Tracking Naheeda, the Pathan Village Woman

Tracking Naheeda, the Pathan Village Woman
(This is an extract reproduced from ‘A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan’, Harper Collins, India.)

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The room had a television set, a music system, and fine crockery; they were a comfortably-placed family. There was a basement to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. I was allowed to take pictures. The father had even granted his daughters permission to have their photographs taken, but they were too shy. Endless cups of green tea, like mossy liquid, were served. There was no chariness that Salim and Ali were chatting so openly with me, sitting cross-legged on a cot. Both the brothers liked their free-spirited young aunt, Naheeda.

We went to her house a few doors away. The chachi (paternal aunt) truly turned out to be quite an unusual creature. She had been educated in Islamabad. How did it feel to move to Peshawar? Was there a cultural difference? She spoke with a remarkable degree of confidence. ‘Initially, I could not understand some things, but now it is better. I do not wear a burqa even when I go out, so people have become used to it now and they don’t care. I also insisted on planning my family, or else in these seven years I would have six kids…now I have three. People here like to have children around the house.’

She smiled indulgently as a naked little one, the youngest, kept jumping on the bed. We sat in a small, dark, unkempt room. There were some Afghani rotis (bread) and curry in an aluminium bowl on a table; the older children would occasionally tear large chunks of the bread and dunk them in the gravy, holding the rag-like bits over their open mouths as the liquid left trails of speckled brown on their chins. Naheeda shooed them away.

She had not let childbirth and housework mar her looks, although some chubbiness had settled on her cheeks and chin. Her head was uncovered and her black hair was tied in a loose braid. ‘I want to work too, but I get no time. The schools are far, so I have to drop the children there. Women rule in the house. If I were under any restrictions, do you think I could talk to you in privacy? My husband is there praying, he could have stopped me.’ Just then he called out to her. She returned within minutes. ‘He has asked me not to let you leave without having lunch with us. He has to remind me to be a good hostess, I just talk so much that I forget basic manners.’ And what happened to the education she had acquired? ‘In future I don’t know, but for now my children will benefit. And it shows in the way I conduct my life. No one can boss over me.’ While her husband and mother-in-law were busy with their afternoon prayers, she did not feel it necessary to join them.