Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Picture to words 1: Faces (disapproval)

I would just like to mention something before I submit my entry. When I arrived in Switzerland some forty years ago I had a job waiting for me. The family was a mixed family. The husband a Bihari from North East India, the wife Swiss. In 1947 India became an independent nation. This had its good side and bad. Indian had two basic religions at the time, Hindu and Muslim, which it resulted in a backwards and forwards in the Northern part of India. The Muslims "fled" to the new States of East and West Pakistan and the Hindus "fled" to the new State of India. This is the story in a nutshell, tragic for many family fates and I am sure others can tell this tale of refugees better than I. My family head of had his own business and I was working there as a secretary. He also owned an Indian Restaurant where I also helped out now and again. He was the son of one of the Muslim refugees that had to leave North India and go to Pakistan.

The face in the picture did remind me of his mother who was often on a visit from London where his family then lived. She must have been about 60 years old at the time, known as Amma. She married his father (called Abba) at the age of eight years, the father being about 20 years older than the mother. This was custom in his country, and it was nothing out of normal - perhaps for us in our western world it is, but who are we to judge. Our customs also seem strange and wrong to other races. Anyhow through these two years I learnt a lot, in connection with the way of life and the food, which I found very good and to a certain extent learnt to cook myself, although nothing in comparison to an Indian lady running her own household. So based a little bit on my experiences I wrote the following. It is not intended to be Indian or Pakistani and I hope I am not hurting anyone's feelings by perhaps a few twists that I built in myself.



„Do I have to have that photo on my bedroom wall. I always feel like I am being disapproved by that face.”
“Yasmin, please remember that is your grandmother and not just a face.”
“I have never met my grandmother, and I don’t think I would like her.”
“She was my mother and I was taught to have respect towards my parents. I expect the same from you. My mother was a wonderful woman. She was always there for the family. Life was not easy in the old country, but she made sure that we was never in need for anything and she cooked the best chicken curry I had ever eaten.” Shabnam, her mother, was adamant.
Yasmin decided to give up. Since she was a child this picture had been on the wall overlooking her bed. Although her roots were in another country, she had never been there and felt just at home in the country where she had grown up. She was uncomfortable being observed by this portrait, but decided that there was no point in continuing this argument.

She remembered her first boyfriend, Raj, who she met at the local club. Raj was very handsome, but her mother decided that his life was too much in the Western style. He often ate in the Macdonalds restaurant, which meant he was eating things that were just not in keeping with the customs of the old country. Yasmin also noticed with time, that Raj would begin meeting friends in the local bar and drink alcohol. Yasmin herself looked upon this with disapproval as found that Raj was changing. He would become loud, and when she found out that he was meeting her best schoolfriend on the evenings when he told her he had to study, she decided her destiny was not with Raj.

“I told you so” her mother said. “My mother would never allowed you to go out with such a person as Raj. You only have to look at his background and his family. They are from another part of the old country, from the towns where such sins are looked upon as being normal.”

So that was her first experience with a boyfriend. Of course, there was the eternal arguments with her mother in the kitchen. If guests were invited Yasmin had to help with the cooking.
“But mum, you can cook much better than I can, my brother’s can just sit with the guests before lunch and talk, but I have to be in the kitchen amongst the smells of cooking learning how to make a perfect tandoori, cook a perfect dahl soup and prepare the pastry for the Chapati and Parantha bread. My brothers just have to eat it.”
“Don’t be stupid girl, you will never get a nice young man as a husband if you do not learn the secrets of our national dishes. My mother taught me all I had to know about cooking and I have never heard you complain that my food is not good.”
“Mum you are the best cook in the world, but I am sure I will never be as good as you, or our grandmother” thinking she is always watching what I am doing. Her portrait follows me everywhere in this home. Why mother even has a smaller photo on the cupboard in a plastic frame that she bought at the local store.”

So Yasmin learnt to cook in the style of the old country according to her mother and grandmother’s way of doing things.
“You know, Yasmin” Ahmad her father often said to her, “one day a young man will be proud to have such a good wife as yourself.”
Yasmin had a good relationship with her father, but decided he also belong to the club of “do it the way your grandmother did, otherwise you mother will be annoyed”.

So life went on for Yasmin, she still lived at home, waiting for Mr. Right to come along as she knew when she found him she could at least lead her own life without grandmother’s face looking down upon her in disapproval. Now and again she did have a boyfriend, but either her parents did not agree with her choice, or she herself found it was not the answer to her prayers. Yasmin’s parents were not old fashioned and knew that their only daughter had to be able to lead her own life one day independently. For this reason she was allowed to learn how to drive a car. Yasmin was surprised. Of course, this was a secret wish but she was sure that grandmother would have disapproved. Yasmin’s father told her that there were no cars when her grandmother was her age, but grandmother had perfect control of her wagon drawn by oxen, so it was only natural for Yasmin to learn how to drive a car.

Then came a day when her car needed an overhaul at the garage. Her father, Ahmad, accompanied her to the garage and they were greeted by a friendly young man in the same language she was speaking with her father. He told them they would have to leave the car at the garage, but it would be finished by the evening.
“I have a meeting this evening Yasmin” said Ahmad. “Do you think you can pick up the car on your own?”
“Of course she can” said the young man.”I will be here myself and can help if there are any problems.”
“Well that is wonderful, then I know my daughter is in good hands.”
“But who shall I ask for when I pick the car up?” asked Yasmin.
“Oh, I am sorry for not giving my name, just ask for Sikander and I will be at your service.”

In the evening Yasmin picked up her car, and Sikander was waiting for her. This was not the only time that Yasmin met Sikander. As time went on they got to know each other and Yasmin’s parents were happy that she had such a nice boyfriend. One day Sikander visited Yasmin’s parents asking for her hand in marriage. Sikander was a good mechanic and his aim in life was to have his own garage. He was a hard worker and also the answer to Yasmin’s prayers for a good man.

The wedding was organised, and they were married and Yasmin moved into her own home. On the evening after the marriage Yasmin’s mother was alone with her father.
“So, Shabnam, are you now happy that our daughter has married a good man.”
“I am more than happy, Ahmad, although there were moments that I doubted if it would work. But thanks to the picture that accompanied my daughter all her life, she has lived up to my mother’s expectations.”
“One thing would interest me, Shabnam. Did you ever tell Yasmin that you were an orphan, your mother dying at your birth, and your uncle’s family took you in and brought you up as their own child.”
“Nonsense, Ahmad, if had told her that, she would never have learnt to make such a good chicken curry. So now we can sleep in peace, knowing that our daughter is in good hands.”
“I will never understand the workings of a female mind” thought Ahmad as he drifted into a contented sleep.

Yasmin and Sikander were very happy with each other. Five years later Sikander had his own garage, through hard work and Yasmin had been a good support to her husband. Their son was already four years old and their daughter, Shabnam, now at the age of two. They had just moved into their own house and were very happy together.

“Yasmin, what is the noise you are making.”
“I am hanging a photo of my mother on the wall in Shabnam’s room.”
“Yasmin are you going to use the same trick as your mother did with you.”
“Not exactly Sikander, I was observed with disapproval by the picture of a lady that my mother bought from a shop. My photo is a genuine grandmother, my mother. It cannot do any harm for my daughter to grow up under the eyes of a disapproving grandmother. I am sure my daughter’s chicken curry will be even better than mine.”

And to this day Yasmin’s mother did not know that her daughter knew the truth about the photo on her bedroom wall.

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