for Do Not Resuscitate. One night, a nurse assures my weeping mother that signing the DNR form will not be un-Islamic.

My mother grows thin in the aftermath of my father’s death, smiles less easily, and no longer wears any make-up. She wears long T-shirts my brothers have left behind, and her body disappears in them. She forgets that you bore people if you cry all the time past the one-month mark, and I have to dramatically remind her one day, Baba built this life and you are drowning it in your tears. An aunty tells my mother, six months after my father’s death, This is not how women of our class grieve. My mother no longer behaves how she is supposed to behave, but what can I do, her grief is with God.

When I tell her after two years have passed that I have gotten a job in America, she is the one who says I should go even though my brothers are still abroad.

2020

The brother who is younger than me gets married two months before the pandemic starts being taken seriously across North America. His wife-to-be lives in Canada, so we fly there for the wedding, my two khalas, my brothers, two of my cousins, and my mother. Before that, my mother, who is still in Pakistan, starts preparing clothes for the bride—blue velvet with gold embroidery, green chiffon, French silk—that she shows me over WhatsApp video calls. The clothes are beautiful once they are stitched and are offered as a gift to my new sister-in-law when we land in the country. She accepts them in the spirit in which they are given—joyfully—though she knows she and my brother will live abroad most of their lives, and she will rarely have a chance to wear them. My mother knows this too, but she does these things because these are the ways in which she passes on her own bridehood. My brother smiles constantly on his wedding day, occasionally checks my father’s watch, which he wears on his left wrist. My other brother looks proud, stands tall next to the groom, aware of where we are now as a family. This is our first milestone without our father, and what we miss is also present in every room and in every picture, and in the end, it is true, it is easier to sit with the shadow of grief with people who feel it too.

My mother had applied for the visa to America before traveling to Canada, and she comes to stay with me for a few months towards the end of January, but then flights shut down, and the virus spreads across the globe. The two of us become ensconced in a small studio apartment where I work from 9 to 5, and every day my concerned colleagues ask on Teams, Is your mother still here? She sews masks from old linen so we can go out for walks, and weekly, she asks, So when are you getting married, as if the groom is ready outside and I am delaying the process.

My brothers and sister-in-law call every Saturday and demand recipes. Then my brothers call just me on Sundays and demand to know, How is she doing? I tell them the truth: She prays a lot now, she is sad sometimes, she says she has no one to go back home to, she loves the sales, J.Crew has gone bankrupt and everything is 70 percent off – until they say, Okay we get it, and say goodbye. My mother buys a prayer mat from the Sudanese grocery store down the street so she no longer has to kneel five times a day on a bedsheet folded atop my wood-paneled floor.

We go for daily walks, sometimes together, sometimes alone. One day, the man from the CBD store in our neighborhood spreads his wares out on the street, the bongs and the T-shirts, and leaves the curb unattended for the second that my mother is passing by it. She thinks that they are giving out free T-shirts. She picks up four and brings them home and I tell her that she’s made a mistake. The vendor thanks her when she brings back the T-shirts, gives her one for free. She wears this T-shirt around the apartment, despite it saying King Weedy in large letters across the front. I explain what that means but she says she’s not expecting any proposals—kaun sa mera rishta aana hai?

We have been suspended in time during these long, frightening months, but in our minds we have also been given a reprieve from looking and being looked at. We are anonymous in the street and our clothes lean towards an excess of comfort. I am in a bathrobe all day, chin hair thriving. I claim no part of this country except my own apartment, and my body, and my mother. I have not yet learned how to live in the world without my father. Maybe my mother senses that I hold myself apart here in a way I did not when I was living at home, because one day she says, You have a right to everything. She does not mention that, even back home, and for most of our lives, the world has made these rights contingent on a certain way of looking and speaking, on money and men. She can say this thing about rights because we have most of these things. We have no men, yes, but some money, and over the years we have had the privilege of honing the ways we look and speak so we can move through the world more easily.

My mother also tells me that before she traveled, she opened one of those old suitcases with some of her own now-decades-old clothes from when she was a girl. I thought I could repurpose some of the clothes, but one of the suitcases hadn’t been zipped up all the way and a mouse must have got into it. She sighs, explains how holding up a particular dupatta to the light caused sunlight in the room to stream through small holes in it. It still looked beautiful, that’s just how cloth was made back then. I think of the phrase “cut from the same cloth.” What happened to all those girls I went to school with, those looping around the school during lesson breaks, Dina focused on the hair above my upper lip? It is unfair that the world required us (daily) to be bigger than the words it wielded to keep us small—shareef, good, modern, beautiful. We failed often but now we must forge new definitions for how we want to be. 

 

 

Mahreen Sohail

Mahreen Sohail’s fiction has appeared in Granta, the Kenyon Review, A Public Space, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. She was previously a Charles Pick South Asia Fellow at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

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