Love and longing in the lives of Muslim women
New Delhi: Nighat M Gandhi`s part-memoir, part-feminist critique ‘Alternative Realities’ explores the lives of Muslim women in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, all of which are homes to the author, and to which she has enviable access.
Gandhi`s first story, which is about herself, is the strongest. Being born in Bangladesh, schooled in Pakistan and married in India makes ‘The Works’, her story, outstanding.
The filmy falling in love of a Pakistani Muslim from a God-fearing conservative Karachi family with an Indian Brahmin when at college in US and her eventual elopement from Karachi to London, with the help of a Pakistani friend, is an adventurous read.
Gandhi`s tells her story dispassionately. How her father fooled her into coming to Karachi to discuss her boyfriend with him and then refused to let her return to her studies or the boyfriend. How her passport was quietly removed from her closet by her mother, who never stood up for her or her siblings, and how she could not leave Pakistan on the sly even though an activist offered to buy her a ticket to the US.
A brave friend, whose assumed name in the book is Naila, gets a new passport made for her, while the boyfriend sends her a ticket to London, and she elopes for love, the central theme of the book.
But not before the Pakistani immigration checks her out suspiciously - in the unbelievable days when Pakistanis did not need a visa to fly to Britain.
The author undertakes the journey to Pakistan and Bangladesh (apart from India, where she lives) for the sake of love. She sees love in all the stories she explores but the meaning of love seems to have evolved at times, and changed at times, since the early 1980s when she had given it all up for love.
The only two interesting and unusual stories, apart from hers, are of a lesbian couple based in Karachi, Pakistan`s largest city, and a transgender named Nisho in the southern Sindh province of that country.
The lesbian couple have been written about before, yet there is a depth in ‘Siraat-e-Mustaqeem- The Straight Path’ - the chapter devoted to Nusrat and her companion QT.
The author asks the couple why women`s love for women is not celebrated in Urdu writing, as opposed to men`s love for men, especially in Sufi texts.
Nusrat dislikes the famous depiction of love between women in Ismat Chugtai`s classic ‘Lihaaf’, but exhorts the portrayal of another Urdu writer`s character Sahiba Bano, a detective who rode Karachi buses in the 1970s to seduce young women. The author and his books got banned during the regime of dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
When prodded by author about her sexual rights in Pakistan, Nusrat says, quite rightly, "Sometimes, current debates on sexual rights seem like such a small thing compared to the magnitude of larger tragedies looming ahead."
The other interesting story is of ‘Rakhi Sawant of Sind’ or Nisho, the transgender.
The author knocks on Nisho`s door almost unannounced in Mirpur Khas. Nisho and her friends make her feel at home and offer her food and a place to nap.
"She`s writing a book about women. She thinks we `khadras` are women. I met her last year at that workshop where they told us about AIDS and condoms and all that `bakwas`, Nisho introduces the author to her friends Rubina, Gulnar, Bandook and Mashook.
She spends the rest of the evening and the night at Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai`s dargah listening to qawwalis in Nisho`s company.
Nisho tells Gandhi she has a boyfriend - a married man with whom she has had a steady relationship for seven to eight years.
"He belongs to a very prominent, respectable family so our relationship was kept hushed up by his family. And now he has a wife and a five-month-old son. If I didn`t love him, I would`ve have left him after his marriage. I could`ve said, I`ll also find another lover. But I love him."
The title of the book is a little misleading because there are several themes that run in the book, love is just one of them. And mostly it is about longing for love.
And what the author feels is "satire", such as rules of sex for newly-wed Muslim couples which the author quotes from a cheap booklet she had picked up at Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi, is a pitiable attempt to liven up the book.
Often it seems that the prolonged conversations on love that the author is having with her subjects are meant to put her own two-decade-old decision and life in perspective.
Yet readers will surely marvel at the easy access that the author has in Bangladesh, more so, in troubled areas of Pakistan.
Though she does not disclose her nationality at any point, it is wonderful to read her descriptions of Mirpur Khas or a remote village in Mansehra, areas she explored wearing a hijab and chador.
There are a couple of factual inaccuracies though such as the romantic portrayal of Indian and Pakistani policemen accompanying her on the Delhi to Lahore bus - gladdening her heart with their easy friendship. It is never both and on her trip she must have met only the Indian policemen.
Although the book is also positioned as a memoir, the "I, me, myself" details get tedious in the 407 pages. Over half-a -dozen times Gandhi mentions that she is a "writer". And sometimes the contradictions creep in.
Like the author several times described herself as a Muslim-Buddhist, sometimes as agnostic or atheist, and makes fun of religion, Islam mostly, while hailing the religion of love but when she gets inside a noisy rickety lift in Karachi she remembers God and says a quick ‘Bismillah’.
‘Alternative Lives’ has been published by Westland Books.
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