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experience of living between two cultures and the difficulties it
The two poems I am choosing are "Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan"
and "Search for My Tongue".
"Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan" is written by Moniza Alvi, a
woman who was born in Pakistan but moved to England at an early age.
Her mother was from England and white, her Father was Pakistani and so
black. This makes Moniza 'half-caste', as well as the aunts in poem
being from her father's side.
Her poem begins with a description of the gifts her aunts send her;
"They sent me a salwar kameez peacock-blue, and another glistening
like an orange split openâ€¦" The gifts are clothes in the typical
Pakistani style, long tunic and loose trousers of blue and orange. Yet
her indisposition towards the clothes is hinted at by her description
of the first set of clothes. Peacock blue suggests that she feels like
a peacock in them, showing off and flamboyant, something she doesn't
want to be. They make her uncomfortable and self conscious. The next
set of clothes show us the passage of time for Alvi with more clothes
from her aunts. Yet as in England, and as she puts it, school,
fashions change. The salwar bottoms are now broad and stiff then
narrow towards the bottom.
She tries on the clothes in sitting room, unwrapping them with her
parents. She tries each one on and feels alien, as she puts is, to
them. She doesn't' full reject them, but they are too exotic for her,
too lovely for her. She acknowledges that they are pretty and
acceptable clothes, but she cannot feel at ease in them. She longs for
"I longed for and corduroy." The clothes to her are a costume,
something for other times, not now,
"My costume clung to me and I was aflame, I couldn't rise out of this
fire, half English, unlike Aunt Jamila." The clothes she is wearing
are no doubt brightly coloured, perhaps like the orange ones from
before. They seem like flames to her, and to others she presumes. They
are too exotic, too foreign, and they draw too much attention. She
cannot rise out of their flames; she cannot be seen through them. When
people look at her wearing those, they will see the clothes, not a
person. The clothes identify her as Pakistani, not English. That would
be alright if she was sure of her own background, but she is not. By
wearing those clothes her balance of ethnicity is thrown wildly askew.
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She cannot rise from the flames like a new born phoenix, to new life
in one culture or between.
"I wanted my parents' camel skin lamp-switching it on in my bedroom,
to consider the cruelty and the transformation from camel to shade."
This rather long excerpt shows Alvi considering her two cultures. One
of tough reality and one of comfortable digression. Too her parents,
the shade made of a camel's skin are nothing but a shade. To her and
her bastardised English way of thinking is to consider the cruelty of
the shade. An ornament made with the skin of an animal is cruel and
frowned upon. She is picking on the differences in her cultures
deliberately to illustrate her complete indecision.
Her mother had jewellery from Pakistan which she cherished, before it
was stolen from the family car. Yet her mother is English, yet can
accept the jewellery, even love it. This obviously confuses the young
Alvi, how can someone from one culture love something from another.
Yet we can take into consideration that she lived in Pakistan than
Alvi, being more at ease with the culture. This something Alvi cannot
grasp, but desperately wants to. Her aunts ask for Marks & Spencer
cardigans, a small joke parodying the feel at the time. They send
these great exotically coloured clothes, which are normal to them,
they request cardigan from the bastion of Englishness, Marks &
The second page starts to introduce other feelings towards her
ethnicity. Her school friend didn't like the clothes, didn't
appreciate them when she was shown. This no doubt troubled Alvi, her
school friend not liking her clothes that she wasn't one hundred per
cent on anyway. This could not have boosted her morale over the issue
of ethnicity. Yet it goes on to mention that she does try the clothes
on, looking in the mirror at herself. Presumably this was done alone
and out of eye of her parents and friends.
Now she talks of photographs;
"in miniature glass circles, recall the story how three of us sailed
to England." Her memories of the Pakistan and the journey to England
are non existent; she was too young to remember. She gets her memories
and perceptions of that time from photographs and stories her parents
have told her. Stories of how she screamed all the way to England due
to prickly heat and playing with a tin boat in her English
She then shifts to picturing her birth place, as she puts it, not her
home. She gets her ground plan from fifties' pictures, black and
whites from before she was born.
Then she grows up, accounting the troubles that come to the region of
"When I was older there was conflict, a fractured land throbbing
through the newsprint" conflicts like the Kashmiri War in 1965 and the
antagonism over East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. She sees this through
newsprint, on the TV. She has no first hand knowledge of her 'home',
no real sense of belonging therefore. Her people are arguing and
fighting, and she cannot relate or sympathise. Her connection to them
is her father and the presents from her aunt. She pictures her aunts
in the only pose she has any feeling towards, wrapping present for
her, in tissue.
She sees beggar children and sweeping girls, and testimony to her
forgotten home. And there she is, stuck in the middle;
"of no fixed nationality" looking thought to her supposed world, at
the Shalimar Gardens. Probably itself on a photograph.
Alvi's difficulties stem from her lack of knowledge or conviction over
her nationality. We can but presume that her parents have not fully
discussed the subject with her, or she would be better informed,
better able to make decisions over her nationality and come to a
comfortable and firm conclusion.
The second poem I am choosing is "from Search for My Tongue" by Sujata
Bhatt. Bhatt was born Gujarat in 1956. Her birth language is Gujarati.
When she was older she moved to America then to Germany. What she has
over Alvi is that she grows up in India enough to remember it. She
then moved to America and to Germany, every move reaffirming or
nationality, an Indian outside India. Alvi never has that connection
to Pakistan, but then she is also of mixed race, whereas Bhatt is not.
Bhatt plays with the word tongue in the poem. In English it has two
meanings. One is the physical muscle in our mouth; the other is used
to illustrate language. When reading the poem you must have both in
mind to understand her meanings;
"if you had two tongues in your mouth, and lost the first one, the
mother tongue, and could not really know the other, the foreign
tongue." Bhatt is talking about language, notably Gujarati and
English. To her the mother tongue is Gujarati and English is the
foreign one. Imagine having both, being fluent in both, having both
tongues in your mouth, is what she's saying. If you don't, the poem
becomes confusing, which is what she is trying to show us, her
confusion. She goes on to illustrate living in a place where the
foreign tongue is used more often than the mother one. Would the
unused one just disappear?
"speak a foreign tongue, your mother tongue would rot, rot and die in
your mouth, until you had to spit it out." Her anxiety stems from her
not using her mother language, Gujarati, so would it become rusty and
unfamiliar, would it leave your knowledge? What galls her is, would
she forget it? Being an Indian outside Indian, she would be anxious to
maintain that so has to keep her nationality. But she is in a
situation where she uses the other language, English, more often.
Whilst still in this anxiety, she apparently dreams. She dreams in
Gujarati, her mother tongue;
"but overnight I dream," and the text shows Gujarati text with
phonetic English beneath. What she says is basically what she says in
English above, voicing her concern over the loss of her first
language. Yet she dreams it in that language, bringing it back to
"it grows back, a stump of a shoot, grows longer, grows moist, grows
strong veins," the language comes back to her consciousness. She uses
the imagery of a plant, one that can die and become useless, and one
that can grow and take root. The mother tongue does grow back,
knocking the other aside, making its presence felt. This is a very
triumphant poem as the last stanza illustrates;
"Everytime I think I've forgotten, I think I've lost the mother
tongue, it blossoms out of my mouth." When she is in the lowest
moment, the most uncertain time, a time where she doubts her
nationality, it comes flying out, reassuring her.
The difficulties she faces are internal, no one is putting pressure on
her, and there is no question nationality. She is more upset than
concerned over the 'losses of her native language. Alvi has no fixed
language, no fixed home. She is caught between the two cultures, Bhatt
is caught between tongues. Her second tongue is one of convenience.
She thinks she has lost the first, but she hasn't. Alvi doesn't even
go near that level of contentment.