Blood And Water

I was raised on a potent mix of cultural expectations and religious misinterpretations. Blood was always thicker than water, family dictated one’s choices and most importantly, one’s elders were never, ever wrong. Any notions to the contrary were swiftly crushed and relegated to whispers of malcontent dusted surreptitiously under the carpet. They say ignorance is bliss, and I reveled in said blissful existence until adolescence hit me like a rogue freight train.

My early childhood was mono-cultural, and my social interactions occurred within a comfortingly predictable group of friends and family. We all came from similar socio-economic backgrounds and held the same views on a range of issues, which meant that conflict was rare and occurred over petty issues like whose house to hold the annual Ramadan iftar at. I took solace in the sheer size of my family and in the influx of distant cousins who I now believe weren’t really cousins but just really close family friends (surely I can't have 500 cousins). It was all fun and games till someone spoke up against the accepted norms and hence broke the sacred circle of trust. I remember putting my family on a pedestal and wholeheartedly subscribing to their collective views for a long time. It was when I turned ten that a chink appeared in my rose-tinted glasses.

I overheard a conversation between a few women, or 'aunties', at a wedding. It’s important to keep in mind here that as a ten-year-old Pakistani girl, my presence was considered non-invasive and probably irrelevant since I wasn’t deemed sentient enough to take offence at anything, let alone ponder over all things deep and meaningful. This is probably why the aunties felt comfortable enough airing their dirty laundry in front of children such as myself. I should also add that some of these aunties were close relatives whom I was conditioned to respect without reservation.

The conversation ebbed and flowed, traversing myriad topics ranging from the latest fashion trends to the most attractive male cricketer (Imran Khan always emerged victorious) and then slowly moved towards darker issues. That night, the focus of the debate was a young couple that had eloped, leading to the girl’s family threatening to 'hunt' the couple down and issue morbid, unsavoury threats that all ended in severe violence. The women, who prior to this seemed to be kind, slightly silly but harmless souls, now became the dispensers of judgement, raining fire and brimstone upon the ill-fated lovers.

Declarations such as “shame on them”, “I’d rather my daughter died than bring dishonour to the family”, “she must’ve dabbled in black magic to brainwash that poor boy”, and “I hope they’re found and shamed publicly” were made with great gusto, and to my adolescent brain, conjured up horrific visions which nearly made me throw up my dinner. Things did not end well for the young couple, but that is not the focus of my story here. I changed a bit that night, and I like to envision that a new part of my brain came alive - one that would always question the status quo and urge me to use my empathy and judgement before I issued an opinion.

Fast forward to the present and I am still making peace with the notion that my family does not hold all the answers. I see that they’re fallible and have made some pretty terrible mistakes that have had a ripple effect which is still in motion. I still catch myself fluctuating between my cultural conditioning and my moral compass, recalibrating my views so that they’re based on sound research and experience and not just familial beliefs. I stride a fine line between respecting my family’s views and not disowning them entirely as is a growing trend and an “easy fix” in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon Australian society (“just because your parents raised you doesn’t mean they’re entitled to have a say in your life”, “I cut my sister off because she borrowed $500 that she never returned” and so on).

My extended family is a conundrum. They are a source of amusement (“please don’t get more tanned or no one will marry you”), frustration (“why don’t you visit Pakistan more often, surely you have enough free time on your hands?”) and despair (“so many girls are ending up single because they value their career over marriage”). They are also a reliable constant in my life, a source of support and comfort, and the purveyors of fine Pakistani cuisine and clothing. I now know that blood is not always thicker than water, and I am well on my way to making peace with this.  

This article was first published 28 Jan 2017