From Purdah to Parliament (1963)
by Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah
Chapter One: An Old-Fashioned House (1915)
[] I was born in Calcutta in my maternal grandfather's house. It was a very old-fashioned house, built in the style of Muslim houses of the nineteenth century. It was sold when I was only eight years old and my mother, Shaherbano, had not lived in it continuously after I was two, but she visited it a good deal, and so I can remember it very clearly and can describe it almost room by room. It stood in a narrow lane off the main road. (It was considered in very bad taste to have a house from which the main thoroughfares of the city could be seen.) There was a small unpretentious gate which opened into a long gallery. At the end of the gallery at the left was a door. This opened into yet another uncovered gallery, which turned into a courtyard. All around the courtyard were the various living-rooms. These rooms were grouped together with a deep verandah running the entire length of them, and each group formed a separate unit. In a large house there would be a dozen or so such self-contained units, but as my grandfather's house was not very big, there were only four or five of them. To the right of the courtyard was the largest. It had a very large, deep verandah, which consisted of small living-rooms. These verandahs were the equivalent of drawing-rooms in a Western house. The rooms were quite small and were used more or less as dressing-rooms or for storage purposes.
One sat and did one's sewing and reading, ate paan and received visitors, on the verandah. The most important piece of furniture here would be a large takhat [=takht]. These were raised [] wooden platforms, covered with an embroidered or woven material, or only with clean white sheets. They had elaborately carved or lacquered legs, very often of silver. On special occasions masnads [=large cushions] would be placed over them. Takhats were always placed against a wall, and had several bolsters scattered over them for one to recline on. A paan-daan [=paan-box] was always to be found on one side of the takhat, from which every member of the family helped themselves to paan. Of course, every member had her own small paan-daan and several of these would be found dotted on the takhat throughout the day.
The takhat was, literally, the stage of all household activities. Ladies sat there making and eating paan, cutting chalia [=betel-nut], and gossiping. The more industrious ones brought their sewing or embroidery, and stitched their daughters' trousseaux while listening to the gossip. Even shopping was carried on from there, for women vendors brought their goods and spread them at the foot of the takhat. Children also had a corner for themselves, and their toys would be found littered all over it.
Besides takhats, there would hardly be any other piece of furniture on the verandah; Muslim houses did not begin having furniture in the English style until much later. Wardrobes had only just begun making an appearance; and if there were any, they would be found in the small living-rooms. English-style trunks were also coming into fashion, but were still a novelty. Most belongings, therefore, were still kept in large wooden chests.
Besides the large takhat for sitting on, there would be a choki [=a low square platform] on one side of the verandah for saying one's prayers. Quite near it would be placed the shining, pot-bellied goblets in which water for ablution before prayer was kept. As most of the ladies said their prayers five times a day, it was necessary to have the water at hand. Keeping these vessels filled was the duty of the innumerable maidservants.
Drinking water was also kept in earthenware jars on a lacquered and carved wooden stand in another part of the [] verandah. In a hot country, the convenience of having drinking water at hand need not be emphasized. So it came about that vessels containing water for drinking and washing were to be found in what was the equivalent of a sitting-room.
The smaller verandahs were arranged more or less in the same manner. There was one used exclusively by young girls as their sitting-room, for they were not supposed to make themselves too conspicuous even inside their own home and would not be found in the large verandah, but in one at the side. There was a verandah for the servants alongside the kitchen, and a long gallery where all the old pensioned-off servants lived. I remember at least half a dozen or so such old servants living in my grandfather's house when I was a child. It was because we looked after our old servants that the need for old-age pensions and old people's homes did not begin to be felt in our country until recently.
There was an upper storey and another completely self-contained apartment with courtyard, kitchens, and servants' rooms, leading from the main part of the house. But as the windows of some of the rooms opened upon the lane, only young married couples were allowed to live in this part of the house. It was not even considered suitable for young unmarried girls to go there. The young matrons would come to the main part of the house after their housework was done if they wanted company; but they were rarely visited in their own domain, for it was not customary for the elders to visit the young. It was the duty of the young to come and pay their respects, while young unmarried girls were not allowed to go visiting on their own at all.
The house was old-fashioned and behind the times, and the life that was lived in it was no less out of date. My grandfather, Nawab Syud Muhammad, belonged to an old aristocratic family, and he never came to terms with the new rulers or the way of life they brought with them. His ancestors had come from Iran and settled down in Dhaka at [] the time of the Mughal Emperor, Faruk Saiyar. They were men of wealth and position, and are mentioned as such in standard works of that time like Tarikh Nusrat Jangi and Bishop Heber's Memoirs. They prided themselves on the fact that though they had lived for several generations in India, they had married only into families of birth and status similar to their own.
Dhaka had been one of the outposts of the Mughal court, and had become a sort of enclave of Mughal culture in Bengal. On a small scale it had all the refinements of living that were to be found in Delhi and Lucknow. Families such as Nawab Syud Muhammad's regarded themselves as custodians of the Mughal culture, and guarded it jealously as a precious possession. This made them rather isolated from the rest of the people in the Province of Bengal, and their social life was confined to a narrow circle; while for marriage they most often had to go to the families outside Bengal, or to other enclaves of Muslim culture there such as Murshidabad, Midnapur, and Shaistabad. Nawab Syud Muhammad, or Nunne Syud as he was called in his youth, was married at the age of seventeen to his cousin, a beautiful girl of fifteen. After two or three years of blissfully happy marriage she died in childbirth. The family fortunes had also reached a very low ebb by then because Nunne Syud 's oldest brother, who had come into the estate when a very young man, had, as is the wont of young men, picked his friends unwisely, and in consequence lost his fortune rapidly. He died fairly young, but one of his daughters lived till I was fifteen. It was from her that I heard most of the family history, and a good deal about the manners and customs of that period. She was a wonderful raconteuse, and could make the past come to life. In the long winter evenings she used to sit with us children, cosily tucked under her warm soft razai [=quilt], and tell us about her childhood and youth, of times when life was gay and colourful, how she used to sleep on beds that were covered every evening with fresh flowers, how in the [] summer, in the moonlight, they went sailing in bajaras on the Padma river, how they celebrated Eid, and with what ceremonies marriages were performed.
But Nawab Syud Muhammad had to forsake this way of life at the age of twenty-two and come to Calcutta with his maternal uncle, Muhammad Mirza. Calcutta was then the capital, the centre of progress and home of the newly prosperous. Nawab Syud Muhammad lived there for the rest of his life, but I do not think he ever really felt at home in it. He was, however, almost immediately discovered by Nawab Abdul Latif.
Nawab Abdul Latif is to Bengal what Sir Syed Ahmed Khan is to the rest of Muslim India. He is the man who realized that the British had come to stay, and the sooner the Muslims came to terms with them the better. Therefore, like Sir Syed, he entered Government service himself, sent his son to England to study for the Bar, and did everything in his power to encourage education among the Muslims. Nawab Abdul Latif was charmed by my grandfather -- this sad young man, scion of an old family, now so completely at sea. He married him off to his daughter and persuaded him to take up Government service. Nawab Syud Muhammad, though he had had the best possible education in the old style (he learned calligraphy alone for seven years), knew little English, but the passing of examinations was not then necessary to secure Government positions. The British were keen to encourage men of good families to enter their service, and nominated them to high posts.
So Nawab Syud Muhammad became a Deputy Magistrate, the highest post open to Indians at that time. He later became head of a department, one of the first Indians to achieve that distinction. He was the recipient of many titles and honours from the British, but he never really became reconciled to their way of life, nor did he cease to regard his joining the Government service as almost an act of collaboration. He thought the "WOG" [=Anglicized Indian] was something ridiculous, and in his essays in Oudh Punch, the well-known [] literary magazine of the time, gave vent to his real feelings. These essays are priceless specimens of ironic humour and are merciless and accurate portrayals of the times, which today take on an added significance since they show how the pendulum had swung from complete non-cooperation to abject and slavish imitation.
Nawab Syud Muhammad perforce had to accept certain things for himself and his sons, but he was determined not to accept them for his womenfolk. They were kept in the strictest purdah, and even visits from women were restricted. The dressmakers, the bangle sellers, and other women hawkers, who must necessarily be allowed in, were regularly vetted by the derban [=door-keeper]; no strange woman could gain entry. Nawab Syud Muhammad did not consider the womenfolk of the new-rich of Calcutta fit company for the ladies of his household, so they never went visiting, or received any calls except from relatives. The people my mother and aunt knew best, outside their own home, were their two aunts, stepsisters of their mother, who were about the same age as themselves. Their father, my mother's grandfather Nawab Abdul Latif, was dead, and their mother was not so strict with them. Coming in contact with these girls was the nearest my mother and aunt came to seeing anything outside their own extremely secluded existence.
My mother's education followed the orthodox pattern. She was taught to read the Koran by one of the many distant relatives who lived in the house. In a household like my grandfather's these ladies occupied the position of super governesses or seamstresses. They did the same sort of work as governesses in European households, but enjoyed a slightly better status. The fact that they were related was never forgotten; they had their meals with the family and were consulted, at least formally, on all family matters. They made one or two of the children of the family their special charge, and became responsible for everything pertaining to their welfare and education. The children, in their turn, became very fond of their special aunts, and [] when they grew up and had a household of their own, their favourite aunts were assured of a place of honour in it, and in due course took charge of the children of the children they had brought up. It was a very graceful way of solving the problem of well-born women with no income. After learning to read the Koran, girls were taught to read and write in Urdu, but were not encouraged to delve very deeply into literature; but such was the atmosphere that they picked up a good deal of literary appreciation from their brothers. Cooking and sewing were considered the important items of a girl's education, and here again one of the aunts was put in charge. Music was not taught, for unfortunately it had fallen into disrepute; but girls picked up a great deal because it played such a part in everyday life, and no ceremonial or festive occasion was complete without it.
Nawab Syud Muhammad had seven children, two daughters and five sons. His eldest daughter-in-law was his wife's niece, and had been brought up in his house. The daughter of his eldest brother also stayed with his family. My mother and aunt said that he was fonder of them than of his own daughters, and at least they enjoyed many more privileges and favours. Their dress allowances were larger, they received more costly presents, were privileged to give their opinion on matters of family concern, and had a greater "say" in everything than his own daughters. On his daily visits it was to them that he addressed himself first. But in this, as in everything else, Nawab Syud Muhammad was being true to the tradition of his time and class. Those who were dependent should be treated with greater courtesy and kindness so that they should never feel their position. He believed that the guests should not have anything less than the best, even if it meant curtailing the privileges of his own children. This rule was extended not only to guests who came for a short time but to those who came and made their home with the family for good.
[] Though Nawab Syud Muhammad's fortunes had dwindled to nothing, there was not a time when there were not three or four such guests in his house. Some of them were old and ill, needing a lot of attention. Nawab Syud Muhammad saw that they got it, for it was the tradition of the house that they should be waited upon with all courtesy. My mother was his favourite child and the most beautiful of his children. Although a girl, she was not only like him in features but in build and carriage as well; but even she was not allowed any latitude. It used to amaze us when she told us how it took her father quite a long time to get over the fact that she had once cooked a dish which needed sixteen pints of milk with only eight, and then served that "mess" to him as muza'far [=a sweet saffroned pilau]. He was horrified that a daughter of his should not know the difference between muza'far and porridge. He always said that such bad taste, such lack of appreciation, in a child of his was truly appalling, for Nawab Syud Muhammad regarded a breach of good taste in matters of dress and food [as] of almost equal importance, as [compared to] breaches of good conduct. He was shocked if he heard one of his sons had not paid his debts, but it shocked him no less if one of them could not distinguish between various flavours in mangoes.
It was said that one of his sons actually plucked up sufficient courage to refuse a marriage suggested by his father, and that he wrote his refusal. His father exploded, as was to be expected, but he was not much more furious at his son's audacity in having refused an alliance suggested by him, than at the sight of the writing paper (on which this "piece of impudence" was written) which had been torn off so carelessly as to have a jagged edge. If the children sought permission to do something and were told, "This is not done in our family," they knew that their case was hopeless. To his children, not only the family tradition, but he himself, was the law. "That a son of mine should do this" or "that a daughter of mine should fail to do that" was, to his mind, the greatest reproach he could administer to [] any of his children, and they themselves regarded it as such. He judged every action by the yardstick of his family tradition, which took precedence over every other code of conduct. He worshipped at no other shrine, and paid homage to no other gods than the god of his own family tradition.
Nawab Syud Muhammad lived by the values of a vanished age; and what is more, he so impressed these virtues on his children that they all clung to it, and thus failed to come to terms with their world -- and because of this, became by worldly standards failures. All of them, that is, except the youngest, Syud Hussain, who reached great eminence as a fiery young writer and politician and who, after India's independence, became Ambassador to Egypt.
Those who saw Nawab Syud Muhammad when young are now old themselves, but they remember him as the "last of the Barons," a grand old man, white-haired but still extraordinarily handsome. As it was not customary to be on intimate terms with one's elders, they knew him only very slightly, but they remember him as an extremely gracious person, full of old-world courtesy. These young men were sons of old friends, so he was extremely nice to them and showed great concern for their comfort, and saw that they were entertained and taken great care of when they were visiting him. They recall many acts of real consideration and thoughtfulness. Nawab Syud Muhammad might appear unbending and autocratic, but he was not really so. He belonged to an age that had vanished, and the civilization he was bred in had crumbled to dust before his eyes. He loved that civilization and clung to it desperately, and to be able to do so he had to be uncompromising.
My cousins, that is to say his grandchildren, who were old enough to have been taken notice of by him, still remember him as somebody who, though rather awe-inspiring, was extremely interesting, and who always made them laugh. His personality had left such an impression, [] not only on my mother but on all his other children, that I feel I know him very well. When my mother talked about him I felt that I could almost see him, and hear him admonishing his children in measured phrases. His conversation with them seemed to consist entirely of admonitions; but since he was always ironically witty, sarcastic, and clever, although they withered under it they could not say that it was boring.
His children not only respected and admired, but loved, him very deeply. I have often wondered at this, as the relationship between them seems to have been on such a formal basis. He visited the zenana [=women's quarters] once a day at a stated time, and his entry into the deorhi [=doorway] was announced as ceremoniously as [that of] any other visitor. When he had taken his seat, the ladies presented themselves one by one. Dupattas [=long light shawls] well over their heads, eyes downcast, they sat and spoke only when spoken to. Still, I cannot help feeling that they enjoyed his visits very much, and looked forward to them as the peak event of the day. Stern and uncompromising on principles though he was, yet he had a great tenderness for his children, especially for his daughters and nieces. If they were not well and happy, it perturbed him greatly. Though he saw them so little, he knew exactly what they were like, which one had inherited his temper and who was of a gentle nature, who was ambitious and who had a contented disposition. My mother said that it used to surprise them very much when, by a casual remark, he showed that he had guessed at their innermost thoughts. He not only had an ironic wit but a delightful sense of humour as well, which showed itself in dealing with small children.
To compromise on principles was a great sin, according to Nawab Syud Muhammad, and so it remained a cardinal sin for all his children. They rejected adjustment and discarded "give and take" as compromise, and so they continued to live in a changing world by the values of one that had vanished.
[] I do not think I have ever met a woman like my mother . I know that is what every daughter feels but, quite objectively, I have never met a woman like her, for she did not belong to her own age -- she belonged to the age that her father had seen vanish. On the other hand, my father belonged not only to the present but to the future. While she looked back. he looked forward. And so it was that I was brought up in a home which was at the same time a very modern one, and yet one in which the values of an older world still held sway.
Chapter Three: Childhood (1922-24)
[] Most of my childhood we lived in places similar to Lilloah; that is to say, in artificial English colonies where we followed the outward pattern of the English way of life. But because of my mother, naturally the core of our home remained essentially orthodox, and excursions into the old world were sufficiently frequent for me to come to know and love it. Whenever I visited my mother's family I stepped into the nineteenth or the eighteenth century. For though my grandfather had died, no change whatsoever had come over the lives of the members of his family for many years. Whenever we were staying in Calcutta, my mother visited her sister and aunts frequently. There was not then the glut of social life that there is now, and so even an ordinary call was looked forward to with eagerness and undertaken with a certain amount of formality. The intention to visit was sent a day before through a maid. Use of telephones had not yet been accepted or become common, and although we had one, my mother never used it. The usual time for the call was about three in the afternoon. Lunch would be early that day, after which my mother and I would dress very leisurely; the servants would be given careful instructions regarding their work during our absence, and the doli [=palanquin] sent for. A doli was equivalent to the sedan chair. It was customary for ladies to travel in dolis, as it was carried right inside the courtyard, and so there was no chance of even a glimpse of them being seen by outsiders while getting in and out of it. Travelling in cars [] was considered unladylike, and therefore my mother, though we had a car, always went by doli. One could not see anything at all while travelling in one. There was a bit of coloured glass on one side for light, and even if it had not been at an angle from which one could neither see nor be seen, it was not much use, for the doli was always covered with a most attractively embroidered curtain. It was absolutely essential that it should be so, and even those who could not rise to a ghata-toap [=palanquin-cover] put just a plain sheet over it; but a lady never went out without one.
I enjoyed these visits very much, for I was very friendly with my younger cousins, and with the one nearest my age I had cemented my friendship in the usual fashion by arranging a dolls' wedding together. This was always an elaborate affair at which all the ceremonies performed in a real wedding were meticulously observed. The idea was to teach girls social etiquette and household arts, particularly sewing, for the doll's trousseau had to be entirely stitched by the girls themselves. I, being no good at sewing, wisely chose a boy doll. Our dolls had a long engagement and we had a lot of fun during that period.
There could not have been longer discussions about an actual marriage than we had about our dolls. Painstakingly over the year we collected household furniture, china, and linen; and as soon as we had acquired a new item we would beg our mothers to go and pay a visit so that we could show our new possession and talk it over; for though we lived within walking distance of each other, we were never allowed to visit each other by just walking over. My cousins already observed purdah, and though to my mother's great mortification my father still did not allow me to be put "behind the veil," I certainly could not be allowed to walk on the road. Nor was it customary for girls to go visiting without their mothers, not even amongst their relatives, so we had to wait until our mothers felt like seeing each other. Luckily for us, they did want to see each other fairly frequently
[] But I enjoyed these visits even apart from the pleasure of meeting my cousins, because the atmosphere in my aunt's house was so different from that in my own. Our home had been reduced to the manageable proportions of a Western home, but my aunt's household consisted of the usual large number of dependants, relatives, and old servants, which meant that there was always a great deal of noisy activity going on all the time.
There were so many things happening at the same time, but on different levels. One could join the children, who would be avidly listening to the story told by an old aunt with such a wealth of detail that it gave it an intimate personal quality. Then there would always be some minor domestic crisis brewing, in which everybody was taking an inordinate amount of interest.
The maidservants played a considerable part in contributing to the liveliness of such households, and brought a touch of reality into this otherwise unreal world. They had been with the family for years, and were as jealous of its honour and traditions as members of the family themselves. There was a well-established hierarchy amongst servants, at the lowest rung of which came the servant girls. These gradually rose to a position of trust and responsibility; and having been brought up by and amongst ladies, acquired their manner of speech and had a surface polish and veneer. Such a person was Muna Buwa. She had come as a servant girl in the time of my great-grandfather, and so now regarded herself as the doyen of all the maids. She was what one usually describes as a character. She had a crisp and terse style of speech, and did not mince matters when speaking her mind. She did not hold with any of the newfangled notions, such as speaking English, reading magazines, going to school, etc. She disapproved not only of us girls, but even ticked off our mothers. They had just recently taken to visiting outside the family circle. This Muna Buwa considered absolutely infra dig [=beneath one's dignity]. 'Imagine,' she would say, 'Nawab Abdul Latif's granddaughter's doli being [] hawked round from door to door. Who would have thought it possible?' Besides Muna Buwa there were several others, who had all given a lifetime of devoted service to the family, and whose staunch loyalty was so touching that at times it became almost ridiculous. There was an old maidservant called Allah-Rakhi. She had also begun life as a servant girl in my great-grandfather's house. She had never graduated to the status of Muna Buwa, but she was mindful of family traditions in her own way. She never went shopping for even a trifling thing without recounting the whole genealogical table of the family for the edification of the shopkeeper.
Besides these old servants, who were an institution and an indispensable part of households such as my aunt's and great-aunt's, there were the women vendors, the choori-wali [=bangle-seller], the bisatin [=vendor of small items]. They came all day bringing a hundred and one attractive little things, perfume, kajal [=lamp-black, used on the eyes], surma [=collyrium, used on the eyes], embroidered slippers, coloured powder for dyeing one's dupattas. But the selling of their wares was the least part of these women's jobs. Their most important role was that of purveyors of news. They were, in reality, the news carriers of the women's world. And so accurate and detailed were the accounts these women gave, that though visiting outside the family circle was not done until recently, my mother and aunts knew a great deal about other well-known families, such as which of their contemporaries had married and to whom, how many children they had, whether they got on with their in-laws or not, and which of the daughters were of a marriageable age.
Because these women knew so much about a family's private affairs, only the ones that were very well known and reliable were allowed to come to the house. In fact, most of them were ex-maids, and some of them did not even make a pretence of buying or selling anything, but just came over frankly to bring and collect gossip. They had all the time in the world, and stayed a whole day or half a day [] at their ex-mistress's house, giving a hand in any household task which needed some extra help.
And there were numerous tasks for which any extra help was more than welcome. Hand dyeing and hand printing were still carried on in homes. Gossamer dupattas of ladies and fine muslin kurtas of men were never worn unless chuna'o-ed, that is to say, crimped. This sort of crimping was not done by tongs, but by pulling out a half-inch of material at a time between thumb and forefinger and twisting it. The use of sweet-smelling herbs was still in fashion. The sorting, pounding and preparation of them to be used as a base for cosmetics, shampoo, hair-oil, and to be put as a sachet to scent one's clothes and linen, took a lot of time. One of the sophistications of our life was having newly made, freshly filled quilts each winter. These were, of course, stitched at home. Hand-printed satin quilts, lined with silken soft muslin, which were dyed and herb-scented, smelt delicious. They were filled with beaten-up cotton to a snowy lightness and then held in place with most attractive stitching. For all these tasks, an extra pair of hands was more than welcome, and in the midst of it news was gathered.
My mother, living in "English Colonies," was brought up to date as to the latest news by my aunts when she went to visit them. In fact, my mother would ask the choori-wali, the bisatin, or the silai-wali [=seamstress] to come on the day she would be visiting Chhoti Nani so that she could buy whatever she needed and also hear all the news, although she was temperamentally not very fond of gossip.
Besides these informal calls, there were a number of occasions for visiting in connection with innumerable ceremonies with which ladies "behind the veil" seemed to while away their time. There was a ceremony to mark each stage of a child's life, for the ladies wanted any occasion for celebration, so as to give them something to do.
Apart from the ceremonies connected with specific occasions, the most popular occasion for ladies to get together was for milad. Milad is a ceremonious recitation of [] the story of the Birth of the Prophet (PBUH). During the month of his birth (Rabi-ul-awwal), it is held as often as two or three times in the same day. But all through the year, every auspicious occasion is marked with the holding of a milad. It was particularly popular amongst the ladies of my mother's family, both because they were of a religious turn of mind, and because several of them were good at reading milad.
Like every other ceremony, milad had its own form and tradition. The room in which it was to be held was cleared of all furniture and the floors covered with durees [=heavy cotton rugs]. In the centre, preferably on a raised dais, [a] masnad would be spread for those who would be reciting the milad. Silver stands with burning incense would be placed in front of them as well as vases of roses or other sweet-smelling flowers. During the recitations of a certain portion, corresponding to the singing of Hallelujah in 'The Messiah', everyone would stand up and rose-water would be sprinkled and ittar [=oil-based perfume] sprayed on the assembly so that the air would be heavily laden with scent. The whole ceremony was charged with emotion -- hence its great popularity.
The highlights of the lives of women in purdah, however, were marriages. These were deliberately made into elaborate affairs, to provide occupation and amusement for weeks. My mother and I, having been away from Calcutta a great deal, missed several weddings, but we happened to be present at R's wedding, the cousin who was my particular friend, and with whom I had the dolls' marriage when we were children. She was marrying another cousin, so it meant a double wedding in the family, and an occasion for still greater festivity, and numerous meetings amongst the ladies of the family. Clothes, jewellery, the dates for various ceremonies, would be the topics of conversation on these occasions.
These family gatherings before the marriage were of help in choosing the trousseau and jewellery and other wedding presents which the girl was to receive from her other [] relations. Then the jewellers would be called and various ornaments ordered, and the aunts and cousins present would say what they were going to give as a present, so there would be no duplication and the expense of that particular piece of jewellery or silver would be saved for the parents. The girl received at least one or two dresses as presents from her near relatives and this was made known during the time the trousseau was being gathered together. An aunt would mention casually, "No, do not get this green brocade. I am giving her a jora [=an outfit] of this material." Another cousin would tell the mother, "I am giving her a bracelet in the same style you liked the other day." In this way the arrangements would proceed.
During these meetings there would be lively discussions as to the style and fashion of the bride's dresses. The younger ladies, particularly a young cousin of mine, who had a delightfully happy temperament and was all in favour of trying everything new, would suggest more pastel shades, or a new style in trimmings. Her suggestions would be indignantly repudiated by the other ladies. 'For goodness sake,' they would say, "you girls are becoming absolute mems [="mem-sahibs," Western women]; even for a wedding dress you do not want to have bright colours and rich trimmings. If you had your way I dare say you would like to get a white gown."
Azimi Apa would giggle and say, "Phupi Jan, the girl would never wear this dress if you made it so gaudy," and eventually they would come to some compromise.
This was the time when we were going through what was called the modernization of our dress and jewellery. This was a great error in taste, for we discarded dresses of beautiful material and exquisite embroidery, and gave away or sold beautiful old jewellery we would now give anything to have back again.
One of the mistaken notions women of the West have about our women is that "the poor things" missed all the fun of shopping, but that was not so. Our women did not miss any of that great joy of Eve's life; only they had all the [] fun of shopping without having to push and jostle in a crowd and stand for hours waiting their turn to be served. For they did not go to the shops, the shops came to them. On Eid and the other festive occasions and whenever there was a wedding in the offing, jewellers, silk and cloth merchants and gotay-walas [=sellers of gold and silver embroidered borders] were all sent for to bring their goods. Our shops did not go in for window dressing, and therefore the ladies missed nothing by not going to the shops. The attraction lies in the beauty of the wares, and not in the art of displaying them. These were brought to the house, and the takhat on the ladies' verandah was turned into the most attractive of counters. It was fascinating to watch the process.
The silk merchant would come with two or three large bundles tied in white coarse cloth and carried on the heads of coolies. A mat would be spread for him on which he would dump the bundles and deftly begin to undo the knots. Still smaller bundles, tied this time in coarse muslin, would tumble out of the larger bundles. These were also securely knotted. In a matter of seconds these would be undone and the most gorgeous sarees would spill out--sarees in ruby red, emerald green, peacock blue and saffron yellow; sarees with rich borders and pallus [=the end that hangs over the shoulder]; sarees with designs worked all over; sarees stiff with embroidery; sarees so soft that one could well believe that they could be passed through a ring -- rolls of brightly coloured slipper satin would open out and fall in rich cascades at a few deft flicks of the wrist. Lengths of rich kamkhab [=brocade] would glisten, and yards of gold and silver tissues would gleam. Such a feast of colour, such a profusion of richness, the eye could not take it all in; and quite honestly, no shop window in later life has given me quite the thrill I got watching those heaped piles of silks and satins, nor can going and buying chooris from a shop where they are kept in neat rows be compared to the joy of peering into a choori-wali's basket where strings and strings of chooris were heaped and one could not keep one's fingers from touching them. I feel sad to think that [] my children have never seen the magic of that sheer feast of colour.
Maidservants would stagger in with piles of these gorgeous stuffs. My aunts and mother would put exploring fingers on them, feeling the quality, placing them against each other's cheeks for texture. Trimmings would be tried and matched, silks, tissue and kamkhab for pyjamas would be selected. At last the choice would be made and the rejected things would be sent back. Then while the saree-wala packed up his goods, the ladies would refresh themselves with tea after the exertion of "shopping." Pushing my way in department stores, I now often sigh for that leisurely shopping of "behind the veil."
All the sewing and stitching was done at home. Seamstresses were engaged for it, and the lady's maids knew how to sew, but the ladies themselves did a great deal of really fine sewing. Great ingenuity was shown in stitching the sachet of sweet-smelling herbs called sohag-pura for the bride. This was made by an old aunt of mine who was really a beautiful needlewoman, and I do not remember ever seeing a more exquisite piece of embroidery. The wedding preparations continued, and finally the wedding took place -- the last one in our family in which the guests were confined exclusively to relatives, and so a much more intimate and enjoyable affair than the weddings of today. And so I spent my childhood and early girlhood between the Arabian Nights world of my mother's family, and my ultra-Westernized home, and the English school. This dual existence did not seem to have worried me, and I used to slip easily from one to the other; as I can still, only that Arabian Nights world of my childhood has all but disappeared.
Chapter Four: Early Education
[] My education, like everything else in my life, followed a dual pattern. As a child I began attending an English kindergarten, and was learning to read the Koran at the same time, After this, for some years I followed the usual pattern of a girl's education in my country in those days. That is to say the formal education, of a girl being given actual lessons by teachers at set times, stopped after she had learnt to read the Koran and read and write Urdu. She received instruction in religious matters and, would perhaps have been taught the rudiments of Persian, but she was supposed to concentrate on homecraft and needlework. Although the girls didn't go in for higher studies as such, those who had a literary bent, and wanted to, did acquire a wide knowledge of poetry, literature and history. This was possible because their homes possessed such an atmosphere that they learnt by just living in the midst of it.
For poetry is the breath of life in our society, and literary discussions were the accepted and established way of spending one's leisure hours amongst the educated. In fact, the word "educated" was, and is still, synonymous with being literary. Not only was it a mark of a gentlemen to be able to read and write poetry, the ladies also did so. In every family there would be at least one or two women poets. Fathers, brothers, and other male relatives were always ready to encourage by explaining a difficult passage or lending the latest book of poems or criticism, so it was not very difficult for girls to develop their literary taste.
[] It was in this manner that I myself pursued my studies, and though it may seem rather haphazard, my generation of girls taught in this way did seem to know as much about our language and literature as those who now receive a more systematic education. In fact we knew, and certainly had read, a great deal more thoroughly than the young people do now, because reading is no longer the sole recreation of children. Radio and the cinema now claim much of their leisure; and even those who do read do not get the same mastery over literature, whether Urdu or English, because they rarely read a book twice, while we chewed and digested it so it became part of our thinking and our imagination, and we lived for days and months in the world created by the magic of the author's pen.
Most of the reading I did on my own; but whenever my father had time, he asked me to read aloud while he and my mother listened. I remember those evenings so well. We would all be sitting out in the garden, the air would be filled with scent, the heavy fragrance of Mogra flowers mixing with the clean, fresh smell of new earthenware surahis [=long-necked flasks] and khas [=a fragrant grass from which screens are made]. My mother would be reclining on a charpai [=a light portable cot] twisting Mogra flowers to wear round her hair and on her wrists, my father and brother sitting on wicker chairs. There would be enough light to read, and as the shadows fell, an oil lamp would be placed on a table, which would throw sufficient light on the book and yet not break the magic of the twilight. My father would be listening carefully, correcting my pronunciation and explaining the meaning of words I did not know. A lively discussion would follow as to the merits of the book and the point of view of the author, and whether or not he had been successful in the portrayal of his character. Such quiet and happy evenings are almost a thing of the past. Addiction to radio and cinema on the part of the children, and the much heavier round of social activities on the part of the parents, have put an end to it....