Sheikh is a visiting Instructor at Michigan State University.
She has taught English at the University of Windsor where she
wrote a screenplay entitled Meantime. True Romance, part
of a longer work of fiction called Rishta Stories, was
originally printed in
Jouvert, a multi-disciplinary journal
of postcolonial studies.
* * * * * * * * * *
my own personal history, feels monotonous to me; at best, it is
uneventful. A succession of stolen moments for private epiphanies,
real and imagined. Lying in bed, on top of the comforter, reading
stories or just thinking them. Sitting on the top step of the
third floor of our house to read a novel in peace. White-hot sunrays
on baby blue canvas warming me through the opposing large window.
Beige shag carpeting. Glorious daydreams of reading piles of books
in cozy, sun warmed corners.
the only available option being to accept that my past is boring,
I often allow my mind to wander, examining memories for some sign
of violent act or incident, something for which the apparent blankness
of my personal history is merely a put-on, a brave front to withstand
a persistent background of pain and torment. But nothing. I know
I was not a boring child; in fact, I was often the life-force
of my friends. I was the saviour transforming pedantic drivel
into a moment of authentic deep thought, awkward pauses into gales
of laughter. I often thought of how unjust it was that I could
enrich and entertain my friends, but that I had no such counterpart
to enliven my own life. It seems, I am forced to conclude again
and again, that for much of my life I was simply bored.
One memory is watching a film during grade school. Sitting in
horizontal lines, cross-legged, on the cool gymnasium floor. It
was called Cipher in the Snow. I remember wondering,
is this supposed to mean that this boy, this little friendless
thing with galoshes and a dirty, fake fur-lined winter jacket,
was empty inside, a big nothing, a zero? And, if so, why were
they showing it to children? Did the children understand it? Were
we supposed to?
I don’t know why it comes to mind now. Maybe because I feel
I’m the one that’s truly based in reality. At least
I know the difference. These men, these boys I meet at my parents’
home, they are the ones that suffer from a too porous division
between reality and fantasy. Between a human being marked by a
lived experience and The Big Empty. The problem is that I have
no idea what went into forming their ways of looking at the world,
no idea of the experiences that shaped their understanding, their
expectation. I have no way of knowing what they want. And there
are just so many different kinds of Pakistani girls. The stupid
girl; the brainy, hard-working brute; the all-natural no makeup
girl; the happy airhead girl (they’ll end up ruling the
world, God love ’em, that’s all I know for sure);
the pretty girl; the girl that will make you roti. The problem
is that at different times I am all of those girls, and that is
precisely what makes me a cliché.
The problem is you have to swallow your pride. Only it doesn’t
taste like pride.
There will be no stories here. Stories are lies.
And then what happens?
Fine, this is what really happens, but look for entertainment
elsewhere. It is the situation, the styrofoam negative impression
of your life that keeps you in place. There is nothing to do to
get out of this situation, no trap door, in fact, no door at all.
No way to dissolve the form. How are you to opt out gracefully
in spirit when in body you are not allowed?
So I learned to deaden all affect. The first meeting, over dinner,
became a succession of private jokes told to myself. I cleanly
wiped and put back in the box all components of bodily and verbal
suggestion, all wrinkling of the area around the eye, degree of
lowered eyelid, that normally consists in expression so as to
be Miss Construed as a girl who is for it (suggestion
of desperation), or as a girl who is happy (suggestion
of low standards). (Because, after all, she’s barely conversed
with him. And nobody in their right mind would know if they wanted
to marry someone they’d just met! Nobody in their wrong
Also in the box: all tiny, presumptuous hints that could possibly
be considered flirtatious or leading. Things like "I’d
want to stay home part-time to raise our kids well I mean, my
kids, of course. . . ." Silly grin. Or, "Here"
(girl passing dinner plate to boy). Silly grin.
Stop tugging at my sleeve. This is not a story!
But how does it end?
Sigh. I’d ask you what you’re hoping for, but sometimes
I find the word ‘hope’ to be quite embarrassing. As
in ‘You should know better than that.’ Almost like
running into a friend while buying a lottery ticket.
But I can tell you that what I want, right here, right now, is
to walk on the carpet without taking my shoes off. What I want
is to just shut up like a happy clam and refuse to partake in
the tell-me-a-little-about-yourself. I want all the time to be
what people mean when they describe themselves as being momentarily
dumbstruck. I want to epitomize disinterested vacuousness. I want
to dodge the points of their fact-finding questions in filmic
bullet-time. I want to be invisible. No. Something other. I’ve
invested too much time in this construction to have to kill this
self off. When I start thinking this way, I can’t help but
follow it with ‘What a waste!’ (Such a charming girl.)
At the movies with my friends, I bravely yet casually drop a remark
about how much I like a closed book. Opened ones, sitting on desks,
couches, lawn chairs in the yard, reek of slovenliness to me.
After all, as I reassure my single friends, "It’s not
mathematics, you know." Addition, then subtraction, graph
the family history, derive, derive…. After all, one plus
one equals two, then three. Beginning, middle, end.
No, this is not mathematics. So keep your pants on.
At dinner. This time, I find myself playing a smile on my face.
"Hobbies?" Can I put into words what hearing this means
to me? Without sounding redundant? Hobbies? This is not
a joke, either. This man, this boy, has no sense of irony, or
reason to attempt one. He means what he asks. Hobbies.
Okay, got a pencil? Grinding my teeth. Primal screaming. Pulling
out my hair. Oh yes, and hanging out with my friends, but can
I say that without sounding like an idiot? Or does even mentioning
that I have friends make me sound too happy-airhead-girl? (‘Friends’
being so beside the point in the age of specialization. However,
when followed by ‘in high places,’ or simply upgraded
to ‘colleagues’. . .)
Sigh. I swear to God, if only nunneries were kosher in Islam.
I would certainly get me to one. But no, we all have to get out
and join the real world. Get all messed up in it.
Hobbies? I tell jokes. Here’s one. What does an
unmarried woman with Pakistani parents become? At best (i.e. making
more money than she will ever need), an affront. That people eventually
stop talking about when her monetary status buys back respectability.
At worst (i.e. in every other case), an elision. That people don’t
talk about at all.
Here’s another one. A girl is born. ‘This one’s
different, this one’s smarter than the others. And pretty,
too. She’ll marry well.’ This is what is called black
comedy. Higher hopes make for darker falls. Simply more tragic
than the rest.
Oh no, you silly goose. She will blend right in. We will blend
her in. (Using the $350 KitchenAid mixer gathering dust in her
trousseau. Imperial Grey. For Avid Home Chefs, but maybe one day.
Planetary Mixing Action.) Because there are so many girls. So
Does she ever get to use it?
hardly the issue at hand!
isn’t it the issue at hand?
. . . because–well, just never mind, alright?
So she has no right not to hope. She has all the necessary implements.
She has friends whose mothers didn’t bother a decade ago
to start buying things to gather dust in trousseaus. She has friends
who don’t even know that she went out and bought an expensive
set of china (the Old Country Roses set in her trousseau is, after
all these years, out of style). That she told the saleslady it
was a wedding present to herself. (No, no date yet.)
That she is thinking, ‘maybe if I start to act domestically,
to own domesticity, something might finally happen to me.’
Because maybe owning one’s body is already passé.
But what’s going to happen?
is what happened.
a story on your mother’s side that often gets repeated.
It’s about a cousin of hers who was walking in the cobblestone
street when this handsome young boy saw her and, at once, fell
deeply in love. (They married and he built her a palace, or did
I need to mention how it ended?) The point is, either you are
a Pakistani princess, or just a girl. You can’t be both
at the same time. What I mean is, sometimes you wish things were
different, like you didn’t have to rely on looks, or money,
or the appearance of either. Sometimes you wonder whether the
boy in your mother’s story was actually handsome, like they
say, or if it is just the presence in the story of any boy, by
definition, that demands the ‘handsome’ handle. Or
if he built her the palace as a gift, or as an even exchange.
Or even if he built the palace just to show everyone else that
he had built it for his ‘wife.’ And you do
recognize that they made it Romantic that a boy fell so hard just
for a face. You recognize that they forgot to mention whether
she even liked him or not. They forgot to mention whether she
was for it, or not. You had always thought she was; maybe
that’s where the stencils don’t match up. If so, it’s
completely your own fault; no one ever stated that she had fallen
in love, too; no one ever told you to assume it, to believe that
that single detail made the story complete. You did it yourself.
Your mother’s side.
you feel like you’d like to stop them in their tracks and
tell a story of your own. But that wouldn’t go over very
well. Besides, you wouldn’t know what happens at the end;
you’re the kind of movie-goer who never anticipates the
I sit in a chair in front of the mirror as my mother applies eye
shadow. I never, ever wear eye shadow in real life. The doorbell
rings, daring us to look another gift horse in the mouth. My mother,
nerves jamming, inadvertently pulls my hair. Something snaps.
"You shouldn’t fawn over her." I pause before
correcting myself. "I mean, me. Okay?"
"Do you cook?" asks the father. "Do you clean?"
asks the mother. But very innocuously, very offhandedly. Revealing
first that their own daughter can’t cook and hates cleaning.
To get my guard down. They want to know whether I can keep a good
home because that is what will keep their son happy. People I’ve
met in the last five to seven years don’t attempt stuff
like that. They think it, of course, but they know it’s
not politically correct to ask. But, after all, these parents
just want to be sure their boy will be fed. Home is where the
"I don’t know how to answer that!" I answer. Light
lilting laugh follows. "I don’t make it a practice
to do either!" I’m no one’s wife, I want to add.
You can count on that.
Above all, I am an expert at being nice. I know he knows this
as they depart. Although I’m slightly relieved, I am also
sorry. I know it’s better for me, for my sake, that is,
to string him along than to tell him without words that this won’t
work (plus, how would I know that?). It’s better to string
them along because viability in the marriage market depends upon
buyer interest. I know this. I counsel my friends to "Keep
interest high!" But I can’t do it myself. It doesn’t
"Maybe they’ll come back," my mother says, encouragingly.
Hopefully. I can’t stand the words. They tell me he’s
someone who is shopping for a bargain. They tell me I’m
someone whose finer qualities need a second look to be fully appreciated.
But her tone is casual, friendly, and I let down my guard.
"It’s okay, it’s fine. I just think, is it really
better to be spending all this time and energy trying to find
someone I like? Can’t I just do my own thing, live my life,
and see what happens? How is it better trying to force the issue?
There’s nothing that can be done to make things happen quicker
if I don’t like the guy in the picture."
"Are you crazy?" This brings me out of my reverie and
now she is looking at me, face contorting, yelling without words.
"I’m confused," I whine. I know how this sounds.
I wish someone were here to take over. After a moment, I turn
to look at her, tears streaming down my face (begs compassion).
There is a sudden intake of air as I involuntarily start. She
has fire-breathing portals for eyes, and a sneer tugging the various
darts of her skin, as if someone were pulling threads from behind
her face. Anyone who’s ever worn a dupatta even once knows
you’re not supposed to pull at loose threads like that;
otherwise, the diaphanous material clots up like a spider web
filled with cocooned flies, and the scarf becomes unwearable.
A Hungry-Man’s spider web. A meal fit for a king.
I respectfully, and warily, retract.
Later that evening, I see her lying on the couch, with a white
dupatta wrapped around her head. My mother gets headaches. Which
is understandable. Besides having an unmarried daughter who’s
breaching 30, she’s domestic farmhouse Martha Stewart one
moment, and high-powered business Martha Stewart the next. I barely
manage my weekly laundry.
Please, God, help me to be successful at what I do. Please help
me to appear successful to others. Please help me not get old.
Please help me not look old. Please make me happy. Please help
me find a good husband. And please let me know it when it happens.
Thank you for keeping the channels open.
I’m sitting here in goddamn New York City, and I’m
thinking, I’m the most bored out of my skull as I ever have
been. What’s worse is that I have to keep up this bubbly
attitude like I’ve come to the freaking party place of the
universe, while it’s been gravely tense and horribly behavior-modified
from the beginning, and all I’ve really got to see is somebody’s
impeccable but less than character-driven decor. And my head is
splitting as it is. I wish I could find a dupatta now
to bind around my head.
At dinner. Sometimes in these situations, you’re sure you
look shell-shocked, this spastic smile on your face that is perfectly
contoured to suggest that no feeling resides here, no feeling
either this way or that, for or not. Skimming the currents
of other peoples’ conversation, you might laugh by pulling
down the corners of your mouth and puffing audibly while bobbing
your head. Any more than that would make you look exuberantly
for this situation, this possibility. Then the man, the
boys’ side, would think they have the upper hand, and no
matter who you are, you are, in an instant, relegated simply to
‘Pakistani girl.’ And there are so many, many
And now I think–Yes! He just glanced at me with disgust!
And I’m an attractive girl . . . I am shocked, but sort
of amused. Where’s the professionalism? It is apparent that
we are each under duress. Which makes me think. I am bound to
be here because I’m 29 and a girl. He is older, made his
money, and assumedly not slow-witted. Why is he here? I realize,
slowly realizing, he’s been forced to show up tonight, he
has no power in the situation either, he’s whipped–by
his mother! I smile, and quickly focus my attention at a
vacant corner, so nobody can possibly mistake it for a flirtatious
gesture. Or a signal that I am for it. He’s just
a girl, too!
Girls, I can handle–insecure, prone to depression, punch-drunk
on the Romance and waiting for someone to save them–I can
bat them around like balls of yarn.
At work recently, I proposed a new cover for a book of fiction
that is coming out. My idea was to use only black and white, rather
than the neon pinks and greens that have been shocking the shelves
of late. "Too confusing," I explained to the group.
"Too many colours serve to dazzle and disorient the average
customer, who will simply keep walking." The Project Head
did not agree. He held my mock-up at arm’s length. "You’re
not married to it, I presume?" "What?" I said,
imagining vaguely that he was making some kind of remark about
my personal life (i.e. Pakistani + girl = Arranged Marriage).
"Oh! No, no, no." I spit out. "I’m not married
to anything!" He shoots a glance at me over his
glasses. That was a little too exuberant.
Tell me another one!
you let me finish, please?
thought you were done.
let me finish.