Before Enid Blyton, there was the story of how my parents met.
As my young self recalled it: he had been the eligible young doctor; she, the put upon nurse. I can remember feeling terribly scandalised upon hearing the ‘grown-up’ version for the first time. My dad had been courting her best friend. My mother was the reluctant blind date for his doctor pal from ‘back home’. Yet in the time it takes for a cat to blink in that ever so slow and focused manner that is said to be the feline version of a kiss — he realised it was she who was his heart’s desire. And that was that.
It was my brown Pakistani father and not my white English mother who was initially tolerated more. His being an ophthalmologist was his calling card. Whereas my mother’s working-class background afforded her little, if any, social capital. Though it did help our case that we were a dog family
My grandfather was suddenly taken ill. And my dad had to fly to Pakistan. She gave him her entire post-office savings, which could not have amounted to much at all. Thus they had to make do with a not so clandestine courtship conducted by way of blue aerogramme letters. Then came a message that changed everything. My dad suggested that she fly out to meet his family and see if both they and Pakistan might be a comfy fit. And so it was that my mother got on an aeroplane for the very first time in her life. This she would forever remember. Three of the four engines ultimately gave out. Yet having no idea at all as to how many should be there in the first place — she was the only one not in a heightened state of panic. It took a crash landing in Tehran to jolt her out of her complacency. But even then, she said, there had been no fear. For everyone was so very kind to this beautiful young woman with the golden hair.
Today, some might denounce this as white privilege and thus an insult to local women. They might even castigate a white woman in the Muslim world back at that time as representing the very embodiment of the western colonial enterprise. Or they may simply point out the contrast between such these recollections and that of the infamous Polish magazine cover image. The one provocatively featuring a white woman naked but for the EU flag strategically draped to protect her modesty. While multiple brown male arms do their best to rip it off.
Yet the story took a slightly different twist when we moved from Pakistan to England.
My dad and I were the only non-whites on the street in a traditionally Jewish area. In today’s elitist jargon it might be described as aspiring lower middle-class. And it was here that I first began to learn a lesson I didn’t fully understand at the time.
It was my brown Pakistani father and not my white English mother who was initially tolerated more. His being an ophthalmologist was his calling card. Whereas my mother’s working-class background afforded her little, if any, social capital. Though it did help our case that we were a dog family. Indeed, the neighbours began approaching my dad imploring him to perform cataract operations on Man and Woman’s best friend.
As he was preparing to take British medical exams, my dad found work as an optician doing the NHS rounds. He also set up shop at the back of our house. I must have been primary school age or thereabouts. Fear of all these strangers — none of whom looked like either my dad or I — is what comes to mind most from that time. Yet I also recall how my mother managed to turn it into a special treat just for the two of us. Off we would go on the bus to the nearest public pool to watch the local club train, length after length, tumble-turn after tumble-turn. I would fantasise about one day joining them. It seemed so utterly glamorous swimming in the evening. The colour of the water was a deeper blue and I tried to imagine the glare from the overhead tube lights was a combination of stars and moonshine.
Having lived in Pakistan for 13 years — my mother was also somewhat familiar with the immigrant experience. She knew what it was to be shunned for marrying ‘one of them’ and having lived ‘over there’. Yet for many the thing most unpalatable was how she had escaped her background to ‘land’ a dashing doctor. Not many people she knew at that time had ‘married up’. And even less had managed to get out. And there she was with the exoticness of her years in Pakistan. She had kept to herself the odd murmuring about household help and not needing to work. Because she and my dad were the same. Had it not been for a kindly uncle willing to sponsor his studies — he would haven taken out of school at the age of 10 by his decidedly poor parents. My mother had been destined for Art College until her working class father took her name off the waiting list, believing it to be a waste. My dad always cried upon recalling how my late grandmother had sold her only gold bangles to pay his passage to England. My other late grandmother had died when mother was just 10 years old, prompting her to leave home as soon as she could some seven years later. She enrolled in nursing school, supporting herself all the way.
Yet there in pre-Thatcher Britain, that is before society had been proclaimed dead and the Rivers of Blood were freely flowing — male class privilege still largely triumphed over that of women of any colour. How else was my dad able to stay afloat?
The writer is the Deputy Managing Editor, Daily Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @humeiwei
Published in Daily Times, August 13th 2017.