My Karachi family’s shame

Rafia Zakaria in Salon:

Rafia_zakariaIt was Aziza Apa who had passed the verdict on Uncle Sohail’s marriage, pulling all her clan on the side of her darling Sohail, whose wife had denied him not just the son he deserved but any progeny at all. “You are barren,” she had reminded Aunt Amina. “You should be thankful that he is a good enough man to still keep you at all.” Her words had echoed loud and deep; suddenly everyone in the community saw clearly that Uncle Sohail was the self-denying hero whose good-heartedness led him to keep a wife who could not fulfill her duty. Many had exacting broods of children, whose pressing needs grated on their lives; denouncing the barren woman elevated them, made their sacrifices of lost sleep and interrupted meals and mountains of soiled clothes a gift to be cherished.

In our house, on the sideboard of the formal dining room by the tray holding the car keys, invitations for weddings began to pile up as they did every winter. It was the season. There they lay, proof of the celebrations that continued unabated in the lives of others. Every day brought a few more: fat, festive envelopes promising feasts at hotels, or thin frugal ones threaded with gold lettering begging our respectable presence at smaller venues. Neither made it out of their resting places. Weddings—the days and weeks of rituals preceding them and the parties held after them—are the fairy-lit center of Karachi’s social life, events that mark for women points of respite from their otherwise secluded lives of cooking for the in-laws and yelling at children. They are where the prosperity of a cousin’s blooming business or the extra pounds on a sister-in-law can be witnessed, old scores settled and new gripes gobbled up between mouthfuls of grease and spice. That December many yearned for us to appear at one celebration or another so that, between compliments for the bride and congratulations for the groom, my mother or grandmother could be asked: “How is Amina . . . ? We heard her husband is marrying again and that she has returned to your house.” As they threw out the words, they could watch our faces, gauge in the glint of our eyes and the turn of our heads the extent of our embarrassment. With this measure, they could mark the boundary between their conformity and our scandal, the degree of our banishment, which defined, after all, their own belonging.

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