Loving the royals

23 May 2018


THERE are obvious reasons for Pakistan’s continuing fascination with the British royals. The bits and pieces of our colonial past, the adulation of white skin, of white customs, of white pomp and circumstance, had over two centuries to seep into the mind and blood of our ancestors. Power then was the ability to be the good subject, the obedient subject, properly dazzled by the pomp of the colonial masters.

The speakers of English, and the admirers of the English, were duly rewarded, and their progeny continue the tradition. The wealthiest display swords and statues, and mix and mingle in clubs that were begun by the colonists of old; having bowed before the conquerors is often offered up as if it were a badge of some bit of residual royalty, a claim to the crown itself.

It follows, then, that the latest royal wedding, that of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, was an occasion for commemoration, for rapt attention to the clothes and the jewels, the ceremony and circumstance. Many awaited the day with an eagerness not afforded the weddings of many; many others consumed every bit and piece of royal trivia, what the royal couple-to-be were saying or doing, whether Meghan’s dad would attend or not, whether her family, African-American, would be afforded the same warm welcome given to the family of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Pakistan’s adoration of archaic English customs is rooted in the idea that inherited wealth and stature must be the basis for the ordering of a society.

In these details, of course, lay another reason why royal weddings have such a hold over the country. The details of their gossip, whether the boy’s family would be appropriately respectful, whether the girl’s family would be adequately submissive, which relative would be miffed and who would refuse to show up, all bear shocking resemblance to the workings of weddings in Pakistan. To see the details of brown colonised family life imposed on those of the British royalty is an occasion of a lifetime. There are too many daughters-in-law waiting to show a little of their own feminism, à la Markle, to in-laws whose traditions are suffocating and dated and yet duly enforced on all new members of the family.

Then there is the issue of roles. As the noted British author Hilary Mantel wrote in an acidic (but brilliant) essay on the royals a few years ago, when the requirement of the job of princess (or prince, etc) is to follow a closely scripted role, one with little or no actual significance, then a plastic person, one with no edges of their own, is best suited for the job. Kate Middleton, the elder bahu, in Mantel’s view is a perfect candidate.

As Mantel puts it, Middleton seemed to have been “selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made”. Pakistanis like similar sorts of daughters-in-law, and so it would make sense that they would be attracted to the drama of the next one’s initiation.

As in Pakistani households, the second daughter-in-law faces fewer expectations; her husband is not the first son, not the golden boy. So it is with the British royals, whose second son has gone off and married an American woman, an African-American woman. Not only has she been married before (at a ceremony in Jamaica), she is (gasp), at 36 years old, four years his senior.

In this, the British royal family has proven more accepting than the persnickety and self-righteous in-laws of the Pakistani variety. Even without castles and jewels at their command, Pakistani in-laws would be enraged and throw a fit if a dear son showed up with a divorced older woman — who is also (gasp) dark-skinned — as a bride. For all of Pakistan’s adulation of the royals, their own pretences at noble lineage, and the veins of prejudice and the creepy predilection for the ‘girl bride’ in the country that the British made, are too strong. For Pakistani mothers-in-law, scheming and judging on sofas around the land, Meghan Markle simply would not do.

In the Western world, in Britain itself, the royals are vestigial relics of the past that exist mostly for spectacle, a sort of living history exhibit that represents the past and the bygone. Pakistan’s adoration of the archaic customs that play out each time there is a royal wedding, however, is firmly rooted in the present, in the idea that inherited wealth and stature must be the basis for the ordering of a society, and that everyone, regardless of what they actually feel, should behave according to a closely scripted role. There is no room for anything else here, and so a public spectacle devoted to inherited privilege and scripted roles becomes an affirmation of sorts, a confirmation that the Pakistani way is the right way.

It is not the right way; it is in fact a suffocating and constraining way. Like the royals themselves, who eventually are all revealed to be either unhappy, unwell, greedy or philandering, the innards of Pakistan have become rotten quite possibly because they often refuse to change. Daughters-in-law grow up to be mothers-in-law, continuing the reign of terror that they lived through into the next generation, men visit the same abuse on women, everyone smiles and nods and waves and disintegrates inside.

It would be lovely indeed, if royal wedding fever in Pakistan was just that, curious fascination for a spectacle, for beautiful dresses and beautiful people. It is not that; it is a moment when the archaic beliefs and practices that continue to order marital lives in Pakistan are revived, albeit for only a moment, by the British. For one moment, the way Pakistanis live and love now can be imagined as the way the world’s living royals do as well.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2018