Living her life in the hustle bustle of a city like Karachi, Shaniera is not just the wife of a cricketing legend – she is more than that: a full-time mother of three, a fitness buff and the chair of a philanthropic organisation. Almost four years into the marriage, despite cultural differences, bhabi is now more home than ever – an Aussie living the life of a Pakistani and loving it…
When news broke out that Wasim Akram had married, it was the second time that a cricketing legend had tied the knot to someone from a culturally different background. But fast forward these years, if you now meet Shaniera, you’d get the notion that she’s probably more Pakistani than you are. She’s the bhabi, because well, she is, in the true sense. She could arguably be the perfect embodiment of the role of a typical sister-in-law, often portrayed in Indian soaps, minus the desi glamming. A full-time mother of three, her day is spent looking after her kids, especially the little one, Ayla, who is now in preschool, household work, or the countless professional commitments. Yet she is in no hurry when we meet for breakfast at Xander’s at 9 am sharp. She’s punctual to the core, one trait that is so not synonymous with Pakistanis.
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Shaniera grew up in a bayside town in Melbourne, her house just five minutes away from the beach.
“I was the typical Australian girl, growing up in a house with a back and a front yard. Every morning we’d wake up early, have breakfast and walk to school,” she recalls.
“We had a nuclear family; mom, dad and four sisters, dinners at 7:30, and early to bed and early to rise. I was three when I first got my bicycle, and I rode it to school when I was eight,” she says with a glint in her eyes, “it was a big milestone at that age, riding my pink bicycle two kilometres down to the school and back!
“So that was how safe our community was, I did everything that any Australian kid would do; play sports, swim, dance and even act in school,” she laughs.
She reveals a refreshing lack of pretense that is often not a trait you’d see in celebrities. Hang around her for 10 minutes or a week, you’ll get the same person: outspoken, fiery and opinionated, and her words – unfiltered, though her Australian accent, and the way she says the word ‘fantastic’ – a word she uses a lot – sound almost energetic.
Her father was a private investigator who worked hard to send his four girls to a private school.
“He wanted a son, but he had four daughters, so he did everything to make us strong, independent women and allowed us to choose the paths of life we wanted,” she says, getting emotional about her father.
Shaniera says that he grew up in a tougher background and didn’t want that for his girls. “He is very protective of us and will always set me on the moral path in life, he always says ‘be true to yourself, don’t worry about what people think of you, as long as you’re doing the right thing, for that’s all that matters’.”
Shaniera was an ambitious teenager since always, thinking ahead of others and wanting to grow up quickly. Eager to work, she had three jobs the moment she crossed the legal age to work in Australia. She even worked for free at times, just to ‘get the experience’.
“I knew I wanted to do something good, and I would work for charities, just to help out,” she points out.
As soon as Shaniera turned 18, she enrolled herself in university, while working for wholesale fashion and by the age of 20, the ambitious entrepreneur had opened her own clothing store.
“I set it up with my own money and the contacts that I had made throughout,” she tells. But she soon realised that public relations and communications was her true calling.
“I was working 7 days a week, and worked in the field for a good 8 years. By the time I had met Wasim, I was an independent, self-contracted PR consultant.”
She looked after a niche clientele, brand management of fashion labels, celebrities and hospitality management et al.
“I was always the one who’d be behind the scenes, look after celebrities and fashion brands, be the ghost! Once, I even drove Richard Branson in the boot of my car,” she quips.
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Minutes into the conversation and you can tell that she’s bursting with ideas full of life, love and urge to help others. It is this innate compassion in her that has helped take her connection with people here to a whole new level.
“The people are what make me stay. There’s something about the Pakistani people that I’ve never seen before in any race or culture – they are kind and they open their hearts more to charities than anywhere else,” Shaniera explains.
“They’ll literally give you the shirt on their back or their last Rs.100 note if they knew someone else needed it more. People loved me before they even met me, and that doesn’t happen anywhere anymore.”
She’s currently running a foundation that keeps her busy with social work, despite her family and other professional engagements.
“My foundation is very selfless, we don’t publicise what we are doing. When we hear stories of people in need, for example 100 kids in an orphanage with no means of donations, we direct traffic towards it, help them out with the things they need, and we use our own contacts to do so,” she says, adding that if somebody from her social circle comes up to them to donate for charity, they direct the funds, instead of accepting them.
Shaniera is also very passionate about other causes, one of which is traffic management.
“It breaks my heart every time I go out on the road, drivers are flying in 50 different directions, their kids aren’t wearing seat belts,” she explains animatedly.
“I’d head the traffic department if I could, because that is something I feel so strongly about, and I want to do way more about this issue,” she points out, adding, “If I can create awareness, if I can do anything, I will.
“If someone’s riding a motorbike with five kids in it, I can understand that, we are a third world country, but if someone can afford a car, has a seat belt in it, and chooses not to use it, that breaks my heart,” she says emotionally. She takes a pause, and lets out with a laugh, “Sorry, I got all worked up about that.”
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Itwas during a corporate dinner back in Australia when she met the man himself, whom she says was like ‘meeting a prince who lives in a faraway land’. Talking about how the first conversation took place between the two, Shaniera recalls, “I was invited to a dinner and somebody introduced me to him, and we just got talking. We clicked instantly, it wasn’t romantic as we were two different people.
“At that time I really didn’t know anything about cricket, except for the fact that my dad would watch it for hours,” she chuckles.
“Really, nothing about cricket?” I ask.
“No, no, no! When I met him, I didn’t even get his name right, and then I remember I did something funny, and he was amused!”
Shaniera is still absolutely awed by her other half and it seems their love for each other has become stronger with time.
“Wasim has this charisma, and everyone who’s met him knows that and can see it, so even if he wasn’t a cricketer, he would still walk into a room and have people turn their heads.”
She recalls that when they were conversing, “He said, ‘I’m kinda big deal in my country’ and I was like, really, are you really going to use that line?” She giggles, still amused at that interaction.
Wasim and Shaniera instantly hit it off as friends since that moment.
“He was going through a hard time and found a friend in me who he could talk to, so he’d call, and we didn’t talk cricket, or the pressures of life, instead we’d share our stories and we just became friends.”
A few years later Shaniera met with his children during a holiday in Singapore.
“There, I just fell in love with his boys, they are such wonderful kids, and I think I fell in love with them first,” she laughs.
“After that we knew there was something there, and he asked me to come to Pakistan, and I had never even thought about this side of the world, I was just an Aussie girl, who’d go to Bali or Europe for holidays,” Shaniera reminisces about how her relationship with the cricketing legend unfolded.
When asked how long from the moment the two first met did it take Wasim to propose, Shaniera sighs, “I actually don’t know, no one’s ever asked me that. We went to England, and that’s where we got engaged, it was a good two to three years of friendship.
“When you have a friendship like what we had, something that was real, the falling-in-love part is easy,” she beams, wrapping up her love story.
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Being a foreign girl and adjusting with a totally different culture and environment, Shaniera has, in all honesty, made Karachi her home. In fact, she says she feels a cultural shock when she goes back to Australia.
“Coming back to Australia, I actually have a cultural shock, which is weird, it takes me weeks to blend back into the Australian society.” But her first impression of Karachi was not all hunky-dory.
“If you want my honest opinion, my heart literally sank!” she says with a hysteric laugh.
“I was in the plane, happy and excited, as Wasim had told me so much about Pakistan, I felt like I had already been here. But he’d only told me the good bit, as one would do. We were on the plane, with two other friends of Wasim’s and as we were landing, Wasim took my passport and our friend turned to us and said ‘Welcome to Pakistan!’ and the plane landed with this thud. I got so scared, but within five minutes I was reassured that it was all okay. I hadn’t been to anywhere like this before!”
As we chat, I cannot help but notice that she doesn’t feel the need to conform to be accepted into a culturally different environment. She is who she is, but she has delved deep into the culture and is loving every moment of it. She believes she is still the same person she was before she met Wasim, and coming here to Pakistan hasn’t changed who she is. Talking about her chemistry with his family, she says they’ve welcomed her into their home like their daughter.
“They’ve loved me from the moment they met me, they’ve treated me like a daughter; fortunately I even got to meet his father before he passed away.”
Talking about her interaction with his father, Shaniera recalls, “I had recently gotten married, and his father didn’t speak English but he insisted I eat more, and here I was trying to impress my father-in-law so I picked up something from the buffet that looked quite interesting and it turned out to be brain masala!” she laughs. “It was too much for me too soon!”
That brought us to the question of Pakistani cuisine. As much as Shaniera has resisted the food, the local dishes have won her over. In breakfast, she can’t avoid the chai paratha or the halwa puri, but she tries to limit it to once-a-week.
“I love eating desi food with my hands, karahi or nihari, and now I can handle the spices,” she says confidently. A fitness buff to the core, Shaniera is very particular about her diet and exercise.
“Wasim and I get up right at the crack of dawn and go to the beach for a 7-kilometre run. He aces that, while I tread behind, and then we hit the gym in the afternoon,” she says. On the other hand, it came as a surprise to me that she is not a cricket person. Shaniera says a match between Australia and Pakistan is like ‘a boxing match between your husband and your father which is never going to end pretty’, so she’s more into on Australian football instead.
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As a mother, Shaniera is big on tough love for children. When she got married, Wasim had two sons from his first wife, but when Ayla was born, she felt like she was her third child.
“When I got married, I already had two stepsons, and so I read everything I could find on raising boys, because boys are as complicated as girls and I feel a mother’s role in boys’ lives is very important, so I wanted the same childhood for the children like any other child would have,” she says.
Shaniera is particular about maintaining discipline in her children’s lives.
“If you are serving big lunches to your child at 4 in the afternoon, they are not going to eat the vegetables at 6. You can’t expect a healthy, focused child if they are eating dinner at 10, going to bed at 1 and waking up for school at 6,” she expresses animatedly, adding “kids thrive on a routine.” As a mother of two teenage boys, she acknowledges that there has been tension, but purely the ‘mother and son sort’.
“If your son doesn’t fight with you, then you are not doing your job,” she tells me. Shaniera she sees her mother as an inspiration.
“I come from a house, where my mother had four children, she did all the cleaning and cooking, she’d be up in the morning, putting all four of us in uniforms, taking us to school. Then she’d come back, prep lunch, do the washing and cleaning, bring us back from school, walk the dogs, help us do our homework, drive us to swimming or dancing, bath us all, and put us to bed, and she looked amazing while doing all that,” she says, adding whatever she’s learnt from her mother, she tries to incorporate it into her life, but the cultural differences at times make things difficult. So she’s learning, and every new day brings something new to her.
“You know Pakistan is like a cake, it has these layers, and once you get to the bottom of one layer, there’s another,” she laughs.
At this juncture in life, Shaniera has all that she could ever want – a loving husband and three beautiful kids.
So will she pursue a career after this hiatus? She doesn’t know yet, may be. She’s worked all her life and right now, she just wants to spend time with her children and focus on raising them. As I drain the last sip of cappuccino and we wind up our conversation, she gets a phone call, and she mutters, “Mein arahi hun,” and as soon as the words slip her lips, she assures my stunned expression with a nod, “Yes, I can speak Urdu!”
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