Tag Archive: Identity


Mother Tongue

We are
wildflowers
with roots
still growing
in our
motherland.
-Women of Colour
by Mehrin Poetry

 

As I grow  older, the importance of my mother tongue comes more clearly into focus – although at times it feels like I have a lot to learn yet. As someone who was born and grew up in England, I have always considered English as my ‘mother tongue’ simultaneously and alongside with Punjabi, which is were I feel my roots also are. During my childhood and my teen years, I spent so much time exploring the wonders of English, the literature, and studying the words that I felt a little like I lost some of the the words of Punjabi. I have always had a passion for English, whether it was the literature, or just the pure study of words, and it’s a little embarrassing to me now that Punjabi doesn’t always come as naturally as English does.

It puts me to mind a poem I studied as a teen – Search for My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt – which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but which makes so much more sense to me now. The poem symbolises the author’s fear of losing her cultural identity and her ‘mother tongue’, and of the idea that assimilating in a ‘foreign’ country comes at the cost of losing your roots. While I can understand the fear, I think it is a little different for me as well as I didn’t emigrate to the country like the author did, but was born here.

Growing up, I was one of the only Asian girls in my school and often felt a little left out – being among mostly white children made me feel like I had to strive more to fit in, from dress, tastes, clothes and culture, and I remember at the time that I divorced myself from my culture a little – my home life and my school life were always kept separately. Don’t get me wrong – I still had chicken curries at home cooked by my mum, still spoke in half-English-half-Punjabi to my parents and relatives, and made the most of Eid celebrations and glitzy salwar kameezes sewn by my mum. But I have always felt that the culture I was educated in did not understand Pakistani culture or language in a way that I could embrace it.

One of my earliest memories is my mum taking me to nursery on my half day, holding my hand and slowly teaching me words in English – colours, numbers and letters as we swung our hands and stopped at Sainsbury’s for our weekly shopping. My dad taught us Urdu as best as he could alongside our Quran lessons after school – although I’ll admit I wasn’t very interested in learning at all (and couldn’t wait til we could run off and watch TV!) It’s always felt a little ironic to me that these days I meet so many immigrants who are slowly learning English, while I am on the other side of the coin and trying to learn Urdu and Punjabi a little better.

As I entered my late teens, my school environment changed – suddenly there was an influx of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani students at the school who had transferred in, while a lot of the white students in my class left, preferring to stop their classes and go into work. I felt incredibly out of place – here were Asian kids who were comfortable in their skins, knew in jokes in Urdu and made it normal to talk about the things we had at home. Fast-forwarding into university this was even more the case – I found myself surrounded by mostly Asians, and would sometimes self-deprecatingly describe myself as the ‘coconut’ – looks brown on the outside but white on the inside. While my friends were into British-Asian music, Bollywood and Indian restaurants, I was a self-described goth; into soft rock music, heavy black eyeliner and desserts at The Cheesecake Factory.

Over the next few years, my friends, my family and my husband have all played a part in making me comfortable with my words – I can be English and Pakistani and speak both languages without one being more important than the other. I’ve learned a lot more Urdu over the years – mostly from Bollywood films, online websites, and even an Urdu course I went to once (it was terrible, we spend six classes going over the same basic phrases because everyone kept forgetting the previous lessons). These days, whenever I need to know a word, or the meaning of a word, I’ll ask my sister or mum, and my husband is a walking dictionary for this too. I also get a lot more practice – I work with a lot of clients whose first language isn’t English and often have to translate – we all acknowledge my Urdu and Punjabi are terrible but passable, and I’m a lot less embarassed than I used to be.

This isn’t a sad story – as much as I wish my Urdu and Punjabi were more fluent than it is now, I feel like I’ll get there. I have found my own way to embrace my roots, language and culture, and I’m happy with that. I know that I’m not the only one with this issue – I’ve come across a lot of British Asians who can barely understand their parent’s language, and don’t speak a word of it, preferring to stick to English. I can also see this in second-and-third generation parents when speaking to their children in English. When I think of myself, I would love to teach my future children my mother tongue. Urdu is a beautiful language and it is my husband’s language, but Punjabi is where I feel my home and my roots are, so would always want to pass this on too. Having said that, I don’t think there is anything wrong in being fluent in, and choose to speak in English. I grew up devouring books, studying English (and blogging in English), and I think it really is an amazing language with so much depth.

My advice to others who are struggling with re-learning their mother tongue is don’t give up, and don’t feel embarrassed. When I first started learning Urdu properly, I was told by a lot of people that I was terrible at it, and that I was barely understandable. I used to feel embarassed and immediately stop trying to speak it in front of them, and feel a little unsure of myself. These days I laugh and agree with them, but I don’t stop learning. Language, culture and words will always evolve over time (which is why ‘fleek’ is now an acceptable world, when a few years ago it was a non-existent one), and there are so many opportunities to learn with the internet, media and courses.

Who knows, maybe I’ll learn to speak French properly next?

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Why I Am A Faceless Blogger

Some of you may read my other blog, which is a fashion/beauty blog about all things to do with Pakistani and Indian fashion trends, modest fashion, makeup and random ramblings (and some of you probably found this blog via that one!) I have been blogging for about six or seven years now, and have noticed that as my priorities and interests have changed, my posts and articles have accordingly adapted over time as well.

One of the things I have had some conflicts with as a fashion blogger (or is it influencer now? I’m still undecided about that word) is the fact that I don’t show my face, whether it’s for outfit posts, or pictures from weddings, events or makeup swatches.  My concerns are this – as I’ve been writing for some time and I have been getting more public interest in the couple of years because of my clothes, wedding posts and experiences which I have blogged about, I have had more exposure which means more opportunities to work with new brands. However I feel that a lot of the bigger bloggers I follow or who have successful businesses, have become successful because they themselves are the brand – they are recognisable, easy to relate to and trust, and because of this they are able to fit into a market who are comfortable with them.

Initially I never used to show my face in blog posts (I used to just cut my head off my pictures before I posted) for several reasons: firstly, I liked the anonymity, you can get away with a LOT more when people don’t know you. Secondly, I never showed my face for kind-of religious reasons – I don’t blog because I’m fishing for compliments or want someone to say I’m good-looking (that’s what Facebook and my husband are for), but because I want to show how fashion can be modest, stylish and wearable. The whole point of my fashion blog is about what I wear, and what I have in my wardrobe, rather than what I look like. I wear a hijab and the concept of it also includes having some modesty both in behavior and physical appearance, so why not incorporate that in my blog? Thirdly, I was also a little self-conscious because a lot of my personal friends and colleagues don’t know I blog – call it silly but I find it easier to write if I’m less self-conscious about who is reading it!

I have thought about it for a while, because as much as I’d like to protect my anonymity and modesty, there are still some pros which you can’t argue with. I am a bit of a risk-taker at times, and I can see the appeal in the idea of myself and my identity as a brand. It’s not that I’m shy, or that my identity is a big secret (even though I do fight crime at night sometimes), and really, it’s not even about whether I have a problem showing my face. But I have often found that a lot of blog readers and followers feel more connected to Instagrammers and bloggers that they can recognise, especially when there’s a lot of personal issues being shared. A big part of blogging is being transparent not just about who sponsors your posts or whom you collaborate with but also who you are. The most successful blogs are the ones where the bloggers are open about sharing opinions and parts of their lives.

The real issue is that if I decided to show what I look like, the pictures are out there, and it’s hard to go back. In today’s digital age, pictures can be shared faster than WhatsApp rumours, and I like the fact that right now, I have control over my images and my identity.

There’s also the fact that a lot of girls (and guys) can be pretty awful to bloggers, you have to pretty emotionally strong to be able to not let negative comments affect you, ruin your day or even influence your behavior. I’ve been lucky enough not to get many negative comments, but it can still be pretty tempting to lose your way by trying to please your audience or maintain popularity. The other issue is that I am in a place in my life where I am pretty confident in myself, my self-image and my place in life – and I can imagine that the struggle to maintain a ‘pretty face’ for a blog, or the psychological impact it could have.

You could even say that the issue isn’t showing my face exactly, since even if I did, I’d still dress modestly and would still wear hijab. Another thing I have always considered is the idea of ‘nazar’ (or the ‘evil eye’ which might intentionally or unintentionally come from envy), which is something I do believe in, which could arise once I lose that anonymity.

There are, fortunately a few ‘big’ bloggers who I do follow, that have managed to remain faceless, and quite successfully so. One blogger I’ve always been a fan of has complained in the past that it’s amazing how some people just don’t get that they want to remain ‘faceless bloggers’. She described a fashion event just last week (which I also attended) where a few of her followers took pictures of her when she was walking around, even when she went to the restroom; when she confronted them to ask them to delete the pictures, they told her she should expect this kind of thing to happen and shouldn’t have become a blogger if she didn’t want pictures taken of her. While I can understand that if you’re successful and on the fashion scene, you can’t really stop other people for taking your pics and posting them on social media or magazines – I also think there should be a line drawn for respecting privacy.

In the past my ‘facelessness’ has affected me in that one or two fashion brands who wanted to promote their brands have wanted to work with me, and in the end I have turned them down because they did not want to crop my face out. At the time it was a little upsetting, as it made me feel that I had ruined my prospects a little if I wanted to work with future companies, and also I had noticed difference in the way that bloggers who did choose to work with those company treated me. However, in the long run, I don’t regret my decision – I like the fact that I kept control over the content and photos of me, and if a company isn’t able to respect that, then perhaps they are not for me.

There have been times when I have debated for some time about showing my face, especially as I never have done in the past with my blogs. I spoke to a few friends about it, my sisters and even on blogger forums, and in the end I decided not to because I don’t want my posts and articles to be about how I look, as much as what I’m wearing, what I am doing and even who I am. In the long run, I’m pretty happy with my decision because although I’m not shy or have a secret identity (apart from the night-time crime-fighting stuff), I like having control over my privacy, and I think it also keeps me pretty humble.

The way I think of it, as Islamic as I try to be and however I try to live my life as modestly and well as possible, I will always, always love fashion and makeup, which I think I’ll always be channeling through my blogs and social media. This isn’t a bad thing, and I love that I can work with new ideas and different companies, and as I am a pretty visual person and will always want pictures to be a part of my posts, I think I can do this without compromising my values. I understand  that readers might identify with me more if they know what I look like and can visualise me, I think that I will be able to engage better when I show who I am in a more relatable level (like this post, for example!)

Some people have suggested using body doubles or models – this would work for a company but not for something personal like my own blog – when I go on holidays and days out, do I take a body double with me? I think not. In all honestly, this is something which has bothered me less and less over the years, as I have seen a lot of fellow bloggers follow the lead in ‘faceless blogging’ (like my elder two sisters here and here!) – influencing without making it about the way we look or how beautiful we are. I’m also at a pretty good comfort level right now, and am enjoying the things I do blog about, the events I go to and the pictures I post of myself. At the end of it, it’s not because I’m paranoid about how gorgeous I am or not, it’s the concept of hijab for me, and the principles that come with it.

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Haider – a Bollywood remake of the timeless Shakespeare classic Hamlet, set in modern day Kashmir.

I recently watched Bollywood art-film Haider, which interprets Shakespeare’s troubled hero Hamlet into a conflicted younger adult Haider, whose conscience and confusion leads the way through a canvas of Kashmir conflict, troubled relationships and the idea of love in more than one form.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that there is a Bollywood version of Hamlet – after all, Haider is the third in a series of Shakespeare dramatisations in Bollywood by director Vishal Bhardwaj, after making Omkara which is based on Othello and Maqbool, based on Macbeth. I also recently saw Ram Leela, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of Romeo and Juliet, set in the Rajhastan, India, which was a colourful albeit not as serious as the above films. What makes Haider works that it is not just a mere translation of Hamlet – the film takes the story and re-invents it into something much more.

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of remakes – although there have been a few which have been terrible, and Bollywood on the whole is always churning out films which aren’t always a hundred percent brilliant. Haider-movie-posterIt sounds like a typical re-hashing of a clichéd storyline – boy meets girl, conflict from one or both families, and a macho battle at the end where everything ends well.

Haider take on the storyline is a more contemporary one, touching on the conflict in Kashmir, not only being caught in between India and Pakistan’s tug-of-war, but also the idea of conflict in family, between brothers, spouses, mother and child and even between lovers.

Shahid Kapoor plays the troubled youth, whose father goes missing after a military search of their village for terrorists being hidden. Thus sparks a search for the truth, questioning not only where his father is, but also who was responsible for his capture, who to trust, and the concept of revenge.

The primary thing which I note in this film is the spectacular cinematography, the beautiful scenes and landscapes, and the artistic presentation of Kashmir – this is Kashmir as it has never been shown before. For all that Kashmir is a stark, depressing place it also has a haunting beauty, and Bhardwarj depicts all of that – from snowy mountains, grassy hilltops, weaving trains which illuminate modern homes as well as ruins and castles.

Also layered in the film is music, which is infused with Kashmiri tones – there’s only a two or three songs in the whole movie (which is a relief after generations of films which pound out trance-style music or sexy tunes which have nothing to do with the plot) – but they are real Kashmir folk-style songs. Reknowned actress Tabu, who plays Haider’s mother Ghazala mesmerises on-screen, from her expressive eyes and heart-wrenching emotions, to the haunting folk songs she sings, which unravel through the film as we question her motives, her relationship with her brother-in-law, and her love for her son. She sums it up wonderfully when she describes herself as a a ‘half widow’ – half bride and wife, half a widow, forever searching and not knowing, caught up in her own obssessions and guilt which are never fully revealed.

Adding to this is Haider’s father himself, the missing and presumed dead doctor, weaving in his love of music and ballads which adds poetry to the movie, contrasting Kay Kay Menon as the smooth-talking, slippery Uncle of Haider, whose smooth lies and logical explanations add chaos and confusion to the mystery, making not just Haider but the audience question what the truth is.

Also a big part of this is love – Shradda Kapoor plays a feisty Orphelia who tries to support the hero, although his wall of confusion, search for identity and his growing depression pushes back at this. At the heart of this film is also the suggestion of an Oedipal complex – Haider’s relationship with his mother is wraught with jealousy, confusion, and anger, and at times it is almost uncomfortable to watch their awkward, intense scenes. Similarly, Haider’s memories of his father and his love for his father only serve to confuse more, as we question the reason for revenge and whether it is beign manipulated by militants for their own ends – scenes of Haider searching for his father with missing posters in his backpack, bloody, smuggled bodies in trucks and morgues and cemetries only makes this film more haunting and moving.

The best part of the movie, for me, though, was that even though the film has it’s own style, and captures its own struggles well, it still remains faithful to the essence of Hamlet – the self-doubt, the conflict, the questioning which pervades it. And of course, the director could not resist slipping in the eternal famous line “To be or not to be” (in Hindi, of course!) as well as the famous scene with Hamlet and the skull (which is not a horror scene but an amusing one, as Shakespeare intended!) While Haider is a unique story in itself, it remains faithful to the ideas that Hamlet promotes – a haunting scene, for example his Haider’s reasoning that he would not kill his father’s murderer while he is in prayer, because he does not want a sinner to be absolved and go straight to heaven – this is a scene I vividly remember studying in university and which resonated with me.

For all that this is a sombre film, there are also a lot of  quirky moments as well, surprisingly amusing moments which add to the depth of the film and add another facet to the character of Haider. Haider’s play-madness makes us chuckle, and the song in the cemetery with three old men digging graves reminds me of a quirky Cohen brother’s movie, something cheeky and slightly inappropriate because of the way it makes fun of death. There are plenty of jokes too, one of my favourite being a woman who is unable to understand why her husband stands outside their house for hours and refuses to speak or come in – which is solved by a quick request for ID card and then permission to enter – it’s a reflection of how their daily lives have become, yet handled deftly and lightly.

 

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For me, Haider works because of the many pieces which fit together and blend well – the music, the scenery, the dialogues and the ability of all of the actors to make characters come alive and make us question. The director cleverly re-shapes this storyline in a new context, while still remaining faithful to the essence of Hamlet, which is not an easy thing to do. I don’t often praise Bollywood films but this is a rare gem, it captivates from the first few scenes and carries through to a compelling, bloody and emotional ending. Haider is a film which is more than just a boy’s search for his father and his murderer, it is about identity of himself and his country, his love for his family, and the idea of truth, revenge and what the right thing to do is.

I would strongly recommend this film to most people – it is poetry, war and misplaced patriotism on screen which answers whether to watch or not to watch, although I say, watch it.

I seem to be seeing a lot of Roald Dahl quotes recently (this may have something to do with the fact that it was his birthday two days ago), so I thought I’d jump into the fray and add a few quotes that I adore (although there’s so many of his I love!)

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ― Roald Dahl

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely
places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ― Roald Dahl

“A BOOK?! WHAT D’YOU WANNA FLAMING BOOK FOR?…WE’VE GOT A LOVELY TELLY WITH A 12-INCH SCREEN AND NOW YA WANNA BOOK!” ― Roald Dahl, Matilda

(the last quote was because my parents used to shout and me and my sisters all the time for getting lost in books!)

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Happy (belated) birthday to one of my all-time writing inspirations and idols : )

Room: Love in a Box

I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.
– Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Emma Donoghue’s emotional and profound narrative of ‘Room’, told in the voice of a five year old boy who has lived with his mother in an eleven-foot-by-eleven-foot room his whole life, is no easy reading at times. Jack is shown as a normal child, a curious, happy and loving young boy whose whole world consists of himself, his mother, the shadowy, background character “Old Nick” and the four walls which make up his universe. Plunged into Jack and his Ma’s world from the very first page, the readers quickly discern the bleak reality of their situation, even as the protagonist himself remains blissfully oblivious. This is a brave concept which Donoghue handles sensitively: the innocent narrative revealing the horrific truth of a young woman who has been abducted and raped by her captor for a seven-year period, resulting in a son and a whole new life to cope with.

We are admitted to a very private world, in which we see this unusual situation through the eyes of a child, and how he has created a lively world for himself, giving names and personalities to inanimate objects. Everything around him becomes part of his family: Plant, Door, Rug, Meltedy Spoon and many more, so that at no times does Jack ever appear to be lonely. This subtle process of substitution shows how Jack unconsciously compensates for the lack of society in his world, yet this is done in such a loving way, with their own codes of language and relationships (“Stroke Table’s scratches to make them better”), we are left with an endearing self-involved character which is shown as completely natural for a young child.

Throughout the novel, Donoghue also portrays an almost musical, poetic way of viewing the world, using symbolism and storytelling as a writing technique. The Sun is described as being “God’s face”, and similarly “God’s silver face” (the moon), which could be interpreted as powerful metaphor to show how the characters try to gain control of their lives. The renaming of objects in their world using the poetic, sweet voice of a child almost echoes the primitiveness of their situation, as if they are having to start again. There is a constant stream of storytelling and riddles from Ma, which is incorporated in bring up Jack (“run, run, run like GingerJack), perhaps showing the importance of these stories in their lives, yet also brings a sense of the unreal to their situation.

Jack’s belief that nothing on TV is real, however, shows the shocking reality of how much he has been both hidden away from the outside world, as well as how much has been shield from him. His assertion of many facts such as “dogs are only TV” displays a thought process which has been implemented by his Ma – that the real world is just an elaborate fantasy – shows process of coping with being shut off. Through this ongoing theme of the concept of what is real, the author also successfully highlights their isolation. Jack’s take on various aspects of life such as being “switched off” to signify his consciousness show an innocent and odd mix to adult words and ideas being interpreted by a child. Even ‘Old Nick’ is renamed, their shadowy captor, and is shown as representative of the generic ‘Bogeyman’ that “comes in the night”, showing how the fact that Jack has hardly even seen him makes his existence feel less real.

Despite their dire circumstances, however, it is apparent that Jack is very well looked after by his mother, showing himself to be intelligent, and having advanced literacy and numeracy skills. He is educated by both his mother and the TV, and shows the firm, innocent belief that his mum is seen as the wisest: “Ma knows everything”. We see how Ma’s attempts to create some kind of routine and normality in their lives through her own education, such as “Phys Ed.” and ‘riddles’. However, there are other parts of Jack’s routines, such as “scream time at 3pm” (a ‘game’ in which they scream towards the skylight to attract any attention) which reveal to us his mother’s thoughts and intentions to escape – while Jack sees this as part of life, the readers are able to see the reason behind this. In this way the author cleverly makes the readers feel complicit in their situation, as they read in-between the lines.

It is impossible to show the power of this novel without also mentioning the character’s sense of dislocation soon after their very harrowing, tense scenes of escape (apologies for the spoiler), frantic scenes which in themselves engross the reader in their dramatic urgency. The fact that Jack wants to go back to Room once he is ‘rescued’ but is unable to understand that he cannot, sums up a heartbreaking dilemma which he cannot reconciliate with his mother’s pain. His internal belief that “In room I was safe and Outside was is the scary” only shows a different type of anxiety: that of having to struggle with several different outside forces. The fact that he has to undergo a process of “unlying” in order to make sense of this new world compared to his earlier truths show that Jack tries to follow a logical, albeit still child-like, rules to follow in order to comprehend.

There is a significant recurrence of quotes and comparison to Lewis Carroll’s Alice (from Wonderland) and her questions of ‘self’, which relates to Jack’s changing identity and his own interpretation of the world. There are several layers of questions which force the reader to look at Jack’s own reality and self, as well as his idea of what is real. Prompting philosophical style ideas (“Is Room still there when we’re not?”), Jack shows his struggle between seeing things physically in order to believe them, and following the logic that is given to him by his wise Ma and the outside world.

All in all, it is clear that this novel is heavily influenced by case of Joseph Fritzl and his daughter Elisabeth Fritzl, and this is something that the author has said herself which inspired her for this book. Donoghue is never as arrogant to assume that this novel will help readers to relate to Ma’s pain and suffering, and indeed this is probably why there are not much specific details in reference to her seven-year period. Rather, Donoghue successfully garners the more universal concept of love and friendship in mother and child’s relationship (“I belong to Ma”), thus concluding that it is better to focus on the positive aspects of human nature rather than the horrifying sides of their ordeal. There is still humour in this gripping novel which also helps lighten the tone of the novel (“Princess Diana? Should have worn a seatbelt”), peppering it with Jack’s child-like straightforward voice whch is captured so well. With reference to popular culture ( “book of faces”, “Google”, “Skype”), Donoghue shows an interesting new perspective in this current world of technology and media, without managing to sound patronising. This novel is not just about how the characters have suffered, but rather how they must move on and cope with the immense attention from the outside world. This is a unique and well-written story, and at times has scenes which may be upsetting due to the stifling atmosphere and the depressing content, yet it always continues with a strand of optimism. Just as Jack struggles to integrate in a new world, both he and the readers find hope in the way that he tries to find his own place with his Ma in this same new world, leaving readers with the idea of moving forward into the light, and away from the darkness that is in Room.

Emma Donoghue, Room (Picador: London 2010) pp.322 £12.99