Cross Border Love: It's Tough for Indian Brides in Pakistan

"She will not be able to pursue her dreams," observes Karachi-based Shirin Imani, about Indian tennis star Sania Mirza's recent marriage to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik amidst much controversy and media hype.

Heena Rajabally, however, is a little more optimistic, "If I have sailed through, she can too, if she wants her marriage to work. But it won't be easy." Rajabally, 40, who gives tuitions to Grade 11 and 12 students in Mathematics and Economics, was fresh out of college in Mumbai when she got married and came to Pakistan.

"I don't think she should even try [to settle here]; she will be miserable," warns Maliha Bhimjee, a businesswoman living in Karachi from the last 24 years.

The media attention on Sania and Shoaib may be dying down now, but this celebrity cross border wedding revived a lot of memories in Indian women in Karachi - incidentally all of them from Mumbai - who married Pakistani men and have now spent a good many years in the southern port city.

For many young Asian women marriage is usually a time to embrace life-altering change. They not only have to leave their homes, families and friends but also adjust and get accepted in a new family, which could be traditional in its social mores, even deeply conservative. But this post-marriage upheaval takes a whole new meaning for Indian women who move to Pakistan. While love knows no  boundaries, cross border marriages come with their own specific challenges.

Many Indian wives living in Pakistan reveal that initially not only had they to fight the fear of stepping on to 'enemy' soil, but that they suddenly found themselves in an alien culture. They sorely missed the independence that was taken for granted in India - for example, dressing up in any way they fancied. In fact, the one thing they still yearn for is the freedom to be "able to walk on the streets" without being stared at or to "sit in public transport".

Shirin Imani, 50, a Montessori teacher, may have married Zulfiqar Imani 25 years ago and moved to Karachi, but she still pines for Mumbai. She will tell you very candidly that she has still "not accepted Karachi with all my heart". She insists that even now there are days when she feels too suffocated in a culture steeped in "narrow-mindedness" and wants to pack her bags and return "home".

In contrast, Farida Lavingia, 46, a Montessori school director, married to a graphic designer for 28 years, doesn't have many complaints. She says Karachi had accepted her despite an obvious "class difference" and "Islamic-ness" to it. Describing it as "a city of life", she finds herself quite well-settled today.

Masuma Lotia, 51, married now for 30 years, too, says she would move back if given the choice, even if it may entail giving up the perks of a "luxurious" life - living in a spacious bungalow in a city that is still not a concrete jungle. She visits Mumbai often to meet her mother, and Lotia feels that Mumbai has become "just too crowded". But it's still a city that she could settle in.

"I would not be able to survive in Mumbai," says Rajabally, adding quickly, "Not because I love Pakistan but because I can't stand the filth, the stickiness and the congestion of the city."

But it was not roses all the way for Rajabally, after she married her first cousin at the age of 19. She really "didn't know what I was in for". Prior to her marriage, she had visited Karachi for a sneak peek at what it would be like to settle down in the port city. "It was the courtship period when each side is on its best behaviour," she says. A young, impressionable girl Rajabally was quickly taken in by the parties and the special attention that was showered on her.

The reality of life in Karachi emerged a few weeks after her marriage. "I wanted to run a few errands and to my horror I found out that I couldn't even get past my house gate without a car and a chauffeur," she recalls. It was then that Rajabally realised how dependent she would become in this city. "It wasn't just that the city was new and that I didn't know my way around, that was a bit scary, but the fact that I wasn't independent anymore. In Mumbai, I was used to taking a train from Bandra and would happily walk anywhere, take cabs, come home late... I had no concept of fear." But all this changed.

She even had to change her way of dressing. "I used to wear skirts, shorts, dresses or whatever I fancied. The sudden restriction on dressing was seemed like a violation of my way of life."

Moreover, Rajabally also sorely missed Mumbai street foods like 'pani puri', 'aalo chola', 'dhokla' and 'pao bhaji' that were a part of her staple diet as a college student.

All these seemingly insignificant things made adjusting to the new city "horribly difficult" for her. Many times during her initial days of marriage she thought she had made the "biggest mistake" of her life. And did she ever think of running away? "Many times over," she reveals with a chuckle. "And I would have, had it not been for my husband!"

Maliha Bhimjee, 46, who has been married now for 24 years, was also overwhelmed by the strongly religious culture in Pakistan. In the early days of her marriage, during the many tiffs she had with her husband over whose country was better, Bhimjee says she never let go of an opportunity to remind him of the fixation that Pakistanis had with everything imported. "I used to say: 'Pakistan imports everything, including wives!'"

She also noticed that there was a lot of gender segregation, which to her was oppressive, having lived in a "cosmopolitan and tolerant city" that she calls a "melting pot of cultures".

But despite all its faults and flaws, Bhimjee discovered that Pakistan was a "land of opportunity" and that "even a little talent got one very far". She observed that it was far easier to make a living here as there was very little competition. Shirin Imani could not agree with Bhimjee more: "Pakistan is full of opportunities," she says.

While the India-Pakistan cricket matches provide these women with the opportunity to vent their patriotic feelings - they all root for the Indian team - it is when relations between the two nations are at a nadir that they feel most vulnerable.

When the Mumbai terror attack happened, Bhimjee was concerned about her aging mother. Her immediate reaction was that this development would have "tremendous repercussions, manifesting immediately in a strained relationship leading to visa problems".

But hostility between Pakistan and India, she believes, is not the real sentiment of people on both sides of the border. "It's the politicians, with their short-term political agendas, that are creating all the mess," she observes. Her counterparts in Pakistan could not agree more.


More by :  ZofeenT Ebrahim

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