Predictions, realities or self-fulfilling prophecies?
Growing up in a lower middle class family in Pakistan comes with its own set of tricks and treats. Study hard, work hard and ye shall be successful, earning in “dollars” or “pounds” with your own car and a house. The South Asian dream.
But insights into the future were also offered through the crystal ball, without a Professor Trewlawny to amuse you.
I grew up in the old city centre of Rawalpindi, close to major historical sights, notably Liaquat Bagh where two prime ministers of Pakistan were assassinated. Close to Liaquat bagh is the shrine of Shah di Talian. As the legend goes, the shrine belongs to Hazrat Syed Shahjahan who came to Rawalpindi on a shesham (rosewood) tree called Talian, that sits within a grand graveyard. I crossed this graveyard on my way back home from school everyday. There was not much that I knew about it except what I observed during the classic Committee Chowk traffic congestion: people going in and out of the graveyard with bags of flower petals for the graves and heavy hearts, and the walls surrounding the graveyard that were covered in large adverts whose owner was usually seated next to them on the dusty pavement.
What were the advertisements about? Future predictions through hand reading or a calculation of letters and numbers. On Thursdays, the pavement would have more than one of the future predictors with a decent array of foot traffic, many stepping out after having poured oil on the rosewood tree and prayed to the saint.
My mother, who is quite stern in her religious beliefs, shunned such superstitious practices. She believed that prayers, hardwork and kindness are what will determine the future course, if God permits. In short, my proximity to the pavement remained distanced.
However, at the age of 15, I did get to meet someone with a similar profile, a professional palmologist and numerologist, and it was my mother who had said, “why dont you show your hand. Let’s see what it says.”
Even as a teenager, I was deeply skeptical of things that could not be explained through science. But I was a happy teenager (that day) as we were out of the house. Meeting my mother’s friends was something quite rare. She believed her time investment was first and foremost towards her husband and her children, then a home-based business and ultimately the upkeeping of the house — yes, indeed, a classic South Asian family where the theme of the womans sacrifice runs deep. I was only allowed to meet one friend of mine outside of school and that, too, was a rare occuring in itself as she had changed schools.
The gentleman who I was sitting next to was the uncle of my mothers friend. You see, it was not a planned visit to a palmologist, but a rendezvous with an expat friend of my moms. I was sitting in the drawing room of a classic Islamabad bungalow, with white grills on the windows, a well-kept garden with blooming flowers and a dotted floor that was sparkling clean always. The sun was shining quite brightly, lighting up the room quite vividly, but the gentleman, who I was told to refer to as Uncle, wanted more light to read my hand.
My consent was not really a matter of concern as I was too young to make decisions on my own. I do remember feeling a bit cornered — perhaps, I still encounter the same sinking feeling if I am put on the spot for a request that I would generally not agree with. As a Pakistani girl, you are told not to misbehave with elders, not to challenge your parents in front of non-family members and basically not to disagree, even politely.
And so I did not. I do believe this polite-disagreement-skill-development is still a work in progress, but we are all a work in progress forever, no?
Uncle looked at my hand. Brown, very short nails, fingers a bit crooked like my father, not too short but not too long either. I remember not liking so much attention on my hands and feet since I had so often been told that my fingers were crooked and brown. Colonialism and body shaming usually went hand in hand with complements and unwarranted critiques.
“Your fingers are quite artistic. You can be a great artist!” Moving my hands at an acute angle, he tilted his head slightly and said, “Or even a career in pharmacy would not be a bad option.”
Artist? The last time I had sketched something was in primary school for my science class. Now I was studying computer sciences and anything to do with medicine was out of the question. Chemistry was already killing me softly. I also believed strongly that our family had enough doctors.
He then turned my hand and looked at my palm. An intense expressions with a narrowing of the eyes took over his face and he turned to look at my mother. “Don’t marry her off on the first marriage proposal. It will look very good on the surface, but it will end in divorce.”
Marriage? Proposal? You see, I was a fat kid and an even fatter teenager, my hair was chopped till my ears and there was no concept of buying clothes in colors or styles that I wanted to. I was repeatedly told that no one will marry me (despite also being told that I should not wait for a man and study to secure my future), so I was naturally very perplexed at this gentleman’s statement. I did my classic “eye-roll” wondering how disconnected is he from my reality.
And then, may be because he had to say something to balance out the stigma of a divorce hearing, he said to me with a smile, “You will travel a lot and explore the world. You wont live here in Pakistan for too long.”
In my head at that moment, I was thoroughly convinced that I had managed to waste my Sunday afternoon. You see, we did not have the money at times to even make it to school on public transport. I had not even been to the closest tourist spot for people from Islamabad and Rawalpindi known as Murree, in years.
I did not even know what a passport was. How could I “travel the world”?
Of course, the idea of not living in a country where women were treated as second-class citizens was something that I occasionally flirted with. Even during my teenage, I had seen enough to know that as a woman, my rights and liberties in Pakistan would always be limited: some due to the pressures of my family, some due to society, some due to religion and the rest very swiftly put under the label of “culture”. I knew my growth would always face barriers, while also providing me great opportunities. A bitter-sweet pill.
I remember feeling so emotionally and financially dependent on my family that the idea of not living in Pakistan seemed unreal.
Now, as I write this at the age of 31, sitting far away from a place I once called home, in a different time zone, a different culture, a different reality all together, I wonder how often such predictions shape minds. Looking back, I did, go on to challenge traditional ideas of a woman from our family doing radio shows, or hosting concerts, or working overtime alongside men in offices. I also bravely faced my divorce to seek some peace of mind and secure my independence and psychological safety. I did report street harassment and ran a campaign on creating a safe environment for women. I did travel solo and with friends. And I did manage to do all that while flourishing in my career as the spokesperson and head of communications at an international humanitarian organisation. And, finally, I did give it all up to move to another country (during corona). Was that a self-fulfiling prophecy or a careful alignment of stars and numbers that paved this road?
15-year-old Rimsha could not have imagined any of this.
I suppose, this question for now, is best left unanswered.
However, what I dont want to leave unexplored is my creative side. May be I can not paint or draw as I did when I was in primary school, but I suppose, theres nothing really stopping me from trying that out? Or trying out learning something new — like a language that does not even follow the same grammatical rules as English; driving on the opposite side of the road, or cooking in the kitchen with simple and exotic ingrediants for my dietary preferences; or just exploring life behind the lens and on the keyboard and share that journey with people who might enjoy reading the tales of a 31-year-old who hit the reset button on her life at the peak of the pandemic that shook the world.