As I sat in the stuffy hall, watching pretty faces and splashy colors of a predominantly female crowd, waiting for Act II to start, I heard a plump, bespectacled young woman exclaim during the intermission, “What cheap stuff! Such crude characters! And see how the people are enjoying it! Ach…”
I glanced at the high-brow, jet-set lady, her enormous bust and tawny neck. ‘Of course she doesn’t need a dupatta.’ With no ill-feeling towards her dupatta-less Raphaelesque presence, I smiled as I remembered one of Ismat Chughtai’s defiant characters – a young girl when told to wear a dupatta, kicked her feet in anger, grimaced and blurted something to the effect (when her Amma couldn’t hear her): “I don’t need a dupatta. Only flat-chested girls need to wrap themselves up carefully in thick dupattas.”
So she thinks the play is low-brow stuff; the story of a husband-hunting single girl is in bad taste! What does she want instead? Some intellectual rhetoric, political mush or philosophical preamble?
Thank goodness the play was none of the kind. I know ‘Anji’ a down-to-earth character; the theme of the play universal; the man-hunt and then the inevitable enigma “To marry or not to marry any Tom, Dick and Harry.”
“I have been searching for the answer for the last forty years and I haven’t found it yet,” said Ismat Chughtai, the woman of our century, present among the audience. “An independent, lonely life has its own pain. And the rut of married life has its own frustrations. Life is but to live the conflict, the pain, the frustrations…”
I remember it was ten years ago when I realized the problem was universal. Till then I had accused Pakistani society, its traditional social values, which I scornfully labeled ‘decadent’. It was in 1975 when I read Sheila Levina is Dead and Living in New York that I came to know that the modern, western world is no less rotten when it comes to a woman’s marriage.
The story of Sheila, single, 30, over-weight, ordinary-looking, marriage-mad, scared the hell out of me. Her man-hunt was so painful, so frightening. I devoured the novel. And when I finished it I closed my eyes and thanked God, in earnest, that I wasn’t born in the USA!
For a moment, I sniggered at the western single woman, “Ha, ha…I thought they were having a hell of a time. They are not; overwhelmed with a sadistic impulse, “Good to know baby your life is even tougher.”; then the compassion, “…poor girls.”; and the ultimate – sharing, “…we are not alone. Women out there, beyond the seven seas, have the same problems, even worse.”
Want to know something more about Sheila? Sheila is trying unsuccessfully “to straddle two worlds: the one she’s been programmed for since birth – marriage first, life later – and the illusive singles’ scene of ‘literated’ New York.”
Sheila Levine jots down the facts of life in America:
“FACT: There are one hundred and three girl babies born for every hundred boy babies born. So, you figure I’m one of the extra three girls.”
“FACT: There are more boys who think marriage is outmoded, passé, than there are girls with the same thoughts. Women’s Lib, I hate to disappoint you, but there are few members who wouldn’t give up a meeting with you for a wedding night.”
“FACT: New York City is now crawling with thousands of girls all looking for husbands, outnumbering the boys looking for wives.”
And when in 1982, I travelled to the West, I came across many Sheilas. Nicole, French, 33, single, told me, “I am a traditional woman. I want a stable marriage. But I haven’t come across the right person. I don’t know many men in the first place. I am not a sociable person, I am afraid.” I scratched my head, “Oh my God, even in Paris it’s difficult to find Mr. Right? I can’t believe it!”
And Lisa, 34, wanted to marry the man she loved and lived with for many years but who married another woman! Lisa as yet hasn’t met another Mr. Right. And Mary, 25, who lived and worked in Washington DC: “Washington is a rotten place. You can’t find a husband here. These men are all power-driven, ruthless. I want to get out of here. If only I could get a job in New York. Yes, in N.Y. I’ve heard there is a chance for girls.”
And Muriel, 36, a Canadian, with whom I stayed in Toronto, had told me in her soft voice and with a cynical laugh, “Why should a man marry? When he can get sex in abundance, so easily? Why would he want a commitment? He doesn’t want to tie himself down with marriage and home and kids.”
14 March 1985