A Different Music
Saira hated Pakistani music. It reminded her of all that was wrong with her country. The male singers were too loud, the women too shrill. But worst of all, it was full of allusions to things she had no clue about – mainly history and literature she had not been taught in school but was expected to know, just because she lived in Pakistan.
Every time she heard dasht-i-tanhaee, she felt inadequate, uneducated. All those Persian words, how was she, being an Urdu-speaking teenager, supposed to understand them? She didn’t even know what her own national anthem meant. She had grown up singing it, thinking it was the high-level Urdu that her parents spoke. It was only recently that she learned it was another language altogether.
Night after night, she watched her parents as they sat with their friends in their living room, listening to ghazals, rewinding them, replaying them, discussing the lyrics into the wee hours of the night. How could they possibly get so much out of something she did not even understand? And this “wah” thing? Whatever.
She wanted to be one of those teenagers she saw on MTV, unburdened by traditional culture. She dreamed of standing on one of those raised platforms in short shorts, dancing to a song she did not know, gyrating to a beat she had never heard.
She longed to be lost in a crowd in which no one recognized her, where her family name meant nothing, where all was acceptable and there was no concept of shame. For in her world everything inevitably came down to honor. What will they think? What will they say? Do you know how many generations we have known their family?
Saira came from an old Lahori family. She had grown up in a house in which her parents, both professors, hosted the city’s literati at regular poetry readings and ghazal mehfils. She remembered their friends sitting beneath the yellow ceiling fan that creaked rhythmically, like an old typewriter clicking away, unnoticed, at its own speed. She could hear their carefully articulated words, the sounds of papers being shuffled as the smell of the motia flowers on the console mingled with the smell of cigar.
When she was younger, she had enjoyed these evenings. Everyone was friendly; if she ever wandered into the living room, she was showered with gifts – books, pens, calligraphy – and attention. She enjoyed the way they all turned to her, listening to her stories and reading her poems. She always said she wanted to be an American rock star; they always smiled.
As the years passed, however, she grew tired of the same routine. It was predictable. It was stagnant. And she just couldn’t understand how they could remain so content in it. She did not want to be like her parents’ friends, in their white chooridars and dupattas. She did not want to spend her life discussing history and politics – political parties without names, just a bunch of initials that all sounded the same. The more time went by, the more it all exasperated her.
Each day, with each milli naghma she watched on PTV, she was convinced that she did not really belong here, that she had been put here by some freak accident and it was a matter of time before she escaped. Her solace came in American music. She listened to Tracy Chapman: “She’s got her ticket, I think she gonna use it, I think she gonna fly away.”
She would sit for hours and transcribe songs like “It’s My Life” and “I Will Survive,” writing down their lyrics so she could sing along with them, standing before the bathroom mirror, using a hairbrush as a mike. And doing so, she would close her eyes and sway – far away from her life, her home and her history.
Saira loved the concerts on MTV. They lifted her spirits. But when she turned to PTV, she saw lifeless women with make-up plastered onto their faces swaying robotically to the beat of an electric organ as the audience looked on with equally vacant looks. She knew that there was just no common ground between the two ways of life. She had to leave.
Maybe if there had been one person, one Pakistani role model she could have looked up to, to want to be like, she would have been motivated to stay. But there was no one. No one Pakistani, that is. On her walls were posters of Tracy Chapman, Cher and Madonna. In the magazines scattered across her room were photo shoots of Caucasian models. On her shelves were books written by Western authors. And in her video player were movies made in Hollywood.
Yes, she admitted to her shell-shocked parents’ friends one evening: she liked John Denver more than Iqbal Bano. She understood him; the lyrics made sense. But more importantly, his songs made her happy. She had heard them call it “hippie music” but she didn’t care. She wanted it, she needed it, she craved it. When everything around her was so intense, so emotionally charged and so tied into history, when she felt the burden of her culture oppressive, it was this music that liberated her.
She started dreaming of the day when she could drive down an American highway in a convertible, the wind blowing in her hair as she listened to “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” She pictured herself, again and again, driving to the nearest McDonald’s and then to a self-serve gas station. How free she would be! She would drink coffee in a paper mug and place it in one of those coffee-mug holders that American cars came with. She would learn to parallel park, she would even put on her safety belt – something her friends had laughed at her for doing in Lahore the first and last time she had ever attempted to do so.
As Saira drove around Lahore in her little gray Cultus, swerving around the potholes and the rickshaws, playing “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” she was convinced that home was elsewhere, certain that she was a traveler who had been away for too long and it was now time to return.
Saira’s infatuation with all things American started a few years earlier during a trip to Orlando. Her cousin Ali, had put her in touch with his sister-in-law who had graciously agreed to host her for the summer. It was her first exposure to America. And she loved it. The roads were so wide, so clean, the people so friendly.
She felt that if she ate American food, drank American water and breathed American air, she would become American. The Doritos, the Lays, the Pringles – this is what gave the Americans their rosy cheeks, their perfectly round buttocks and soft spongy skin. How perfect were their lives, how spotless were their homes. And how much she wanted to be one of them.
On the Fourth of July, Saira had attended a pool party at a neighbor’s house. And she had been mesmerized by the huge, white gleaming kitchen. It had one of those counters in the center, full of fruit so big and juicy she had to touch it to make sure it was real.
There were platters of chips and quiches and mini-pizzas. There were stacks of Styrofoam cups and mammoth-sized bottles of soft drinks, large glass bowls full of punch, and giant tubs overflowing with ice and beer. And the cupboards? They were stocked with more canned goods than many grocery stores back home.
Saira came back to Lahore, after that summer, and, for the first time in her life, noticed her own kitchen. With a gray chips-ka floor and a sticky can of Dalda oil sitting next to an equally sticky gas stove with yet stickier knobs,she felt nauseous. She noticed the shriveled up bananas and the sickly looking apples on her parents’ dining table. She watched the cleaning woman sweep the house with a jharoo made out of tillis, the dust just flying up and resettling on a different object.
More and more, she longed to live in a wooden house with vacuum cleaners and wall-to-wall carpeting. More and more, the cement square she lived in seemed like a prison. She would leave. She would cut her hair, maybe even get bangs. She would chew Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. And she would never come back.
The first thing Saira noticed about America was the radio. She loved the way it played songs at random. She was so used to playing her tapes in the car that the very idea of listening to music picked by somebody else made her feel free. All of a sudden, something that had always been so planned, so deliberate, became effortless. With each song that came on the radio, Saira was convinced that the universe was speaking to her, giving her messages, hope and advice. She felt important. She felt acknowledged. She felt welcomed.
Less than a year ago, Saira had walked into her parents’ bedroom and found them propped up in their old, four-poster bed, reading their respective newspapers through their professorial specs as the old Sehgal song, Humein to shaam i gham mein kaatni hai zindigi apni, played on the radio. This is the moment that changed her life. Spending her life in a perpetual shaam-i-gham was not what she wanted. And she finally told them so.
Saira’s parents could never have expected the deluge of complaints that followed. She was social, she had topped at the National College of Arts in Interior Design and was now interning with one of the most well-respected architects in the city. Why would she possibly want to leave?
They disagreed with her rationale. But they did not try to stop her. They gave her the money they had saved for her, pulled as many strings as they could to get her a visa and bought her a round-trip ticket, in the hope that she would come back.
And yet the more supportive they became, the more resilient became her resolve. With each friend who came over to wish her luck, with each farewell gift and each “contact number” she was given, she felt she was being guilt-tripped. When her parents’ friends pooled in and bought her a guitar, she cried. But the day she got her visa, she left, not attending the farewell dinner they had spent days arranging. It was simple: the longer she stayed, the more difficult leaving became.
Back in Orlando, the radio was still welcoming, its songs familiar. The streets were as wide and clean as Saira remembered, the homes just as palatial. But Ali’s sister-in-law was a lot less cheery. She had been through a messy divorce in-between. When she learned that Saira was here indefinitely, politely she suggested that Orlando may not be the right place for her.
She had a good friend in New York called Emily, she said, who could help her find a cheap apartment. Saira was taken aback. This is not what she had expected. But there was no other option. She looked at all the “contacts” her family and friends had given her – the last thing she wanted was to get stuck with some old aunty. So she called Emily.
“I have a great studio available immediately,” said Emily. Saira had no idea what a studio was. But it sounded kind of artistic. So she took it. It was only when she reached New York that she learned that a “studio” was a little room with a bed in one corner and a sofa at the other. The kitchen was so tiny, only one person could stand in it at a time, and the bathroom, which faced the inner side of the SoHo buildings, a tiny rectangle of yet tinier white tiles outlined by thin lines of green mold.
Still, she was determined to be positive. Fate had brought her to New York and it was here that she would make her dreams come true. So she started exploring. She liked walking down the streets of the city. She liked the manicure places, the sweet smell of nail polish remover when she walked in. How serenely the women sat as others sculpted their nails. She found a little bagel place in her neighborhood; even the man at the newspaper stand started to recognize her.
New York was not like Orlando. It was crowded, and everyone lived and walked very closely to each other. One day as she sat perched atop a public toilet (one of those stalls separated by plastic walls) this proximity hit her.
She had not seen anyone come in and did not realize how close the women on either side of her were, until they started urinating. It was so loud, she nearly fell off her seat. Back home, she often ran the tap just in case anyone was outside. The thought of anyone hearing her was simply mortifying. But here in America nobody cared. Here, no one was shy. The women peed loudly. Then they walked out, confidently, totally unaffected by the fact that a stranger had just heard their most intimate of bodily functions.
It was one summer morning as Saira stood in front of an ATM machine, squinting her eyes at the balance she saw on the screen, that she realized her lifestyle was not sustainable. She would have to find a job.
She remembered Mark, an under-staffed architect she had met at Emily’s place. She phoned him; he still needed help and agreed to hire her, paying her under the table.
In less than a year, he was willing to sponsor her for a Green Card. How proud her parents would be! She worked hard. She was quiet and polite, pleasant and willing to help others. Everyone at the office adored her. But she couldn’t wait to leave.
For it was in the evenings that she came alive. Saira had learned about the underground music scene through the Village Voice. It was a difficult world to break into, but there was something about her appearance that night – her dark skin, her nose ring and the electric guitar slung around her shoulder as elegantly as a pashmina – that drew Billy to her.
He was buying beer for his friends. She stood at the bar with a club soda in her hand.
“Nice guitar,” he said.
She smiled. “I can sing too.”
They walked over to his friends. And before long, they were practicing together.
Saira loved the smoky rooms, the beat of the drums. She felt at home with these people. They too had rejected the mainstream. They too were trying to express themselves through music. There was Lisa, a tall dark-haired girl with milky white skin; there was Billy, the redhead who played the drums and lived two blocks down from Sara; there was Susan, a 5’10’ Scandinavian photographer with a deep voice and a nose ring, and there was Jay.
Jay was a graphic designer. He had come from Texas six years ago to attend an art school in New York, and had stayed on. He had sandy brown hair, twinkling green eyes and a smile that made her feel special. Like her, he had turned away from his parents’ world. He prided himself on his diverse group of friends and his knowledge of other cultures. He was soft-spoken and reminded Saira of her father, the way he would wrap a shawl around her mother when she was sick.
After their second meeting, the two found themselves completing each other’s sentences. For Jay, Saira was a goddess, dark-skinned and exotic, representing a world that had always fascinated him. For Saira, Jay was an anchor in her new world. He was not like the people at work with their country clubs and houses in the Hamptons. Despite their repeated invitations, Saira had kept her distance – she had not left one stifling community to become part of another. Instead, with Jay she attended foreign film festivals. Together the two composed music and ate Pakistani food with their fingers.
They named their five-member band “The Melting Pot.” The first time they landed a gig, Jay asked his parents to fly down. Billy had negotiated relentlessly for this Friday night slot at the Corner, a trendy club in Greenwich Village where many famous bands had made their first appearance.
That night, the club was abuzz with energy, its low-key façade transformed into a fluorescent entity. Out of the three bands, the Melting Pot was the only newcomer. The music was original, written by Saira and Jay. Between them, they had plotted a throbbing baseline, the sitar twanging and the tambourine adding an effervescent edge which was then picked up by the electric guitar. Their lead song was a composition called the American Dream, a fusion of East and West.
After their second roaring encore, the five of them finally took their bows. Though exhausted, they couldn’t stop smiling. But more excited than them were Jay’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Sommers, who discussed the evening with as much detail and animation as them, telling Saira again and again in their Southern accents, how precious she was and how she must visit them in Texas. By the end of the night they hugged and kissed everyone like they were long-lost friends.
Saira went home that night, glowing. It was at times like this that she missed her parents the most. She wanted to share her successes with them. She had come so far and made a whole new life for herself; she wanted them to know. But she stopped herself, for she did not know how they would react. Whenever she spoke to them, they sounded subdued on the phone. She was not sure whether she was the cause. So she never asked.
She found out later that her father had developed a serious heart condition and had been confined to bed rest. When he died of a heart attack, Saira was informed immediately. But she could not go back. Her Green Card had not come through. And going back would deny her re-entry into the United States.
Saira locked herself in her apartment. She stopped going to work. She stopped answering phone calls. She felt disoriented, suspended between two worlds. Why was she trying to fit into this world when she already belonged to another one? Why was she trying to leave behind those who had loved her and supported her all her life? She thought of the white sheets that must now cover the floor of her house in Lahore, under the yellow creaking fan. She imagined the incense, the gitaks, the people dressed in white praying on their tasbeehs. She closed her eyes and smelled her mother’s motia on the wooden console. Was it still there?
Sometimes she would wake up and think it was all a dream. She would call her mother to ask her if it was really true? Her mother would cry; Saira would hang up.
Jay began to worry about her. Six weeks passed but she was not snapping out of it. With Thanksgiving coming up, he did not want to leave her alone like this. So he asked her to go with him to Texas. Saira was touched by his offer, and accepted. He was so caring; she would make a special effort, she decided, to be positive. Her regrets were going to have to be something she learned to carry on her own.
At the Sommers’ home in Texas, Saira felt like she had been hit by a whirlwind. There were so many people, so much food and everyone talked so loudly. Being there was overwhelming in every way.
It was an old Victorian home which smelled of cinnamon. There were lace doilies, crystal platters and a kitchen with red gingham curtains trimmed with crochet. The house was filled with baskets of home-baked cookies and every few hours some neighbor would drop by with even more baskets of cookies – it was like something out of an old movie.
She was already worlds away from home. But here she felt even further. Was her mother all alone? Did her friends still come over in the evenings? Did she still listen to her music? Was the old gramophone still in the living room? Stop! She had to snap out of it.
For the first time, since she had landed in America, Saira felt like she was in another country. She watched Jay playfully wrestle with his younger sisters, one in high school and the other at a local community college. It was uncanny how much they resembled each other. Jay rarely spoke about them and yet here they were, almost carbon copies of him, except blonder.
Saira felt like an outsider, looking at somebody else’s life, one that she had believed she was a part of. As she saw him interact with his sisters, his parents and the neighbors who kept dropping in, she noticed the change in his accent. “Y’all jus puhlin’ ma leg!” Was this the real him?
She had always considered him to be an anomaly – detached and independent, a rebel living life on his own terms. Here she realized that he came from a very traditional background. And he was still a part of it.
As per family tradition, Jay carved the Thanksgiving turkey. At the dining table, Jay’s father gave the first toast, and Jay gave the second, thanking and praising his mother for the lavish feast she had prepared. Martha beamed with joy at her son’s toast; she waited all year for such occasions.
Jay must have noticed that Saira had been quiet all evening so, before ending his toast, he did something nobody expected. He added, “And I want to thank Saira, the love of my life, for being here.”
Jay’s mother looked like she had been hit on the head with a steel pipe. She did not finish her food, nor did she smile for the rest of the evening. And when Jay held Saira’s hand at the table, she excused herself and headed for the bathroom.
Weeks later, Saira learned that Martha had cried that night and said to Jay, “There is nothing wrong with her. But she is not like us. Why can’t you find a nice Christian girl instead?”
The day after Thanksgiving, was a day of football and barbeque. Once again, Saira was taken aback when she learned that “football” had nothing to do with kicking a ball around – it was about pushing each other down.
She kept a smile on her face. She listened with amusement to words such as “dead ball” and “drop kick”. What a strange game. It made everyone so aggressive. In between, there was loud hooting and drinking and spitting of beer.
But there was something else going on that Saira did not understand. Jay’s mother, who had been so bubbly and friendly in New York, inviting Sara to Texas, again and again, was different in her own home – polite, at best. She felt the same iciness she had sensed when she had shown up at her cousin’s sister-in-law’s house in Orlando for the second time. The first time, she had been warm and welcoming; the next time, it was almost as if she had a territory to protect.
All of a sudden, Saira felt that her Pakistani-ness was no longer exotic. Jay’s family had accepted her – as a foreigner. And she was okay as long as she was content to remain one. It was when she ventured too close to the heart of the family, the inner circle, that people became uncomfortable. She belonged to another world, one that was nothing like theirs. And no matter how charming or talented she was, at the end of the day she was simply the wrong color.
The day of the barbeque, Martha refused to make eye contact with Saira. When Jay commented on Saira’s cooking skills, Martha smiled, swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Then she mentioned that she had run into Missy, Jay’s high school sweetheart, at the grocery store that morning and invited her for lunch.
When Saira tried to have a conversation with Jay’s family friends, they strained their ears to understand her accent and then spoke back ve-rrry slow-llly, as if talking to a child. When she explained that she was from Pakistan, they smiled politely and blankly, a combination of “uh oh” and “poor you.”
After lunch, Jay’s sisters played country music to which everyone sang along. For the first time since Saira had landed in America, the music felt unfamiliar. As she watched Jay put his arm around his father’s shoulders and passionately belt out songs that she had never heard of, she realized that America was not the cultureless land that she had imagined; it had a very distinct, and in many ways, closed, culture. And she was not a part of it.
Luckily for everyone, Saira’s trip was cut short by a phone call from her office. Mark had received a huge contract and needed her help drafting plans for a 12-story building in five days. Saira was relieved and hopped on the next available flight to New York. Jay was relieved too. He could finally be himself with his family.
When Saira and Jay broke up, so did the Melting Pot. The performances simply did not have the passion and the chemistry they had displayed at the Corner. Saira was irritable; Jay was defensive. She wanted to change some lyrics; he disagreed. Billy tried to hold everyone together but Susan got a modeling contract she was more interested in and Lisa just ran out of patience.
Saira and Billy, still neighbors, remained friends. When he got Saira a contract for her single, the American Dream, she tried to get everybody back on board but nobody was interested. Eventually, she recorded on her own.
Months later, she learned that her single had been released. She was so excited, she called up everyone, wanting to celebrate. But Lisa had a doctor’s appointment. Susan did not answer her phone. And Jay said he had a friend from high school visiting him.
She did not hear from them for the rest of the week. That Friday, Billy brought over some Chinese food. And they sat in her studio, overlooking the dark alley, and ate from the boxes.
“So, what are you going to do now?” asked Billy.
“I’m not sure,” replied Saira.
“Are you going home for New Year’s Eve?”
“Can’t – Green Card still hasn’t come through.”
She was obviously not in a very talkative mood. Billy finished up his lo mein, picked up his fortune cookie and tossed the other one to her.
“Open it!” he smiled.
“Maybe later,” she mumbled.
He shrugged. “I gotta go. Catch you later.”
“Later,” said Saira absentmindedly without getting up. “And, oh, Billy, thanks, for everything.”
The door closed with a thud.
Saira sat transfixed, staring at the window, the fortune cookie in her hand. She was thinking of the farewell party her family friends had planned for her, the one that she had decided to skip. She never even asked if it was ever held.
She looked at the fortune cookie, and then dropped it to the floor, bending down and picking up her guitar.
She held it like a child. And then, with her head resting on the window-pane, her eyes barely open, she started strumming. And she sang, “American dream, you’re not what you seemed.”
Saira had always wanted to be a singer in America. Here she was – with her first single. But no copies had sold here. It was her family and friends back home, her parents’ friends in their white chooridars and their gray cement kitchens, who had gone out and bought the CD.
Ayeda Husain is a longtime journalist (Masters from NYU many a moon ago) who spends her free time writing short stories about Pakistani women, composing and recording meditational music and running a Sufi Center where she teaches Sufi meditation and philosophy.She has lived and worked in Lahore, New York, Vancouver, Dubai and now Oakville, near Toronto, where she is watching her children grow up way too fast.