It’s no surprise that the first time I travelled to Edinburgh to visit K’s parents I was incredibly nervous. No-one would deny that meeting their in-laws for the first time is stressful; they’re probably the only other set of parents that you’ll hope to impress and please as much as your own. Now up the ante and throw in a language barrier, completely different cultural background and a pre-conceived dislike to overcome and you’ll have some idea of what I faced. I was entering a house where I was not entirely welcome. Despite meeting K’s mother and siblings before, I had yet to meet his father and grandfather – they had refused to attend our wedding. K had gone against his father’s wishes in marrying me, a white girl, depriving him of the possibility of forming an alliance of his choice with another Pakistani family. I was a walking advertisement of how his eldest child had disobeyed his wishes and succumbed to the temptations of the West. This wasn’t going to be easy.
A few months after the wedding, K and I planned a visit to Edinburgh, determined to try and build bridges. We had already sent gifts of kurta shalwar and lenghas to everyone in the family before the wedding, from his grandfather down to his youngest brother.
We hoped the passing of time had helped a little. As the trip drew nearer I enlisted K’s help in compiling a list of Do’s & Don’ts, to help me navigate the cultural minefield and minimise the risk of (further) offending anyone. I genuinely wanted to make a good impression. I knew to eat with my right hand only, keep my hair covered, to address my parents-in-law using ji, a term of respect, and to keep my gaze lowered. I knew not to fidget, crack my fingers or do anything that would single me out for ridicule or disapproval and to say as little as possible about my past and my family. None of it would paint me in a good light (this was partly due to the gulf of cultural differences and partly the difficult relationship I had with my parents; plus mental illness in the family is never a good spousal selling point).
I had never done anything this difficult before, I felt like the biblical Daniel entering the lion’s den. I was terrified of slipping up. There seemed to be so many potential pitfalls. I was convinced I would offend everyone without even trying, such was the power of my malignant, maleficent influence! For the entire six-hour journey I pestered K, “Is there anything you’ve forgotten to tell me about? Can you think of anything else I need to be careful of?” until, in sheer desperation, he switched the CD player on. My palms were sweaty, my mouth was dry. It was a long drive.
When we finally arrived in Edinburgh, it was late at night. I was wearing shalwaar kameez and as we drew nearer to the house I pulled my duputta over my hair and secured it by throwing the ends over each shoulder. It was a silky material and I fretted about it slipping off without my knowledge. Self-consciously, I tugged at it every few minutes, making minor adjustments. Right then, I envied women who had worn this all their lives, and whose movements seemed unrestricted by the fear of dislodging it. I could already feel my shoulder muscles starting to protest from being constantly tensed.
The moment I had dreaded arrived as we pulled up outside the house. I ignored the overwhelming urge to run, very fast, in the opposite direction and followed K to the door. His mother answered and with a murmured “Assalaamu aleikum”, she greeted us both in the customary way; a hug, cheek-to-cheek first on one side, then the other, and back to the original side. Then we followed her through to the lounge.
Five pairs of eyes turned to assess me and the room seemed to shrink, its walls closing in around me. I suddenly felt huge and ungainly – uncomfortable as the centre of attention. Following K’s lead, I waited meekly while he greeted his father with a handclasp and a “man-hug”, then murmured “Assalaamu aleikum” and briefly met my father-in-law’s gaze before returning my attention to the carpet. With no knowledge of the language, K had assured me I had the easy ride. I was required only to appear modest, polite and demure. Although there’s nothing wrong in being seen as a strong woman, it’s quiet strength that is desirable in South Asian circles. An aggressive and confrontational woman will struggle to earn male respect. Anyway, it was my first meeting with my father-in-law and I didn’t want to appear forward so I ignored my western inclination to present a strong and confident image, forgot about the younger pairs of eyes silently watching and weighing up and continued with my study of the carpet pattern while I listened to the Punjabi exchanges and tried to gauge their tone.
As with most highly anticipated moments of extreme awkwardness or anxiety, the reality turned out to be banal and unremarkable. Of course, K’s father wasn’t going to rant and rave and throw us out. There were social conventions to be observed. Most South Asians are skilled in using words to wound and wouldn’t choose to lose face by being so openly inhospitable. The weight of cultural expectations would be brought to bear later, probably without my knowledge, as I didn’t yet speak the lingo. For now, I could see, everyone was as curious about me as I was nervous about them.
Later, when K and I were alone, I asked him how he thought it went. Apparently, his father thought I was nicely dressed and was impressed with my knowledge of Islam. But suspicion is hard to shift. He had asked me, in halting English, a question that he would repeat again and again in the future… “Aisha…. why you…er… marry my son?” I’m not sure my honest but clumsily worded Urdu reply, “Woh bohut achchaa aadmi hai” (He’s a good man) did much to allay his concerns.