I love my people! Don’t we all! In fact guerdons of my patriotism date back to childhood memories of festooning my rusty terrace with green ‘jhandiyan’ and candles on ‘choda’ August. Of waking up at the crack of dawn, to watch groggy school-kids robotically recite patriotic anthems on TV as they shivered and froze outside the PM House. I even enjoyed the warm, fuzzy feeling of being serenaded by the melodious crooning of Sohail Rana and the Benjamin Sisters and yes, I was once also guilty of begging my poor father for the TDK cassette of Vital Signs. And as I lip-synched along to ‘Dil, dil, Pakistan’ my male suitors in their mismatched knickers mimicked the same song with badminton rackets, cricket bats and even hockey sticks substituting for make-believe guitars. But enough of nostalgia, these days we come across a different kind of familiarity. A situation, a trait, a habit that we see our natives indulge in forcing us to sometimes cringe, sometimes wince but mostly just smirk and look away. The people and the scenarios I am about describe are mere acquaintances and in some cases even strangers, yet each and every one of them represents a certain someone you have all once crossed paths with. We will always have in common; a bourgeois Aunty, a ‘Vilayat’ palat, a hijabi conservative and a provocative nonconformist. So without further a due, lets cut straight to the point since introductions are undoubtedly in order.
Why yes…or as Mrs. Shamim would say ‘Why Not?’
‘Darling, just call me Mrs. Shamim!’
…but don’t you dare call me Aunty or I will make keema, bootee out of you!
We have all heard that line before right? And when we eye the source of the request from her bleached blond head down to her immaculately pedicured toes we meet our very own Aunty Begums. We wonder the entire time, when they would finally embrace their forties…fifties…or even their sixties. Psychically they all fit the profile down to an exact match; give or take some. Usually mid to late forties with a surprising disdain for the word ‘Aunty’ or for reality in general. Other signs of age are carelessly masked with coats of foundation ending just at their necks while blond bleach in bouffant perms serve as desperate substitutes for desi botox. Picture Bozo the clown, Stephen King’s IT or John Wayne Gacy. Got it? Now picture them in a sari. That my friend is an image of Aunty Sh…ahem…oops sorry I mean Mrs. Shamim that we all know. One in every family, admit it! Grinning from ear too ear at every marriage hall with bright red lipstick and perfect blush-on circles. The rest of their features ornamented with flashy diamonds, emeralds and gold, forcing their heads to look no different than a Faberge egg. Their gaudy jewelry, uncannily similar to the furniture that occupies every corner of their house. Those drawing rooms where we have all once battled boredom while staring offensively at the skinned, stuffed and now luckily extinct remains of a safari fusing perfectly with the ambiance of a Lollywood Smuggler. Alas, in interior decoration jargon it probably translates to slow suicide by garish distaste. But who are we to judge right? Noveau riche or born into money but at the end of the day, isn’t it just the riche that matters? Agreed, no arguments there. Now Mrs. Shamim doesn’t just dress in her finest but also jet-sets around the world with her hubby in ‘first’ and ‘business’ only. Her conversations always prefaced with the melodious purring of ‘Daaaahling’ punctuated with dropped names of the rich and famous.
‘Daahling when I was in Convent…I remember….”
‘Daaahling….I have to confess, I find the room service at the Ritz Carlton only mediocre compared to the Mandarin Oriental.’
‘Daaahling, I sure paid a fortune for this bag but WHY NOT its Ferragamo!’
And true to her words, the exorbitantly priced yet eyesore of a purse slung smugly over her shoulders did once bear more zeros than numbers on its price tag. Apart from her make-up faux pas – which I theorize is because the more expensive an item, the more horrid and cadaverous it promises to make you– she remains revered and envied as the IT socialite begum in a circle of country club jogging, Sunday brunching and high-tea hosting acquaintances. A close friend of my mothers, I grew up watching middle-aged, female arrivistes basking in the self-assured nimbus of Mrs. Shamim while flitting around vying for her cachet. It was not rare for me to arrive home from school only to find Mrs. Shamim perched elegantly on our chaise longue – sans the bad make-up – with her enormous, Hulk Hogan-esque arms peeping – rather menacingly – through sleeveless shirts. And while her husband worked hard to put the best bread and only the most exquisite butter on the table, Mrs. Shamim spent her days out-shining her peers and swanking her wealth. Lavish trips to Europe, States and Dubai were eloquently described in great detail, often. Careful never to omit the most miniscule of particulars like the heavenly beds she slept on in the world’s finest, most decadent hotel suites. Expensive brands always etched on her neon pink pumps and commonly interrupted (mid-boasting) by the incessant ringing of her Paktel –later replaced by a nifty Startac – for long distance money requests by daughters who only boarded in Switzerland’s finest finishing schools.
‘Why not?’ she would gush when people’s eyes widened at the cost of a European education in etiquette.
‘Why not?’ she would shrug after having casually revealed the amount she dropped on an Yves Saint Laurent belt or a Hermes handbag on a recent trip to Geneva.
During dinners, she impressed everyone at the table with her knowledge of expensive cuisine from around the world.
‘I always prefer my Fillet Mignon, medium rare…’ or
‘My husband and I decided that the calamari in Rome is far better than what we had in Venice.’
At parties, she always served and sipped expensive champagne while nibbling on shrimp hors dourves crafted like Origami butterflies.
Mrs. Shamim always spoke fluent English making sure her sentences burdened in cumbersome verbs spoken once only by female protagonists in Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham novels. I have to admit, I too was once guilty of being in awe of her glamour. It was hard not to admire that matter-of-fact shrug garnished with a signature ‘Why not?’ when it came to generous and lavish spending.
The last time I saw her was a couple of years ago, on a trip back home when I had stopped by Jumma Bazaar to purchase a few ethnic knick knacks. They make for excellent gifts for American friends and co-workers and because I knew I had ‘foreign-return’ or ‘F-10’ plastered over my face, I didn’t argue with the pathans who conveniently hiked up their prices even when I attempted to feign a lack of interest. As I deliberated over the durability of a set of mirror-work cushion covers, I spotted Mrs. Shamim engaged in conversation with the pathan vendor across from me. We had not met since I left for college and I was impressed that she still looked good. Sure, she was slightly aged, but the bleach in her hair still diligently competed with the years under her belt. Delighted by the pleasant surprise, I decided to walk over and greet her. She looked almost humble for the first time with a dopatta covering her fake blond locks and very little make-up as she haggled loudly with a pathan.
‘Koi naheen, koi naheen…pachaas rupay? Ham atay rehtay hain yahan…pachis rupay kee cheese, pachaas may day rahay ho. Mujhay naheen pata kam karo…Itwaar bazaar may das kee bhi mil jatee hay yeh.’ Then she followed her routine with the oldest trick in a seasoned bargainer’s bag. The walk away of disinterest…a five-second pause followed by a dramatic 180 turn to warn that the moment was now reduced to ‘last chance, take it or leave it!’
‘Bas tees ka kar kay…baat khatam karain. Aap bhii khush, ham bhi khush. Chalain shabaash.’
Granted the guy had probably jacked up the price. Granted the item’s price fluctuated based on each customer’s attire and accent. But in the end, it was only fifty rupees which amounts to less than a buck for a gentry begum who had probably never once dared to bargain with a sales-girl selling her a plain black shoe as if doing her a favor because the D&G anagram etched conceit inside the sole.
I remember a desperate urge to walk over, place my hand on her shoulder and remark ‘But Aunty Shamim….why not?’ Instead, I walked away quietly. As irked as I was, by the time I walked out of Jumma Bazaar and ran my eyes around the dusty field, I realized that it wasn’t just her. I was surrounded by many similar versions of Aunty Shamim. Head covered, sleeveless concealed. A designer bag on their shoulders from a shopping spree abroad but tirelessly haggling over twenty rupees with a local vendor. My people! Gotta love em!
Specimen 2: ‘My good name, Abdul Qadoos Jhangya, sir’
Ok granted I don’t really know this one personally, nor intimately, but neither do any of you. We have all, however, spotted this certain fellow citizen at many International airports. In fact, this once comes in every shape, every size, every gender and every age. The one most memorable for me, was the one I spotted on a recent trip home. I had arrived at the JFK airport lugging my 1 check-in suitcase and 1 carry-on (an utter sin for all the aunties who had preyed on me for months to become their shipping mule…only to be disappointed by my ‘badtameezie’ when I declined.) JFK airport, I might add, remains to be as eclectic of a desi melting pot as Jackson Heights, what with the cabbies blasting Bhangra out front and the interminable lines of kurtas with sneakers inside. Bursting leather suitcases with a Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Calcutta, Mumbai or Chennai address scribbled untidily on swinging tags. As I fumbled with my own sinfully frugal luggage; my eyes fell on a nervous man enter through the same sliding glass doors which had once ignited awe and wonder of ‘gora’ technology but now seemed trite. His over-sized T-shirt and the blatancy of its embossed Diesel stretched proudly across a chest which had finally grown a few inches more as opposed to the scrawny torso he had probably once landed in the states with. His carry-on’s black strap stretching diagonally over his ambitious pecs and a fanny pack full of photocopies, plane tickets, itineraries and a passport (unfortunately still green instead of blue). Still, it encased the nurtured stamp of an H1 visa pasted on one of its pages and thus was to be handled as it if it were the most fragile item in his luggage. Apparently he had granted the wish of many predatory aunties with gifts to send home, because he tried aimlessly to juggle two large suitcases with optimistic reassurance that it would only pump up his biceps and forearms before landing. Jeans nearly as faded as his t-shirt but the white of his expensive sneakers spotless and fresh; probably plucked out of their box for this very occasion. At this point, I felt nothing but affectionate warmth for this hardworking Engineer? IT specialist? Who probably worked hard as an alien in a land he now referred to as home yet wondered why it felt like the loneliest of all his homes. Coincidentally, we ended up in the same line at check-in. Each time he looked back apologetically for taking up space, I replied with smiles instead. My smiles induced a reaction of surprise followed by hope. I always find that my friendliness with such FOB boys initially ignites a shocked response. Some even look over their shoulders to make sure I’m not smiling at someone else or better yet a cute, white boy. When I smile again, they display gratitude towards my civility with a reciprocal smile. But then again, their first impression of me was probably of a westernized biotch who believes to be in another league only because she can pronounce a word or two better and wear tight jeans and tops. The ‘greasy’, ‘Fobby’ and ‘smelly’ types remind such girls of what they are trying effortlessly to suppress. I in turn, stand patiently behind my Pakistani brother and watch him fumble tensely through documents and words. The indifferent and discourteous man at the counter continues to fire off questions.
‘Yes sir…No sir…Yes sir…” Mr. H1b answers in concise and obedient sentences. ‘My good name, Abdul Qadoos Jhangya sir’. At this point, his submissively polite demeanor is endearing and even admirable.
When ‘Sir’ informs him that one of his suitcases weighs over fifty pounds, he instantly apologizes and begins frantically transferring other peoples gifts and favors from suitcase to suitcase. Once again, he flashes me an apologetic look and this time, I surprise him even more by replying in perfect Urdu.
‘Koi baat naheen, aaraam say karo.’
He replies with another grateful smile and hopefully realizes that I am not the stuck-up ABCD he deduced I was. When he finally leaves the counter, he digs into his pockets to pay 3 bucks for a trolley. He even allows two older Caucasian women to jump ahead of him in line.
The next time we meet is at the airport waiting lounge. Much more relaxed than the last time I saw him, he still displays the fidgety nervousness of an alien traveling home on a green passport. When he spots me across the room, I pretend to be engrossed in my magazine to discourage any possibilities of ‘gup shup’. Sneaked glances from my magazines confirm that he is not really that bad-looking and will probably marry a girl more attractive than himself. On a similar nervous trip home in the next few years he will return with more items in the aunty gift-exchange and a wife in tow. He will then for the first time assume the role of a tour-guide from tourist. It will also reduce the loneliness of living in the States and make it more bearable.
The last time we meet is at the airport in Pakistan. As we are welcomed into our homeland with whiffs of heat and humidity, people impatiently off-load themselves with complaints about the weather, the smell and the headlines. Still, they are ecstatic to have returned home and run amok like excited school children in a candy store. He too, no longer appears nervous nor lost. Now confident with the sudden addition of a buoyant pep in his step he swaggers to baggage claim. First, he cuts in line at the passport counter.
‘Aray yaar jaldee kar na…’ he orders around.
Then he snatches a trolley and heads straight for his luggage. The man is almost unrecognizable and within minutes, I can hear him arguing loudly with two other men. One of those men appears to be airport staff.
I hear the words ‘Kya baqwaas hay…kya nizaam hay yaar…app jantay naheen may kon hoon…’ spewing out of his mouth. Then his vitriol is followed by a barrage of Punjabi swear words about mothers and daughters. The endearment I once felt for him at JFK is immediately replaced with disgust and embarrassment within minutes of landing in Pakistan. A part of me, wants to walk up to him and share a few Punjabi swear words myself. Remind him of how he stood in the ‘Attention’ position with his palms folded obediently over his crotch just a mere twenty hours ago. How he was bowing down, apologizing, and following every rule with added courtesy. Now, all of a sudden he has mutated into an obdurate rioter who could care less about laws and rules. The word ‘Sir’ now replaced with ‘BC’. My anger quickly turns into a smirk when I look around and realize its not only Abdul Qadoos who has made this extreme transformation from civil to evil. Every single person around me, who had quietly and obediently filed into our plane like sheep is now scampering in chaotic frenzy with stubborn indifference. I cant help but smirk at the women in kurtas and sneakers who could barely allow a sentence to escape their lips at JFK airport are now fanning their faces with boarding passes yelling ‘Kya ghatya nizaam hay….aap ko ladies kee line tu alag rakhnee chaiyay…’ The same men who had graciously slipped in three whole dollars for a trolley cart in New York are brawling over trolleys and with old and withered cab drivers over a 100 rupee fare. Outside herds of families await with garlands of roses and rupees (currency which would probably add up to even more than a 100). I watch Abdul Qadoos with his chest heaved forward, the Diesel on his shirt more cocky as he walks out in his brand new sneakers. The air of Amreekan-palat caressing the expressions of a proud family that wait impatiently. I will not damper his bliss, I will not rain on his parade. Go ahead Abdul Qadoos Jhangya, enjoy your moment. Because a month from now, you will be exiting a similar baggage claim at JFK airport. Your chest shrunken, your shoulders slouched. Not even a hint of surety in your walk as you politely dish out a twenty without questions or complaints. When the Jamaican cabbie is the only one to greet you with a ‘Where to bud?’
You lower your head and whimper, ‘72nd and Roosevelt…sir.’
Assama-alaimkum I am Sister Saba and
heyyyyyy what’s up guys, Sabs in the house!
So we all either know a Sister Saba or a Sabs or both. I actually fall in the latter category, because I know both. I didn’t realize about this lovely irony of their existence till their thoughts and views were once juxtaposed to me on the same day, same night. Both are wonderful people, I should add with hearts of gold and I am lucky to have them both in my lives. Both named Saba. One is quite religious and wears a hijab which is admirable to me because it shows a certain courage and confidence that I envy. The other brazen, bold and unafraid to flaunt her sexuality, which I can relate to. Some details about my life (Rosa, the Latina firecracker), I choose not to share with either because…well lets not open that Pandora’s box on the interacts section again. Sister Saba (religious one) has shared that she disagrees with some of my life choices and she makes good and valid points. Sabs, thinks I am just the coolest girl in the world and I share my gratitude for that too. Friends are supposed to be honest and I appreciate them both for it.
I met them both on separate occasions but during my graduate school years in the halls of NYU. I rarely ever hang out with either of them but I make sure to stay in touch with them through sporadic dinners, movies, etc. Most of the time, Sister Saba declines which is understandable but Sabs doesn’t which is great too! Neither of them have ever met each other even though they both share a mutual friend which would be moi.
Recently I saw them both in the loft of a friend’s baby shower. As much as I detest baby showers and being trapped in a room full of desi women, I am working on my resolution for the year of being open to new experiences. While I strolled from room to room, carefully engaging in small-talk polite enough to respect the host but concise enough for my sanity. And also to tactfully avoid being cornered into any commitments or inquisitive queries of when I planned to take the big plunge into marital bliss and motherhood.
For the most part, I was content with standing in a corner of the loft, sipping my tea and talking to Sister Saba about her life. Sister Saba used to be an active member or maybe even an officer at the NYU MSA. I once ran into her at an Iftar dinner, which I had snuck into only to pilfer a Samosa or 2 for class. These days I usually cross paths with her at stuffy alumni events or equally ad nauseum fêtes such as baby showers. Though we treaded politely around the terrain of safe topics such as movies, work, mutual friends and maybe even a grad school memory, I mostly just hid my anxiety to ditch the party and head for my bed or a bar. Sister Saba – as she is popularly referred to by all the pious bachelors of our MSA – has often struggled with being judged by her headscarf. Understandable and though I cant truly empathize, I can console. Even that night, as diverse as the women were from brainless doctor’s wives to single career gals and a range of couture from hijabs to suits to sleeveless and halter-tops, I didn’t doubt for a second that some of those women were already forming their own preconceived notions about Sister Saba when she walked into the room with a hijab. I, in my chamo green skirt and white collared shirt, made sure to make her feel welcome. Sister Saba, aware of the judgmental eyes, remarked again about how she was tired of being viewed as an uptight and boring fundo, But then, even Saba forced out a ‘gotta love my people’ smirk when my other friend Sabs sashayed by us in her barely opaque top – which I envied – and skin-tight gold-lame pants.
‘Ugh have you seen what she’s wearing, what a slut!’
Judging people by the way they are dressed Sister Saba…I inquired. Only because it sounded like dejavu from an earlier conversation.
‘That’s different’ Sister Saba rolled her eyes.
A few minutes later I found myself on the living room sipping my third cup of chai and ensconced comfortably between Sabs and her friend who looked more like a clone. As they giggled away on the fashion don’ts of the party attendees, they seemed unperturbed by the world around them. Sabs, also an acquaintance from NYU who usually only runs into me inside overpriced clubs and on overcrowded dance floors. Though she wasn’t an active member of the MSA, she was definitely a dedicated officer of the university’s PSA. She made sure to invite everyone to the PSA events and currently also runs a regular email listserv of desi parties in town. I usually don’t go but she herself makes for a great lunch buddy and always arrives with a never depleting dish of gossip and scandal. Glad I never joined any of the NYU’s PSAs or MSAs because they sound a lot like a soap opera. A desi versions of the Young and the Restless (Jawaan and the Baitaab) perhaps? What I do admire about Sabs is her party streak which we both have in common– albeit mine is of a different scene – and she sure does have an enviable wardrobe. Back in grad school, our dinner conversations after evening classes usually entailed her disgust at how some chicks had the audacity to judge her character by her clothes. Having been victimized with similar accusations myself – maybe true, maybe not – I could empathize with her. But at that party, she too brought that smirk on my face when she looked up at Sister Saba walk by and then turned towards me.
‘There goes a Ninja.’
‘Hey those hijabi types are always out to convert someone to the right path or something...’
‘She’s just at a baby shower.’
‘Look how firmly pinned that hijab is….’
‘Whatever, trust me, that ones a fundo!’
I spent the rest of the night playing a game; how many girls were probably judging each other on clothes. Maybe, I’m guilty of it sometimes too. Because honestly if I ever stopped befriending girls who did not judge other girls by their clothes (too slutty, too fundo) I probably wouldn’t have any desi female friends. But wait…that’s probably why I don’t have many in the first place.
But when its all said and done.
You cant change people or the shystem…right?
But you can smirk and sigh ‘Gotta love my peoples…’