The entire extended family was bustling with excitement and wedding chatter. Outfit and jewellery choices were agonised over, the menu was subject to painstaking and elaborate discussion and my grandparents’ Karachi home was the scene of meticulous renovations as preparations intensified. It was 1972 and, barely 19 years old, my mum was delightedly caught up in the frenzy of anticipation. A distant male relative who had left Pakistan for Great Britain in 1960 was making his first return visit, in a matter of weeks. To get married. This was set to be the wedding of the year and was all anyone could talk about. What’s more, my mum and her sisters had been given the auspicious and much-coveted responsibility of making the bride’s wedding dress. The finest silk banarasi material of the deepest red hues was fastidiously sourced and, using gold thread, the three sisters, with much enthusiastic guidance courtesy of other female members of the family, painstakingly embroidered the gharaara in the latest fashion of the day. It was a work of exquisite beauty. They cut and stitched and sewed, and as time went on, my mum couldn’t help but notice that it was her measurements that were being used as a template for the dress. The bride obviously had the same slender waist and waif-like figure that my mum had, as well as the distinct lack of height. When deciding between the dizzying shades of red on offer, it had been my mum’s choice that had formed the basis of the final decision. The background buzz was beginning to draw in and after one too many knowing looks, shy smiles and overhearing snatches of whispered conversations, it slowly began to dawn on my mum. The stage that was being set for a big family wedding required her presence as a central protagonist. She was to be the bride. Nobody even told her, never mind actually asking her! It was a conclusion that she was left to come to by herself.
I remember the incredulity and fascination of my siblings and I as we would listen to our parents tell us this story of how their marriage was arranged and beg them to repeat it over and over. The absence of consent was unfathomable and so removed from the loving family unit that my parents had created. I struggled to reconcile the role of my cultured and kind grandparents. My parents were from city-dwelling, educated, middle-class families, who surely ought to have cast aside such practices long before. Didn’t my mum mind? Wasn’t she at least a bit cross that her life had been orchestrated so dramatically without her having any say? She was wrenched from her family and everything she knew to live in a country so very far away with someone who was, by all accounts, a stranger. That’s just how things were done back then, my parents would laugh, and not at all unusual for the time. They had been brought up with traditional values. Both had been instilled with the values that children must respect the wishes of their parents, who had arranged the marriage, and that there really was no more fulfilling goal in life, particularly for women, except to marry a suitable spouse and bring up a family. To compound my confusion my parents did indeed have a happy marriage until my wonderful dad’s sudden and untimely death in 2001. Their example left me with no reason to doubt that traditional values should form the basis of my own aspirations in life.