"Family is fate, but it is also a choice" - Part 2

"Family is fate, but it is also a choice" - Attica Locke in The Cutting Season

At a perilously young age, I met a boy. Eight years later, I married him. Even before I got a piece of paper declaring him to be my family, he had stealthily turned my blood the same shade of red as his. Long before I signed my name on a paper the color of desert sands, carefully, deliberately, taking special care to dot the "i" in Noorulain, he had become my foundation, my sense of being home. And so, thousands of miles away from my real family, but near him, my homesickness abated until my sense of belonging only rested with him. Clever man - he played his cards well. 

He was and remains my chosen family, not a substitute for those I love best – my parents and siblings – but an addition to them. I inherited a whole other family, too – his. It feels strange to say that – “his family,” because they don’t feel like they belong to him. If anything, I feel like they are more mine than his. 

When my father-in-law first met me in that capacity – as an in-law, I mean – he treated me with a reserved affection. Over the course of a few weeks, that affection changed into a peculiar kind of friendship, the kind in which you say very little, but are comforted by just being in the presence of each other. It was a parent-son reunion after 7 years and the parents' first meeting with their daughter-in-law. My father-in-law, Uncle as I call him, is a quiet man by habit. Diabetic and scrupulous about his health, he eats mindfully. Even after we were all done with our dinner, he would sit at the table, slowly swallowing his small portion of homemade roti and thin gravy. The mother and son being inseparable would sometimes wander off for an evening walk or a trip to the grocery store. I sat with Uncle on those autumn evenings while he ate. We didn’t talk much. Sometimes he spoke of the weather and asked me about my day, but mostly we just sat together, perfectly satisfied with each other’s company. Gradually, this evolved into a ritual that spanned all meals, especially tea-time during which we both enjoyed large mugs of chai with thick cake rusks. I guarded this ritual religiously – it was our “thing.” Sometimes on the phone, he tells me “When I come, we will again have tea with cake rusks.” 

On the first evening of their arrival my mother-in-law and I sat in the living room formally, saying very little to each other. Her feet were swollen from the long journey. I asked her to put her legs up and brought her a stool. Then, I put the kettle on for tea. When I sat down next to her again, she said “I don’t like to make long professions of affection. I will be honest. I will observe you. I will see how you are, how you really are.” It was a candid statement. It was also unnerving. “That’s completely fair,” I said. “I will not disappoint you.” All mothers-in-law of the world “observe” the woman their son brings home. They not only observe, but also openly critique them (and that’s putting it very mildly). I was struck by this woman sitting poised on the sofa. Even after a long journey, she sat gracefully, her back straight, hands folded in her lap, and I was amazed at her honesty. It turned out that her observation didn’t last very long. Before the end of the week, she began to show her love with vigor. She labored for hours with me in the kitchen, teaching me everything from the correct way of peeling an onion to the fool-proof method of making the best homemade yogurt. She slaved on the tiniest details so I could learn how to be a good cook: is it ½ teaspoon or ¼? How fine is finely chopped? What do you mean by golden brown? She taught me everything without judgment or frustration and with the utmost care – she instilled in me a love for cooking. Nothing makes two women become good friends like a stove and a dozen tried and tested recipes. These days, she prefers to introduce me as her favorite daughter.

I also gained two sisters in this marriage. Having been the elder sister for almost all of my life, this role should have been the easiest one. On the contrary, I met some serious challenges on this front. For a very long time, there was an unspoken but acknowledged level of abrasion between me and my sisters-in-law. Then something magical happened in 2011. They saw me after 8 years. And we came undone. All those years of our shared childhoods resurfaced. It was easy to love each other fiercely, protectively, and without question after that – after all, we had done it once before as little girls. 

I miss my family, the one that I belong to by fate: My sweet-faced mother and her poetry, my handsome father who talks in riddles and metaphors, my beautiful sisters, one roaming the streets of Tokyo with her husband, and the other in Lahore, my brother who is no longer the chubby-cheeked boy I left behind, but a young man taller than our dad; and I miss the family I chose, the four of them who made me believe that we belong together. We are all stitched seamlessly into the tapestry of each other’s lives. There is no thought more comforting than that.