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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Bridging the Gap

It used to be the case that there was a conflict, a ‘us v them’ relationship with our parents and us – they, the first generation who settled here in the 70s and 80s, and us, the second generation who were British-born and Asian who had to balance religion and culture with being in the West. I know of course that everyone’s experiences are different, and as a child of first-generation immigrant parents, I have certainly had my own experiences and conflicts with my parents. I do find it interesting that my elder sisters’ and brother’s experiences in the 90s slightly differs from mine – they were the earlier, ‘first’ generation who forged the way, while we followed behind. I also have a lot of friends who are in fact third-generation children, whose experiences are certainly very different although not without their own struggles.

These days it feels like the balance has shifted – our parents have mellowed out and are trying to be more understanding. I won’t say the days of emotional blackmail, culture clashing and Asian dramas (wedding traditions, anyone?) are over but this has definitely changed and evolved over the last decade or so. I think that a lot of the first-generation parents are beginning to understand that they cannot just force their children to follow a route that they think if right for them, especially as we are becoming more independent, more integrated and as we settle into our marriages, careers and parenthoods.201503141663531835

As these second-generations (and even some third-generations!) are beginning to or already have become parents themselves, I think a lot of them understand better the struggles that come with being a Muslim parent, especially when you have your own culture, British culture, religion and your own personal values to add to the mix. Ironically, I feel like there is beginning to be a gap between these parents and their children, who are definitely becoming part of the emerging middle-class Muslims, whose parents are determined to make the most of their education, lifestyle and social opportunities.

As someone who isn’t a parent yet, I was a little hesitant about adding my piece to this. But then I realised that my view, while it may not be the same as everyone’s, is still a voice to add to the conversation about the generation gap. I’ve been thinking about this for a while for several reasons – partly because a lot of friends and sisters of mine who are parents, have noted that bringing up their own children is a huge difference compared to their own upbringing, which has naturally brought to mind my own values and plans for bringing up children, as well as my own relationship with my parents.

I come across it every now and then – in my nieces and nephews, in my friend’s and sister’s children, and even when I meet young girls, younger bloggers and even younger people in my job who have a different mind-set to the ones we had as we had at their age. Those kids are fully immersed in society, with less identity conflicts about whether they’re from the West or the East, confident in their religion rather than being hindered by culture, with the knowledge that they have every right to education and a career. In contrast, it feels a little like my generation precariously fumbled our way through into jobs we weren’t sure of, studying as far as we could afford – I myself have always wanted to do a Masters and Doctorate, but couldn’t afford to after I finished university and went straight into work.

It brings me to mind a book I read when I was younger by one of my favourite authors – one of the things the young hero in the tale bemoans is the fact that all the adults he comes across constantly expect him to be grateful, that he is should know how lucky he is, but instead feels like the emotion is being forced on him. I think of this because sometimes when I speak to the younger generation in my family, or when I speak to younger girls who complain about the banes of their lives, I try to explain to them that they don’t realise how lucky they are, that it could be worse, and that we older generations did in fact have it worse. Unfortunately, most of them don’t seem very impressed when I tell them that and usually retort that actually, they have it worse because they have XYZ problems that we never did.

And you know what? They’re right, in a way. They do have problems that we never did – I’m constantly thankful that social media, makeup, designer brands and technology weren’t a big thing when I was a teenager the way it is now, the constant influence and distractions it would have had on my education, my social life and definitely my self-image, which means I would be a different person with Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Periscope at 13. There’s so many things that children these days, and young adults too, have to learn which we didn’t. My generation raves over Panda Pops, 5p ice-poles and 1p pick-n-mix sweets, Friends on Channel 4 on Friday nights, brown lipstick (with the dark brown lip liner outline) and family holidays ‘back home’. Meanwhile the newer generation have smartphones, iPads, Adventure Time, holidays in Dubai and Morrocco, global warning awareness, and River Island handbags and sushi for lunch. It’s easy to call them spoiled, and it is the case that they may have more opportunities, but they also have just as many challenges which are easier to ignore by us.

Just as our parents needled us about being grateful for opportunities (studying further in school, having a job, buying a new pair of shoes), it seems like the younger generation sometimes get the same thing from us. While my parents drilled into us the importance of marriage, good jobs and keeping good relations with our relatives both in Britain and back home, the younger generations have their own issues too – balancing friends and social lives with building careers, education, social media issues, even spending on luxuries. That’s not to say we didn’t do the same thing, looking back, it feels like everything was less overwhelming and busy – to sound like an old fogey, things just seemed simpler back then.

I‘ve also noticed a big difference when we had to deal with, and when the younger generations have had to deal with and differentiate between following religion and culture. My siblings and I were lucky enough to have parents who didn’t force too much culture down our throats, or follow traditions which didn’t align with our religion. A lot of the silly things that come with culture I was pretty unaware of until I got older, because my father emphasised the importance of religion with us, and my mother never forced us to do anything we didn’t want to do because she always wanted her children to be happy. This meant that while we have the still had pressure on us to study until a certain age, marry ‘suitable’ people and follow certain social guidelines (eg. curfew and going out), we still didn’t have it as bad as a lot of others that we know.

I think because of this, the British-Asian parents of today have recognised the importance of having awareness and choices in their children’s lives – such as choosing a partner, jobs, and following religion without all the hindrances of culture. We know the right things to do to help our children and push them, and we also get to choose the good parts about culture – knowing our roots and traditions without letting these dictate our lives. The younger generation now are able to understand current affairs, be more involved with their society and communities, and look towards bigger things even if their parents couldn’t.

I don’t think there is a real right or wrong way to deal with the conflicts with our parents – as I have gotten older I have appreciated more the things my own parents have taught me, and really am grateful. I was fairly lucky because I was pretty sheltered as a child, so I didn’t have a lot of the problems that some of my friends had, although I will admit, I did resent feeling that I also missed out on things, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure it’s pretty universal that parents always want for their children what they never had, our parents wanted success, happy marriages and financial stability for us where it was a struggle for them, and we want happy lives, careers and identities for our own children. I don’t mean to belittle the struggle our parents had – they came to Britain as youngsters themselves and struggled to maintain their culture, faith and way of living, and they constantly worried that their children would lose their roots. Meanwhile, although the later generations have less of guilt about being Westernised, there’s still that worry that they may be too influenced by things which their parents disagree with – whether it’s being a One Direction fan or being okay with belly button piercings.

I guess we can only do what we can, which is our very best. Most of the friends, sisters and brothers I know are excellent role models, and although they may find it difficult sometimes, they are able to encourage their children without pushing them, praise them and give them the knowledge and confidence to go out and do their best.
I only hope that I can do as well as that : )

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Eid-al-Fitr 2016/1437

We had a fab Eid this last few days, which was spent with the close family – great food and good company!

I didn’t get to take too many pictures of the day as I didn’t bring my camera, but I did take a few on my mobile (so apologies for grainy quality!) but thanks to my sister Everyphototunity for sending her shots of the day!

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Every year we always take Eid as a great opportunity to put on mehndi on our hands the night before Eid, which looked great on my sister and on the nieces. I wanted to put some on myself but was too tired to by the end of the night – but there’s always next Eid!

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A little snap of our outfits – Eid always gives us a chance to channel the fashion bugs in us, and we all looked pretty colourful together on the day; I loved that there were different styles and colours while looked fab together. I think the toddlers in the family probably out-dressed us all in mini outfits from Pakistan, I wish I had taken a picture of their dresses with matching embroidery!

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And of course Eid wouldn’t be Eid without the scrumptious food, which was cooked by my eldest sister, and later by my aunt. We were all pretty stuffed by the end of the day (which is why I don’t have a lot of food pictures – we were all busy stuffing our faces.) It was also really nice to spend lunch and dinner with all of the family, after a month of quiet iftars between myself and my husband!

And of course, after the main course, we finished off with amazing chocolate cupcakes from my talented baker sister, as well sweet-dishes like rice-pudding and mithai for everyone.

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My sister knows we all have a sweet-tooth, and gifted us all a sweet-tub (adults and children!) to enjoy, which were a mix of chocolate and halal sweets, prettily decorated.

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There were also plenty of presents and chocolate for everyone (including a 1kg slab of Dairy Milk given to my husband by my sister, which I am now ‘looking after’ for him!). I remember when we were kids, my parents used to make visits to several friends houses within the day, and still cook a 3 course meal and have every extended relative visit the house – it was hectic and manic but fun because of all the family friends and cousins we would see. These days as we get older, our Eids tend to be a little more chilled out, and we spend our Eids with close family and the kids (and see our friends later on in the week!), which makes Eid more intimate and easier for some of us. It’s also always a treat to see how much the little children enjoy Eid – it’s one of our few religious holidays which really mean something to us, and it’s great to see this celebrated across the world by all generations and in such beautiful ways.

We spent about 3 days celebrating Eid (before the inevitable return to work, although my work colleagues and I are still having Eid samosas on Monday!), and it was a really nice way to end a blessed Ramadan month.

 

Journal Your Ramadan – Day #10: J is for Juice

One of things which I feel the most in the heat of summer days is that longing for a cool drink in the middle of the day – here’s what I wish I was drinking today (although I’ll stick to water for now!)

One of the things that Ramadan really makes me appreciate is the abundance of water we have at the tip of our fingers, which we can take for granted – we all know how much gets used washing, drinking, doing laundry, for toilets – and it’s easy to forget what a valuable commodity it is in countries where there are those who are less advantaged than we are.

During the heatwave which has been gradually climbing towards us, I also turn to those in Pakistan who have been hit by extreme heat of 45 degrees celsius and above recently, and who struggle to fast – which makes me re-think the stick and humid atmosphere that we call heat here in London, and how lucky we are that it is bearable at least, for us.

It also makes me appreciate the luxury of cold drinks when we do open our fast at iftar time – it can be one of the biggest challenges of Ramadan to not think about your thirst and keep a cool attitude, and focus on getting through the day. It’s certainly  made me change my attitude towards our luxury of water – I try to drink as much water as I can but it feels more striking when you know how much you’ve longed for it.

So here’s a drinky post for you – and also a request to keep the people struck by heatwave in Pakistan in your prayers.

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Haider – To Watch or Not to Watch

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.