Vanity Fair a la Pakistan
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
Matrimonial matches, Imran once seriously contended, were made in heaven. Like his unerring choice of players, our infallible ex-captain could not have been wrong on this count too. To be sure, there is substantial historical evidence to support his claim.
Dickens, Hardy, Napoleon and Lincoln (whose famous enunciation ‘Government of the people, for the people, and by the people,’ shorn of superfluous prepositions, sounds so sweetly palatable) had to endure years of incompatibility with their headstrong spouses. But for the ‘heavenly hand,’ the celebrated men of many acquisitions couldn’t have faulted in the choice of the better-half.
Yet, while fate may have the better of us in our quest for the better half, it certainly does not play the villain in the notoriously extravagant and flamboyant melodramatics witnessed at marriage ceremonies: the famous three-day extravaganza at Jaipur and the magnificent Westminster ceremonies competing with marriages at the high seas with waves acting as witnesses, dizzying betrothals in the skies with the balmy air testifying to a couple’s union, and breath-taking ceremonies atop the Eiffel Tower! Man, the mortal, seems set out to turn a solemn ritual into a sanctimonious, bizarre sham to immortalize his name.
The popular show, like a reenactment of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, is now once too often performed in Pakistan at the commonplace shadi halls with our own kith and kin masquerading at the central stage and flaunting their fineries and riches. The mortifying train of acts with their farce sentiment and smiling lies are rendered with foolproof perfection under the watchful eye of the video camera.
The setting is identical: The bride and the groom lolling in cushions, the samdhi and samdhan profusely exuding exuberance, the mirthful guests and the hosts lost in their minor absurdities. Even Qazi sahib, conscious of the camera and apparently drawing inspiration from the mike, appears extra articulate and acts with due alacrity to beam back a smile, now and then, at the obliging cameraman. The singularly sad ‘kahey kobiyahi badaes’ blubbering too sounds visibly affected and bears quite a resemblance to Mrs. Sedley’s hysterical adieu to her daughter before she boarded the carriage in the Thackeray classic!
The honest actors’ reverie is interrupted by the peremptory directions of the video director: now a step forward please, now a step backward, now lean, now walk, now feign attempts at parting in gloom, now finally, take a few steps forward, waving in unison , to follow the limousine and launch the bride and the bridegroom onto their blissful marital journey - possibly to be regretted in the life thereafter!
The show over, the actors regroup to muse. A postmortem of the evening is incisively carried out. Judgment is passed on the two main actors who had been taciturnly, but coyly, perched for long hours, and have been sized up again and again under the unrelenting gaze of the critics.
The bridegroom is pronounced a ‘Hamlet-incarnate’ and the bride is summarily dismissed as his fitting match! The sumptuous dinner gobbled up barely an hour back is found not all that savory, the invitees are judged as rather of an awkward demeanor, and the in-laws a mindless, nay spineless, folks of questionable lineage. And so the chatter continues, reminding one of an Englishman who rightly said: “Did we know what our intimates and dear relations thought of us, we should live in a world that we should be glad to quit.”
More often than not, the extravagant host of the evening and the impulsive host-to-be -the-day-after (valima) seek solace from Thackeray’s wisdom: “Everybody in Vanity Fair must have remarked how well those live who are comfortably and thoroughly in debt: how they deny themselves nothing; how jolly and easy they are in their mind.” For many hosts, indigence, if not penury, stares in the face. And yet the urge to outdo and outshine in the next Vanity Fair remains an irrepressible longing! Aren’t we launched on a messy course?
My personal impression of the video-covered colorful marriages is more melancholy than mirthful and I carry only hazy recollections of the many fairs in which I have participated.
But there is a marriage ceremony whose imprints are deeply embedded on my memory, one that was strikingly different from the commonplace marriages of today.
The bridegroom, a young medical doctor, set our from his posh PECHS residence for the marriage ceremony at about the pre-appointed hour - five in the evening. For a change, we were spared the agony and boredom of delayed arrivals and delayed departures. Soon after, the barat was winding its way to the Clifton residence of the bride, a medical doctor herself.
The dulha, in the ‘super-dashing, glamorous smasher’ mold of Qiratul Ain Haider’s Dr Salim (Merey Bhi Sanam Khaney), looked sublimely elegant in his simple attire - a sherwani and shalwar, a qula on the head, and a rose-garland dangling around the neck. Blissfully , the sehra strappings did not hide his handsome face.
The reception was cordial and dignified - no show of ostentation but propriety of conduct marked the proceedings perhaps in character with the grand old mansion where the ceremony was to be solemnized. In a city blighted by petty animosities, the multi-ethnic assemblage of the 50 odd gathering - old and young, guests, hosts and friends, master and servants - behaved with an ingrained sense of civility.
The Qazi sahib, undistracted by the blinding camera lights, performed the nikah with due solemnity. Refreshments and tea soon followed. A little after dusk, rukhsati had taken place and the barat was on its way back to the PECHS.
Everyone seemed to have behaved naturally. There was no show of tempers, no romp, no display of pelf.
Yet the solemnization of the marriage in such a puritanical manner was nothing short of an ordeal for my friend. To start with, when his intentions were first announced the doctor’s own mother and sister reacted with great indignation. The initial ‘reflex action,’ as he called it, of his father was one of total disbelief and resentment. By and by, the old gentleman reconciled to his son’s wish and was won over.
The bride’s parents were equally piqued when the suggestion was broached to them. How would the close relatives and acquaintances react was their instant worry as they braced up to face the disappointment. ‘Nak kat jai gee,’ they fumed. Sarcasm apart, they too had long cherished dreams of bitya’s shadi.
The bride was no less disappointed. ‘She still feels I cheated her of her mehndi,’ says my friend. Initially, she suffered from an acute sense of privation and felt the pang of tanas.
My friend stood his ground. He nurtured no false notions, did not fancy himself as Scott’s Lochinvar but was determined not to end up as a hypocrite either. “We all talk of simplicity, to do away with jahez, and yet act foolhardy in the end for vainglory.” His will finally triumphed.
The two doctors have enjoyed a happy married life since and the bride, despite her marriage-without-mehndi, appears convinced that her husband had acted rightly. The tanas were only a passing triviality.
My friend’s example is an inspirational one but it should not remain a lone act of single-mindedness. For not too many among the middle class, the white-collared think tank, the ardent lovers of Picasso, Ghalib, Faiz, Keats Russell and Salam, can afford to stage a Vanity Fair at a marriage ceremony. And lamentably while eligible spinsters - young, bright, educated and attractive - languish, we continue to strive to revel in a show reminiscent of the London of 1810:
“As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the board and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating …, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing, and fiddling: there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the lookout, quacks (other quacks plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths as yokes looking up at the tinseled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR: not a moral place certainly, nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and the buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint of his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and little Jack Puddings behind the canvas. The curtain will be up presently and he will be turning over head and heels and crying, ‘How are you?’ ”
Are we sliding back in time?