2/5/2010 1:00:47 AM
My Reasons for Living
“IT IS IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE GENUINE CONDITIONS OF OUR LIVES THAT WE MUST DRAW OUR STRENGTH TO LIVE AND OUR REASONS FOR LIVING.”
These poignant words of Simone de Beauvoir are as pertinent now as when she quoted them. In the shadow of those words, I will share with you my life story.
I was born in Bombay, India but grew up in Pakistan. The name Braganza is Portuguese because our ancestors were from Goa. Goa was occupied by the Portuguese for 400 years. We were originally Hindus, but our names and religion were actually imposed on us by Portuguese colonizers. My father owned Braganza Hotel , right across from the historic railway station in Lahore, built in the time of the Raj. During the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 , our hotel was used as the headquarters for the Muslim League and by the British army. Hindu and Sikh women and men would hide in the hotel for days. Many of them were massacred as soon as they stepped outside. My parents were so traumatized by what they saw that they never spoke about it.
My childhood exposed me to extremes - of those who were affluent enough to come to the the hotel and those who had to beg right outside the iron gates. When I was 6, I remember an old woman who would beg on the road outside and smile at me every day on my way to school. I used to wonder how this woman who had nothing, was still able to smile. Then one day, she lay there, crumpled up . People were gathered around her and stared. So did I. She was dead . No one picked her up for a long time. And the smile I had got used to on my way to school was gone forever.
I grew up Roman Catholic in a Muslim country . There was a mosque right outside our door and the plaintiff Call to Prayer of the mullah three times a day indelibly marked me. Growing up in Pakistan, I was shy and very reserved in front of my Muslim friends. I don’t remember ever meeting a Muslim boy and even though I had a brother, I never met his friends. In school, I was never asked to give my opinion on anything. Never. We learned textbooks by heart and the closer one got to the exact text, the higher the marks. Home was not that different. No one asked for my opinion. I just obeyed. I kept close to the text.
Respect and family values were so important that even if I had different ideas on anything, I remained silent. At 5, my mother taught me the piano. And it opened up a new world. I remember when I was 14 years old, a professor from the Juilliard School of Music came to Lahore and I auditioned for him. I never heard anything back. 6 months later my piano-teacher mentioned almost in passing that I had been offered the scholarship to study in New York, but that my parents had refused it and chosen not to tell me.
One year later, nuns with whom I studied, suggested a study year in a Rome convent. This time, my parents raised no objection. Much to my dismay, all the young women I met in Rome questioned everything. When I was asked a question, I became dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say. I really didn’t know what I thought about anything because up to then, textbooks and elders had spoken for me. I thought back to the way traditional South Asian society regarded daughters. In a general sense, we were considered burdens to families. A common expression among parents who had daughters was: WE ARE RAISING FLOWERS FOR SOMEONE ELSE’S GARDEN. Even though my family broke that barrier by sending me away on my own, I couldn’t help feel the weight of an oppressive tradition.
It was a confusing time for me. I announced to my parents that I wanted to become a nun. Based on their previous responses, they reacted quite irrationally. They enrolled me in Trinity College of Music located in the heart of London in the Swinging Sixties.
I remained shy and awkward in front of my new friends who knew so much more about Western classical music than I did. I admired their bluntness and that they felt so comfortable about speaking their mind. I wanted so much to be like them, but I couldn’t. I did not dare. I was afraid of being ridiculed. I turned inward and started to write and to paint. I retreated in silent moments into another world.
Anton Chekhov wrote “ If you want to work on your art, work first on your SELF.” Easily said, Mr. Chekhov, but what if you didn’t have a SELF to express ?
In August 1966, I arrived in Montreal on the Empress of Canada. I remember the scene vividly. Hundreds of people hanging over the edge of the ship waving into the waiting crowd on the pier. I felt like a pilgrim.
At the girls hostel run by nuns, I would meet other women arriving from countries I had never heard of, embarking on similar journeys of discovery. While we sat and shared stories, I would sketch their faces in pastels.
And Montreal was Nirvana. I loved the fertile environment, especially seeing the astonishment when I spoke in French. I understood then that language was, and is such a powerful key to dialogue and understanding. It flung open doors to another wonderland.
When the twin towers crashed in 2001, I began to step on memory mines, these pockets of memory that suddenly explode, that explode inside us all. In September of that year, the Montreal Gazette published an article I wrote about a racist incident my family had experienced 20 years ago in the suburbs in the 1970’s where the word PAKI was burned on our front lawn . The most frightening part of that experience was that no one came forward to acknowledge it had happened.
It’s what the experience did to me – the feelings of inadequacy that arose, the fear I had for my 3 sons. My self esteem was at an alltime low. I took a course in Assertive Training for Women where I felt the comfort and support of other women. We learned the antidote to shame. The moderator made us write down our strengths. I wrote down my p’s: PIANO, POETRY, PAINTING.
That young girl in Pakistan who never spoke up then, now galvanized herself to speak out and speak up, through writing, through music, through poetry and through art. Two decades later came divorce and with it all the ramifications and ostracism that accompany such an upheaval. From nice Indian wife and mother, I was an outcast who had to fend for herself
Divorce turned into a life-changing event. I was able to strengthen parts of me that I had forgotten existed. I was able to share with other women in similar situations, able to branch out and do the things I had always longed for, able to become the woman I really am.
I understood that we women, we hide so much under mantles of lace, under sarees of silk, under burquas, under apple pies and strawberry tarts. We hide until we no longer can.
Many of us live as if we are going to live forever. I know I did. But four years ago, something happened that reminded me that my life was indeed finite. I was diganosed with cancer of the bone marrow,, which crushed my spine. I spent 5 months in hospital watching as the seasons slithered by silently. Depression grabbed at my throat and I was choking. I forgot who I was. I believed my hallucinations.
After a year of aggressive treatment, I was declared in remission. For me, suddenly being forced to face my own mortality brought a realization. I wanted to find out why I had been given another chance. I was convinced there was a very good reason.
In November 2008, the Montreal Council of Women selected me as Woman of the Year . The recognition helped me to look deeper into the path of the immigrant woman which I almost forgot I had travelled. I learned more about who I was and who I have become, how every gasp of happiness, every tiny discovery, every painful disappointment had brought me to where I was now.
So when I read about women, from the love that moves us, to the heartaches that bring us to our knees, I am able stir that with my own experiences and create a new work of art. We know there are no shortcuts for us women to the rainbow. There never have been.
Simone de Beauvoir was right. Only by looking back can we draw our own strengths and our own reasons for living.
2/5/2010 1:00:47 AM