The Ugly Duckling: Of Courtship and Competition

Now resident in Portsmouth, Joan Farnell spent some time living in Pakistan. In this narrative she recalls being unwittingly drawn into a family drama of courtship and competition.

I sat on the flat roof gazing at the wooded Margalla Hills. The day was reluctantly losing its heat and flocks of parakeets were flying off to their roosting places. Inspiration was not coming easily – I needed a cunning plan, or possibly a bit of magic, to transform Shaista, Imrana’s cousin, from an ugly duckling into a swan. Obviously I couldn’t change her physical appearance, but there had to be a way of making her seem more attractive.

Then I had a lightbulb moment. It was easy and I had the feeling I was going to enjoy the whole thing very much – and that Shaista would regain her self-esteem.

It had all begun much earlier in the day. When I got up I was surprised to see Afshan and her sister Shaista in our flat.

‘What are your cousins doing here?’ I asked Imrana.

‘I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you yesterday,’ replied my stepdaughter, ‘but Aunt Fatima’s coming. She wants to look Shaista over as a possible bride for her son.’

‘Oh, I see. And who is this Aunt Fatima exactly?’

‘Exactly? Now let me see, I think she’s Shaista’s father’s second cousin, once removed, or something like that. I’m not sure. She’s not on our side of the family.’ I was sure Imrana was pulling my leg as most Pakistanis seemed to have their complete family trees in their heads. ‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘she’ll be going home again in the evening. Afshan and I’ll take care of the cooking – we’ll do rice and kebabs, that should keep them all happy.’

‘Just a minute,’ I said, ‘you just said “them” – how many are coming?’

‘Well, it’s highly unlikely she’ll come alone. She might bring the whole family – you know how it is in Pakistan.’

‘No, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’ve only been here two weeks, remember?’ Imrana grinned and shrugged.

We all got on with making sure the flat looked presentable, and the girls started cooking. Shaista then disappeared into one of the bedrooms to do a bit of titivating.

It was about midday when loud chattering in the stairwell proclaimed the arrival of Aunt Fatima and entourage. Afshan and Imrana welcomed them effusively as they swept in like visiting royalty. I counted six of them – not bad, it could’ve been more. It seems Aunt Fatima had brought along her sister, three daughters and a niece. They were ushered into the lounge where they all made themselves comfortable, after bickering about who was going to sit where.

Now it was time for Shaista to make her grand entrance and she glided in carrying a tray with the tea things. She looked quite charming in her peacock blue clothes. My attention was taken by the biscuits though – they were especially good butter ones I’d only bought the day before, and I’d been meaning to make them last the rest of the week. Well, I’d only hoped they’d appreciate them, but I had my doubts as Fatima seemed to be looking down her nose at everything.

I found it a bit odd that not one of our visitors had spoken a single word to me – in fact they acted as if I wasn’t there at all. Most Pakistanis I’d met were fascinated by white people and whenever I went out in the street I’d be followed by a gaggle of fans – you either got used to it or you left the country. Feeling a bit left out of things, I decided to leave Imrana and Shaista entertaining their relatives, and snuck off to the kitchen, where Afshan was getting the plates and spoons ready.

‘Are these people particularly rude or have I broken a rule of etiquette?’ I asked. ‘I seem to have become invisible.’

‘They don’t want to lose face,’ she explained. ‘They’re village people and can’t speak English, so they have to pretend you’re not there. All these mothers who are looking for daughters-in-law like to act superior. Your presence has made it difficult for them. Come and help me get everything ready for lunch.’

We spread a cloth on the floor of the family room and set out the meal. I’d got used to eating sitting on the floor, but I couldn’t do it cross-legged: well, I could but I couldn’t walk easily afterwards. The girls had done a fine job with the cooking but one glance at Aunt Fatima and company didn’t convince me that they would be paying any compliments.

After the meal, the visitors decided to have a siesta so they were invited to use my room, my bed and my A/C. Four of them managed to get comfy on the bed – the rest were given mattresses. If it increased Shaista’s chances in the husband stakes it was alright by me, but the day was heating up and it wasn’t going to be comfortable sitting around in the lounge. At least I had some peace and quiet and a chance to talk to Imrana.

‘Afshan was right about prospective mothers-in-law,’ she said. ‘They do like to act as if they were doing the girls a big favour in deigning to consider them wife material. They expect a beautiful, virtuous, creature well-versed in housewifely duties. A docile nature wouldn’t go amiss either. It wouldn’t be so bad if the sons were all handsome, well-educated, young men, or at least in employment. But, often, the only thing they’ve got to recommend them is that they’re male.’

‘And do you think Shaista has a chance with Aunt Fatima’s son?’ I asked. ‘Does she even want him?’

‘I honestly have no idea’ she replied. ‘But she’s got to marry someone and at twenty-two she’s nearly past her sell by date. There’s the added problem, of course, that her family isn’t wealthy.’ Well, Shaista was no raving beauty but she had a pleasant face and a lively intellect. The trouble was she had a squint in her left eye. She was a bit of an ugly duckling, but with no chance of suddenly turning into a swan. I sighed at the injustices of her life.

After their sleep and a cup of tea the visitors left. Shaista looked very downcast – it seemed she hadn’t fulfilled Fatima’s expectations and she wasn’t interested.

‘It’s the rejection that hurts so much,’ she told me.

‘Would you like the chance to reject a proposal?’ I asked.

‘I’d just love it, but it’s not going to happen, is it?’

‘You never know,’ was all I could say.

And that was why I ended up on the roof getting my bright idea and doing a bit of scheming. I only had to set the ball rolling. I ran downstairs and told my plan to Imrana and Raheel, who had come home from school by then. They nearly laughed themselves silly and said they’d contact Shaista immediately to tell her what was going on.

We heard later that a deputation of male members of Aunt Fatima’s family had been round to Shaista’s home to ‘clear up a misunderstanding’: of course they wanted Shaista as a daughter-in-law.

And what had brought about this change of heart? What had turned poor squint-eyed Shaista into a beautiful desirable swan? Well, money of course – it can have the most magical effect on a person’s appearance. I’d asked Imrana to put a rumour into the world that it was a great pity Aunt Fatima didn’t want Shaista as I’d intended giving her half a million rupees as a wedding present. They’d have believed it as I was white and therefore possibly quite rich.

Shaista had become the catch of the season and, as such, she had the great ego-boosting privilege of saying, ‘Thanks but I’m not interested!’ Later we found out that the young man in question had a squint in his right eye so, all in all, it was good they didn’t marry –  just think how the children might have turned out!

Cover picture ‘Anarkali Station Orangeline Lahore’ by King Eliot has been re-used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.