Settling into life in London was anything but easy. I did not feel like your typical new bride. There was no excitement, no joy, not even any nervousness. I was numb and dull, duller than the picture outside my bedroom window. London was gloomy for most days of the week with the rare exception of a quick and passing hello and then goodbye from the sun on some rare afternoons. The sky was constantly grey and it wasn’t just because I walked its streets with an empty and broken heart. Would it always be this way, I wondered. Would the grey sky and my broken heart always mirror each other?
I thought about my father often and I couldn’t help but to feel guilty for his heart attack. I felt as though I played a vital role in his death.
I missed my mother everyday. I missed her like I used to miss her when I was five years old in Pre School. I would halt in random motions during the day, perhaps with my hands immersed in soapy dishwater, wondering what was she doing right then.
But I missed Zaheer more than anything or anyone else! I felt overwhelmed when I allowed my mind to transport me to those carefree days, to those happier days. But I was a married woman now. I tried to not wonder about him, to not wonder what would life have been like had my father said yes to him…
A war ensued within my mind and heart. I would fight and battle to keep thoughts of Zaheer away and at bay but those thoughts were the only place where I felt at home in a cold, wet, grey and strangely unfamiliar land which I now called ‘home’.
I lived with Umar’s parents in a two bedroom town house in a town north of London called Stoke Newington. Everything was so confined, so cramped, so unfamiliar and so small. It was all so different and so foreign to me. The walls were paper thin and if you had a loud enough conversation within the confines of your bedroom, be sure that your mother in law would hear it too! It was all so very different to me, the smell of the house, the taste of my tea in the morning, even the water didn’t taste like the water back home, it all made me long for my bed and my home. The biggest shock to me was the difference in culture and traditions. Sometimes it felt as if I was being transported back centuries through the story of someone else’s life! The community was so different from my family and my community. Our ways differed, our ideas differed. But when I realized how I came to find myself there, it seemed that perhaps we didn’t differ much after all. I felt like an alien amongst a new creed. People assessed me based on the color of my skin as a first impression. All of Umar’s family were deeply rooted to their “Indian heritage” and proudly so. That made me an outcast as I was not very clued up on things such as culture,heritage and tradition!
” At least she has a lovely complexion“, I would hear extended family members say as I walked away from them after an awkward silence being unable to hold a conversation with anyone ….
My husband worked until late most evenings and then left our bed early in the morning, much too early in fact. I didn’t get to make him breakfast or to kiss him goodbye telling him to have a good day. I guess I had very little if any opportunity at all to fall in love with my husband. Can one even learn to love again while their heart was still torn and bleeding for someone else?
I was left home alone with my mother in law. She seemed nice enough, at first! She was a beautiful woman as were all the women in my mother’s family. Her skin was youthful and her accent was a posh british one which always made her snide words and sharp comments sound better than they were intended to be. I tried to do everything to win my mother in law over, to gain her approval, to make her happy, but eventually I realized that no matter what I did, I would only ever be her fair skinned daughter in law. After some time, I found that I didn’t have the emotional or mental stamina, nor did I have the desire to try to win her over anymore. Nothing I ever did was right or good enough for her. My rotis were never round enough, I always put less salt in the food, sometimes I put too much salt! I was “down right lazy” as she said so eloquently into the telephone receiver to her daughter who lived in Abu Dhabi.
“ The South African girls are the worst I tell you! Everyone who gets a daughter in law from there always ends up complaining! If she wasn’t my cousins daughter, I would have never got MY Umar married to her! We could have gotten a boy like him any girl that he wanted! I’m sure even a ‘paki’ would be more useful than her”
Her words penetrated the paper thin walls of our cramped two bedroom, two story town house. They splattered across the white plaster and smudged with pain. As if they truly were displayed before my very eyes, I was reminded of them everyday. Her words settled heavily on my chest and it was at that moment that I realized I would never please her no matter what I did or how much I tried to. Her mind was made up. I was simply not good enough for her son.
I went through my days cooking and cleaning and helping out in the family supermarket. I did whatever my in laws asked of me at the precise time that they wanted it done and in the exact manner that they would want it to be done. But still, somehow the rice was always boiled for too long, the rotis were never ever round enough and if by some stroke of luck they were then they weren’t the right size! I was wasteful and used too much dish washing liquid when I did the dishes. I dressed all wrong and much too modern for my mother in laws liking!
” What would people say about her jeans and skippers? She should start wearing salwaars don’t you think? ” She whispered to Umar.
My husband was torn into three; work and studies and then his mother and his wife. He tried so very hard to do all three with immaculate precision just as he was taught in medical school but even for a man of his intelligence, this was not possible. He eventually became more withdrawn from me as he cracked under the pressure of being a good husband as well as a dutiful son. We lived more apart then we did together. He didn’t try to win me over or to make me fall in love him. He was lost within medical books and hospital hallways and I was losing more and more of myself as Big Ben ticked and tocked in the centre of London town…
I slowly lost all the self confidence that I once possessed. I was withdrawn and afraid. Afraid to do simple things, afraid to make new friends. At times I wouldn’t even want to go down to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich or to get a glass of water to drink out of fear of bumping into my mother in law. I missed home more and then even more as the days and weeks went by. I longed to see my mother so much, I longed to lay my head in her lap, I longed to feel loved….
I asked Umar if I could take a trip to South Africa soon. I explained that I missed my mother and that I hadn’t seen her since the funeral. I was married for a year and a half at the time and I was a shadow of the person who boarded her first flight to London. He said that he would ‘ask his mother’. And that’s what my life was reduced to; a ping pong game with ‘Mother‘. Whatever I wanted would have to pass by her first…..
As expected, she was not pleased to let me go. She came up with every plausible excuse one could fathom from illness to house chores, headaches, back pain, to shop duties! She glued herself to her bed for an entire 2 week period claiming that she’d suffered a slip-disk. She eventually used the most unbelievable excuse when she told me that she could simply not let me go because she would miss me terribly. This time her posh british accent did nothing to polish her words as I read right through them. I made duaa for Allah to allow me this time away, time to find my way back to myself. I guess it worked to my advantage that my mother was her cousin. After all, what excuse could she give her cousin for not sending me on a trip home.
A few weeks later I stood at the airport terminal for international departures, passport in my right hand, boarding pass in my left. I looked up at the electronic notice of my flight feeling excited as I bit my lower lip. I was boarding a flight to Johannesburg International Airport.
The boarding pass said that this was a return ticket but in my heart I did not feel as though I would be returning home at all.
I walked through the crowd feeling lighter with each step, happier with each passing second and more at peace than I had been in a long time. I felt free… I wanted to feel like this everyday and all the time….
I was me again, I felt like the old me had returned and I knew that I would not return to Stoke Newington after one month. Not alone anyway…
To be continued…