I am a first-generation Pakistani-British woman in her 30s. That is the demographic into which I fall. I have been advocating for that community for my entire life. My education from Manchester and then the University of London handed me a privilege. One that included spending time away from a close-knit community to reflect on my identity.
A community which had integrated outer-edges but a dense code-ridden, undetachable knot in the middle; you knew what was allowed and what wasn’t.
That part I will not spell out here, for it has been written about by insiders and outsiders ad infinitum. It’s usually entangled with a discussion about inclusion, race, class and opportunity. It’s the nuances. We need to start with decolonising everything and begin constructing a representation of ourselves in a respectful way. I get it. I agree. But, I want to talk about the outer edges and the middle that formed my community, how it feels when the community as you knew it begins to disappear.
It feels like my world has changed and shifted and that feels unsettling.
I grew up in the world famous borough of Trafford, home to the football and cricket stadium. Camera crews and sporting celebrities encircled my area often. Away from that world, my world was of the insular Pakistani community in Old Trafford. Made-up of a wonderful concoction of Pakistani migrants who found their way to Old Trafford in different ways. My grandparents migrated to England from Lahore when my mother was a teenager in the late 1960s, along with an abundance of extended family. Although my mother was an only child, she was not alone.
As with other stories of migration, in our case, as an extended family of around 30 households, most things were communal in the beginning. The joys and sorrows were shared. Everyone was visible and present. That level of co-dependency was a bona fide coping mechanism to adjust to Britain and the goal was to thrive. Some families lived together. Did business together. Over time, as the individuality of each household began to flourish, mainly through education and entrepreneurial prowess, this co-dependency weakened. Slowly, each household became independent and grew, becoming more and more established (or not) with each generation. Some 50 years later, the younger generation has an awareness of this connection; we may see each other at weddings but mostly we ignore each other and might even cross the road if we pass on the street.
There are black and white photos and blurry coloured snapshots of the early 1970s where family and friends are enjoying picnics, walks in the park and family weddings. By the time I was 10 in the early 1990s, I knew what it meant to be a minority in England. It was fine. My family didn’t do the things English-white people did. But that was ok. Because we had numbers and in numbers we had normalcy. We had our own fashion, we had our own glamour and celebrities, we had our own religion, which we practiced freely and when teachers asked our parents to bring in samosas for Comic Relief day, we did so with pride. We had our own shops, butchers, accountants, factories, doctors, lawyers etc. I knew this dichotomy and how to manipulate it, like so many other people I knew.
When outsiders commented, it made me deeply uneasy and I felt voiceless.
These days, throwing assumptions and comments as an outsider at a culture you have no claim to is unacceptable (we don’t want to hear about your friends). But that was then.
Finally, the importance of political correctness has been realised and I can breathe a sigh of relief. My community was sacred; that was my primal instinct even as a 10-year old. For me, my grandmother’s generation represented the hard-centre of my community
My dear grandmother, whom I shared a room with until her death when I was 16 (my grandfather had died when I was 4), was called Sakina. Sakina was a clean, highly practical and pious woman and lived with us (in fact, we lived with her as it was her house).
It was only when I left home for University and then abroad with work that I realised how complicated it must have been to move to a place alien to one’s own environment.
My community was highly sociable, there was almost no privacy especially in the era of the 1970s -1990s. People called on you all the time. This was part of the code established in Pakistan and practiced in Manchester from the first wave of migration. The code of visiting.
You visited when: a child was born, someone died, someone got married, someone wanted to read Qur’an in a big group (enabled for a particular reason, we call these gatherings Khatams), when someone had been unwell (we are talking broken bones to major heart surgery), when someone went to the old country, when someone returned from the old country, Eid, Ramadan, Big Eid, for favours, for passing their G.C.S.Es, when someone bought a new house, for gossip, to complain, to reconcile, to congratulate someone on their new carpet or fitted kitchen. We also visited just to say hi.
While my mum had her friends and cousins, my grandmother had her social life in the neighbourhood. In our area, as in Pakistan, some of those with grandchildren assumed a certain modest demeanour: wearing lighter, muted colours, covering their hair with a light dupatta. These women, with most of the duties passed on to a younger generation, had the free time to walk around the neighbourhood calling on their friends and relatives and to be greeted with the utmost respect (also part of the code). Sometimes they towed snotty grandchildren with them.
We would have a few of these visits a week where tea and biscuits would be bought out, while my grandmother made her reciprocal visits. She also had her gang who went to read Qur’an and Jum’aa (Friday prayers) together.
When my grandmother died, my world dimmed a little and the tremors shook for years to come.
I buried that wave of feeling. Her friends still visited incessantly and they were each unique and full of character. They clothed their advice to my mother in gossip. Some had migrated from Pakistan, via Eastern Africa and would regale stories of how they were exiled from Uganda by Idi Amin.
One friend, on the outer parameters of this group, named Taja wore extremely thick glasses and only ever smiled and wore a grey trench coat as old as time. In their infinite wisdom the other friends would call her “unwell”. This unwellness consisted of roaming the streets at 5 am with a shopping cart asking the greengrocers who would be arranging the produce, for fruit to feed her children. Some speculated that her smile was symptomatic of a long possession by a demon and the children she spoke of were baby djinns hungry for morsels at the Godliest hour of the Muslim day. Often times at gatherings, arguments would break out. Old grudges would resurface over failed business ventures enacted by their respective husbands and sons, allegations of fraud and prison, mentioning the prophets name in a certain a way. Why did she sing that nasheed in the tune of a Mohammed Rafi song? Why is she pushing her Wahabi ways on us? Why is it wrong to see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in concert, he is singing about Allah anyways?
Who knows if these stories and interactions amongst my grandmother’s friend group alleviated the hurt and pain of migration, lost children in childbirth, domestic abuse, mental health, childlessness, money problems and of course, the ominous bedfellows: sickness and death. I am not inclined, in the lofty position of hindsight, to call them powerful matriarchs. Perhaps there were. But perhaps they were also the first migrants who navigated womanhood along with internal politics, finances, religion, morality, cold winters to give their children the best they could, in the best way they knew how.
My own grandmother told me of stories where she taught herself how to read in Urdu and in Arabic. How she stuttered and must have been dyslexic and the Qur’an teacher persisted with her. How she was too scared and embarrassed to ask her new husband how to tell the time (she deduced this quickly after he reluctantly told her the number of hours in a day while he himself might possibly have been ruffling through a Reader’s Digest in English). How she must have survived breast cancer as a teenager with the help of a local hakim who cut away a tumour with a knife and carbolic soap. How she felt when she moved to Lahore in the early 1950s and how her father cried that she would be moving to a city where the ways were different. That pain must have been attached the idea of a daughter moving to an unknown city in an unknown country – a country only 6 years old. How she gave birth to 7 children and only one survived. Her daughter and my mother. She was passive and kind in nature and was beloved by her friends and their visits reminded me of this. A sweet reprisal amongst all the other women who had sons…
After her death, one friend in particular would visit daily and would even go around the back of the house and tap the window with her cane (ostensibly to make sure we, as teenagers, weren’t sitting too close to the television). She knew everything about everyone and missed my grandmother the most. Over the 2000s and 2010s this friend group died off. This particular friend died a couple of years ago; one of the last to go in their group. She was found by her mixed-race grandson and had died in her sleep with prayer beads in her hands. Friendless and afraid, but ready.
How on earth can all that - the specificity of one distinct community - be represented in mainstream media? How can the feeling of being within that community be conveyed respectfully? What is happening to the sacred community I knew?
I feel something slipping or maybe it has already slipped. With representation of a culture, a people – a stereotype – something falls away. I’m not quite sure what it is. Is it authenticity? Perhaps. Could it be the spectre of misrepresentation? Quite possibly. When representation finally happens, it becomes a commodity in popular culture. Of the south Asian representation in British media in 1990s, the lowest common denominator emerged. The familiar tropes were authorised as popular culture, the gateway opened.
But for some of us, any representation would have been misrepresentation because that is the way the arts work, right?
I would like to harken back to all those BBC documentaries about the musicians of the 1960s, how they picked up a guitar, how they were the outliers. Nowadays they sit tanned and wrinkly as raisins (if still alive). Those programmes told us the linear story of how their creativity came with no strings attached (apart from that familiar story of being exploited by the record companies of the day and self-destruction through drugs). Most of them were influenced by Black-American Blues musicians, but this influence is celebrated less than the commercial success of the Eric Claptons of the day. The British imagination is obsessed with day-dreaming about these demi-gods, these icons and idols.
From my world, I wanted to be obsessed with these heroes too, for as Bowie says, we can all be them, even for a day. I delved into the familiar path of over-compensation of British culture. For me this was indie music of the 1990s, TOTP2, books and magazines. Later in life I sought out old episodes of the “Old-Grey Whistle test”. This was a folk-music programme by the BBC in the 1970s, which played the “serious” or alternative rock music of the day. The title derives from an old Tin Pan Alley phrase: if the first pressing of a record could be played to the doormen of the building dressed in grey suits, and they could whistle the tune back…the record had passed the old grey whistle test. I see this as a metaphor for my grandmother and her friends and her generation, a test for acceptance, what stays in the brain, what will become successful and ultimately what will stay in popular memory once we are all gone?
Perhaps we have our distinct brownness, a visual representation of difference which is stark naked, that won’t allow that kind of vanishing. For my community, we also have Islam; we live in polarising times to say the least. But this is surely not the way to preserve the memories of our elders, in a negative way that is proactively defensive.
If we draw an example to Italian-American culture in film and theatre, most of us can see the familiar story of immigrants, adjustments, the highs and lows. With it comes a special nostalgia, this is the very heart-string the popular immigrant story pulls upon. This is what sells. There is a whole body of work looking at the representation of Italians in American cinema and television as criminally violent. With the Sopranos -arguably the best drama series to be made – perhaps its success has something to do with addressing this cliché with the modern-day mundanity of the 1990s? But where are the representations of American-Italian culture that is more than a genre? Over time, something weakened and that specificity of culture was mislaid.
I think with the older generation dying off; it comes as a slow shock that those old canes and white dupattas don’t walk past our house anymore. That my parents are of that generation now. Those conversations about the village as the idyll, the stories of great families and partition and how life was when they first arrived. Those conversations are dying.
There is a picture of me outside of my house, being held up by Sakina. I must be around 9 months in that picture. My grandmother is facing the house with the shooter in the front lawn. In the background it is a hot summer’s day, there is a light blue Datsun in the background and my grandmother’s dupatta slides in the wind, just a touch. A ghost. Like the edges of this photograph, my community and its distinctiveness is beginning to fade – ever so slightly.
Yet, I am still in this picture.