Every young, twenty-something girl (and often younger in rural areas) in Pakistan notices that moment – the moment when her mother’s friends transform from The Nice, Jolly Aunties to Ruthless, X-Ray Scanner-at-the-Airport, Rishta Aunties. Now, instead of patting your head amicably and pinching your cheeks with big smiles of affection, The Rishta Auntie keeps her distance when greeting you, to critically analyze how you carry yourself. Oh, will you rush forward to greet her with enthusiasm? If you do, you’ll get points in the ‘Behavior’ section of this exam (Achi tarah milti hai baron ko.), but lose marks in the ‘Graceful-ness’ section. She doesn’t know how to carry herself, na.
Will you step forward politely and kiss her cheeks in the repetitive mwah mwah mwah that we all attempt to copy from old French movies? If you do, she might decide you’re too Westernized. Allah maaf karey. (God forgive us.) Will you nod at her timidly, carefully positioning yourself one step behind your mother? This is a double whammy. Not only will you be considered shy, innocent and sweet (all good things), but you’ll also be awarded a bonus point for showing a submissive, respectful inferiority to your mother. You see, this is translated to mean that you will probably treat your mother-in-law the same way.
Whatever move you make, The Rishta Auntie will, after responding, start with your face and work her way down, marking off a secret checklist she has in her head. Good-looking, tick. Dresses modestly, tick. Carries herself well, tick. Nice dress sense, tick. Depending on what she’s looking for, this auntie will rate you on a ten-point scale. If she’s liberal and progressive, she’ll like you better if you’ve got blow-dried hair carefully arranged and a nice nude shade of nailpolish on, with designer heels and a dupatta casually laying across your shoulders. If she’s looking for a humble bride, she’ll want your eyes downcast, your hands folded together on your lap, and your most significant contribution to the conversation to be ‘Jee’ or ‘Yes, auntie.’
Your mother, of course, will be either beautifully oblivious to this entire process or will spend the entire meeting carefully positioning you to appear to be the most delightful, accomplished, charming young woman under the sun. Maliha ko to roti bhi banani aati hai. Kal raat ko zabardast khana banaya tha iss ne. Maliha auntie ko batao na. (Maliha knows how to cook roti too. Last night, she cooked us a delicious meal. Tell auntie about it, dear. Go ahead.)
After hearing several troubled stories from friends recently assaulted by this particular brand of Auntie, I decided to put together a small reading list for our beloved match-making, soul-sucking, X-Ray scanner. It’s so small, in fact, that there’s only two books on it: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Here’s why I picked these two:
Pride & Prejudice
This is the story of a girl who is one of many sisters, with a mother eager to marry them all off, and a father who can’t afford to keep them much longer. In a society that judges every woman by an impossible standard, the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, manages to avoid a proposal her mother desperately wanted, but which was not to her liking. She also finds the man she wants to spend her life with, overcomes personal as well as familial problems in order to find true happiness, and ends up better off than any of the other girls in town.
Pride and Prejudice is the story of a British family at a time way back when all the gossiping nosy neighbors and society as a whole considered a woman’s reputation of the utmost importance. Women were expected to behave in certain, predefined ways, and heaven forbid anyone ever try anything radical. (shudder) Stepping outside these predefined social norms meant ostracism for herself and her family. It was a disgrace to a family’s honor to have an “outgoing” young woman in the house. Does this sound familiar, ladies?
Just like in modern-day Pakistan, Austen’s England had clearly-defined class lines, clearly represented in characters such as the Bennets, who are a middle-class family, and socialize with their “superiors” such as Darcy, Bingley and Wickham, but are very are clearly their social inferiors. The author satirizes class-consciousness, for example in the character of Mr. Collins, who spends all his days sucking up to his upper-class patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins is a bit of an extreme, but it’s important to note that he’s not the only one to think this way. His conception class structure is shared by almost all of the characters – Mr. Darcy, who is very proud of his lineage; Miss Bingley, who is just downright disdainful towards anyone lower down on the social ladder; and Wickham, who is desperately trying to do anything he can to get enough money to chill with the big dogs.
Also, there are some important lessons to be learnt:
- Your daughters are not ducks sitting in a row, waiting desperately to be married.
- Sometimes the one that looks perfect, with his shiny red coat and overwhelming attractiveness, may not be the best one for your daughter.
- Give your daughter time to think it through. This is her life, her future. It needs to be her decision.
- The right rishta will roll around eventually. True happiness is out there for everyone, and sometimes you just have to have a little faith.
- Sometimes it’s the men with a million apparent flaws who are good at heart, and willing to make an effort to reach happiness. They might not seem appealing in the beginning, but in the end, they’re gold. So give the ugly ducklings a chance.
And lastly, just to drive my point home, I’d like you to watch this lovely video, recommended to me by another blogger, and a dear friend, Maha Kamal. Check out her blog by clicking here.
From the very start of the novel, Jane’s character possesses a sense of her self-worth and dignity, a strong commitment to the values of justice and principle, a trust in God, and a passionate disposition. Her dignity and integrity are continuously put to the test throughout the story and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself so as to find contentment. When hunting for your son’s blushing bride, Rishta Auntie Ji, remember that there is more to value in a woman than just how many chapatis she can make or how well-dressed she may be.
- Give others the benefit of the doubt. Being on the defensive doesn’t do anyone any good.
Because she was treated badly as a child, one of Jane’s deepest fears is that she will never feel truly welcomed and at home. Part of the reason she falls for Rochester is because he is the first one who has offered her love and stability. Jane is desperate to belong somewhere, to find “kin,” or at least “kindred spirits.” At the same time, she desires autonomy and freedom. She needs to have an independent sense of self, while feeling supported by a family structure. In truth, this is what many young girls are looking for. Even those coming from loving, stable homes desire to fit in well with their husbands and adjust to a radically different new life. Many times, brides are expected to live with their parents-in-law and this can make the transition even more difficult. Rishta Aunties have a list of things they require their young daughter-in-law to be, but can sometimes forget their own role. There’s a reason it’s called “mother-in-law” – because you’re supposed to act like a mother and that love and affection needs to translate into a healthy relationship with the newest member of your family.
- She doesn’t have to be a supermodel to have a good heart.
In her search for personal freedom, Jane goes through this whole phase where she doesn’t know what type of freedom she wants. Rochester is the love of her life, and could bring her wild happiness, but by being his mistress she would be sacrificing her dignity and integrity for the sake of her feelings. St. John Rivers presents another problem. She could travel the world and do lots of good, but this freedom would also constitute a form of imprisonment, because she would be forced to keep her true feelings and her true passions always in check by being with him, a man she did not love.
Young girls just starting their married lives might not always know what they want. Girls on the rishta circuit, as I like to call it, may have a vague idea of happily ever after, but for many, this is something that is not practically outlined. It’s important for these girls to find a balance, and it’s important for The Rishta Auntie to appreciate that some balance is necessary. It may make you happy to have a daughter-in-law who obeys your every command, like Rivers would expect of Jane, but she would not be happy, and this goes against what marriage is supposed to be – a joyful union. Aunties should know that everyone has a right to personal freedom, and that if you trust them, people usually know how to make the right choices.
Despite his stern manner and not particularly dashing appearance – I mean, it’s not like this is Brad Pitt we’re talking about – Edward Rochester wins Jane’s love. Although Rochester is Jane’s social and economic superior, and men were widely considered to be naturally superior to women in the Victorian period (and still are in Pakistan today), Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal. This is what is most important in any marriage – that two people are compatible. It’s time to do away with old notions of male superiority and both parties need to respect and care for each other’s feelings. You must not clump two people together into a life that neither of them can be happy in because they’re beliefs, ideas, and feelings are not compatible.
And on that note, here’s to happy aunties, blessed rishtas, and less wounded hearts!