Many Pakistani women come to my house. Every day. Bundling their dreams, dilemmas, fears and joys. Every other day, I see a new woman, much against her wishes, getting married at a very young age, most likely to a cousin from the ‘khandaan’. Marriage often crushes her dream of living life on her own terms. Nevertheless, a few do dare to go against the tide and become role models for other women.
Let me now confess the wellspring of this procession of Pakistani women coming home regularly with their stories. The credit for this must only go to the television channel Zindagi, that rare window for a common Indian now to get a peek at what is seemingly the everyday life of Pakistani households across the classes. Those slivers of reality which may be next door, not very different from ours, but have been far away from us for too long, and therefore so coveted, like a drizzle in the midst of a drought.
Avid Zindagi viewer that I am, on meeting Karachi resident Huma Nassr for the first time in New Delhi, I can’t help but try matching her life with that of my tele-soap image of a Pakistani woman. Certain things fall in place. She is in a flowy salwar kameez with a striking dupatta, the kind of ensembles women on Zindagi wear, which you almost always notice for their exquisite design, texture and fall. The type we call ‘Pakistani suits’ in India.
Also, by the time she was 16, Huma tells me, she was married. Like ‘any well to do, progressive Pakistani family does’ in a Zindagi series, she too was allowed to complete her studies post marriage.
However, from then on, Huma’s life trajectory takes a stride which needs to be told here. One, rarely has a ‘Pakistani story’ on my TV screen brought a woman doing aggressive business in five countries including her nation’s nemesis India; and two, her attempts at connecting a few dots between India and Pakistan – a tough job by any standard.
Huma has earned the sobriquet of being ‘the first Pakistani woman entrepreneur to set up shop in India.’ From shop no. 9 of Archana Shopping Arcade in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash II, she runs the India store of her eight-year-old fashion label Braahtii. In the last three years that she has been doing business in India, Huma has been able to grab a fair amount of customer attention for the exclusive Pakistani elements in her Indo-western fusion and wedding collections.
That in itself is unique, an attempt at connecting a few dots, considering the availability of designer ware from Pakistan in India is scarce. But what she plans to unveil soon will, if it succeeds, be a step much further in this regard.
Hoping for Indo-Pak collaborations
Come September 10, Huma plans to create an Indo-Pak platform where Indian and Pakistani designers interact, show their wares to each other and work out future collaborations. “It will be called Shaan-e-Pakistan. The plan is to first bring to Delhi top of the line Pakistani designers for a two-day event. I don’t think Pakistani designers have ever met their Indian counterparts. Names like Umar Sayeed, Hasan Sehryar Yasin, Zainab Chutani, Ali Zeeshan, will take part in it,” says Huma.
After the event is inaugurated with a musical night at the Pakistan high commission here, it will be moved to a city hotel for a two-day extravaganza including an Indo-Pak fashion show and an exhibition of designer wear open to the public. Along with high fashion, the event will also feature food, a staple theme for subcontinental bonding. “Along with restaurants and food stalls popular in India, we plan to get here those that are famous in Pakistan,” she says. “The hope is, someday, like the Indo-Pak designers collaborating with each other, they too do business in each other’s country, may be set up their franchise.” The next step would be to take the Indian designers to Pakistan for a similar do in February and sustain it into an annual affair.
Huma says she is aware that there is still a gap to be filled between the two countries but is confident that the new generation will look at things differently. ”My event is an attempt in this direction. I hope it showcases a soft image of Pakistan,” she states.
In fact, the genesis of this Indo-Pak platform, she underlines, lies in her realisation from her regular trips between the two countries that people crave for each other’s artistry and crafts. “Like Bahawalpur’s Mukesh work, Pakistani georgette, lawn and silk are feted in India, Indian weaves like phulkari, gota and chikan are coveted in Pakistan. My work is liked in both countries because I mix Indian and Pakistani weaves in them,” she states.
Like her store in Delhi has Pakistan written in bold letters, the one in Karachi “has an Indian ambience, with an Incredible India poster, Rajasthani stools and Indian wall hangings.” A huge Rajasthani patchwork umbrella has been placed in front of her store. She says a three-wheeler with a Rajasthani umbrella atop it has been going through the streets of Karachi since the last six years promoting her brand.
“Only I know how many people have asked me to get them such an umbrella from India,” she says with a laugh. Like in Karachi, in Delhi too, similar queries come from customers. “Women visit my Delhi store asking if I have clothes worn by women in Zindagi,’” she adds cheerfully.
What she has for a Delhi buyer is impressive. Flipping through the outfits is like going through the crafts map of Pakistan. “This is chandi ki patti work from Multan; this one is Sindhi Azrak in silk; this is crochet work; look at this one, it is our kantha, the stitch is different from the Indian kantha; this work is hand woven zardozi from Lahore’s Rang Mahal, it takes about eight months to complete one kameez …” even as she goes on introducing me to her work, I marvel at their finesse. She also has kurtis made of lawn, that coveted textile from Pakistan. Lawn kurtis are her fastest moving products in India besides the wedding lehengas with chandi patti.
Coming to India
Huma says, as a creative person looking for something exclusive, she has always resorted to mixing Indian weaves with that of Pakistan’s. “Say, mixing Rajasthani gota work with Sindhi Azrak in a kurta. I also did a couture line called Wagah by mixing Indo-Pak weaves,” she points out. Braahtii also stocks ghararas and designer abayas and burqas, not easily found in India.
“I am the first to introduce Pakistani ghararas as a wedding trousseau in India,” she says. I can also see some silk jootis in her store.
Having found her foothold in the Delhi market, Huma is happy, says, “I remember coming to India with big suitcases to take part in exhibitions. Eight years ago, there was no Zindagi channel. Women in India didn’t like wearing long Pakistani kurtis. I had to create a market for them. Looking at our long dupattas they would say, give us this, we can make two kurtis from it.”
She recalls starting from a small shop with two tailors in Karachi. “I began taking part in small exhibitions, then the big ones, then began coming to India for exhibitions. I now have stores in Delhi and Karachi and export my outfits to Qatar, Dubai, U.K. and U.S. I employ 70 people in my workshop in Karachi,” she adds.
When she decided to set up a store in India, people in Karachi cautioned her. “It was natural but I had decided to go ahead. I have not regretted my decision,” she says. “Like the Zindagi channel has brought Pakistan closer to India”, she hopes, “Inshallah, Shaan-e-Pakistan will do too in the years to come.”