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Love Was Only for White People

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My family and I moved to London from Pakistan when I was just 16 months old. Despite my young age, it didn't take me long to realize the main difference between "us" and "the white people."

1969 - Age 7

There is a girl in my class called Patricia B. I like her a lot. In fact, I am in love with her. This means that I must marry her someday. I hope that my being a foreigner won't be an issue, but it does give me a sense of disadvantage, of inadequacy. I'm not sure how this process works, but I imagine that Patricia and I will get married one day.

My friend Andrew senses my affection for Patricia. One day, he tells me that he and Patricia have decided to get married, and have been discussing which church to get married in. I am heartbroken. How could I have been so stupid as to think that Patricia would marry me? I am different, a foreigner, and I don't go to church.

***


In the playground, Patricia asks me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I know the answer; I have thought about it a lot.

"I'd like to have my own television program."

"What, you mean like "The Imran Ahmad Show"?"

"No, I mean like..." but my voice trails off. I can't explain this; it will sound ridiculous.

What I really want is to be an actor who plays a character like Simon Templar in The Saint, a brave hero who helps good people and punches bad people and drives a sports car called a Volvo. But I know that this is a wild, impossible dream for two reasons. First, no one can imagine a television show with a Pakistani man as the hero -- that will never happen. Second, as a television hero I would probably have to kiss women -- on the lips! -- and Pakistanis don't do that. I cringe with embarrassment at what my parents would think if they saw me on the television, kissing women, like the Saint does.

1973 - Age 10

In the new school, my teacher is Mrs Karanjia. She is an Englishwoman, but she has a strange name. I find out that she is married to an Indian man. I wonder how this could have come about. White people have "love" marriages, whereas Indians and Pakistanis don't fall in love; they have arranged marriages. (How do white people always manage to find the right person, by luck?)

1978 - Age 15

We are all loitering in our classroom one lunchtime. Barry Sutton suddenly asks me a question out of the blue. ''Hey, Imran! Are your parents going to arrange your marriage?'' He is serious and genuinely interested.

Everyone's attention is suddenly upon me. They are all interested too. Arranged marriage is something that always happens in any television program in which Indian or Pakistani characters appear. Does it apply to Imran?

This is the unspeakable demon that has lurked in my mind for years. It has never been discussed overtly at home, but there has always been an implicit assumption that this will be the case. Any other process will cause a huge conflagration in my family. (I imagine being asked as a grownup, "Where did you meet your wife?" and having to answer, "At our wedding.") I can't bear to think about it. I want to be like James Bond or Simon Templar. They don't have arranged marriages.

''No, of course not!" I tell the class with forced joviality.

I try to suppress this issue, to not think about it too much, but Barry Sutton has hit me in the most sensitive spot. For a very long time I've been aware that there's one fundamental difference between the two worlds in which I live.

The white people -- British, American, French, all of them -- they all agree on one principle: You marry only for love. They all believe this, whether they are Protestant or Catholic or secular or agnostic or atheist. It's a universal truth to them.

But people of the Indian subcontinent -- Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis or, from a different perspective, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs -- they (or should that be ''we'') believe the exact opposite: You marry for anything except love. This also seems to extend to Muslims the world over. Marrying for love is vulgar, selfish, dishonorable. It means that there has been shameful behavior, spending time with someone of the opposite sex -- enough to fall in love with them.

Instead, marriage becomes a transaction for any other purpose but love: a business deal, community cohesion, even (most hideously) to get someone a Western passport (perhaps as a favor to a friend). The concepts of freedom, happiness, compatibility, mutual attraction and personal chemistry are alien to this mind-set.

Romantic love is absolutely forbidden. And romantic love -- which I see on television and in movies and on billboards -- is what I want more than anything.