Tasked with writing a piece on the empowerment of women I took to a part of town where I could see plenty. Sitting in a whitewashed café in the heart of Gulberg, I glance around in search of a muse. There are those who seem to frequent this place. A few are comfortably leafing through the society magazines neatly stacked on the wall, dressed casually in jeans and white pumps, hanging loose fitting shirts on their thin frames. There are those who are betrothed or soon-to-be-married, engaged in seemingly banal conversation with men of that distinctly Lahori marriageable variety (neatly manicured beard, starched kurta and all).
But which of these women’s lives should I follow? Whose thoughts should I interpret from the frown of their brow? Whose fingers do I use to pen my own thoughts, through whose perspective do I voice my reveries?
And then she finds me, my muse, because she seems to feel my eyes on her. She has sad bovine eyes, and a loud nose — round at the tip but sleek on the sides. Her lips must be coarse to the touch but dark and supple from a distance. She wears her hair short with a bob at the end. They are not quite as black as mine, laced it seems with a fading and timid tinge of brown.
Apart from the banal glint of dull silver that dot her earlobes, her only other ornament is her expression. With one look she can give you a sense of inclusion, as if you too are party to her whims and desires, that you too can understand her needs.
She sits with a group of friends who are excitedly chattering beside her. Her silence, however, suggests weariness after a long day’s work. The soft sag in her eyelids tells me they have been glued to a computer screen for hours. She looks too creative, too out of the ordinary to have been filling in a spreadsheet for a bank. Maybe she was answering Facebook messages from prospective clients for her furniture collection. That sounds more like her (or certainly my idea of her).
But if I can concoct for her a suitable profession, then I think I can take liberties with filling in other details, both mundane and risqué. So here goes. Our pixie haired friend here honed her artistic talent at an art college and graduated only a few years back. The friends she made there are something of a rare commodity. Filled with talent and determination for art, but who ironically make a show of their introversion.
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It is in their company that she had many firsts. Her first party, her first foray into the red-light district for a friend’s film project, her first trip to the north with the spoilt children of the rich. In these discoveries she is very much a girl of the modern age.
And through these firsts came her first love, and all the consequential firsts that come with that territory — all the smiles for no reason, all the espial secrecy from the parents, and finally the painful hurt of a broken heart. In these discoveries she could easily be placed in any time or place, past, present or future.
Before this bereavement of a lover lost, she had allowed herself to be lulled into a false sense of comfort, a comfort that was reliant on another. But now that it was over she felt the first pangs of independence, perhaps even of empowerment.
But seeing as I am a cruel storyteller, it was then that talk of her marriage began to carve a niche in the minds of her family. Her need to be self-reliant coincided perfectly with familial pressure in exactly the opposite direction. And all around her, as if by a conspiratorial fiat, friends and acquaintances and relatives and cousins-thrice-removed all began tying the knot. The talk of a speedy marriage was all the more subversive for it was never imposed, it was always a given.
But our heroine resisted. The need to find comfort within her own person was strong enough for her not to succumb. Instead, she sits here before me in this café bored and tired to the hilt. She lifts the cup of hot coffee to her face, which lets out a whirring tower of steam as she cools it with a soft perfunctory blow.
For two years she has built up a small business selling artisanal furniture. She has set up a workshop, and has provided employment to blacksmiths and college interns alike. The small hatchback she drives is the fruit of her own labour. Sitting before me surely is an empowered woman.
But if I have divined all this information (none of which is likely true) from just the inviting glance of her expression, could I not do the same for the others here? The girls that I had earlier dismissed as soon-to-be-married could just as well be courting a new client for the bank they work for (and what difference does it make if they are soon-to-be-married).
The fashionable regulars who wear white pumps and leaf through society magazines could, in fact, be running magazines of their own and are only scouting the competition. And that man dressed in a suit that looks awfully busy on his phone to my right could just be stalking an old flame on Facebook. .